I am Third

My father is a mesmerizing preacher. The timber of his voice – the cadence, the pauses, the passion. Almost at will, he can bring his congregation to tears, or fill them with joy, with the power of his words.

I remember a sermon he delivered over thirty years ago when I was just a teenager. “I am Third” was the title. The message was this: God came first; his family came second; dad came third.

My dad has lived that message his entire life. A life of service. Always putting others ahead of himself.

I’m not sure I ever understood the sacrifices my mom and dad made until I became a parent myself. The mantra for the first 45 years of my life may well have been “I am First.”

I read when I wanted. I wrote when I wanted. I ran when I wanted.

In many ways we all create our own worlds. I created one that accommodated me. Christmas is a good example. Every December, without fail, I watched the movies that I wanted to watch: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, the Sound of Music.

Our three-year old daughter doesn’t share my interest in Jimmy Stewart, Ebenezer Scrooge or Julie Andrews. I don’t think I’ve watched one of those movies, start to finish, since she was born.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss those movies, and a bit of the freedom they represented.

But I don’t ever want that freedom back. Because not one second of those movies – not a single frame, or a song, or a performance, can ever top the joy of sitting next to a little girl as she watches The Christmas Chronicles on Netflix. The happiness in her face matched only by that I feel within myself. Relishing the moment.

Every day I recognize my good fortune, how lucky I am to have all the blessings I have in my life.

That doesn’t mean I don’t miss running at will, reading dozens of books a year, and writing daily. I still read, write and run. But often that occurs between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Trading sleep for passions. Embracing the darkness of early mornings. Stillness. Introspection.

With Christmas over, and New Years looming, this is a time for introspection. To take stock of the year that is passing and set goals for the year yet to come.

Immediately, my I am First, mind takes over. It happened yesterday. I wrote down ambitious running goals. A sub-40 10k in the spring, a 50 miler in the summer, and a personal best and Boston Qualifier marathon in the fall. In my head, my I am First head, that is how the 2020 running year would play out. I crave those times and those distances.

I also recognize those times and distances don’t matter.

I want to be a better person. To be of service to others. To my family. To my wife Sonja, who never puts herself first, always working for us – for Molly, and for me. Sonja deserves some I am First time of her own.

I want to be calmer on the inside.

I want to be a better dad. Every day feels like a work in progress – a struggle between knowing when to discipline, how to discipline, and when to let a child be a child.

I want to be better at my job. To strive daily to work with the passion and commitment that led me to be a cop in the first place. More than twenty years ago.

It was well over twenty years ago when I heard my father’s sermon “I am Third.”

My dad has always lived his life in third place.

In 2020, I want to be more like my dad.

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… That’s my dad, Molly and my mom.  Easter 2017.  One of my favourite pictures ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home

I didn’t see my daughter this week. I wasn’t working long hours or in some distant city that made getting home impossible. Instead I got off work on time, traffic wasn’t awful, I was home at a reasonable hour, and I still missed her by minutes – every single day. My heart sank each time I opened the front door to the silence of her asleep in her bed, or the faint chorus of my wife’s lullabies, as she lay on the floor beside our daughter, singing her to sleep.

Not seeing her, even for a day, hurts. But there is something special about it too. It reminds me of my parents and how lucky I am. In the mid-1970s my dad was a student minister in Bluevale, a tiny village in rural Ontario, hundreds of miles away from Toronto. Every Sunday night, dad drove to the city for a week of classes, and long nights of studying. Every Friday night he came back to Bluevale for a joyous reunion with his family before the chaos of the weekend began. Two young boys full of energy, a wife who’d born the burden of being a single mom all week, and the demands of his calling as a minister – two services in two rural churches. The physical and emotional toil of leading those congregations on Sunday mornings must have been overwhelming, knowing that come Sunday night he’d be driving back to Toronto, to do it all over again. Four years of that. Four years of not seeing his boys every night.

I have nothing but great memories of those years. My mom was ever present, caring for my brother and I, taking us to the general store where a glass bottle of Coke cost a dime and a bag of chips was twenty-five cents. She played with us, and planted gardens with us and was always there for us. In my memories my dad was ever present too. I don’t remember the weeklong absences. Instead I think of all the things we did together. Baseball, fishing, walks by the old mill near our home. It was idyllic.

As an adult, and a dad, I have a greater appreciation of the challenges my parents must have faced. My father’s sadness at not seeing his boys for such long stretches. The strains and stresses my mother must have endured all alone with two boys, the wife of a minister in a small town with all eyes upon her. To this day my mom speaks about Bluevale often, the friendships she formed, and the way the community supported her. But it could not have been easy for her.

Although I have lived in British Columbia for over ten years, Ontario still feels like home. It still is home. I miss small town Ontario. The brick buildings, main streets, century old homes, and farmers’ fields which surround every town. Bluevale was the epitome of rural Ontario and it became a part of me which I will never shake.

In late spring 2014 I went home again. The timing was perfect. A long relationship had just ended. I needed my family. And although we had talked about returning to Bluevale for years, we’d never made the trip. It took us a couple of hours to drive there along straight country roads. We visited both churches. The front door of the first we visited was open. We wandered around and found my dad’s picture hanging in the basement, forty years after he’d preached there.

Dad in the Belmore church

Visiting the second church was sadder. It wasn’t a church anymore. Instead the church had closed, the building sold and that sacred place had been turned into a home. It made the 1970s seem a long time ago, perhaps the last decade when a village of a few hundred people could sustain a church of its own.

Bluevale church (2).jpg

The closed church did not ruin our day. Far from it. Happiness and wonderful memories abounded. Walks around the old mill and through the quiet cemetery near our home we had once walked through regularly. And our old home was still there – “the manse” in church parlance. The center of my childhood years. When I was the same age as my daughter is now.

Bluevale Manse

I had a full day with my daughter yesterday. We picked blackberries along the side of the road revelling in a “secret spot” we had found. Then to our favourite coffee shop where buying her a treat is always a highlight of my week. Perhaps the most special moment was at the library, where they’d set out toys and masks for kids to play with. And one of the librarians had a Polaroid. A Polaroid! Who knew they existed anymore? My daughter, who talks to Siri and asks for shows on Netflix, knows nothing of Polaroids. So for her it was magic, real magic, when the librarian took a picture, and out of the camera slid a white piece of paper. Which Molly shook, and watched as it transformed into a picture of her and her dad. A Polaroid. It was like we’d been transported back into the 1970s. To a small town in rural Ontario. Home.

Polaroid