William John Robb.
Bill. Dad. Grandpa.
I can scarcely look at this photo without having the breath sucked out of me in a raggedy gulp. But it is my favourite photo of him.
I took it, oh, I don't even remember, maybe 18 years ago? Not sure. It wasn't too long before he retired after working for all of his adult life for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He started out as a fireman, stoking coal into the steam engines that first fired those hulking, ancient steel horses. When diesel engines replaced steam he moved up to being an engineer, the guy that drives the train. And he was an engineer for more than 30 years, working nights, weekends and holidays travelling lonesome tracks that took him to Mactier, Smith's Falls, Port McNicoll and points in between. He'd be gone for days at a time, he'd arrive home at strange times, in the middle of the night or in the middle of the day. You'd never know if he was home, or not home, if he was asleep, or where he was.
He used to curse the railway.
Said he couldn't stand it.
Said once he retired he would never have one of those train sets that some people have. But he did wind up with one of those train sets. And he did wind up romancing the railway ... a little bit. In spite of himself.
Me? I was always in love with the railway. I always was, and still am, proud to tell people that my father was a railway engineer.
I remember being pregnant with Angus, on my way to work one dark morning, held up at a train crossing. As the engineer blew his whistle and the train when clacketty-claketty-claketty through the darkness, I stroked my belly and whispered, "Your grandfather drives the train, sweet baby," and I imagined the bright noise of the train would travel through my muscle and fat and skin into his tiny, forming ears and he, too, would begin to romance the railway.
This morning Dave and I went out for breakfast and for some reason our thoughts turned to our fathers. I lost my dad three years ago. Dave lost his two months after that. Thank god for Dave. He helped me through one of the toughest moments in my life. I tried to help him. It is one of the bonds that tie us.
"I used to be afraid of death," I said to Dave. "I mean, isn't everybody? I'm still afraid, I guess, but there's a comfort in knowing that my father has done it, and my grandmother, and your father... It's like they've gone ahead on the rollercoaster ride and made it through without incident. They went first..."
"And it didn't kill them?" Dave said with a lopsided grin.
I laughed. "Yeah. Exactly."
He smiled. A sad smile. "Our parents never stop teaching us," he said.
He is such a wise man.
Question of the Day:
(Tell me HONESTLY the answer to this question. Write as long as you wish. Just tell me the heartwrenching TRUTH. And then, just for fun, guess what my answer will be tomorrow?)
What is the most important lesson you learned from your parents?
Yesterday's Question: What is the worst thing you have ever seen?
(Thanks for your answers, everybody. I love them! Isn't it fun to do that bit of soul-searching? I am eager for this experiment to continue.)
My answer: It's hard to quantify what the "worst" would be. Everyone has so many to choose from, I'm sure. I have a few memories that qualify.
One was seeing a dead man hanging out of the driver's side of a car on a steaming hot summer day on the way home from the cottage. We came over a hill and had to come to a screeching stop because traffic was inching by an accident scene. Cops, ambulance, nobody had arrived yet. It had just happened. As we got closer my dad yelled at us kids to duck our heads. "DON'T LOOK OUT THE WINDOW," he ordered. Naturally, I snuck a peek. The man's eyes were wide open, white and surprised, his face red with blood, the Brylcreem-sliced hair somehow still in place.
Two: when my father died my mother brought his beloved dog, Molly, into the hospital room to say good-bye. Molly jumped up onto the bed and thoroughly licked my father's face. She was never much of a licking dog, but she licked him and licked him, then stopped, looked up at my mom to put her off the bed, and sat down. She was saying her good-bye and it was horrible because it broke my heart. I was barely able to accept that my father had just died but Molly had no hesitation. I cried like a baby.
Three: seeing my father in his casket.
Four: This is probably the worst thing I've ever seen. When my toddler son Angus pulled a boiling hot cup of coffee down his chest, his father grabbed him and brought him into a cold shower, trying to peel off his steaming pajamas, and when the jammies came off, so did a thick layer of skin off my baby's tiny chest. And then, almost as bad, being in the ambulance with Gus, him screaming, inconsolable, nothing for me to do but try and comfort him and pour cool distilled water on his burn. The ambulance attendant in the back with me was helpless, I was helpless and Angus screamed and screamed. I wanted to scream with him, just scream out my fear and my guilt for this wriggling, pain-wracked, tiny child who I loved, and love, with all my heart.