Sunday, 16 November 2014

This is my dad

Willem Frederick Roepman
I will be 51 years old this week.  I was just watching the news.  There is a fellow who has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) who just completed a 100 km walk in Nova Scotia trying to raise funds and awareness.  He is 53.  He made a comment that struck me.  He said that he has lived a good life.  His MS is rapidly progressive.  His walk was scheduled to take place in the spring of 2015 but in all likelihood, he will be in a wheelchair by then.  I admire his grit and determination but I admire his perspective even more.  From his point of view, his life has been full and while he still has control, he will try to contribute in some small way to the lives of others affected by MS.  He has taken a long look at his life, stepped out of the daily focus of living it, and from this new perspective, has deemed it all good.

He is only two years older than me.  

I just spent the last hour trudging through the farm fields behind my house, grateful to still be leaping the furrows plowed deep by farmers who have finished up their annual harvest.  Well, leaping may be stretching things a bit but I am not understating the gratitude.  

I talk to God while I walk.  Today, I just cried.  This will be the first birthday I will celebrate without my dad.   Please.  I am 51.  I should be at a point in my life where being orphaned is entirely natural and expected.  But I had a really good dad and there is a part of me that will always be his daughter; a part of me that will always grieve my loss; a part of me that looks forward to being in the same time and place as he is once again.   

My Dad was born in Dieman, just outside of Amsterdam in 1934.  He was the second of 10 children.  My grandfather worked at a wallpaper manufacturing company in Amsterdam. The company’s owners were wealthy and Jewish.  During World War 11, the Germans took over the company and moved it to Rotterdam, forcing the family to move.  The Germans invaded Holland on May 17, 1940.  Rotterdam was bombed and leveled.  It would be five years before the entire country was liberated.  Three hundred thousand Dutch citizens were killed in the war and seventy thousand more died from malnutrition and lack of access to health care.

At the start of the German occupation, my dad was 5 and at the end, he was 10.  He spoke very little about the war while we were growing up but in the spring of 2013, I sensed that he was failing.  I sat down with him, pen and paper in hand and asked him to tell me the story of his life.   He remembered stealing food and belongings off of the bodies of dead German soldiers.  He remembered watching a group of neighbors being lined up and shot after one of them was accused of stealing.  He remembered the harsh winter of 1945 during which many died of malnutrition.  He described it as the worst year of the war and the coldest winter of the war.  His family survived by eating tulip bulbs.  He told me how Europe was destroyed by the war and in Holland there was nothing left:  No factories, no businesses, no economy.  Hundreds of thousands immigrated to North America.

At 19, my dad was one of them.  I asked him why he left and he said,  “There was not enough room in the house for all of his siblings and there was not enough food.”  He left to find his fortune in Canada and to earn enough to help support his parents and siblings.  And that is exactly what he did.

It was in this country that he built his own life and started his own family.  We had it all.   The house in suburbia, the cool new car, the tent trailer, the lawn mower, the vegetable garden and a television.   We rode our bikes everywhere and played with the neighborhood kids until the street lights came on.  We watched the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights and the Waltons on Saturday nights. Dad was a scout leader and a hockey coach.  He poured his energy into anything we were passionate about and he encouraged us to find that passion and grow it.

He followed my mother to mass on Sunday’s and watched Hockey Night in Canada on Saturdays.  He loved provincial parks.  We spent summers in almost every one in the province.  He had us in a canoe by the time we were four.  He loved to hike up sand dunes and play in the waves.  

He loved classical music and he played it far more than we appreciated it.  He loved to watch a Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve just before attending midnight mass.  He loved the scene where Ebanezer flies down the stairs on Christmas morning in a state of absolute euphoria, his night-shirt whipping above his thighs.  Dad would belly laugh every time he watched it.  That transformation from a state of misery and gloom to one of joy, fascinated him.  

Since his death, 11 months ago, I see my life from a different perspective.  I have walked through a deep and dark valley, letting go of so much as I plodded through.  I think that my journey through the toughest part of grief and loss is over.  I am climbing out but the world looks very different from this side of that valley. 

I too have lived a very, very good life.  I am older and wiser, battle worn and scarred.  But in the palm of my hand I hold a beautiful life:   the strength and encouragement of good parents, the golden moments of every relationship, the joy of my youth, the years of education and work, the laughter and joy of my children, the love of a good husband and the grace of a great God.  I hold all that and see it for what it truly is;  the life of a blessed person.

And as long as I can leap, I will give it back.
From my open palms to the lives of others.

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