“My God, he’s been here before!”
So said my father when he first set eyes on me, just brought home from the hospital, when I happened to open my eyes just as he looked down into the crib. He covered his eyes with an arm and looked away in surprise, and, apparently, shock. That’s the story my mother told me many times when I was a boy. For some reason she never explained, or perhaps knew; in which case she must have felt instinctively it was something I should always remember.
And, so I have, though not precisely this morning when the sun rose in a mostly bright, blue sky. A few clouds were gathering on the horizons over Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The day stayed cold and bright until late afternoon. But by early evening dark clouds were rising up on the horizons over Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, to the west and east respectively. I fed Buddy and Sophie, and a few minutes later we went for our ‘evening walk’ down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone.
I started thinking about how certain great poems or lines from Shakespearean plays have often come to mind; and not always when I’m in a mood and need that consolation. Sometimes, just the sound of words spoken dramatically, with the wind roaring through the bare branches of late-fall or winter trees — sometimes that’s more than enough reason; and I hold forth with lines like:
“Dark hills in the west, where sunset hovers like a sound of golden horns that sang to rest, old bones of warriors under ground,” the first few lines of The Dark Hills, one of my favourite poems, by the American poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson.
That led me to thinking about my father and how from an early age he loved words and devoured the great works of English literature, especially poetry, Shakespearean plays, and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, who he regarded as an underrated author.
My father certainly certainly encouraged my own interest. I remembered one time in particular when I was 11 and we were still together as a family. He came into the living room and noticed I was reading a seriously thick, hardcover book. I think I got it from the school library.
“What are reading?” he asked. “Two Years Before the Mast,” I replied. He lit up with keen interest and recognition. He didn’t have to say, he had read it: it was written in his eyes. “A good book for a young man to read,” he said, as he sat down beside me. “You must be enjoying. I see you’re more than halfway through it. Good for you. Quite a story, isn’t it?” It was Richard Henry Dana’s classic, 1840 memoir of his two year journey as a young man from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the California coast. In those days, long before the Panama Canal was built, it was a long and perilous voyage down the Atlantic Ocean, through the Magellan Strait at the southern tip of South America to the Pacific Ocean, then north to California.
“Oh, yes,” I said, happy and proud to have my father’s approval.
It was about that time, either the Christmas before or after, when he gifted me with a bound copy of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Inside, he had written: “Read as a boy, understood as a man.”
My father’s formal education ended when he turned 15 and he went to work to help his poor family survive the Great Depression. At most he got a year or two of High School, at Western Technical School in Toronto.
He was born in 1923, and adopted as a newborn baby within days of his birth. He was just days away from his 20th birthday when he looked down into my crib and said what he said about me apparently having had a previous life. Where did that come from at such a young age, one might ask. He prided himself on being a rational man by then. But already, he had seen enough of life’s pain and heartache to inform his soul. The death of my parents’ first child, a baby-girl named Susan who died at birth, was especially painful. At that hospital, in those days, my mother was not allowed to see the body of her still-born baby. But my father saw her. I don’t know that he was ever the same again, though my much younger sister, who he also named, Susan, and my brother, David, have told me our father found some peace of mind before he died.
He died in Los Angeles, in August, 1970. He was just 47 years old. With his, literally, last breath, he reached out desperately for more. Life had not been kind to him in many ways, with being abandoned at birth his first misfortune. But he loved life with all the passion of his deep, though troubled being.
“For he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most Royal …,” Shakespeare wrote for Fortinbras to say, after the death of Hamlet. That’s one of those lines I also often call out for someone to hear, somewhere. My father may have had good reason to do the same.
Had he seen those dark clouds gathering across the skies over Cathedral Drive and Hope Ness this evening, and felt the cold, ominous wind blowing out of the Northwest, I have no doubt he would want with all his heart and soul to savour even that precious moment of being alive again.
But what am I saying? He was there, of course.