Frank Rooks (April 2, 1930­–November 3, 2022): Memories of my dad

My father had kidney disease for the last three years or so of his life, but he was doing quite well (without dialysis; he was adamant about that) until the spring of 2022. When I found out about Dad’s increasing weakness and lethargy, I decided to visit him in Toronto in mid-May. I hadn’t seen him since late summer of 2021.

One of the first things Dad said to me after he picked me up at the airport was, “Well Nance, I’m literally fading away … I’m down to 120 pounds.” Even more ominously, to my ears, he continued, “I don’t think I feel good enough to go to Alan’s birthday party tomorrow.” That shocked me, because Dad lived for the times he got to spend with family—my brother Alan and his wife Sarah, and my brother Mike’s family. Alan lived in Waterloo, and Mike in Burlington. The party was going to be in Burlington, and Dad and I wouldn’t even have to drive—the plan was for my nephew Daniel to drive to Dad’s apartment from his place in Richmond Hill and do all the driving.

I hoped Dad would feel better the following day and change his mind, but it was not to be. I went with Daniel to Burlington, stayed overnight at Mike’s to socialize with the whole family, and returned to Dad’s apartment the following day.

My visits with Dad in his last months

Between May and early October, I visited Dad five times, spending roughly one week a month with him. I found all of these visits very difficult emotionally. It was heartbreaking to witness Dad’s rapid decline. With each visit, Dad was weaker and less capable of doing even the easiest tasks or actions. Although he was a lifelong night owl, as the months passed, he went to bed earlier and slept ever more hours during the day.

Until his final month or two, Dad gamely tried to maintain his independence in whatever ways he could. One of his most anguishing losses was giving up driving. Driving was his means of escaping from his seniors’ apartment and the attached care facility: it gave him the freedom to explore when he could no longer walk or even ride his bike. My brothers and I knew that with his strength, visual acuity, and ability to react greatly diminished, my father shouldn’t be driving. We spoke to him about it but decided to stop short of taking his car keys away.

I went on a hair-raising drive with Dad in July. We planned to go to one of the Lake Ontario beaches where Dad used to cycle, but we weren’t aware that the Caribana festival was on that day, and we got hopelessly stuck in traffic once were downtown and heading south for the lake. We gave up on reaching our destination, but it was still challenging to negotiate out of the traffic and find our way back to the Don Valley Parkway north. Dad did an illegal U-turn, and miraculously didn’t get pulled over by the cop stationed nearby. He narrowly missed hitting pedestrians several times as I screamed warnings to him. We got home safely, with a great sense of camaraderie. I viewed the escapade with a black sense of humour, but I knew that it was ethically wrong for us to allow Dad to continue driving. We were lucky he never injured anyone. Soon after that day, he was forced to stop; he simply became too weak to get to his car and get in and out of the driver’s seat.

During my first visit in May, Dad was still making his own simple breakfasts and heating up the meals my brothers brought him in the microwave. But each month, he found fewer foods palatable. Nausea and diarrhea were among his symptoms. By his last two months, he was eating little other than cereal with cream and soups. At the end of July, he was down to 98 pounds, and eventually he weighed less than my skinny 88 pounds. His clothes hung off him as if he were a scarecrow—or a skeleton. His skin was so fragile that the slightest bump could bruise it or break it and cause an open wound.

My brother Mike, who is semi-retired and was already visiting Dad at least twice a week, made the choice to devote himself to Dad and help him as much as necessary. There were doctors’ appointments and iron infusions at the hospital. Mike took over Dad’s shopping and laundry. He led some difficult conversations with Dad as we agonized over decisions about Dad’s care: would we move him out of his independent living apartment to a higher-care facility? He wanted to stay in his own, familiar apartment, though, where he could eat exactly the foods he wanted and record his favourite TV programs and sports for later viewing.

