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How I learned it was never worth arguing with my dad

KATY LEMAY/The Globe and Mail

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A year and a half ago, I spent five days visiting my long-retired dad in Florida (does a Canadian retiree go anywhere else?). My goal, in two simple words, was: don't argue. And we didn't. And I was glad because just three days after I returned to Toronto, he died.

Dad had undergone heart surgery five months before my visit and, from all accounts, made an unbelievably quick recovery, considering he was nearing his 85th birthday. I guess growing up in Canada, surviving all those nasty winters and taking all those elbows playing pro hockey had toughened him up more than most. Unfortunately, he hadn't told us about his diabetes.

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Each day, I ate breakfast with him in his pastel-painted breakfast nook. Dad was always impeccably dressed, whether it was a pinstriped suit, (which I always thought made him look like an accountant for the Mob) or a golf shirt and pants that matched the walls of his nook. When we had salmon at lunch, was it a coincidence that it, too, matched the decor?

After our dinners out, I would go for a walk in his St. Petersburg neighbourhood. I was touched when he'd say: "Ken, please don't be too late. The street lighting isn't very good around here." I'd make a joke about only being worried about the 'gators. He'd force a smile.

Careful not to disturb Dad's two-hour afternoon nap, I would spend the afternoons in a local Starbucks sipping coffee and working on a novel. I made sure I didn't return until he was wide awake. Thirty years after moving out, I still hated waking him up because he would shake as if he'd just been electrocuted.

And then, around 4 p.m. each day, he poured two glasses of refrigerated red wine. I withheld comment about its frosty temperature, and used the elixir for my own devilish purposes: to get him to open up about his past. It wasn't easy.

Our days together became so comfortable that Dad slipped into calling me "Wayne" instead of Ken. It had been more than 30 years since I last heard that nickname, and it made me feel great. You have to understand that he had nicknames (their derivations probably more easily explained in a dictionary of etymology than his now-untrusted memory) for his children and neighbours, for flora and fauna, and he even called Mom Lefs, which I think is "pancake" in regional Norwegian.

I had learned over the years that it wasn't worth arguing with Dad. No matter how well I constructed my argument (with logic that would have made Aristotle proud), he would counter with something illogically father-like – or, worse, make a clicking sound with his mouth that meant: "Son, you're pushing my buttons. Give it up."

And I knew for years that I shouldn't have "given it up," but I had always tried to respect him. It was more important to maintain harmony than to get to the truth. (On the lighter side, never having argued or walked out on my dad also made for a guilt-free funeral.)

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I am still glad I acted that way because when he died, the truth didn't matter any more. I have my memories and/or truths about my father, as do my sisters and my brother, and theirs can be completely different from mine. Hey, no one ever said our dad was boring. Sometimes I did look to other people to put him in his place, though. And it happened one last time in Florida at his favourite restaurant, Carrabba's.

We both ordered steak, his the size of the table. (You know his generation; they had to eat meat three times a day or they couldn't function.) He mentioned several times that my vegetables were larger than my steak. On the tip of my tongue was, "But Dad, you've had angioplasty and heart surgery." But I just smiled and said, "Dad, I try and go easy on the red meat – you know, family genes."

After dinner, my father started a discussion about American politics with our waitress, who had mentioned she had been honourably discharged from the U.S. Army. (Dad, fuelled by endless hours of political talk shows, lived for "lively" political discussions.)

He was quick and proud to tell the waitress that we were Canadian, but then the conversation veered into American territory. "Cheque, please," I said quickly.

Dad rambled about how the U.S. military was so desperate for recruits it was even taking people who couldn't speak English. Sensing this conversation would not end well, I shifted my eyes elsewhere, a habitual action in restaurant outings with Dad. Having steered the conversation somewhere down toward Hades, he and the waitress jawed for a minute or two more. (The tip Dad would leave, I could sense, was now into negative numbers.)

But suddenly the waitress exclaimed: "Does Canada even matter?"

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And for the first time in the 53 years I've known my handsome, confident, quick-witted and crotchety father, he was speechless.

I winked at the waitress and, while Dad wasn't looking, left a ridiculous tip.

And yet I'd give anything to hear him argue about American politics just one more time.

Ken Samanski lives in Whitby, Ont.

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