“Good-bye Son” were the last words I heard as I watched Dad’s casket being lowered into the grave. With my dearest friend Jeffry sitting beside me in the rental car, I said, “Good-bye Dad.” Jeffry and I drove out of the cemetery without saying a word to each other; it was time to go home.
My parents spent 33 years hating each other and then they decided to divorce. I was in junior high school when the final round of violence broke out in the wee hours of the morning. It’s one of the reasons loud noises still disturb my soul.
Dad, in a drunken rage, was embroiled in an argument with Mom. My older brothers were assigned protection duty over her. I could feel the hatred, fear and disdain in the air. One of my brothers or perhaps two would end up in a fight with Dad.
Like most dysfunctional families riddled and decimated with alcoholism, we learned to keep the secret of what was really going on from the world. For some unknown reason that night, police were summoned to 2421 – 6th Avenue in Calgary, Mom and Dad’s two-bedroom home that nine children were raised in.
I have these painful and poignant moments etched in my psyche just as if I took a Polaroid of them as they were happening. For the first time in my entire life I heard this sound bite come out of Mom’s mouth as she swung a fist at my Father, “You will never return to this home. We’re finished.” I remember the terror those words struck in my heart, and I remember the relief.
Mom had done her work to ensure that we all knew how bad, wrong and evil our Father was, but for some reason I did not fully believe her propaganda. I certainly don’t condone the violence this man perpetrated on his wife and children, yet something didn’t add up when I really looked at the evidence.
In yet another embarrassing moment, with the entire neighbourhood watching I’m sure, another fight broke out as my Father attempted to come home. This time the fight was in the front yard.
I had watched lots of sixties and seventies police dramas on television and knew the police car always came roaring around the corner with its lights and siren blaring. How come the police car that rounded my home corner that night was shrouded in darkness?
Mom kept screaming at my Father that he had no right to be here; something about a restraining order. As the two police officers exited the now stationary squad car I recognized it was the same two that had been here for Round 1 several weeks ago.
They grabbed my Dad stating very succinctly, “Mr. Dolan, you are in violation of a court ordered restraint and are under arrest.” My Father’s shadow never again graced the doorsill of that house.
Dad appeared at my football games, he bought me my track spikes, and I always sensed he was a profound cheerleader for my life. I, in turn, remember ignoring him and felt uncomfortable connecting with him because of the clear directive from my Mom, ‘thou shalt hate your Father’. It caused me immense pain.
But as I grew up I was drawn to a small semblance of a relationship to James Joseph Dollan. I liked him. Actually I loved him. I didn’t like his drinking, or his expressed anger of my Mom or brothers, but he was my Dad. Somewhere in all of this I kept thinking it couldn’t all be his fault.
I supported him through some difficult times. The most challenging was the loss of his voice box due to cancer. I can still hear the surgeon telling me the cancer would eventually return. Why do doctors feel compelled to tell us things like that?
We spent many hours shopping, talking to one another and listening to each other’s take on the mysteries of life. My Father was brilliant. He was an orator of considerable skill and had handwriting that was meticulous. As a little boy I loved watching him write; his handwriting was so pretty.
He didn’t blink in his support of me when I came out to him in 1988. In fact, it was the first time I ever saw my Dad cry. He said, “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re gay. I love you. You’re my son.” with tears streaming from his eyes. He was my biggest cheerleader.
On a sullen day, Dad spoke of his love and his hate for the Catholic Church. His love was the time he spent as an Alter boy; his hate was the church throwing out his gay son. On that day he made it clear that when he died he did not want a funeral mass.
Seeing that we’d never spoken of how I could honour him at his funeral, I took the opportunity to hear his wishes. Dad would have a military burial since he served in World War II so he gave me all the details. It felt good knowing I knew what he wanted.
For a relationship that was intensely frowned upon by my Mom, I continue to be blessed by the time I spent with Dad. He taught me a lot about myself.
My eldest brother called one evening, some time in 1997 I think. I seem not to hold memories for death dates, but it was in March. Dad had a stroke and was not expected to survive. The cancer had returned, damn that doctor.
I lived in Vancouver and Dad was in Calgary. I sat quiet after hanging up the phone with my brother and gently whispered this to my Dad, “Will you wait for me?” I heard him say, “Yes.” What proceeded was miracle after miracle to get me to Calgary, in time, to say good-bye.
At 11:47pm I walked into his hospital room. There was a very large clock above his bed. Dad was hooked up to a lot of machines. As I leaned towards his ear I said, “Father, it’s Thomas.” In that moment he stopped breathing. He stopped making any noise, and his breath vanished. The large clock in the room had a second hand. For the next minute and 17 seconds Dad was silent. I thought. “He said he’d wait and he did.”
At the minute and 18 second mark Dad began to breathe again. It was as if he was acknowledging my presence in the room and was almost willing to use his last breath to do so. He always did that when I first arrived to see him. He was a great acknowledger.
I spoke all night long to him. I don’t even remember my ramblings, but I do remember telling him I promise to do everything he asked me to do for his funeral.
At the funeral all of my relatives, from my Dad’s side, told me how much I looked like him. I thought it funny, yet not all that surprising, that my Mom and my siblings had never whispered that acknowledgment to me. I looked like my Dad.
It was weeks after the funeral that I received a card from my friend Jeffry. In the card he acknowledged the support I gave my Father and also told me how proud he was that I kept all my promises relating to Dad’s funeral.
He also wrote, “I heard your Dad that day. He said, ’Goodbye Son’. His voice came from the back seat of the car.” My connection with Dad has never vanished.