When I was a boy, I remember thumbing through the pages of Air Canada’s magazine. It must have been an edition from somewhere between 1982-84. This was back when airlines had resources and the glossy magazine was produced with the same integrity of National Geographic, at least in my young mind.
In it there was an article about the dog-trainers and handlers who negotiated the Alberta prairie upon horseback, showcasing their best hunters in Field Trial competitions. Their dogs were sinewy, muscled English Pointers or Setters bred for strength, endurance and their ability to pinpoint the exact location of game like pheasant or prairie chicken in the scrubby expanse of the vast landscape.
A photo in the article remains burned in my mind. A burly, bearded man in a cowboy hat, vest and leather chaps stands tall and strong with his dog “Worm” standing at attention by his side at the end of a taught lead. That was my father. I always thought how tough he looked in that photo. He was the epitome of the cowboy legend a boy of six has in his mind. I wanted to be that.
My father was so much more than that, however. He could project toughness, if needed, but it rarely was. Instead, he projected kindness and a quiet desire to help others. He cared for the land deeply – something I think he always carried with him from his boyhood days, but a purpose that was honed through his time studying in Trent University’s first cohort of Native Studies students in the early 1970s.
I think his favourite place was in the woods or the wide-open prairie. It was where he went in his down time outside of his career as a Federal Parole Officer. His job was most certainly harder than he ever let on while we were young - he carried the responsibility of supervising some of Canada’s hardest criminals and helping them find a new path, En Route but it would only be later in life when my sister, brothers and I would understand the toll that would take.
He rarely carried that responsibility home, though. He put it down at the door and became a coach, father and friend again, and he was that to so many of us.
When we moved to Norwood, Ont. in 1986, we finally found true community. There were plenty of homes throughout our family’s early years and the six us made them so, but in Norwood our roots were planted. Dad found his hockey teams and eventually the Lion’s Club. He had his four-mile jogging track he ran faithfully every day, no matter the weather, and the people of town could set their watches by his timing.
It was for the young people Dad came to know that his greatest gifts were reserved. With four children in a small town, Dad came to all of our many circles of friends spanning a range of age groups. He coached our hockey and baseball teams, often splitting his time year over year so he could have time with each of his children and their friends. It was on the field or ice that he came to know us, but it was in the relationships that stayed strong year over year that the depth of his relationships shone.
Ours was the safe house. We could throw teenaged parties and my parents were always happy to know what their kids were doing and with whom. When someone got in trouble beyond our walls, they called my father for help and advice. When someone needed a place to stay for any length of time, Mom and Dad would take them in. The list of true brothers and sisters in my family has grown long over the years, and I think Dad knew in his final days the true impact he had upon the lives of so many people. We are now grown with our own families and I like to think his influence and example carries many of us forward as we struggle to find a path to raise good people for the future.
In 2019, Dad’s health began to subtly decline. He found it hard to run and eventually could no longer even walk along his path through town. People would ask us how he was, for they were worried having not seen him around town, and we would simply say he was slowing down. Fact is, a neurological degeneration under the same umbrella of Parkinson’s disease was robbing him of his mobility, and the decline grew more rapid in mid-2022.
He chose to control his own destiny through Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) and with the support of the kind team at Peterborough Regional Health Centre, on the afternoon of April 14, he lay comfortably with his dearest family at his side (Shona and Derek Wrightly, Jeremy, Kristian, Becca, Daniel and Victoria Partington) to say his final goodbye. We have had the gift of many days to share stories, memories and love. His seven grandchildren – Jessica, Valerie, Abby, Eli, Tyler, Alex and Grace – know how proud he is of the people they are becoming, and we want to spread that love to all who were touched by him.
Dad was a lifelong blood donor, and in his passing he continued to give the gift of life. His kidneys and lungs will help recipients live longer, his pancreas will be used in search of a cure for Type-1 diabetes (a disease his grandson has lived with for seven years) and his brain will help researchers better understand Parkinsonian neurological degeneration.
In a hospital bed, with long gray beard and his kind eyes glistening, he found peace and hopefully the opportunity to see my mother once more. To someone on the outside, he might have looked frail, but to me he remains the stalwart image of toughness, and he will stay that way forever.
A celebration of life will be held at Norwood’s Town Hall on April 29 from 3:30pm until we’re asked to leave, and all well- wishers are welcome.
In lieu of flowers of gifts, consider donating to:
Hospice Norwood: https://hospicenorwood.com
UHN Movement Disorders Clinic Research https://support.uhnfoundation.ca/site/Donation2?1486.donation=form1&df_id=1486&mfc_pref=T&s_src=headerdonate
(select other and then Movement Disorders Clinic Research)