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Happy Father’s Day, Dad

by Sharon Simpson


I wish I could say Happy Father’s Day to my dad. He’s gone now and it’s only a grateful thought in my mind this month. I had a good dad, a great dad. I think of the song Chris Tomlin sings, “You’re a good, good Father… that’s who You are… and I’m loved by You… that’s who I am…”

It’s easy for me to think about my father as a good, good father. He was accomplished, respected, engaging, funny, fun… and loving. He had integrity and lived by his values even when it meant hardship for himself. He was a man of deep faith – and deep suffering.

And oh how that faith deepened at the end of his life. My father got his diagnosis at age 63. From that day on, he knew that today would be the best day of the rest of his life. My father suffered for 14 years with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. This is the type of MS that doesn’t have any relapses. If you lose the use of your hand, you lose the use of your hand. On the day of his diagnosis, he retired from his career as a surgeon.

I took a video of my dad walking that year when mom and dad came to visit us in Calgary. I wanted my kids to see that my dad could walk and remember him as a man who was healthy and vibrant. They don’t. That video is somewhere in my basement in a box. We’ve never watched it. As dad’s illness progressed, this idea of remembering his as vibrant and healthy lost its priority in my mind. It just wasn’t that important.

All 11 of his grandchildren knew him only as a man who was disabled and ill. They had such good times driving his scooters and his wheelchairs. Sometimes all 11 would be riding them through mom and dad’s house in circles while dad napped and we gathered as a family to celebrate a special occasion or just to be together. Grandpa’s illness was their normal, but it wasn’t ours – and it wasn’t his.

How did my dad do during those last years of his life? Mom is the one who really knows the answer. She was his constant support and caregiver. There’s no pretending that being a caregiver is easy – or that suffering with a debilitating neurological disease is a joyful journey. It’s hard to support someone in every way and mom was our hero. They both suffered from MS.

Dad found deeper faith through the journey – faith that was a foundation and not a duty or a belief system. He had deeper doubt, too. Those often go hand in hand. He kept on seeking God. He loved Him. There were dark days. I remember telling him that my son had decided to get baptized. Tears poured down his face. He was filled with joy. And in that same visit, he questioned if his faith would hold.

I was remembering my father the other day and thinking about how much my kids love him. They have such fond memories of their times with grandpa – and all through it, he was ill.

Someone recently said to me, “I never want my grandchildren to see me ‘like that’– unable to move or talk. I’d rather end my life and call it quits before that happens.”

It’s a common thought in our culture today, especially with the choices Canadians have with the  law allowing physician-assisted death.

I’m glad it wasn’t an option for my dad. It’s no surprise that debilitating chronic neurological diseases were the front-runners pressing our courts to allow physician-assisted death. There is nothing hopeful or wonderful about losing capacity slowly each day and eventually struggling to even breathe or swallow. These diseases are cruel bedmates that riddle the mind with anxious fears about the future. Dad had the same knowledge and fears as anyone who faces these losses slowly and persistently over time.

For our family, there were so many rich times with our dad in the last 14 years of his life. So much important good was done in his life, our lives and the lives of his grandchildren during the suffering years. All 11 of them have a fond love for their grandfather, along with admiration and respect. He built every relationship with all of them during the worst years of his life. He gave them an incredible gift of love. He adored them and prayed for them as they grew in their formative years. He was the family anchor, even in his broken body.

His grandchildren never saw him go to work. They didn’t see him walk. They didn’t see him prune his orchard, care for his patients or collect driftwood to make furniture or go for a hike. They didn’t see him do any of this. Instead, they saw him use a scooter, fumble his food and eventually lie in his hospital bed or wheelchair for much of his day.

What if he didn’t want them to see him like that? All I can think of is how much we would have lost – and how much he would have lost – the richness of being together, the value of life even when we don’t do anything anymore, the humility and authenticity of a person who is constantly searching and at the same time finding strength and joy from the depth of God’s Spirit.

These are the gifts that dad gave us, and I’m grateful for them this Father’s Day.

A friend of mine recently shared the story of loving his dad at the end of his suffering. Dad was in excruciating pain. When the pain was racing through his body, his father was writhing. From nowhere, this grown son reached his arms around his father and embraced him – a gentle, loving and caring embrace. He says, “it was as if the father-son bond disappeared and only love was present – a deep and rich love that was so powerful. We cried together and I am brought to tears still as I remember that very special embrace. The suffering was cruel, but the embrace was rich.”

I’ve asked many seniors what advice they have for the younger fathers on this Father’s Day. Each one stops and thinks deeply and says something about investing in others… “give them your time”; “your work isn’t the most important part of your life”; “people matter most”.

And so, I think of my dad today. His work was his joy and he brought many people hope and relief through his cutting and stitching. He loved being a surgeon – and he was respected for his skills. He loved it, but it wasn’t his whole life. His whole life was people and he brought many people hope and joy through his love and kindness… and I was one who received this love and affection. For this gift, I am forever grateful.

Happy Father’s Day, dad. You are missed.

Sharon Simpson is the Director, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place, a senior’s campus-of-care located in Abbotsford, BC.