Sunday, January 24, 2010

What the Dead Teach Us

This is my father. 
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.
My Dave. 
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.


  1. I love that picture of your dad, too! I worked for the railroad for awhile, some great guys - my favorites were the old timers. Too bad I didn't get to meet your father.

    To answer your question:

    Most important thing I learned from my dad was to love my children unconditionally close-up, down and dirty, during good times and bad, and never NEVER take life too seriously.

    Most important thing I learned from my mother was the beauty of opera and folk music.

  2. Cathy.... you always successfully carry me into your world and make me cry when you cry, laugh when you laugh.
    The picture of your dad is wonderful. Your obvious feelings towards him are someting admire and envy. I honestly cannot say I am very close to my mother and father. I see so little of them. Same for the rest of my family, and truth be told it makes me sad. I feel that they are not really interested in me or any part of my life and wonder what about me makes it that way. They are good people and I love them so please don't get me wrong when I answer your question. What did I learn from my parents??? I learned that I wanted to be differant than them. I learned that I wanted my children to never wonder how I felt about them and that no matter what, they could come to me about anything and everything. It is important to me that my children hear from me everytime I talk to them that 'I love them' before they go out the door, hang up the phone or go to sleep at night. At times I have feel very much like an orphan. lef tout of the lives my parents and siblings lead. As I grow older it hurts less. But when I talk about it it hurts like hell.

  3. My mom was always raw. She had untreated bipolar disorder my whole childhood and got treatment when I was 18. From her, I learned the full breadth and depth of human emotion. I learned feelings that so many are numb to or that they deny or hide. I witnessed my mom weeping over the neighbour's not having money and I witnessed her laughing hysterically over her children playing with a slip and slide in the hallway of the house (complete with water). In adult hindsight and some growing sense of clarity, it was not always disease. The neighbour's plight should make people sad and darn it all, the slip and slide was funny. Messy, but funny.

  4. Mother!
    Yes its me. Death Squad777 is my gamer-tag, but anyway i have a blog! i think you just click on my pix if that dont work mah blog is called games and me!

  5. I learned that it is possible to Die With Dignity, and that as adult children it is up to us to do our best to make this so, just as our parents helped us grow up with dignity, it is our turn to give back.

    My book tells my full story, and I bitterly regret I did not fight harder for pain meds for dad, or ask more questions of my mother's doctor, so that I would be here when she passed over in her living room.
    I am fighting now, to educate Ontario Seniors .

  6. Death Squad777 (a totally cool handle, BTW) can say the lesson he learned from his mom, was blogging. He's created a fun games blog!


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