Mike made the decision to be Dad’s main caregiver to the end. Soon after I left Dad for the last time, on October 9, that meant a 24/7 commitment. Dad was bedridden and needed care and attention day and night. Mike was with him five days a week and Alan took over the remaining two days. They had a caregiver come in several days a week to help. My brothers did something I could not have done. I couldn’t bear to see my father so reduced, curled on his bed in the apartment that had become a sauna where the temperature had to be kept at 30⁰ C for his wasted body.

I am very grateful to my brothers for the care they gave Dad. And I’m thankful to my parents for creating our family! My brothers and I have always been close and supportive of each other. That’s especially important now, and I feel comfort in knowing that closeness will continue.

Our family on the occasion of Mike’s wedding to Pamela Chackeris. 1989.
Mom and Dad with the beautiful bride and happy groom.

About my dad

I don’t want to remember my father the way he was in the last six months of his life. Instead, I want to share my memories of him, the way he was between the ages of about 34 (my earliest memories) and 91 (last summer, when I went for my last bike ride with him). And I want to write about my father objectively, too. What was he like? What were his accomplishments? As his daughter, I want to reflect on what he gave me, how he shaped me—the whole fascinating mixture of genetics, which is a biological thing, and environment. The way our parents treat us helps shape the people we become.

My dad grew up in Trinidad, West Indies, when it was still under British colonial rule. He was the second of two sons. My dad’s older brother Robert was a type-A personality, leaving my dad to be the more wild and carefree son. He was always playing pranks on the Masters (teachers) at his formal British-style school, and as a young man loved taking girls for rides on his motorbike.

My father was an adventurer who left Trinidad at age 20 and emigrated to Montreal. This young man from the tropics embraced Montreal’s bitter winter by learning to skate and becoming an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. He met my mom at the bank where he was working when she had a summer job there. At age 17 she had already completed her first year of a biology degree at McGill. My mom fell hard for the charming foreigner with his singsong Caribbean accent, but her strict father told Dad in no uncertain terms that his oldest daughter would not marry anyone who didn’t have a university degree. My dad immediately started night school, completing a business degree while working full time.

Mom and Dad in 1955, shortly before they were married.

My parents married as soon as my mom finished university. My father gave up his dreams (becoming an airplane pilot was one of them) to become a devoted family man. At home, he never talked about his conventional job in life insurance. He took carpentry courses at Home Hardware and put in months of work to turn our unfinished basement into a kids’ playroom.

My dad loved playing with his three little kids, me and my two younger brothers, all close in age. We played “rough-and-tumble”—when he did all kinds of acrobatic moves with three kids all over him. In good weather, he often took us outside after dinner to explore the ravines near our home. He’d challenge us to sprint races as we approached our house on the return trip.

One of my earliest memories of time spent with my dad as a little kid came to me just this morning. I know we would have been so young that my brothers might not even remember this. There was a special ritual that happened occasionally when my dad got home from work. He would allow all three of us to sit on his and my mom’s bed while he got changed out of his work clothes. He would give us lots of tiny objects to play with. I remember cufflinks and coins. Lots of little kids are fascinated by jewellery and other valuable objects that are normally “off-limits” for them to handle. As he got changed, Dad would sing; West Indian songs from Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte; “Puff the Magic Dragon;” or, the song I remember best, “Swinging on a Star,” a big hit introduced by Bing Crosby in 1944. I’m sure Mom loved Dad for getting us out of her hair for even a few minutes.

The most significant gift parents give their children is a sense of security. My brothers and I knew our parents loved each other and loved us. They expected excellence from us but they gave us the freedom to choose our paths and supported us in whatever paths we chose. They created wonderful times for us with our cousins and close family friends, especially our summer weeks at a rented cottage, which were the highlight of our childhoods. Mom and Dad modelled one aspect of a strong marriage: they consciously made decisions to act as a team, whether it was to plan their annual budget, spend a whole day washing windows, drive overnight to visit my grandparents in Montreal, create magical Christmas mornings for us, or discipline us.

