September 12, 2014

A Writer's Daughter

My dad and me - taken in 1970 by Reg Feuz

Five years ago this month I started my Letters to the World blog. I barely knew what a blog was, except that my dad had started one and it was like a diary available to read for whomever could find it on the internet. I started it as a way to become more disciplined in my writing, and as a way to kick off my forties with something resembling creative productivity. I remember those first few posts. They were relatively brief, generally humourous, or trying to be, and a little bit earnest. As I sent them out into cyberspace with the click of a few keys on the keyboard, my heart fluttered, my stomach lurched, and I could not rest until someone responded to them in some way. The person I most wanted to hear from was my dad.

My dad would never say anything negative about my blog posts, but if he was silent about a particular post I would wonder how I had failed. I could not help it for in writing I believe he was my litmus test. If he wrote a response it was short, to the point, and always encouraging. Even if I received no other reaction from any other person I would be satisfied, and I believe a large part of my blog was written to him.

I remember when I was in college and struggling with an essay. After wrestling with my opening paragraph for a couple of hours at my bedroom desk I would go downstairs in search of some fresh point of view. My dad, usually reading in the living room if he was not doing dishes or writing in his basement den, would look up at me inquisitively as I sat down and exhaled a tell-tale sigh. I would talk about my current struggle, but instead of tackling it head on and in an obvious way, my dad would start to tell me a story, seemingly unrelated to my problem at hand. My dad had a lot of stories to tell, about his childhood living in different provinces across Canada during the Second World War, about his family's experiences on Lasqueti Island after the war, about his work as a surveyor for a BC Hydro project in his early twenties. Sometimes his stories grew tentacles and I would begin to absorb them rather than truly listen to them, but he would always circle back to the beginning and I would marvel at his ability to do so. After the story I would excuse myself and go back to my essay to find that the ideas and the words now flowed easily. I could not at the time figure out how he managed to help me clear my mind and set it going in the right direction, but I think I might know now. Through telling me an unrelated story he was not only giving my brain a break from the task at hand, but also helping me to think like a writer who was passionate about what I had to say on a particular subject, always keeping the different aspects of the essay in play until the end. I cannot say that my essays were all brilliant, but at least I would get through them and be somewhat satisfied with the results - all a student can hope for much of the time.

My dad had been a land surveyor and a school teacher, but as the youngest in the family I only remember him as a writer. He loved teaching but gave it up to write full time when I was five years old. By living with him I learned what it takes and what it means to be a writer. For Dad, technique was important of course but what was behind it mattered more - "The spirit of the thing" he liked to say. The spirit of the thing was what I believe he was hammering home to me through his storytelling when I was in college. High grades did not seem to impress him much. My being satisfied with what I had produced conceptually was much more important to him. I will admit I was puzzled by his approach, for back then I planned to be a career academic and viewed grades as a marker of my progress toward my goal. Perhaps he knew better and was pushing me on to a life beyond the analysis of other people's writing. In any case I am forever grateful to him. He challenged his children to think hard, to reason, and to never in any case, sell out on our gifts and talents. He was sometimes hard to live with, like many creative, passionate people uninterested in compromises, but I loved him immensely. In June of this year I went to visit him and we had a beautiful time together. He was very ill but we were able to talk and laugh a bit in the old way, and at times we were silent together. The morning I left we embraced tearfully and I told him I hoped it would not be too long before I could come and visit him again.

My dad died peacefully on the morning of August 26th, between nursing shifts and before the daily round of visits from my mother and other family members, at the hospital where he spent his last nine days on this earth. The news of his death did not come as a shock because I had been expecting it for some time, but nothing can completely prepare one for the loss of a parent, especially one who played such an important role in one's life and made such an impact. A large number of people, family and friends old and new, gathered last week to celebrate my dad's life. Plenty of laughter, some tears, and plenty of talking and visiting filled the few short days we had together. At times I imagined I could hear my dad's deep voice joining in the conversation with his usual gusto, telling a story from when he was young and healthy and full of vitality. I like to think of him as young again now that he is free from the encumbrance of illness and pain. I will continue to write with him in mind and hope that he is looking down on me as I type this, and as I adjust to my new reality without his strong physical presence in my life.

I will miss my dad's quick emailed responses to my posts, those little live connections with him that I have cherished over the past five years. He never held back from giving me the thumbs up if he thought I deserved it. I know I can carry on writing without his responses because he succeeded in setting me on the right track in my writing. I know when I have 'the spirit of the thing' because I can feel it in my gut.

Thank you, Dad. For everything you gave me, but mostly for your love - the true spirit of the thing.