My dad, HW Van Wiebe, died January 17, 2004.
Below is the speech I gave at his memorial service.
My dad was kind of a strange guy. He never did things the usual way. Maybe it is better to say he was ‘unconventional’ or a ‘free spirit’. But however one chooses to describe that part of my dad, it was a good thing. Or at least, I think it was, but that’s because we were two of a kind. And that, I suppose, is why there was always a special bond between us, an understanding about who we were that never needed any words.
Recently, as he was speaking with me about his impending death, I asked him if there was anything special he wanted done at his funeral. He said he wanted us to remember anything we could about him, so I will share with you some of my favourite memories of my dad.
One of the first that springs to mind is from when I was a little girl in Regina, and Dad had his television show. I remember how I would be watching him on TV, saying ‘Hi, Daddy!’ and waving frantically, but he wouldn’t answer. Eventually, I asked him if he saw me in the camera every time I did that, and he replied ‘Of course!’ I asked why he never said hi and waved back. He said, ‘I can’t because I’m working.’
His answer satisfied me, so I carried on, saying hi and waving, quite content in the knowledge that he saw me every time.
But then there was the trauma of being a guest on Romper Room at the same television station. I was eagerly searching the studio for a camera, into which I could look and see my living room, fully expecting to see my mother watching me. But such a camera didn’t exist. After the show, I expressed my disappointment to my dad, and I remember being greatly relieved, and how he made me feel, oh, so important when he told me he had a special camera in his studio, just so he could see me waving to him.
My ninth birthday was another very special occasion for me because my dad and I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Just the two of us. I couldn’t sleep the night before; I was thrilled about my date with my dad.
And in thinking about that movie and the Dwarfs, I am reminded of another of my favourite memories of my dad’s love, which oddly is about a night when I was six and woke up with a nasty stomach issue. Unlike my dad, I don’t always wake up well to deal with children who are sick. Being the mother of five, you’d think I’d get good at it after a while, but still, my children have usually been stuck with Sleepy, Grumpy or even Dopey.
My dad, however, was more like Doc. He managed a great bedside manner, even though he was awakened from a sound sleep on that night when I was so ill. My poor, tired dad spent the wee hours with me, being gentle and calm and loving until I felt better. I remember him struggling to stay awake that night, in case I needed him again. But before long, I was happily playing with my toys, bouncing around my room about 4 a.m. I have a vivid recollection of looking over at my dad, out cold in my bed, but I felt better, knowing he was there. Even though he slept, his presence comforted me.
There were countless other occasions in my life when my dad comforted me, but the most powerful ones were the times I sat teary-eyed at his bedside in the last part of his life, thinking of how much I loved him and would miss him when he died. Because of the understanding we shared, he knew what I was thinking, and he would gently put his hand on the side of my face and say ‘It’s okay’, just the way he had done so many other times in my life. Those moments were overwhelmingly bittersweet; my dad, on his deathbed, offering me comfort, reassurance and love. Even then, he was able to put his own suffering aside and still be Daddy.
He had many gifts, and among them was his unusual sense of humour. He could be quite funny, and much of our best relating and communicating took place while we were being silly and clowning around. “Dear Old Dad”, as he used to call himself, always enjoyed even my worst puns. Maybe that’s because many of his were at least as bad, but they used to make us howl. Most people just shook their heads at the things we found funny, like Dad’s favourite joke, which I heard from him throughout my entire life, and which I brought up with him just last week. I asked him, “What’s the difference between a duck?” And he replied, “Because each leg is both the same.” Together, we enjoyed it one last time.
His favourite joke reminds me of some other ‘Dad-isms’, such as "Das be right, don’t you?" “You zigged when you should have zagged!" "It’s the principle of the thing!" "You make a better door than a window"! - and every time a grandchild entered his home, "Who’s THAT coming in my house?"
We also shared a deep love of music, as well as the gift of musical ability. When we would spontaneously play duets, I always felt particularly close to him. For me, sharing music in that way is very powerful, as it is one of the purest expressions of one soul to another.
