When the Engine Light is Red
By Maryanne Pope
“You will find that if you really try to be a father, your child will meet you halfway.”
– Roger Brault
On the radio the other day, I heard an announcer – a new father – give a couple of examples of how his own father still helps him out.
“When the engine light on my car is red,” said the announcer, “I can call my Dad and he’ll come right over and check it out. Or if I have stuff to take to the dump, my Dad will let me borrow his truck.”
The announcer then asked listeners what, as Father Day approaches, our own Dad’s mean to us.
And I must confess that when it comes to my Dad, being on hand to help me out with mundane tasks is not what first came to mind. For starters, we don’t even live in the same province. Plus he’s in a nursing home now and can’t remember what he had for lunch, never mind what a red engine light might indicate.
But even at the best of times, those sorts of everyday tasks aren’t what I would associate with my Dad anyway. My Dad didn’t teach me to fish or drive or mow the lawn. My Mom and my brother’s did all that. I was six when my Dad moved out and my parents divorced shortly after. I usually only saw him once a week for dinner.
Though the divorce was a bitter one, to put it mildly, my Mom felt it was important that she keep us kids in the same city as our father. My Dad had just moved all of us to Calgary from Ontario when they decided to split up. But instead of moving us kids back to Ontario, where all her support system was, my Mom made the decision to stay in Calgary as a single mom – just so we could be near our Dad.
In hindsight, I’m really glad she did.
For one of the most important things my Dad did teach me was his love for words. Literature was where his heart was. He was constantly correcting my grammar and challenging me to increase my vocabulary. If I wanted to understand what the heck he was talking about, I needed a dictionary close by to look up the words he was using.
My fondest childhood memory of my Dad is him telling me, over and over again, variations of my favourite bedtime story, The Enormous Egg, by Oliver Butterworth. It’s about a kid who finds a huge egg one day in one of the hen’s nests. He watches it grow and grow until it hatches into a dinosaur and then chaos breaks out.
My Dad would tell me a made-up shortened version of the story and then at the very end, he’d always have the baby dinosaur walk up to the edge of the cliff and look down. Then my Dad would look at me and say, “And do you know what he said, Maryanne?”
“Yes!” I’d cry. “He’d say, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary!’”
My Dad would smile and nod and then he’d sing me the song:It’s a long way to Tipperary It’s a long way to go It’s a long way to Tipperary To the sweetest girl I know Goodbye Picadilly Farewell Leicester’s Square It’s a long, long way to Tipperary But my heart’s right there
These days, I find myself telling my friend’s (Dave and Heather) kids made-up Scooby Doo stories. Every time I see them, 6 year-old Ella asks to hear a new Scooby Doo story. Everyone else groans but for some reason, she just can’t get enough of them 🙂
My Dad also shared with me his passion for physics and poetry. My mom took me to see plays; my Dad encouraged me to take a playwriting course. As it turns out, because writing plays is the most technically challenging form of writing for me, it is where I have learned and grown the most – as a writer and a person.
And my Dad taught me how to think critically; how to question what I was told. In contrast to my Mom, who had a strong faith in a higher power and took me to church every Sunday, my Dad is an atheist who taught me to doubt everything – and that when it came to organized religion, I ought to pay far more attention to people’s actions than what they say their beliefs are.
I had to find my own spiritual path, of course, and perhaps not surprisingly the road I am traveling is pretty much right down the middle – with blind faith on one side and healthy skepticism on the other.
Thanks to aging parents, I am seeing the role that faith can play as people get older. My mom wasn’t afraid to die. She knew if it was her time to go, she would be in good hands. My Dad on the other hand, is really struggling because without booze to ease the grief of losing both his memory and his comprehension skills – and no faith in a higher power or life after death, his old age is shaping up to be one of sorrow and frustration.
Though tragic, one of the greatest gifts my Dad inadvertently gave me was to show me the impact of alcoholism. Through his choices, he taught me that if you choose a substance to cope with life, that substance will become your life.
Or, put another way, when your engine light is red and you choose to ignore the warning signs and simply drive faster – or deal with whatever crisis through whatever coping mechanism suits your fancy – at some point, your engine will seize up. Your heart will cease to function properly…and therefore so will you and your life and the lives of those around you.
As difficult as this is to write, my father ended up doing me a tremendous service by showing me how not to deal with hurt, loss and grief.
If I didn’t have the Dad I did, I don’t think I would be a writer. For just as I have my Mother’s fierce and compassionate heart, so, too, do I have my Father’s inquisitive mind and passion for the written word. Although my parent’s marriage wasn’t meant to last, the attributes and love they gave us kids live on in all we do.
Fatherhood in its more conventional and practical form came late to my Dad. A few years after he and my Mom were divorced, he married Elsie and they had a son, Carleton, my half-brother. But when Carleton was only 10, Elsie died of lung cancer. So my Dad, 60 at the time, was left a single Dad to raise him. And raise him well he did! For it is Carleton who is my Dad’s primary caregiver now and responsible for all decisions on his behalf.
As for my three older brothers, Pat, Doug and George, at the end of this month, they, their families and I will, at long last, be making the trek back to Ontario with my Mom’s urn. On July 2nd, we will complete the final leg of her journey and put her physical remains to rest, with her parents in Pinecrest Cemetery in Ottawa. The circle of her life will be complete.
So that’s a bit of my family history for you as we approach Father’s Day. Whatever your relationship is – or was – with your father or the father-like role models in your life, I hope you, too, will have a chance to do a bit of reflecting this Sunday…on the good and the not-so-good, for there are often hidden gems in both.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the upcoming book, Barrier Removed; A Tough Love Guide to Achieving Your Dreams. Maryanne also writes screenplays and play scripts, including the play, Saviour. She is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and the Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund.