The telephone call from Toronto came at 7 PM. April 26, 1999. A neighbor, Mrs. Good Person asked, "Is this Richard, the son of Ed and Millie? Yes? I'm afraid I have some really bad news for you. Here's your mother."
"Dickie? Your father passed away suddenly tonight, a massive heart attack. It was so fast. I can't believe it. He's gone."
And then the crying began
I was lucky to be able to mooch a car ride with dear friends. Actually they felt sorry about my sadness. It's not the most pleasant news to hear your dad has died. So many thoughts kept churning in my mind, and words about love for my father, not said enough times.
As I watch through the car window, thoughts of your funeral occupy my mind. Why is it we don't visit often enough when someone is still alive? And I vow to visit my siblings more often; scattered from Toronto to Vancouver. My friend's car takes us through Fredericton, NB. It's a lovely city, with trees of white birch surrounding many beautiful homes, and secluded back porches. An Irving Big Stop whizzes by, city of Salisbury too then another truck resting place. Some drivers are snoozing, others playing in the games room.
It's been four year's now since I saw my dad. My spirit is numb as the countryside blurs along. Eyes glaze over, torn between memory, scenery and tears. Trees flip by, acreage stretching far into the next ridge. My mind flips through a journey of recollections, progressing from childhood forward. As I breathe, I can still smell the pizza we ate a little while ago at Pizza Delight. 10 toppings. Licking my lips, the aroma still covered me like mist.
Edmunston sprawls beside the highway outside my window, like an alley cat snug across several hills. Houses are sprinkled in random bunches, shingles scented with colored patterns. Mismatched shingles remind the owners where rain used to penetrate. Someone must have had to duck between raindrops. A friend perhaps, was kind enough to volunteer the job.
Notre Dame de Lac this time of year is like a breath of icy surface. Its Bays are finger-shapes spreading in five directions. One of them is an outline similar to Moose Bay Beach, from my childhood in North-Western Quebec. Dressed up patches of white lay in lazy clumps, aside the highway.
Leaving New Brunswick, the sun splits the mountain from sky. It pierces eyes, distracts vision, and slowly creeps into hiding as our highway dips into the next valley. I'm like you, dad. I care. I hurt. I cry. Dad, remember the time mom and I went looking for you on Payday at the mine. You weren't home in time for supper then disappeared for two straight days. Looking for you meant a boy of twelve had to be a man and take his worried mom from bar to bar. Gambling and booze loved your precious paychecks. And yours was a favored feast. I found you sitting at the table in a back room, cards on the table with a stack of loose paper money in the center. My young hand shot forward and grabbed a bunch of bills.
"Take your hands off that kid," a boozy voice said at the time. You just sat there, bleary eyed, proud of your boy. You knew I was only a kid but gutsy, making his move, because the time presented itself. That attitude often helped me in my quest for future employment years into the future. "Mom's outside in the foyer waiting, dad," I said at the time. No movement, just sadness in your eyes. No money left in your pocket, and five kids and a wife needing more than words of love. As I grew up into the world I felt that same helplessness mom felt, knowing there was going to be little to eat for a few days. I remember that young boy, me, retreating to the front of the Sports Taverne, weaving between tables of empty glasses, stale air and go-go dancers. Mom was waiting. Unescorted ladies couldn't enter the Sports Taverne, but male kids like me could. It was confusing.
We drove into the Province of Quebec at 8 pm; 7 pm Truro, Nova Scotia time. Greeted by purple streaks, pastel strands of cloudy wisps, silver and gold wrestling for space. It was a nice welcome for a return to my home province. As darkness descended, rumbles of wheels followed. Trees mashed together in darkness, only their tops bathed in rays of descending sun, reluctant to leave this world.
House lights lit up like flames from jack-lanterns, directing us to Riviere Du Loup. Hills as sleepy lions humped along the shore followed our car's movement as it sped along on rubbery steps. The man in the moon seems sad. He must have looked into my soul. Truck trains, two 52-foot trailers, full loads attached to a semi roared alongside. Trees whizzed by, water flashed silvery reflections, and the sky tumbled into a sleepy stillness as farmers completed plowing their fields.
Bedroom lights peek between blinds, peering from windows. It's as if a ranch is tired, now shutting down after a hard day on the range. Dad, you enjoyed reading Zane Grey westerns. So did I. I always wanted to be a cowboy, ever since I was around eight. I remember running around in the snow after opening up my neat Christmas present, cap guns blazing. I wanted to be the hero, the brave one capturing villains. And rescuing helpless damsels, waiting for someone like me. I was so young and innocent at the time. And as I grew older, much of that bravado left me. Life's bruises stuck like shades of brown skin. You kept telling me how tough the world could be, especially after you returned home from England, after the Second World War.
Burnt fields outside my window appear as darker patches within a spreading quilt. A car begins to race ahead on a road parallel to ours. Front and sidelights challenging; wants to play -- now going ahead. I can see where Levis Ultramar oil storage tanks are followed by the Quebec City Museum of Civilization; then Travelodge Motel. Signs and more Signs appear. From Quebec City, buildings of glass are trim bricked footsteps of light adorning the highway, pointing the way to Toronto. The eastern sky is a sliver of silver, peek-a-boo eyes of orange on the horizon. Residential developments arise as splayed models of architecture. Hewett Caterpillars are in rows of yellow, sleek tools of construction.
Billboards are colors of information- CAP SANTE one reads. My tears begin to fall, recollections of our times together fade as our car continues on Highway 40 Ouest. A black sky hovers overhead, surrounds us like a piecrust. Moving forward, onward, a metronome in my head, while in the background of our car, a song. "God is Good." Waves of geese are squadrons of newness, a journey of their return. And they remind me of the wonderful year I spent in James Bay. I wasn't lonely at all, with the Moose River breeze confronting me as I stood on the shore looking towards the Federal Reserve Island. I know you were proud of me dad, going all that way up north to work with the Cree Natives. And it helped me grow up quite a bit.
More signs begin to show up, as we get closer to our destination. TROIS RIVIERES 35 MONTREAL 205 Fleur de Lis are painted on the side of a wood shed. Separation used to be such a big thing among the people when I lived in Rouyn, Quebec. Now it's mostly the politicians trying to figure out who will be King of the hilltop. We turn off on Highway 40 Ouest to Montreal. Wood chip piles await, piled higher than a rockslide. BAR COUNTRY is another billboard of information. Steeples from churches rise boldly among the lesser buildings, as a mother hen surrounded by baby chicks. 8:30 am traffic now begins to pick up. Cars of all sizes, makes, colors are hurrying. Why the rush?
The flow of civilization is the first sign of human activity. (If only, you could do as it says in the Bible, dad. "Arise and come forth," as Jesus said to Lazarus). I wish you were here right now, talking with me, instead of just listening to my ramblings.
Lawnmowers cough all over the boulevard, a man picks up refuse on the side of the road, and I close my eyes. Dad, it's now two days since you died. And I continue on my way seeing RUE SHERBROOKE, ST JEAN BAPTISTE billboards. I remember that lit up cross on the hillside. It's been about twenty years since I climbed those steps to St. Joseph's Oratory. And remember the story of Brother Andre and his saintly ways.
Long lines of traffic match acres of oil refineries on either side of our highway. Montreal roads seem to be covered in endless rows of slow, then faster vehicles. I'm pleased my driver knows the way. The condition of my mind right now wouldn't allow me to concentrate on driving.
40 OUEST CORNALL 59
OTTAWA-HULL TORONTO 490
BRIDGE TO USA TORONTO 360
Construction continues on our overpass, more developments to maneuver around. Kemp Park Playground is a collection of swings, wired up baseball backstop and grass.
Remember dad? When we played 'scrub-baseball' with the neighbors? Everyone used the empty lot beside the Veteran's town-site in Rouyn. Boys, mothers, sisters and fathers of all ages, shapes and sizes. I could barely swing the bat properly then. I'm better now because you taught me how.
I almost got a homerun when I played on my wife's Montreal bank team in Sarnia, Ontario. In fact our team won the championship. It was so exhausting, and I never played since. Highway 401 is now separated at Kingston with center concrete barriers. Did driving fools cause this? It's such an expense to prevent careless ones from smashing into one another. We stopped and ate at Arby's in Brockville. I remember flying in a Cessna with a friend way back in 1968. We drove speedily from Toronto to Brockville to pick up a plane and practice landings. The ground below was like squares of color. I was the navigator trying to find highways on a road map.
Imagine, me? I used to be so shy, the kid with google-eye glasses. The bullies used to chase other 'four-eyes' like me. And here I was telling my friend where to fly his plane. Wow, I was the Navigator.
