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First Person It took me a long time to forgive my father’s flaws

Illustration by Rachel Wada

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person explores how fathers change our lives.

The truth is I never really knew you very well.

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I mean, I knew the basics. Of course I did. I lived with you for the first 13 years of my life, and after that we were a team of sorts, you and me. But let’s face it, you were mostly a mystery. So last year when I discovered you had died, it dawned on me that the mystery of you would remain unsolved.

In the 1970s you left Newfoundland. You were young and you had dreams. You came west to Ontario. I think you were looking for an adventure rather than a final destination, but you stayed, more or less, for the rest of your life. You stayed, but you were never really at home again, were you? The island home of your youth made you who you were. They’ll call a spade, a spade, you’d say of your people. A gritty, hardworking sort. Not like those precious types you met in Ontario.

You stayed, and for a while you did pretty well. A lovely wife. Two kids. A job, a house, some friends. Not bad. Not enough, but not bad.

I think you were sad most of the time. Something wasn’t right. You weren’t right. We weren’t right. Things weren’t what you envisioned; you were not who you could have been.

Dad, you made some mistakes, didn’t you? I know. You knew, too. I know you did.

You were angry for such a long time, and your anger got you into trouble. But you paid for those mistakes. It cost you your family, and that price was maybe too high. You thought it was.

As an adult, I’ve thought a lot about you. I’ve wondered why you made the choices you made. Ontario wasn’t for you, that seemed clear. So, why not just move home? Was it pride? Inertia? Did you hope that things would turn around and start to get better? I wondered how you managed to go on when you had lost so much. I wondered how somebody as angry as you were could also be so kind, so fragile. Hard as nails you were, but brokenhearted, too.

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I was seven months pregnant with my second child when I got the call.

Was my name Kathryn Decker? Was my father Paul? I’m so sorry to have to tell you, but your father has died.

Dad, you were alone when you died. But you were alone for a long time before that.

You and I hadn’t talked in a couple of years, and that was my fault. My life was changing and I wanted to change, too. I loved you, but I was tired of seeing you so angry, so unhappy. I was tired of never having an honest conversation with you. I was tired of feeling scared of you and feeling sorry for you in the same moment. I became a mother, and I wanted to make things simpler. And the truth is, dad, a simpler life didn’t include you.

The day after I learned that you had died I drove to your house. I didn’t have the key, but I drove there anyway. I had never been there before, and I was afraid of what I might find, but I felt relieved when I saw your house.

It was lovely. It was a cool, cloudy day, and the house looked so peaceful and quiet. It was old and made of bricks. There was a big back garden with a deck. There was a patio chair, and beside it your ashtray sat on a small table, cigarette butts amassed inside it. I could picture you sitting there, smoking, drinking a rum and coke and doing a crossword. I longed to smoke a cigarette. You and I used to smoke together, before I grew up and quit years ago.

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I sat down in your chair and I thought of you. I thought about how complicated our relationship had been, and I wished that things had been simpler. I wished you had been simpler, easier to know, easier to love.

This past June, I brought your ashes back to Newfoundland. It seemed like the right thing to do. I hoped you could be at rest there. I had a funeral for you and I invited your family and your old friends. And they came. They came from far and wide. They took airplanes, boats and they drove hours and hours to say goodbye to you.

I buried you beside your parents in a pretty cemetery in St. John’s. People cried and told stories of fun times you’d had together and funny jokes you had told. We laughed about your obsessive love of Pink Floyd and the Detroit Red Wings. We placed flowers on your grave. We had a party to celebrate your life and I wished you were there.

Dad, I wish I could call you up on the phone. I wish I could say this is silly, let’s just start over. But it’s too late now. That’s the thing about death; it’s a hard stop.

You were flawed and imperfect and complex. You were human.

And now that you are gone, I really miss you.

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Kathryn Decker lives in Toronto.

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