Fathers Day with The Verve

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Bittersweet Symphony

Blog 20

Bittersweet Symphony

By the Verve

My dad passed away when I was a kid and we both loved music. His record collection was quite large and leaned towards singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

Since his death I will sometimes hear a song I like and think to myself, “I wish dad could hear this song.”

One of those songs is Bittersweet Symphony.

I had already heard the song a few times but one night after work the song grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and I realized what a great song it is.

I was working with a seismic crew in California and it was the end of the shift. We had just topped up the fuel tanks on our trucks before heading back to the hotel.

The sky was clear and the sun was setting while I was driving down this long, straight, boulevard lined with very tall palm trees.

Everything seemed quiet and still and Bittersweet Symphony started playing on the radio. I thought to myself, “what an awesome song. I wish dad could hear it.”

Here it is, Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve:

http://youtu.be/1lyu1KKwC74

FATHERS DAY – A long and sordid story

My mother could be a disciplinarian but my father dished out most the discipline in our home, but discipline had little effect on me and I blame public housing.

The great thing about public housing in the 1970s was that there was never any shortage of kids to hang out with at any time of the day, which meant that there was never any shortage of opportunities to have fun and to get into trouble.

My dad passed away when I was in Grade 4, and I sometimes like to think I started acting like a jerk after he died but, truth be told, I started acting like a jerk long before he died.

It’s funny, during the sermon at my dad’s funeral the minister said something to the effect that, with my dad gone, I was now the man of the house. How wrong he was. Both before and after my dad died I was never the man of the house. I was just a little jerk who thought he could do whatever he wanted.

DEATH IN THE CITY

I grew up in Calgary, and when a person dies in the city, word of the death travels nowhere.

For example:

It must have been mid-week. I was home watching an after-school TV show, when my mom came home from work, walked in the door and said, “Guess what?”

I said, “Dad died.”

She was in the doorway, so I couldn’t see her but I could tell by the tone in her voice that he died.

My dad was a hard-core alcoholic, and I knew his expiry date was up.

He was born in 1930 and died at the age of 44. I was nine-years-old when he died.

I don’t remember the exact day he died but I know it was in the spring and it might have been a Tuesday or a Wednesday.

We went to the funeral on the weekend and I was back in school on Monday.

There was a girl in my Grade 4 class I had a crush on but, unfortunately, she wasn’t interested in me. (She had her eyes set on some guy who eventually went on to be a rodeo cowboy at the Calgary Stampede).

Anyway, my desk was behind hers and when I returned to class she turned around and asked me why I missed a few days of school.

I told her I was at my dad’s funeral. She got all serious and said, “No you weren’t,” and I sort shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yes, I was.”

In the meantime I had given my teacher a note from my mom explaining why I was away for a few days. She was caught off guard as well.

Our school was an open-area concept. Two Grade 4 classes shared one open area, while the open area next door had four classes, two Grade 5 classes and two Grade 6 classes.

I remember my teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, reading the note and then disappearing for a moment while she slipped into the open area next door. She came back with another teacher, peeked around the corner, and pointed me out.

That’s the city for you. Like I said, when someone dies, nobody has a clue.

My dad’s funeral was in Edmonton, and that’s where he’s buried. Except for the funeral I’ve never been to his gravesite.

Although my dad was a drunk, the funeral was actually fairly crowded.

My dad had eight siblings, three brothers and five sisters, and he had quite a few close friends.

He was the second oldest sibling in his family, and I sometimes think he was the favourite son because, despite his many faults, his entire family loved him a great deal.

Siblings on his side of the family tended to bicker with one another, or with my grandmother, but my dad always got along with and visited all of them.

He also got along very well with my mom’s mom and dad and they always seemed happy whenever he dropped by.

Did my mom love him? It’s hard to say. Like most drunks, my dad was unreliable, and my mom, after about 15 years of marriage, divorced him about two years before he died.

Even after they divorced my dad was often in and out of our lives. He would tell my mom he had cleaned up his act and changed his ways. She would give him another chance, let him back into our lives, and then he would relapse.

It was shortly after one of these relapses that his chances ran out and he died.

My mom had let him back into our house and he was living with us for about two weeks. He was sober and everything seemed great, but then he came home drunk one night, got in a big argument with my mom, and that was the last time I ever saw of him.

Three or four weeks later he was found dead in an apartment a few blocks from our house. I didn’t even know he was living there.

