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first person

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Illustration by Beck Deresse

My Dad was never one to shy away from opportunity, he tried it all. He was a taxi driver, a dance instructor, an office clerk and he even enlisted in the army. In our small town, he joined the Masonic lodge, had a seat on town council and played hockey with the other Dads. He and my Mom raised five kids in a house attached to the local general store. He called everyone “Brother” and it became a term of endearment between his friends and his customers.

Dad was going to be somebody. But he was always a somebody to me.

When I was in elementary school, it wasn’t unusual to see Dad in the office or the hallway chatting with the principal and teachers or scolding a known, troublemaking kid. Sometimes he would drop off treats or donation money that the Masons had collected, and sometimes he’d stop in on his way home from banking or town hall visiting, just because he could.

So, it wasn’t particularly strange to have him show up in my classroom that one Valentine’s Day, when I was in Grade 5.

But it was a particularly special reason as to why he did.

As I sat learning about social studies, there was a knock on the door. It was that casual knock that tells you someone fun and friendly is on the other side. Without waiting for anyone to answer, my dad swung it open and stood there holding a bouquet of flowers and a heart-shaped box of candy.

He said hello to my teacher and walked straight over to me.

“Happy Valentine’s Day Presh,” he said, using my nickname.

He leaned down to give me a kiss, placed the presents on my desk, and with one or two pats on the backs of my classmates, he was gone.

My face lit up and I felt nervous as all eyes turned to me. But what I mostly remember, is feeling like the most special girl in school.

From that day forward, it became a tradition. Every year on Valentine’s Day, my dad would come into my classroom using the same routine, and I’d pretend to be surprised. He’d often switch the arrival time or the presents, just to keep things interesting.

Once I got into high school, this became a little trickier for him. Figuring out what class I was in and where it was in the building proved to be a bit more of a challenge.

But he always showed up.

Our high school, like many, did a candy-gram and flower exchange every year. In Grade 11, the day of deliveries was nearing its end and I still hadn’t received anything from the boy I had a crush on.

As math class finished, I heard the familiar knock on the door. Dad entered with a smile and his usual “Happy Valentine’s Day Presh.”

I laughed and looked around as Dad made his way toward me, patting the backs of a few classmates. A few of my friends called out, “Hi Mr. B!” The nervousness of years past was long gone but I was still secretly thrilled when he showed up.

Like always, he left as quickly as he came.

But that year, as class was ending, the boy in front of me turned around and loudly asked why I had to get my dad to buy me flowers on Valentine’s Day. In all the years that Dad had been visiting the school, it had never occurred to me to be embarrassed. Not until I heard that one thoughtless, throwaway comment.

For the first time ever, I left the gifts in my locker and when I got home, I told Dad he didn’t have to come by on Valentine’s Day any more. I sheepishly announced that I was too old for the tradition, and it would be best if we just let a good thing be. I’m almost positive I broke his heart into a thousand pieces that day, but he simply said, “No problem, Presh.”

By Grade 12, I had softened my stance, but by the time Valentine’s Day rolled around, I didn’t have the nerve to tell Dad that I was recanting my decision. After all, it doesn’t seem like much of a gift if you have to tell a person to give it. And besides, I deserved everything that wasn’t coming to me.

During my last class, I was asked to come to the office. At the time, my mom was working as a school secretary and when I started toward her, she motioned to the counter.

There, beside the late slips and folders for attendance, sat my flowers and candy. Dad had quietly brought them anyway. The note attached read, as usual, “Happy Valentine’s Day Presh.”

At dinner that night, we didn’t speak much about it. I thanked him. He smiled and nodded.

There wasn’t really anything else to say. The flowers sat firmly between us as a reminder of my teenage foolishness and his ability to know better.

By the next Valentine’s Day, Dad was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumours. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but the cancer was stronger than the cure and he died two years later.

He never visited my school again.

I suppose like anyone who misses someone, I wish I could get him back, even for just a few minutes. I’d love to have a dance or listen to him laughing in the store or hear the familiar knock that announced my precious Valentine’s delivery, just one more time.

So now I show up at my daughters’ school. Tradition tightly wrapped in arms full of candy hearts, flowers and sometimes balloons.

I sneak into their classes or call them to the office, passing on the same special feeling that my dad gave to me.

It’s the least I can do for the man who was going to be somebody.

Jeni Besworth was born and raised in Meaford, Ont., and lives in Toronto