“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Graduation ceremonies are usually joyous affairs, a proud day for both the long-suffering graduates and the family and friends who supported them over the years. For the most part, these events are planned well in advance – complete with invitations, catered meals, dances and other such celebrations – but occasionally, they come to us completely unexpected. My graduation took place in the midst of strangers, on an escalator in a BC Ferries passenger terminal at Swartz Bay, near Victoria. There was no cap or gown, no speeches, no applause, no commencement music or diplomas – just an overwhelming sense of loss followed by an almost otherworldly assurance – perfectly appropriate emotions given the circumstances, which included grieving the recent loss of my father. But perhaps I should digress a little and take you back a few more years.
Some of my earliest memories as a child were those of my dad typing through the evenings at a small desk in our front hall. Being so young, I could never seem to figure out why he didn’t spend more time playing with me or my siblings. Only later did I learn that he was working fulltime at the air force base where we lived, going to university classes at nearby Saskatoon on weekends, and using the evenings to catch up on his studies. My father was upgrading in order to qualify for officer training school and the opportunity to earn more income for his growing family.
Two decades later, I found myself in much the same situation. I was married with three children and working as a landscape foreman, with very little chance for advancement. Having left home at the age of sixteen, I had been unable to complete grade 12 due to the demands of working during school hours – so I never really had the opportunity to pursue a post-secondary education. Knowing full well that I couldn’t afford to take any time off work to upgrade, I decided to enroll with the University of Guelph’s independent studies, with an eye towards a diploma in horticulture. In doing so, I was inadvertently following in my father’s footsteps – often working long hours from Monday to Friday, and using the weekends and late evenings to do my reading and mail-in assignments.
During this period, we would visit my parents infrequently due to the expense of the ferry trip over to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where they lived. When we did visit, we usually parked our car, walked on board as foot passengers and had my father pick us up at the terminal on the other side. You could always find my dad in the same spot, right at the bottom of the last escalator, unintentionally getting in everyone’s way while he was desperately searching for that first glimpse of his beloved grandchildren. He was an imposing figure at 6’2″ tall, and his habit of wearing a pair of vintage 1960’s Ray-Ban sunglasses with a tacky casual shirt (usually a Hawaiian print or dashiki) really made him stand out in the crowd.
The drive to and from the ferry terminal was often my favourite part of these trips. After the customary kiss on the cheek for everyone and a hug for each of the girls, we were off. My parent’s cocker spaniel always kept the girls amused during the drive, while my wife and father chattered away in French as if they hadn’t spoken it for years. As for me, I would just sit back and enjoy the ambiance.
The last time we visited my parents, in May of 1992, my father wasn’t looking well and we were in a hurry to catch an early ferry home. It was a rather hasty goodbye and had I known that my dad would pass away just two days later, I would have tried to find a way to say thank you for the many sacrifices he had made for me. Having recently completed my own studies, I really began to appreciate just how difficult it was to juggle the roles of a husband, father, employee and student, all at once. Unfortunately, those words of thanks were never shared, which is something I regret to this day.
We took the car on the ferry to my dad’s funeral, since my mother had a house full of relatives from back east and we needed to get home that evening. It was a solemn affair, but I was grateful that my children were too young at that time to share in the grief. About a week after my father’s passing, I received my diploma in the mail from the University of Guelph. It was a bittersweet moment when I opened it for the first time, because in the back of my mind, I was thinking that I would never be able to share it with my dad.
The following weekend, I took the ferry over as a walk-on passenger so I could help my mom out around the house. As I approached the last escalator in the passenger terminal on the other side, I instinctively looked down to the spot where my father always stood, only to find it completely empty. I can only describe the physical pain that accompanied that sudden sense of loss as one of those sucker punches to the stomach, when you are caught completely unawares and lose your breath – so I stepped aside so other people could pass by me. After a minute or two, I started riding the escalator down and in doing so, caught a glimpse of myself in the reflective windows of the lobby. I looked just like my father.
Something happened to me during that short escalator ride down, some might say that I grew up, others that I just made my peace with some very difficult circumstances. But if you ask me, it felt more like a graduation day, with my dad somewhere in the audience cheering me on. I knew my mother was waiting for me in the parking lot – so I took a few moments to gain my composure and walked out of the terminal – proud to be a father and the son of Donald Joseph Lascelle, but somehow still missing the guy in the tacky shirt.