It was a very old, brick, four-story apartment building with tiny apartments, with one bathroom on each floor that was shared by the residents, most of who were men who were down and out.

I remember trick-or-treating there on Halloween a few months after he died.

My friend Mike and I went into an apartment where two guys were living, and while they were digging out candy Mike asked if they remember a guy dying there a little while back. The guy said, “Yeah, some bum died in an apartment upstairs a few months ago.”

I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut.

My friend said, “That was his dad.” A look of pain came across the guys face and he apologized.

I can’t blame the guy for saying that though.  My dad was an irresponsible drunk, so, in a way, he was a bum.

On the plus side, my dad was never physically abusive to my mom. They had big arguments but he was never physically violent towards her.

On the negative side, my dad wasn’t the most responsible father in the world.

Like a lot of drunks, he was very good at disappearing.

For instance, he would sometimes leave me in the car while he went to the bar.  This was probably a fairly common practice among drunks back in the 70s. I’m not saying parking lots beside bars were filled with kids waiting for their drunken dads to return but you could probably find a few kids left in a car on any given day.

One time my dad left me in the car in the middle of winter. It was daytime, I was about five-years-old, and I started to get cold. I decided to walk to the nearest house to get warm. The woman at the house called the police and we went and found my dad.

He did the same thing not long after.

Once again it was daytime but, this time, the weather was comfortable.  I remember sitting in the front seat of the car playing with these metal air-vent adjusters just below the dash that pulled in and out (The car was a white, 1970 Chevrolet Biscayne, which is a strange name for a car.). After about two hours my dad got back to the car. In the meantime I bent two of the air-vent adjusters out of shape and they had to be replaced. I remember him looking at me and asking why I bent them. I felt bad, but told him I was just playing, which was true.

On another occasion, this might have been one or two years before he died, he took me to see the Harlem Globe Trotters basketball team in Calgary. He said he was going to the washroom and, again, he disappeared.

Anyway, a funny thing happened while he was gone.

One of the Globe Trotters came up into the stands and took me out on the court. He told the other Globe Trotters that I bet him that he couldn’t make a basket from half-court. After a bit of back and forth between the two of us he made the shot from half court and I went back into the stands. Soon after, I went to the washroom to find my dad but couldn’t find him. I went back to my seat and after about half an hour he showed up half drunk.

On another occasion, this was a couple of months before he died; I was with him when he drove the Biscayne into a restaurant.

It was late at night and he broke right through the sidewall of the restaurant and knocked over a few tables inside. Thankfully, only the waitress was there and nobody was hurt.

There was a hotel across the street and he got us a room. He left the room and when he came back he was wincing and holding his ribs and said the police had beaten him up.

He could have killed people, so he probably deserved a good beating.

Despite these misadventures, and ones that were even worse, I was at an age where I never grew resentful of his antics. I never lashed out at him and called him an idiot or anything like that.

I was happy to see him when he was sober but the same wasn’t true when he was drunk.

When you’re a little kid seeing your dad drunk on a regular basis is kind of scary.

When he was half drunk and staggering around the house I learned to keep my distance, not because he was violent, but there seemed to be the potential for violence. There was a dark edge to him that I didn’t want to provoke.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being half drunk and staggering around the house. I’ve spent a few weekends doing that myself. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to do that in front of your kid almost every time you see him, especially when you know it’s going to lead to a fight with your wife.

SOBER

The best times I remember having with my dad are the very simple times when he was sober.

He would often take me up to Edmonton to visit my grandmother (she was from Scotland), and when we were there he would sometimes take me out to the river valley in Edmonton where he used to hang out as a kid. (If anybody knows Edmonton, it was in the Bonnie Doon district of Edmonton).

As we walked along he would tell me story’s about his childhood and the things he would do with his friends, pointing out the places they swam, the gardens they raided, etc., and we would skip rocks in the river.

Those are the best memories I have of my dad because they were the moments when I got to see who he really was. He wasn’t trying to be a hero or a superman or trying to cover himself up in a fog of booze, he was just a regular guy with faults, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He wasn’t trying to be something he wasn't and I got to know him a little better.

FUTHER NOTES:

MY DAD’S WORK

My dad worked in the oil fields but during the last five years of his life he was always losing jobs because of his drunkenness and couldn’t be counted on by employers - or anybody for that matter. My mom was a secretary and had connections, and she actually got him a couple jobs that he quickly lost. She wasn’t impressed and is probably part of the reason she divorced him.

