After five straight days of Cabbage Patch Kids’ Christmas songs in a cramped, musty station wagon, Dad lost it. It was 1984, and my parents had opted for an overly optimistic road trip to British Columbia while my brother was still in diapers. Things were getting tense. Dad leaned over, ejected the cassette and sent it sailing out the window and into the ditch. I woke up and my immediate response was to shove my seatbelt into the tape deck. Hard. There was a wispy pouf of smoke, the smell of burning wire, and then silence for the rest of the trip.
This was also the trip that I forgot my favourite doll, Diedra Rosita, at a rest stop. I realized she was missing a few hundred miles too late. Dad was making good time and refused to backtrack, which triggered a bracing, four-hour shitstorm of tears. Mom had created a makeshift port-a-potty in the backseat to curb the constant bathroom stops – I angrily kicked its’ contents all over the picnic basket.
My dad is one of the most calm, intelligent and selfless people that I know. I’m prone to hysterics and attempt to hide my stupidity by using big words. He is the barometer of everything that is wise and good in the world: I’m the high Chancellor of Bad Choices. He has a strong, unshakeable faith tempered with a high degree of critical contemplation. I waffle about everything. He pays for everything outright, always paying off his debts. I’m terrible with money. He works his butt off. He’d work all day running his accounting practice, come home for dinner, allow himself a few minutes of dozing in front of the baseball highlights, then back to work. He’d take us on big family road trips every year; New Hampshire, BC, Halifax, Florida, Chicago, Virginia, Maine, Calgary. He enrolled me in whatever passing whim possessed me; ballet, horseback riding, piano lessons, guitar lessons, swimming, gymnastics. He’d come to my ball games and my stupid house recitals, proud of me.
Unfortunately, I was bona fide hell spawn. I repeatedly tried to run away from Bible Camp in upstate New York and had to be put on special night watch. Once when my parents refused to buy me ice cream, I grabbed an ice scraper and and started swinging it like a baseball bat at the car’s leather interior. When they saw the decimated seats, my butt was greeted with the blunt end of a wooden spoon. I’d holler; “It doesn’t hurt! Hit me harder!”
Occasionally I’d drive him to the brink. My brother and I (aged 4 and 7, respectively), were arguing incessantly in the backseat. Dad pulled the car to the side of the road and got out. Night was falling and we were a good 45 minute drive from home.
“That’s it. I’m walking home.”
“Where’s dad going, mom?”
“I don’t know. I guess he’s walking home. You guys just won’t shut up and he’s had it.”
We waited, stunned, in the car. The car just sat, forlornly. The headlights lit dad’s retreating figure as he stalked off down the barren highway. Eventually, a concerned police officer stopped to see what the problem was.
“Is everything alright here, Ma’am?”
“My kids drove my husband crazy, and now he’s walking home.”
The cop managed to talk Dad down, and he eventually returned, mortified. I was terrified as the officer loomed into the window to scold us:
“Now you kids sit down and be quiet and stop giving your dad a hard time. He’s had a long day.”
Things only worsened after I turned 14. I snuck around and got up to all sorts of no good – ‘experimenting’. I took issue with everything he said and did for me. Sasha became the surrogate daughter after I flew the coop. A border collie/german shepherd with floppy bat ears, she’s never fundamentally disappointed my father the way I have, especially after announcing when I was 14 that I didn’t want to go to church anymore.
I’m sure I’ve been an undending disappointment. My brother and I used to joke about our market value rising and falling in conjunction with our behavior and life decisions. “Tiff dropped out of school. Stock crumbling”, or “Dave’s getting married, grandchildren possible — stock skyrockets”.
At my younger brother’s wedding, I felt useless and old and bogged down with Protestant guilt. Unemployed, unmarried, childless, with nothing to show for my existence save for a few lousy paintings and an overstretched line of credit. My dad has never let me down, and I felt like that was all I ever did. Dad got up to say his speech. I braced myself for thinly veiled advice. But then: he thanked us. He thanked my brother and I for exposing him to a world of people and ideas that he never would have known without us. He said that we had taught him so much. And he thanked us. I wanted to cry.
This is how it goes: You idolize him as the best, most handsome man in the world who gives you rides on his shoulders and buys you new black hi-top shoes that make you feel invincible. The unavoidable trundle towards huge screwups. The awkward self-conscious hugs after you’ve developed boobs. The pronouncement that you hate him and he knows nothing. Going to school and giving him hope that you’re going to make it and then messing up large. Calling, sobbing, after you’ve been dumped again and think that your whole life is a waste, only to hear: “Dear, you are my only precious daughter and I love you and you could never, ever be a mistake.”
Father’s day is so dumb. The magnitude of the impact that dad has had on my life can’t be summed up with Hallmark cards covered in neckties and mallard ducks. This is the power of father: this all encompassing desire to make them proud, always missing the mark, but never giving up.
Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson