Some of my readers are family, but most of you won’t know who I’m talking about at all. You may think, Why should I read this? These people mean nothing to me. But I think they will. I suspect that you know gents kinda like these. Listen: they were good men. (One still is.)
The end of July is reflection time – yeah hey, another one! Rumination. Ponderables. Wonderings and wandering attention, the occasional WHY and a whole posse of what-ifs. As July finishes baking, three sweet’n’sour birthdays follow one another, three days for three men that raised and sandpapered and marinated and confused and strengthened me. Do you know these guys, or men like ’em?
Today, my big brother is 6264. (Yikes! Nice math, Einstein!) We have the usual, the far-too-standard fraternal bond. We love the other guy but never mention it, unless you count the kind of merciless-but-never-toxic teasing that comes with confidence and a certain deep kind of knowing. We would do anything the other one asked, though we know he probably won’t request anything beyond a bed to sleep in or a pool table to move. We rarely call each other, and when we do there’s always a practical reason; we don’t write much, but are surprised at what a brother might say in an email and how good it feels to read it. Despite the obvious facts that we both love sport and are often more willing to explain things than some around us might prefer, I’ve always dwelt on noticing how different we are. I find myself chronically restless, incurably dissatisfied, and find Bill, my father’s namesake, eerily content. (I don’t believe in it, to be honest, but as the decades pile up, so does the evidence of his satisfaction. The guy seems to know what he likes and like what he knows! At a fundamental level, this strikes me as amazing. I can’t quite grasp it.) He’s a business man, good and smart with money, while I eagerly avoid thinking about cash and have most enjoyed work that mysteriously put monthly sums in my bank — or didn’t pay me at all. My brother signs cheques and legal documents with a painstaking, patient cursive signature where each letter is roundly formed. I practised a snazzy, jazzy penmanship designed to look good on the first page of the books I’ve never published and the autographs nobody asks for.
The longer I interact with the lying mirrors in my life, though, or actually listen to my own spoken rhythms, the more I’m forced to admit that we look and sound a lot alike. I still listen to music that he had fairly brief adolescent enthusiasms for, and well into adulthood have feverishly played (and later coached) sports that he taught me to play. I continue to dream of baseball; I presume he was my first pitcher and catch-and-throw partner, but it predates my conscious memory. (I do, however, bat from the opposite side of the plate than he did.) It was because of playing road hockey with him that I became a goaltender on ice. I had to learn not to lean to the right in shooting my first basketballs, once I’d gotten tired of being a slapshot target, because that’s the way he did it. Ask me to punt a football, and I’ll be inclined to slip off my shoe, since Bill hit his high boomers off a bare instep and I learned that way, too. Though I hit a golf ball only very rarely (and that from the goofy side of the tee), while Bill is an avid golfer, I have to admit that we’re more similar than I used to think. I’ve spent a lot of time searching for brothers in my life. I think we all need brothers, and I’m glad, and still mighty curious, about the one that I was given. (Hello there!)
July 28, yesterday, marked the birth day of another guy who formed me. “Donny” was only seven years older than me, and his birthday slid between those of my father and my only brother in a way that suited the influence he was to have. He became a brother in sport, and in coaching, and in a melancholic temperament that I only knew the shallows of. (My father was older, and rather distant; Don’s blew his head off with a shotgun.) Sport, especially basketball, was our nexus, and our lives were profoundly different in ways that were mainly to my advantage: materially, educationally, maritally. But he was a paternal figure, too, especially in the early days of hitting a ninth-grade me endless grounders and fly balls as he learned how to coach by helping out with the game he loved the deepest. Then, shortly after, he began to use me — and an odd little gang of non-hockey jocks — as his barely controlled study in how to become a basketball coach (the game he loved the hardest). He was a father figure in a time of need, and grew into a brother and friend, indeed. I have written a lot about The Donald, my family Don, especially on and after his sudden death in the fall of ‘07. Pieces like “Requiem for a Coach” and “In Memoriam: Donald Edward Wright” are among my favourites, as sorrowful as they are. They speak a little of me, and a great deal of him, and inevitably of the place of sport in the life of a man, of men, a subject I return to again and again.
July 27, the first of the three birthdays, would have been my father’s 105th. He’s been gone, beaten though oddly redeemed by cancer, for nearly 40 years. Redemption? Strong word, maybe, but in some ways – I haven’t had the chance to ask him – he might’ve been more free after his diagnosis than he was before, radiation burns and other discomforts notwithstanding. He’d seen three of his kids married, and one of them, brother Bill, was set to carry on his business. It might seem bitterly ironic that he quit smoking after the proverbial horses of cancer were long out of the barn, but he quit smoking, finally. After a long alcoholic career, he was pretty much clear of booze in his last months. (He didn’t drink all the time, but when the dam of determination burst and he did, wow, he rolled all the way down that hill.) And that dear woman, our mother, whose loyalty and strength and dogged good cheer buttressed him, and his work, and his small-town reputation? Before whom, I imagine, he must have been grateful and, more than a little and way beyond often, ashamed? Well, she was taken care of. Her economic future was assured. Her ability to not only love and dote on and celebrate the “wonderful family” that she had longed for since childhood, but also to materially nourish it, was rock steady, fully supported.
I remind myself – and good ol’ “Bill”, if he’s inclined and in any position to listen – often, of that careful financial planning that he himself wouldn’t live to benefit from. He left his widow and his family of five comfortable and well-founded. He knew he was the cause of suffering, and so his own end-life pains, or so I imagine, were an unexpected sort of solace. He had all the more reason, perhaps, to feel melancholic, disappointed and guilty than he had for so many years, but I don’t think it felt that way to him. Dad had a deal to close, a business deadline. He prepared for it dutifully, according to his lights, and he showed great dignity on his way out the door. A small example: he asked me the odd question, which was new to this young man. He even asked me for some advice; he was determined to maintain some strength in his hands, and wondered how he might best be able to do that. Now I share that desire, and I do those manual workouts often, though that brand of strength has little real use in my life.
And if you’ve read me much before this, you’ll know that I write often and again about men, fatherhood, son-ship and manly striving. And today I remember, in poignant particular, that I have not written much about my own dear and distant Dad. He went by “Bill”, but his actual name was a somber, weighty Cyril Frederick. On his business cards and stationery he was known as C.F. “Bill” Howden; I searched for that moniker here on JH.com, and got this heavy spiritual message in return: Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn’t here. This is a familiar experience for me, and not just about my father. But I did some good thinking about good ol’ CF on the 27th, and launched some prayers and kudos in his general direction. That evening, I shared the best words I could find with a diverse group of people who gathered in the name of justice, peace and understanding, and it felt good to do it in his name and in his memory, even if I never said a word about him.
And look: here comes August! Thanks, as always, for reading, especially about these bros and dads of mine.