MY DADS FUNERAL

After he died it probably took me about three months before I stopped feeling a kind of deep sadness that, at that age, I couldn’t understand or could ever get a grip on. It was a feeling inside me that wouldn’t go away. It was probably about a year before most of the sadness had subsided to the point where I didn’t feel it on a daily basis.

Also, this is kind of strange, but it was a closed casket at my dad’s funeral and for a few years afterwards I would sometimes see a person who looked like my dad and wonder if it was him. I must have of doubted whether or not he was actually dead.

MY DAD’S FAMILY

My dad’s older brother, my uncle Bill, was my favourite uncle.

When I was a kid he would often come to Calgary from Edmonton to visit us. When he was there he would always come to my hockey games and tie my skates for me.

He tied them super-tight. This was in the days of brown, leather-boot skates, and when he tied my skates my feet felt a lot more secure and I could play better. I always looked forward to him coming to my games and tying my skates for me.

Plus he was really funny. I remember one time, I might have been about six years old, and we were watching the movie Frankenstein. There’s a scene in the movie where Frankenstein comes to life, stands up, raises his arms and looks to the sky.

I asked my uncle what he was doing, and my uncle said, “He’s going to the bathroom.” I cracked up.

He was also a Korean War Veteran. My mom always said he would be a good guy to have in you’re unit because he would keep everybody laughing. I guess she was saying he was a very sociable and likable guy. It was actually my uncle Bill who introduced my dad to my mom.

Also, my uncle Bill was a functional alcoholic. (As opposed to my dad, who was what I call a dysfunctional alcoholic.)

We all know the type. They drink five, six, seven 26’s of vodka or whiskey every week, but still manage to carry on with their jobs and their lives.

The cool thing about my uncle is that he didn’t have a driver’s license so he was never drinking and driving. He took a bus wherever he went, including to and from work and from Edmonton when he came to visit us in Calgary.

VISITING

Anyway, after my dad died I would still, on the rare occasion, go to Edmonton to visit my uncle Bill and my aunt Mona. She was very funny as well.

The last time I saw my uncle Bill was about 20 years ago, and the last time I saw my aunt Mona was about 30 years ago.

Many of my dad’s brothers and sisters had six, seven, or eight kids, which means that I have about 30 cousins on that side of the family.

I don’t remember any of their names except for two.

My Uncle Bill’s daughter, Bonnie, has her birthday on the same day as mine so I always remember her.

And my aunt June, who I don’t even know because she lives in Winnipeg, has a son who played in the NHL for 20 years, and then coached in the NHL for almost another 10 years.

His name is James Patrick.

I don’t know him but seeing how I’m a hockey fan (Calgary Flames) I know what he looks like and I know his name. (Before he retired, my stepfather’s workplace had season tickets to the Flames, so I used to go to a lot of Flames games with my mom, who is a big Flames fan. The seats were about four rows up from behind one of the nets, so I got to see my cousin, who played for the Flames, play a lot of hockey).

I have about 15 cousins on my mom’s side of the family and I know all their names but, like I said, on my dad’s side of the family it’s a different story. I don’t know anything about any of them.

My dad also had a daughter when he was young. So I have a half sister out there somewhere but I don’t know anything about her, including her name. I figure she must be in her late fifties by now.

Basically, what it comes down to is that, as time goes by, people lose touch. Unfortunately, that’s the way life works.

MISCELLANEOUS

My mom always said she loved dancing with my dad, so this video is for both my mom and dad:

http://youtu.be/7kKVBZUVWxQ

I thought I’d play this song as well:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADbJLo4x-tk

I choose this song because, first of all, my dad was a Bing Crosby fan and, second, I have a vivid memory of being with my dad at a place called Kresge’s, which was sort of like Zellers. Kresge’s was in the Chinook Centre Mall and the restaurant had only one long counter with about 15 stools running along the counter. I remember my dad was sober but seemed a little out of sorts. He might have had a bad hangover.

Anyway, it was Christmastime and he was out shopping for perfume for my mom. We stopped into Kresge’s for lunch when Little Drummer Boy played on the mall speakers. I don’t know why it’s such a vivid memory, but it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • sueb
    June 03, 2013 - 15:34

    Great blog - this one was particularly gripping, but they're always well written and really compelling. Keep up the good work!