Remembrance Day and the Perfect Gift
By Nancy Rorke
I have a confession to make. I’ve always been intuitive. I inherited it from my father, which is ironic because he doesn’t believe that I’m his. I’ve never believed him. It led to a tumultuous and complicated relationship.
Even though his disdain of me created a miserable childhood, almost a decade after we stopped talking, I forgave him. After I mailed him a reconciliation letter, we began a new relationship. But even then, he wanted a DNA test. I refused.
After my cousin published our family tree, I shared it, along with family stories, with my dad. It gave us something safe to talk about. We both love history.
“You know more about my family than I do,” he often said.
In the spring of 2010, I woke up with the feeling that even though my father lived on his own and was in fair health, this would be his last Father’s Day.
Even if he didn’t love me, I wanted him to know that I’d always loved him. What special gift could I give a man who had everything? I decided to compile all the old family photos and other memorabilia that I could track down into a memory book.
By mid-May, I borrowed my paternal grandmother’s photo album and began scanning old photos. My cousin Ralda, mailed me copies of all her photos including those of my father’s beloved grandparents.
Glory, another cousin, had become the keeper of the family memories. She mailed me a photo of my grandfather, Edgar Rorke, and copies of postcards that our grandparents, Gertrude and Edgar had exchanged during WWI. She knew the addresses of every place our grandmother had ever lived, as well as where Edgar was buried.
We contacted cemeteries about our great-grandparents, great aunt, and Edgar. I took photos of all the graves to verify dates, and of all the residences.
My mother told me that my paternal grandfather died of tuberculosis and that’s why; they vaccinated me against it when I was born with a lung infection. I have a scar on my left shoulder. Edgar and I are linked forever.
Glory shared Edgar’s story with me. He’d caught tuberculosis from the war.
With scanning the photos and fixing them, taking pictures of the graves and residences, and trying to compile all the memorabilia, I never finished the memory book in time for Father’s Day.
Two months later, we were told that my ninety-year-old father had a stroke. The day after Thanksgiving, the hospital admitted him again. At 9:00 a.m., my older brother phoned me.
“Because of the stroke, Dad can’t take care of himself. We have to find a nursing home for him.”
By 5:00 p.m., my younger sister called. My father had brain cancer and wasn’t expected to live. In late October, they admitted him to palliative care.
Between visits to see my dad, I continued to spend every other moment completing the memory book.
Every visit, I brought him a gift. One week I brought him a CD and discovered he’d stopped listening to music. Another week, I brought him his favourite snack foods and realized that he’d stopped eating. I wanted to celebrate my father’s ninety-first birthday early in December ‘cause I knew he’d never make it to January 14. I begged my older siblings repeatedly, but they said no.
Time slipped away along with my father’s health. With the weekly drive to Toronto, there just wasn’t enough time to finish the book. I decided to take it to my father anyway. He couldn’t read the documents, so I resorted to bringing him the old photos, along with childhood photos of our family.
When I showed him the photo of his grandparent’s last residence, he said, almost in a whisper, “That’s my grandparent’s house.” And, when he saw his grandfather Timothy’s photo, he held his breath. “That’s grandpa.”
I smiled inwardly. I’d finally brought him something he loved. And then I showed him the photo of Edgar, and his father’s grave. My dad’s eyes widened. He didn’t say a word. He looked down at the floor to hide his tears.
Thoughts bombarded me. You idiot. Why would you bring a photo of his father’s grave? He’s dying. He doesn’t want to see photos of graves. What were you thinking?
Finally, he spoke. “My father’s funeral happened three days before my ninth birthday, and I’ve never known where he was buried.”
On Remembrance Day in 2010, Dad left the hospital. My older sister drove him to the cemetery, and he stood at his father’s grave for the first time in eighty-one years. Finally, I’d given him the perfect gift.
Every November 11 before that, I mourned the loss of lives due to war. But that year, it became personal. I’d never had a grandfather because of the war. Now, I wept for the grandfather I never knew, and for my father who would soon join him.
Posted on behalf of Nancy Rorke