I always felt just such expression from my father in a song that he shared with me. When I was about 13, he taught me to play a lullaby that his mother used to sing to him. She died when he was just a boy of 12, and every time I played it, it was easy to see that long after her death, that simple piece of music still moved him. I could see in his eyes how much he loved and missed her when I played that sweet little lullaby. And now, after nearly 70 years, they are finally together again.
I remember so clearly the last time I heard my dad play the piano, and oddly, that day, I knew absolutely that it would, indeed, be the last time. It was the 23rd of August, 2002. My parents had come to my home for a visit that afternoon, and Dad suddenly walked over to my piano and gave us one of his impromptu concerts. I sat and listened to him, feeling rather than hearing the music as I do, and despite the piano being a bit out of tune, I absorbed the magic of my father’s great talent. It was truly bittersweet, appreciating the beauty of the music he was creating, while somehow knowing that I would never hear it again.
I remember how my dad adored anything about space, the universe, the planets and the stars, which he used to tell me was because he was an old sailor. I will never forget watching him when Michael Collins orbited the moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to land on it. He was perched on the edge of the footstool, so close to the television, I thought he would try to climb inside. He just kept saying, “Oh, I wish I were there! Oh, I WISH I were THERE!” It was as much fun watching him watching them as it was to witness the first steps on the moon.
His love for space was probably most evident that day, and on one other. As a young girl, I asked him what he thought happened to us when we die. He said, with great certainty, that we just go way out into the stars. The way he said it, he made it sound completely wonderful, peaceful and correct.
Dad also had a deep love for the sea, which, I suppose, came from his years in the navy. He used to say he wanted to buy a boat and live on the ocean. Recently, Dad was telling me he was ready to leave this world, and saying he wasn’t afraid. I told him about something I heard a few years ago. Dad thought it was beautiful, so it seems appropriate to share it with you now: “Mistrust Death not; for all the grief he brings you, he shows the traveller as the day grows short, the lighted inn. He is the harbour master, vouchsafing ship’s safe entry into port.”
For all his complexities, in many ways, my dad was a very simple man who enjoyed a few simple pleasures. He never seemed to want much, was always content with what he had, fiercely loved his family, and was happiest when at home in his chair in the living room, especially when in the company of his wife, children, or grandchildren. The chair was, and still is, opposite the large picture window, and dad always insisted that the curtains be wide open so he could sit in his chair and look outside, which he said made him feel free. Such a simple thing, but it gave him endless pleasure
Making certain that his family knew they were loved was very important to my dad, and even in this, we could see his appreciation for simplicity, as well as his rather unconventional style. He would sometimes phone out of the blue, and just ask if I was okay and I’d say yes. Then one at a time, he’d go through each member of my family, is this one okay, is that one okay, all the way down to the littlest one. Then he’d say ‘Good. That’s all I wanted to know’, and he’d hang up.
He was also pretty open about hugs and kisses, and about saying ‘I love you.’ Even toward the end of his life, as he became increasingly ill and less communicative, often these were the only words he spoke. One day in particular, I sat and held his hands while he slept. Suddenly, he woke up, and looked right at me with a clarity I hadn’t seen in some time, and he said, ‘I love you.’ It was as though the illness, which had previously dulled his eyes and his spirit, was gone, and there, in that moment, in those kind, beautiful, blue eyes, there was no more illness. There was just his spirit, just my dad again, seeing me, and remembering his love for his girl.
As a child, when my dad would tuck me in at night, we had a special little ritual, always exactly the same words, and it was only for bedtime. He would say, ‘You know something?’ and I’d ask, ‘What?’ He’d reply, “I love you.”
Such a simple little ritual. But what a wonderful way for him to end my day, as I settled in for a long and peaceful sleep, reassuring me and comforting me with the knowledge that I was loved.
There’s something to be said for little rituals, even one so simple, especially when they are about sharing the precious gift of love.
So now, Dear Old Dad, as you have settled in for a long and peaceful sleep amidst your beloved stars, it’s my turn to do the tucking-in. “You know something? I love you.”