Yet my parents had a stormy marriage. They fought a lot—including nasty, bitter fights—and often hurt each other badly. Mom would cry. Dad would leave the house and go to a movie. Even as a child I could analyze it. Mom was rightfully angry or hurt by Dad’s words or actions, but she wasn’t good at being honest about the real reasons for her anger. Their misunderstandings were caused by a cultural clash. Dad had been spoiled in colonial Trinidad where even poorer white families like his had Black servants. He came from a patriarchal society where women did all the domestic work. He expected the household to revolve around his schedule. He failed to consider the frustration and boredom my well-educated, brilliant mother must have felt being “just a housewife.”

Another problem was that my father loved to tease. I could see that my dad teased my mom because he loved her—but sometimes he didn’t realize he was hitting sensitive topics, and the teasing hurt. As an adult, I’ve always been attracted to men who tease me, because I recognize it as a sign of affection.

Part of reflecting about a parent is considering what makes you feel close to them, and how you are alike. I’m a private person, like my dad was. Like him, I’ve always appreciated solitary, routine pleasures like reading. However, although he was on the introverted side, at large celebrations Dad was capable of being a colourful, witty speaker.

For me, as for him, our favourite sports have lasted for our lifetimes. Dad’s sport was tennis. He played tennis recreationally with my mom when she was young, but he was a competitive player who could still challenge some of my high school running teammates in tennis matches when he was in his 50s. He continued playing doubles until he was 82.

 I share Dad’s love of being outside in natural places and exploring on foot or by bike. Even though his joints became painful with age, making walking difficult, he continued cycling regularly until his last year. He’d often put his bike on his car and drive to Lake Ontario’s bike paths or to a new neighbourhood in Toronto that he could explore.

Dad and I pausing during a bike ride in his neighbourhood. 2020.

In his last years of work before retirement, Dad was responsible for helping his company switch all their systems to computers. This computer literacy proved to be a godsend when he embarked on his biggest retirement project: the online genealogical research that enabled him to produce huge family trees of several branches of both his and my mother’s families. He traced his ancestors back to England in the 1700s. He wrote two books that he self-published: Rooks Roots is about our ancestors and includes images of many old documents and photos that he found. His other book is a memoir about his boyhood in Trinidad. In this book, he relates memories of his games with neighbourhood boys of all colours, the jokes he played on his school masters, the special trips to the beaches of Trinidad and Tobago, and dramatic events of World War II, when the American airforce base and U-boats came to Trinidad.

Mom and Dad had 62 years together, despite their fights. For decades they were duplicate bridge partners, competing right up to the level of international tournaments and earning the status of Life Masters. Analyzing their games was another source of fighting, but I think they enjoyed those fights. As my mom’s emphysema got worse, dad took good care of her, finally learning in old age how to do some simple household tasks. Despite her physical suffering, my mom had Dad’s constant companionship. I feel so much sadness that he had to go through the isolation of the COVID-19 years without her.

Bye, Dad.

Thank you for giving me your share of the genes that helped me become an Olympic runner, and for being proud of me as a runner long before that.

Thank you for teaching me to dream, read, learn, tease & be teased, sing with happiness, play bridge, go exploring, and tell stories.

***

“Swinging on a Star”—a little taste

Music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke

How would you like to swing on a star,

Carry moonbeams home in a jar.

You’d be better off than you are—

Or would you rather be a pig? [Mule, fish] etc.

 Swinging On A Star – Bing video

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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8 Responses to Frank Rooks (April 2, 1930­–November 3, 2022): Memories of my dad

  1. Debra Simms says:

    What wonderful (and well-rounded) memories you have of your father! This is a clearly loving tribute to him and to the closeness your enjoy with your family.

  2. Thank you, Debra. Sometimes it is hard to know what to share and what to hold back. The family closeness is there, for sure, but I tried to keep most of the pain out of the post.

  3. pkadams says:

    Beautiful tribute . No parent and no marriage is perfect, but it sounds like your dad left you with more good memories than bad. 💕

  4. Joseph kibur says:

    My condolences to you and your family Nancy! Your writing is excellent and the tribute is touching.
    Joseph

  5. That was beautiful. Thank you ..

  6. Pingback: 2022 to 2023: Loss to a turning point | NancyRuns&Writes

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