My father was a good Dad. There’s a difference. Let me explain with just one story.
Every winter my Dad created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games. Every winter, he worked frightfully hard on that rink. I have visions of him out the frosted window as I was being shuffled to bed; out there in the deep Canadian cold, slowly waving the hose in that steady, arcing pattern that pillowed the water across the deepening rink just so.
One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink when he suddenly experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile, he went in and to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would be thicker and smoother than ever before.
I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pyjamas with my Mom and brothers, gazing out our kitchen window in wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s a detail like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard, diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and frozen along its twenty-foot length and then dripped and froze some more.
My Dad had awoken, like always, for some early rink time before work. Bleary-eyed, he had turned off the water downstairs, walked up and out the basement steps then, stopped dead. Reflecting the early dawn’s glow was a wall of ice, nine inches thick, eight feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.
My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he whacked the wall’s base. It wouldn’t budge. He grabbed an axe. He banged and chipped and chopped at the ice wall’s base until, with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing, he smacked its centre.
It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall dislodged from the rink at once, swung up a little, and then, carried by its weight and momentum, moved back like a giant, frozen pendulum. As it swept across the rink and up the other side, a little higher this time, my Dad gave it another mighty smack. That was it. It became magical. The wall slowly swung up and then back, back once more, and finally, right over the top. It gained speed as it came down then managed another complete rotation. As the whole magnificent wall swung clockwise over the top yet again, long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched wide-eyed as my Dad threw the axe, covered his head, and ran with ice missiles soaring over and around him.
It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there again braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We had agreed when he said at dinner that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a sound idea. But it stayed in the basement until spring.
Even better, though, was knowing that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kids’ fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.
I’ve heard Alzheimer’s called the long goodbye but I never really understood until now. As he faded, he began failing to remember me but I continued to visit because I still remembered him. As best I could, I took care of the man who had once taken care of me. He was my father after all, but more than that, and more importantly I think, he was my Dad.
The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.
(If you liked this column, please consider sharing it with others over Facebook or through other means or perhaps checking out my other columns at johnboyko.com. You might even check out one of my books – The Devil’s Trick would be a good start. Even better, call or recall someone who means or meant to you what my Dad still means to me.)