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Flat tires, lost hopes? My dad was your man

My superhero weighed 130 pounds.

Men with bulging biceps and flowing capes are the superhero stereotype. But in my life, the real hero didn't have the legs for a kilt, never mind tights.

From earliest memories, my father, David, represented all that was good and brilliant in life. A Scottish carpenter, he taught me so much, but mostly he taught me that each and every day you go to work and you build something. He was always my hero, but not always 130 pounds. Turned out his kryptonite was eating him alive, from the inside out.

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I thought him quite magical when I was a little girl. He could transform a pile of wood into cool bunk beds, a coffee table, a workbench. My awe at his skill and pride in his work led me to engage in one of my first acts of violence. During a career exploration class in primary school, a young boy said that if you weren't smart you would grow up to be a carpenter. I punched him in the nose. I was proud of defending my dad. My dad was not so proud of his daughter, the pugilist. He taught me much better ways to change people's minds, using passion and persuasion.

I cannot tell you how many young lives he changed through soccer. An excellent coach, he won many trophies. But it was not the hardware on the shelf that counted; it was the character on the field.

He was, in many ways, a typical Scottish coach - the boys addressed him only as Mr. Buller. They didn't just learn the rules of the game from him; he taught young boys how to be better men, and young men how to respect themselves and others.

We used to run into former players who would shake my dad's hand and tell him what a difference he had made in their lives. Many of them never knew that he paid their entrance fee, or managed to ensure they had a new pair of boots on their feet. Charity, he showed me, should always be extended, but humbly and quietly.

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My dad taught me to celebrate what I had, but to dream of what I wanted. His courage in life inspired me. He brought a young wife and three young kids thousands of miles to start a life in a new country - because he believed in his heart that it was the right thing to do for us, his kids. Life in Canada was not perfect for my parents, but this country has offered my sister and brother and me remarkable opportunities.

My dad had character and was a character. He had a wicked but unbelievably clean sense of humour. He believed that people who swore indiscriminately lacked vocabulary and class. He worried that people had become too greedy, and that in their drive to accumulate things they lost out on so much.

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He never met a pun he didn't like, and he invented words that made us smile as kids and seem to have endured (slantindicular is one of my favourites, which he would use to describe the Leaning Tower of Pisa or anything slightly off-kilter.) He may have been the only Scotsman alive who never drank.

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If you were ever in trouble, you wanted my dad to cross your path. Dad once found a monk at the side of the road. The man had been out for a run, had a heart attack and fallen in a ditch. My dad saw him, and of course stopped and helped.

As they were loading the monk, named Gabriel, into an ambulance, he said to my dad, "May God be with you."

In typical form, my dad replied, "I think you need him more than I do right now."

Or there was the time he brought home a family from London, Ont., who had been stranded on the highway.

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Just recently, he drove his ancient pickup truck through a pedestrian walkway into a park to rescue an old man who had fallen. Flat tires, dead batteries, broken hearts - my dad was your man.

As for his carpentry, there are literally hundreds of buildings and people who have been touched by his work: a church on the Six Nations Reserve rebuilt after a fire; homes restored for families who thought they had lost everything; corporate towers, and high-rises. All holding a tiny piece of my dad. His skills gave him a living and all of us a life.

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His carpentry was also the reason he became ill. Through a lifetime of building, asbestos dust crept into his lungs and then ate its way through. The cancer, mesothelioma, is a heinous disease, a legacy bestowed on those who built our country. The doctor shook his hand and told him he was sorry. My dad thanked him for his time and kindness. That was my dad.

I could not imagine a world without him. He deserved to live. He was a good man with a great heart and bruised lungs. He had integrity and honour. He never passed by someone he could help. He never, ever let me down. Even when I was a bitter adolescent or a know-it-all young adult, I always knew that he would be there for me. He cradled me when I skinned my knees, held me when I cried with a broken heart, and made me laugh when I thought it impossible.

He was a superhero. When he left on Nov. 24, my whole world went slantindicular.

Ann Buller lives in Toronto.

Illustration by Catherine Lepage.

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