A couple of years ago, my father was asked to pay tribute to Mordecai Richler for the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. He wrote his piece, but he couldn't read it on stage. He had just started wearing his oxygen tank and tube -- or hose up the nose as he called it -- and he was too embarrassed to be seen in public with this new umbilical cord. He asked me to read it for him. Rumours, such as they are, were full of dire forecasts about his health (and not about Mordecai's, though, sadly, he would leave us first).
"People will ask where you are," I said to him, "what will I tell them?"
"Tell them I'm in the Arctic," he said.
I loved that. He couldn't cross his apartment without oxygen, but he wanted everyone to think he was in the north. The Arctic was the last place he could physically get to, but the first place he would go, given good lungs. The north had captured him for decades. When he first fell in love with the Arctic (I can still conjure the childhood terror he invoked that summer he announced, after a trip there, that our family should go live in the Arctic), I was too young to understand or even care about what he was trying to share. Indirectly, he did get through -- I often think about a simple, gorgeous print he'd bought there of three black birds set against the sun. It hung in every childhood house I can recall. It's a mesmerizing, evocative piece -- much like the north itself, I like to believe. Not that I really know.
I've only seen a tiny bit. But if I could still talk with my much-missed father, on tomorrow's Hallmark holiday -- funny how you get less sarcastic about things like Father's Day when you're suddenly excluded from it -- I'd tell him about how I recently played golf on the ice in Cape Dorset with some of Canada's best known people and a walrus penis.
Wayne, I'd say -- I started calling my Dad Wayne 20 years ago, after someone misheard my name and thought I was related to Wayne Gretzky, one of my father's idols -- Wayne, what was it with you and playing golf on the ice? I remember you talking about it so enthusiastically, the very idea of adding such an unusual game to the tournaments you started to raise money for literacy. I didn't know why, until I did it myself on this recent trip.
Wayne, this trip you would have loved. Seven of us came from the south; me, Rick Mercer, Gerald Lunz, Shelagh Rogers, Jonathan Torrens, Mike Stevens and Jennie Marcus. Can you imagine? Rick was finally able to accept an invite to a northern Peter Gzowski Golf Invitational Tournament after all the times you tried. Same for Gerald, producer extraordinaire. Shelagh, too, had never been north of 60. Jonathan had -- did you ever know him? I'd never seen Trailer Park Boys or Street Cents, but wanted to after meeting this hilarious, high-energy actor. I didn't know you had once interviewed Mike -- but how could have resisted someone who makes a living playing the harmonica and spends so much of his own time with troubled kids? And Jennie, of course, who co-ordinates your tournaments so thoroughly.
I know, Wayne, you'd want long stories, and you aren't here to ask the right questions, but I can tell you some moments you'd have appreciated.
I remember early on a fan walking up to Rick Mercer and saying: "Say something funny." He explained how he couldn't do it on demand. Yet he saw the humour in everything, such as in Cape Dorset, when we were all asked to judge a bannock contest and provide written commentaries to our selections. One of the winner's names was called, and Rick's comment was read out: "I wish my mother could cook this well." Then, the winner, a burly teenage boy, lumbered to the stage to peals of laughter. I think Rick was the loudest.
As with trying to retell someone's joke, so too with this trip. You just had to be there. We almost weren't. We were grounded in Iqaluit for an unexpected 24 hours because of high winds. We spent time at a co-op artist' show (including the guy who made you a golf club out of caribou antlers) and followed Rick to his tourist destination of choice -- the legislature in Iqaluit. I never expected a government building could be so entrancing. This airy, modern building with such a tradition inside; the assembly room, shaped like an igloo, framed by tapestries, with a traditional sled in the middle. In the hallway, I couldn't stop gazing at the carved mace stick with lapis lazuli.
And where else can you visit the legislature and be shown around it by the premier? (Or frankly, would want to be?) I remember you talking about Paul Okalik and now I know why. What a gentle and gentlemanly guy. He was the reason we finally got to Cape Dorset and the golf game. He arranged for a Twin Otter to fly us there from Iqaluit when it looked impossible.
On the way, we talked about the land and politics and his life. But I gather nobody knew -- at least publicly -- until he spoke in tribute to you at the tournament lunch, that he'd once had trouble reading himself.
And, of course, the golf. Finally, I see why you so looked forward to it. Out there, with nothing but snow and wind and a slightly ridiculous purpose -- batting a ball around -- it was hilarious. They'd plowed the six-hole course out of the snow, far enough from the houses that we could Ski-Doo there. Apparently there had been polar bears on the course the day before we arrived. My team was, aside from me, made up of northerners, including two elders, neither of whom spoke English. I asked one of the two younger guys who were bilingual, how to say "good shot" in Inuktitut. I don't think I ever got it right. Not that it was needed. My team was not exactly athletic, though neither am I.
I adored one of the elders, the woman, who at the first hole, when the other elder missed the coloured tennis ball, doubled over laughing. Once she swung at the ball, looked out in the white to see where it had landed, and then saw it still at her feet. I thought she'd collapse from laughing. I couldn't help but join in, she had such a joyous, infectious laugh. I never knew what she was saying, but through a translator she told me she was enjoying the game, out there in the cold, with a stranger from Toronto, shuffling along in her sealskin boots, laughing. Only after it was over, I realized she was the same woman pointed out to me from a distance the evening before. She's a local legend -- Kenojuak -- an artist who has been awarded the Order of Canada for her prints.
Is it true there is no word in Inuktitut for golf?
On one of the holes, we were made to play with a club-like implement and guess what it was. Well, I gave it away earlier -- a walrus penis. I must be the nitpicker in our crowd because I said I thought those things didn't have bones, "In the cold, you need all the help you can get," I was told. I heard that Rick guessed it was a Newfoundlander's member.
Even though our time was short due to our delay, we managed to see a lot. And, of course, we talked of you and what you had begun with these tournaments. I stood on the ice, thinking only you could have known what fun it would be to traipse around a frozen course trying to play that game.
I was also ashamed I never fully understood this part of you at the time, but as I see myself unconsciously doing things you used to do, and as the grief becomes less raw, I am grateful to discover these parts of your life.
At the beginning of bannock judging, we were called onto the stage one by one. Great cheers for Rick and for Jonathan, and more subdued for the someone who followed who did not have a TV show. I expected quiet, polite applause and was so surprised at the hearty response when Shelagh mentioned in her introduction that I was your daughter. It was Shelagh who said afterward, that was because to them, you were an elder.
Now I think I get it.
After all this time without you, we finally got the family together last week to inter your remains. Some of us left personal objects with you. I thought and thought about what would be right and then saw the perfect thing on my windowsill . . . An inukshuk from Cape Dorset. It makes me think of continuity and how you are here and not; how I can still learn about and from you on trips like these.
And in that way that makes emotional but no other sense, I discovered after I got home that the artist on my team -- and the artist from whom Rick now has a print -- Kenojuak, the old lady -- was, in fact, the very one who created that cherished print of the three birds that you loved.
Is there an Inuktitut word for serendipitous coincidence?
I'm sure, whatever they'd say, it wouldn't be happy Father's Day. But . . .
Alison Gzowski is an editor with The Globe Books section.