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"How's the weather down there?" It's how a startling number of conversations between father and son begin with us. Weather is a safe topic, a place we can meet, even though we're 800 miles apart.
“Not bad. It was stinking hot today. How is it up there?” Gruffness is a mask. It establishes that we are both busy men with lots of important things to occupy us, but that we’re willing to give each other a few minutes of our time to check in and make sure everything’s okay before rushing off to deal with pressing matters.
“Very nice. Going to be that way unless another hurricane appears.” In a country obsessed with weather, meteorological small talk comes as naturally to us as breathing. This makes sense when you consider how miserable a simple shift in barometric pressure or temperature can make us. People in more temperate climes would probably be amused to discover weather-watching is Canada’s national sport. Unless they spend a winter here.
“Wouldn’t be anything like Hurricane Juan. People still talk about that, you know?” My dad is so interested in the weather, he will put the Weather Network on as background noise during the day. He lives alone now. I think it makes things less lonely.
“Well, the leaves haven’t changed here yet. Still waiting for that to happen. It’s been a good year for the maples, I think.” He once bought me a weather calendar for Christmas. It featured weather trivia each day of the year. That, more than anything, speaks to Canada’s obsession with meteorology: We actually have calendars of weather minutiae to amuse ourselves with.
“If you’re lucky, the leaves will be starting to change when you come down. Depends on how cold it gets in the next few weeks.” I come down once a year with my wife, and once a year on my own. It’s important to make sure Dad’s okay and to visit my mother. She’s in a long-term care facility. Dad isn’t.
“Won’t be long now. The days are getting shorter.” It amazes me that each year around September or October, Canadians marvel at how the days aren’t as long, as if it were some entirely new and unexpected phenomenon, not something that has been happening every year since our solar system formed. The quality of small talk such as that doesn’t really matter, though. I phone to hear Dad’s voice, not to have deep conversations. I call to try to establish how he’s doing and to see if he needs anything. Weather’s a tool. If Dad’s got something on his mind, he’ll get around to it, but talking about the weather provides an entree, a way to warm ourselves up for the main event: tough conversations about Mom’s state of care, and how Dad’s handling it.
“Are you driving down here or flying?” Dad always asks if I’m driving down. I’ve never driven to Halifax, and never will. It’s a two-day affair vs. a two-hour flight from Toronto: Life’s too short. Dad’s frame of reference for travel dates back to the seventies, before cheap airfare became the norm. I remember annual summer trips to Cape Breton to visit my grandmother and her cottage on the Mira River. With stops, it was a six-hour affair for a family with kids in the back of a station wagon without seat belts, barreling down the highway at 100 kilometres an hour. Awareness of personal safety and responsibility wasn’t as developed in 1978 as it is today.
I actually don’t mind him asking twice a year whether I’m planning to drive down: It’s one of many features that recur dependably in our conversations. Those features have become like a familiar handshake, and the older my parents get, and the more care they need, the more comforting that kind of routine becomes. On some level, I appreciate that he’s still interested whether I’m going to drive down the St. Lawrence River and through New Brunswick twice a year to see him.
“If it’s not raining too hard, I’ll probably drive over to see your mom.” He still drives over to see her almost every day. He still feels the need to check in regularly to make sure she’s okay. She’s still the centre of his life, even though they’re apart.
“I’ll tell her you said hello.” Dad has only known responsibility his entire life. The oldest of seven siblings, he became his mom’s right-hand son early on, helping take care of the younger ones. Then, as a husband, breadwinner and father of four, he was responsible for putting food on the table, a mortgage, payments for two cars, helping fund his children’s education and a million smaller things, from teaching us to drive to fixing the lawn mower. Then he was responsible for taking care of Mom, until it all became more than can be expected of anyone his age.
Everything changed when Mom went into care. When your whole life has been about being responsible, what happens when those responsibilities get removed? A leopard can’t change its spots: Dad still needs to feel responsible, and Mom needs someone to look after her, even if she can’t understand anymore why that’s so important.
Dad won’t always have Mom. Or maybe it’ll be the other way around. But for now, between naps and the Jays game and naps during the Jays game, we’ll have the weather to bring us together.
Mark Farmer lives in Toronto.