TRENTON 19 TORONTO 154 Trenton Air Cadet memories remind me of my first summer camp in 1955, an LAC at 13. And the second time there at age nineteen I was a Pilot Officer. There were six of us in charge of about 400 kids, under the supervision of adult officers, of course. What a summer that was. And I know that page is still fresh in my heart. I know you were proud of me.
PETERBOROUGH At Haliburton Scout Camp nearby, I was a Composite scout leader for two summers. You were surprised that I would drive 400 miles on a Honda 50, with a top speed of 30 mph. And I drove all that distance including every secondary road imaginable. It was a great experience for me. Learning to organize canoe trips and work with a team to help 32 kids from the Toronto area enjoy a summer of bugs and trees. And that small motorcycle my best friend Steve loaned me in 1964 sure came in handy. Yes dad, family and friends sure make life worthwhile. It's now 3pm.
OSHAWA 17 TORONTO 72 Remember the Cub camp I went to, and my old girl friend in Oshawa? "About time you got interested in girls," you said at the time. I wonder where she is now? TORONTO 57 Traffic is now picking up, all heading for the big city. AJAX 67,000 I remember the population was 10,000 in 1965.
Now we're driving on the outskirts of the big city. I'm always amazed at how such a large gathering of cars and trucks can pour into Toronto and even find a place to park. Imagine, the sign says TORONTO 2,260,000 pop (now amalgamated). There was a lot of hullabaloo about how it would be more efficient if all the surrounding towns and cities joined together for the sake of efficiency. Well, time will tell.
CTV, and other huge business towers are like tall trees over the residential areas. Cars are approaching as an army on the move to our left, the other side of a never ending-cement road divider. 'NEW EXPRESS TOLL HIGHWAY' is an interesting message.
AVENUE ROAD signals its approach. Remember the summer job I had in Toronto as an Air Cadet? I was learning about Orenda engines, ugh. You knew I hated grease and oil. But I wanted to do anything to get away to the big city. You did say to learn by experience, and I did, often. KEELE ST/BARRIE Now I'm getting closer. WESTON RD And the signs keep coming, sharing routes, exits and miles to go before any kind of peace could take place in my heart. The signs keep marking my route, a link to my destination, to your side. Even though we won't speak again, I look forward to seeing you once more dad. Sadly though it will be to see you lay in your coffin.
Memories of an orange cat still haunt me. It was run over right in front of my eyes at the intersection of Weston and Dundas Streets. And I really like cats. Cars shimmer in sun's reflection on overpasses. Remember your accident in Toronto, the year after our whole family moved there? You followed that car into the yellow light, the fellow stopping suddenly. It was the last time you drove after that fine and suspension. I believe you now dad, it wasn't your fault. After all these years of driving I now understand how easily it could happen. AIRPORT sign. My driver-friend says we're now 1,710 km from Truro, NS. TERMINAL 2 - NEW PARKING (Large Garage) This was certainly a surprise that a whole new area was needed for incoming planes. You didn't like to travel by plane much, dad. But I did. I guess it was because of my six years in the Air Cadets.
HWY 427 to QUEENSWAY to STEPHEN DRIVE. I get out at the apartment where you lived for 30 years. Did you have really good memories living there dad? It's where your fatal heart attack took place. I'm glad mom was right beside you. I hope my wife is with me at the end, too. She and I are also very close. At the apartment your personal effects are well marked. Hatboxes with dark fedoras, scarves, gloves, paper bunched up in boots barely used. Papers in drawers are tidy and organized. Shirts out of style, pointy collars, some with large wings like old friends. And a pile of socks, all the distinctive colors you liked, something for each and every occasion; yes you had them all.
In fact you had a habit of passing some of your spares to me during my visits. Pills in your desk drawer masked the silent death that was lurking at your door. You had some heart problems not even known to mom. Arthrotec- 1 tab by mouth every 4 hr (personal note marked painful). Idarac- 1 tab every 4 hr. or when required. (pain is a note scribbled on your RX bottle).
This is not really the end of my journey, dad. Yes my car trip is over. And I'm here with the family; your sons and three daughters giving solace to Mom. Her pain is now my pain, our pain. We're sorting your memories and preparing details for the funeral. Your oldest son is here now dad, all the way from Nova Scotia. And he's grown up, dad, not only on the outside but also on the inside. Yes, I made it dad. I'm here for you and I'm so glad we had this talk along the way.
* * *
Richard L. Provencher 2003
81 Queen Street, Unit 6, Truro, Nova Scotia
Canada B2N 2B2 Tel (902) 897-2344
Word Count = 2,713 for the above story.
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