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My Father’s Hands

Family photoThe Iceberg partners, as Kenneth mentioned in his last Author Note, have returned to the land that inspired the new world in the His Majesty’s New World and Champions series. New career opportunities –– the kind that surprise you but you can’t ignore –– inspired the shared decision to empty our home in Ontario, and pack all of our belongings into a 53-foot moving truck, after which our convoy of two Jeeps and one Land Rover traveled the more than 3,500 miles from Waterloo in southern Ontario to Edmonton in northern Alberta. We’ve been here less than 48 hours now and the main focus, before we all start new jobs on Monday, is to find a place to live.

In future blog posts I’ll write more about that roller coaster experience, as well as Alberta’s key role in our decision to launch Iceberg 12 years ago, which somehow makes this move, at this particular time, all the more significant. Today it’s time to pause, at least for a little while, to remember and reflect… because 20 years ago today we technically lost my father, and yet all these years later he is still so strongly with us.

There are some memories that are almost physical from this 24-hour period two decades ago. I can still feel my father’s forehead beneath my lips when I kissed him goodnight late on the evening of October 29th, after the nurse had arrived at my parents’ house so that my mother could try to get some sleep. I can hear the sound of the telephone ringing about five hours later, and feel the mattress moving as Peter launched himself from his side of the bed to answer it. I can feel myself shaking as I drove through the darkness to the house on 37 Penetanguishene and pulled into their driveway. I can recall the intense shudder that passed through me as I stood inside the door and the news of his death was confirmed, tears I didn’t think I had left rolling down my face.

But mostly I remember the instant I felt his presence again, the restoration of the connection that Alzheimer’s had severed. It was a connection that had existed from the moment of my birth — on that night in 1960, despite being more than 1,000 kilometers away, he had awoken to the knowledge that his daughter had been born even though my mother would not be able to get the news to him for hours yet. For a time, Alzheimer’s had succeeded in locking my father away, and except in a few rare and precious instances, he’d been unreachable. But on October 30, 1994, I got my father back.

You never stop missing the people you love most –– missing their physical presence in your life –– but they never really leave you either, and my life is, in so many ways, a legacy to my father.

Before this latest move to Edmonton changed the plans of the past few months, the intent had been to have the second Standing Tall book –– A Father’s Legacy –– ready to release today. That didn’t quite happen, and based on the number of stargazer lilies I’ve seen since the first email about the opportunity that started this new phase, I’ve no doubt my father is more than fine with that. However, I will share the prologue… in honour of my father… in recognition of this important day.

Prologue (Standing Tall: A Father’s Legacy)

When I was growing up there was a white boot box filled with photographs under the double bed in my parents’ bedroom. Some of the pictures had been taken before my parents were married, but most captured moments from the years that followed the birth of their three children –– two boys, Steve and Rik, and one girl. The photos were ultimately destined for albums, but that was an organization project still decades in the future.

Most of the time, when I climbed onto the bed as a little girl to snuggle into my father’s side, his outstretched arm acting as my personal pillow… or to watch my mother don her white nursing uniform as she got ready for work… the existence of the box was the furthest thing from my mind. But every so often, for reasons I no longer remember, I’d be compelled to lie on my stomach on the dark gray, cool linoleum floor, slide myself far enough under the side of the bed to reach it and slowly pull it out, lift it onto the bed and climb up to sit beside it. Then, with the cover set aside, I would select one picture and study it before I laid it on the floral patterned bedspread and selected another.

One of the first things I remember noticing was how the number of photos decreased when you moved from first son to second son to only daughter. My oldest brother Steve occupied the largest portion of the box, and my other brother Rik ran a relatively close second. There were photos of me of course, but in much smaller quantities. This puzzled me at first. Seeing things through my child’s eyes, I was unable, perhaps understandably, to appreciate why my stack was so small… to recognize how the addition of each successive child would decrease the time available to take photos, or the money available in those days to develop them. It made sense though, when my mother explained it to me.

That room, that bed, that boot box… all of these are just things of memory now. The majority of the photos are long gone, discarded when my mother took on the task of sorting through them after my father died. Others sit in the albums she prepared for each of her children, or in other boxes and albums that now reside in cases holding treasures rescued when the contents of my childhood home were emptied after her own death 12 years following my father’s. And some have been transferred to electronic images that sit on computers and iPads… my own modern-day boot boxes.

As I look back at these images now, as I frequently do, I am inevitably drawn to those where I’m with my father, a tall distinguished man standing behind his daughter, his hands resting gently on her shoulders. I don’t remember for sure when I first recognized this characteristic pose of ours, but certainly it was after Alzheimer’s had stolen him from us, I think when I began putting images together for presentations related to the book that would tell that particular story. Some things can be right in front of your eyes for years, it seems, before you actually see them. Then when you do, you wonder how you could possibly have missed them for so long.

My father, Richard Joseph Barron, was my dear friend, my teacher, my protector, and the best father a daughter could ever hope to have. He taught me about respect, honour, perseverance, humbleness, loyalty, and the incredible power of unconditional love. The photographs of us together, the ones that show him standing guard behind me with his hands resting gently on my shoulders, are etched not just on my mind, but on my heart and soul as well.

There was nothing in those hands that would ever hold me down or back. There was only the knowledge and security of his support, always and in all things. Love and strength flowed out through those fingers and down through me. Love and strength and pride, and a promise to always be there, no matter what. Our relationship, captured so simply and yet so profoundly, in the photos stored in a white boot box. Under my parents’ bed.

My father died when I was 34-years-old, after a decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s. In Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift, I recounted that journey and told the story of a remarkable father-daughter relationship. And I talked about how after he died I felt that I had gotten him back –– the separation Alzheimer’s had imposed when he ceased to recognize his daughter was finally severed and the connection that had always been ours restored.

I could not walk down a beach beside him, or watch him skillfully cast his line into the water after putting the worm on my hook on a Sunday morning trouting trip. I could not walk into a room and stand quietly for a moment just to watch him sitting on the floor with his small grandson, heads bent together as they shared some private conversation and mischief written over both of their faces. I could not stop at the door before I left his house and give him a good-bye kiss. And, of course, he’s no longer in family photos, standing behind me with his hands resting lightly on my shoulders.

But he is there still, as he always has been. And now as I reflect on the two decades that have passed since his death, I know he’s been with me through them all. Our connection, temporarily interrupted, has somehow grown stronger, as impossible as that may seem or sound.

I do not know why I was gifted with a father as special as Richard Joseph Barron. The best of who I am, I think, is because of him, because he loved me. And because the lessons he taught me guide my life still, in both the simplest and most profound ways.

I thought, when A Daughter’s Gift was completed, that I had told all there was to tell of his –– of our –– story. But over the years I’ve come to realize that wasn’t, in fact, the case. My father’s legacy lives on, and there is a story that extends well beyond his death in 1994.

It is that story –– the story after –– which I share with you now (soon).

And if ever our paths cross, and you see me, where I sit or stand, reaching up to rest my hands on my shoulders, and wonder why I smile or shed a tiny tear, now you know. I touch not my shoulders, but my father’s hands.

I love you dad. I will celebrate you… I will honour you… and I will love you forever.