One summer day, when my son was four years old, he called out to me.
“Mom, look at me! Look what I can do.”
I looked and there he was, riding his bike alone for the first time. He was wobbly but he was upright and going forward, faster as he went. I clapped for him and praised his success. It was neither the first nor the last time he’d call attention to an accomplishment. Look at me. See what I can do, Mom.
Since the beginning of our lives we value the love, acceptance and praise we get from others. It’s so important to the human child to make a parent or teacher proud.
As we get older, we begin to see success as its own reward. But always – in the back of my mind at least – is the idea of making a parent proud.
Growing up, my father was a strict disciplinarian. He ran the house and we knew it. The household atmosphere depended on whether he was home and what mood he was in when he was home. My father was many things to me and our relationship could be complicated but he also led me to become who I am. He had a strong work ethic. Never late, always impeccably dressed (the clothes maketh the man, Caroline), dedicated and disciplined. He expected no less from me both while at school and in the work world.
After I moved away from home, my father sat on my shoulder whenever I felt like I might be late. Or if I were ever tempted to call in sick when I wasn’t or otherwise shirk a duty. I studied hard and got my university degree. I went back to school for a diploma and worked two jobs all at the same time. When I got married, I worked at my relationship. When I had children, boy did I work hard to the best mother I could be.
All the while, hoping I might make my father proud. We weren’t the sort of family who talked in those terms. I didn’t ask if he was proud of me and he didn’t say he was. We talked about the weather. We talked about his games of golf.
But I felt it, his pride in me.
Way back in 1987, he suffered a heart attack and had to undergo quintuple by-pass surgery. It took a long time, years in fact, but he recovered and was a better man, and father, for it. He was less Type-A and mellower, more philosophical. Before my wedding, when everyone else had gone and it was just me and my father alone in the house I expressed to him my nervousness and fear. Getting married was a big step, after all. He said, “Don’t worry. I might not even be here right now. This wedding, all of this, is a bonus.” That was precisely the right thing to say for me to put events in perspective, relax, and enjoy my big day.
Years fly by. I made many of my life choices based on expectations. I needed a career to earn my own money. I had my children. We bought a house to put the children in. One day, amid the chaos of young children, two dogs, piles of laundry and a seriously filthy bathroom, I locked myself in the fourth bedroom and wrote a story.
I’d read hundreds of books and written my own stories when I was child, shy and lonely and looking for escape. But that compulsion had become buried under busyness and noise. That day, I rediscovered the joy of words. The sheer pleasure of creating a story. It was probably terrible (I haven’t had the courage to look back at that particular piece of writing), but it was my start.
After that, I wrote and wrote. I took writing courses, joined writing Internet sites. And then I wrote some more. First it was short stories. I submitted them and received so many rejection letters I could probably completely wallpaper a small room. I tried novels. Daunting at first, I finally found my story-telling niche. I was a novelist.
Eventually, so consumed was I by this hobby, this passion, I told family and friends. I got quizzical looks but mostly encouragement. Including from my father. He didn’t judge me for writing fiction and even urged to me to continue. I wasn’t quitting my day job, after all. I received a couple of small short story contest awards (second and third place, never first). And he thought that was great.
In our weekly phone conversations (my parents had retired to Victoria, B.C.), I told him every little success and he basked in it. I was pleased to detect a note of pride in his voice.
On October 18, 2010, my father got up from the kitchen table after eating his lunch and collapsed from a massive stroke. One day later, he was dead.
In December of that year, I got a letter from a publisher offering me a contract for my first novel. A bittersweet success because I couldn’t pick up the phone and tell the one person whom I knew would be proudest.
I can finally ride this bike, Dad, and how I wish you could see me now.