My dad passed away suddenly in the night

Kate Wells Author: Canadian Living Credits: Kate Wells


My dad passed away suddenly in the night

It was Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend, 1997. My parents were hosting a dinner party at their new house, a salmon-bricked raised ranch in the suburbs that I resented because it was far from the tree-lined streets and childhood friends in my old neighbourhood. I was a tenth-grader without a driver’s license or friends within walking distance, so I stayed in that night and socialized with the grownups.

It was dark outside and the guests had all gone home. My father and I met on the tiled landing in the front foyer, where our home's two staircases intersected: he was going down to the TV room to clean up glasses rimmed with red wine and dessert plates smeared with lemon frosting; I was heading up to my bedroom for the night. The chandelier was on and cast a warm glow over the scene. We hugged, as we always did before bed, and he said, "Good night. I love you."

"I love you, too." I said. "Good night."

By morning he was gone.

He’d had a heart attack the middle of the night and never woke up.

After his death, I agonized over the fact that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. But as time passed and I emerged from the fog of grief, snapshots of our final moments together crystallized and I realized we had something that felt like goodbye, even though we thought it was only goodnight. I cherish this memory because it reveals so much about my father: We could’ve rushed by each other on the landing that night, muttering “G’night” under our breaths as we both went our separate ways. Instead, he took the time to be present, to connect, to tell me that he loved me.

I was too young to grasp it when my father was alive, but after I became a mom two years ago, I realized how much he taught me about parenting. No matter how busy he was he always made time for my brother and me, whether it was cooking egg-in-a-cup or French toast for breakfast on busy weekdays, shortening his stride so that I could keep up with him during a run, or taking us to the mall on a school night to thumb through bins of records and CDs and talk about music. Every time I put down my phone and have a kitchen dance party with my daughter, I give her the same thing my father so generously gave me: the gift of being present.

He was also interested in getting to know my brother and me and was curious about our inner lives. On the Friday night before he died, he picked me up in the vintage British sports car that he and my brother had spent two years restoring. It was unseasonably warm and he had the roof open. A comfortable silence settled between us as we drove through the dark October night, wind whipping through our hair and stars twinkling over our heads. “What are you thinking about?” my dad asked as he often did when my brother or I were quiet on the drive to school or the grocery store. Like most teenagers, I usually said, “Nothing,” but it was nice to know that he was there to listen if I ever did have something important or troubling on my mind. I wasn’t thinking about much that night either, simply enjoying the moment with Dad.

I wish I could spend Father’s Day with my daughter and my dad, that I could watch them walk hand-in-hand along the shore at the beach, stopping to marvel at scenes that catch their eye: sailboats gliding across the horizon, pieces of quartz glinting in the sun. Instead, I’ll take the time to tell my daughter about my dad, the “Papa” she’ll never meet, and take comfort in the fact that some part of him lives on in her.

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My dad passed away suddenly in the night