WHERE MEN EXIST
Sometimes good lessons come from the most mundane experiences. It’s usually moments with few witnesses where little miracles play out in our lives. It’s especially true in matters of the heart. For me, it’s these times where I remember: we find it early or we find it late, but we must find love.
My boy shit his pants today. I know, not exactly something to write home about, but in so many other ways it was. Poor kid. Missus kept him home from school because he’d been a little worn out yesterday. I’ve learned not to question her intuition regarding her boy. She’s usually right.
I heard him first from about 75 feet away, near the double outhouse just past the rabbit pens. It’s on the edge of the cut lawn, if I can call it lawn. It’s also where missus has a couple of nooses tacked up against the overhanging roof of the old double-seater outhouse there, just so she can string up chickens.
As usual, I was killing, she was processing. These were meat birds she’d let live long past their due date as an experiment. She wanted to know if she could turn them into egg layers. She got two or three eggs out of one of the four birds, total.
She’s from the city and all this is new to her. She can take the time and learn on her own in whichever way she wants as far as I’m concerned. If she wants to allow an 8-week meat bird to live to 16 weeks just to see what happens, she can.
Though, I’d been reminding her to whack these fowl for a month, she resisted. Today, she relented, if I do the “coup de grace.” Fine by me, men are used to doing the dirty jobs. We’re handy in that way.
In any case, I’d just strung up the last one and done the deed. The bird was flapping wildly and flinging blood all around. Missus likes me to leave them bled and with the head off. I oblige her, she does the rest.
And today, as that final bird’s head came off, I heard his cry: “Daddy, I pooped my pants!” I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly and since he was a way across the yard, past the rabbits and the pond and the burn barrel and up on the back porch, I got him to repeat it.
“I pooped my pants,” he repeated, along with an explanation about what happened, but I couldn’t make it out from that far away. I just needed him to confirm what I thought he said. He did. He had indeed shat his pants—or had an accident if you prefer. His ma was elbow deep in blood and feathers. It fell to me.
Instructing him to not move, not an inch, I put away my tools and drove the Mule with its now empty cages back over to his side of the grass. I parked and put away the hatchet and utility knife, remembering in my haste to not take the chance of leaving them out lest I forget about them.
I found him impatient and concerned, standing at the top of the steps on the porch, and full of reasons. On mostly a liquid diet because of a collapsing windpipe, he has only recently began to eat fuller meals. I suppose that means his readiness in such a case is still in development.
He’d tried to make it, running from “over there,” pointing to where missus was processing her chickens under the crab apple tree. He’d been hanging around her while she worked and couldn’t get inside on time.
Regardless of his condition, I knew precisely what to do and what to say and I’ll tell you why. I remember shitting my pants as a boy about his age, some 55 years ago.
MY FIRST MEMORY
It was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I was probably 4 but could have been 5. Ma had ten pregnancies in 12 years, so by the time I was 4 or 5 there were lots of us around. She was taxed to the limit. The brother two up from me was bronchial asthmatic, then she lost a girl before me—which she later blamed on painting the stairs with lead paint—and the sister after me was sickly. If I was 5 then there would have been at least a couple more in diapers and likely ma would have been expecting.
As a sensitive kid, I remember toilet training was traumatic under the circumstances. I was a disappointment and took more years to learn than my mother would have liked. Poor ma, she did her best, but I wore her patience out soundly.
But, that day she was nowhere in sight. Who knows where she was, maybe at the doctors, maybe giving birth? Instead, a fearful man was in charge. I’d been warned by ma to be on my best behavior. I remember getting a pre-scolding about it, a finger-shaking and stern talking to before she left. I was afraid already.
And so, as it was every day, we were fed and put outside. I wasn’t allowed to leave the property, so while my two older brothers and eldest sister were off doing something else, I lingered out front on the sidewalk.
When the urge to go hit me, it was sudden and forceful. From the sidewalk, eyeing the steps up the walk way and the distance to the front door and its porch, I knew I’d never make it. I needed a reschedule. Desperately, I sat down on a cement step and wedged the sharp edge of its form into the crack of my ass, fully expecting to arrest the forward movement of my stool.
Not a chance. Nature had other plans and out came the inevitable. Only now, it mushroomed inside my underwear and immediately pancaked against both cheeks. I’m sure at some point I realized the futility of my attempt to thwart its progress and probably allowed the rest of the number to proceed disastrously as it intended. I was helpless, all-in on failure. Ma’s warning foretold my misery. Of all the days for this to happen…
I was in a pickle now. Looking back over my shoulder at the door to the house, remembering ma’s seriousness before she left, fearful of the navy man home on leave whom I knew only as a stranger, the idea of him being my father not a concept grasped with any comfort, I was filled with escalating dread.
It was here I realized my options were limited. I could not sit there in my shit, it’s caking and sticking to my bum obvious to anyone walking by from the smell alone. It would only be a matter of time before either a kid from the neighbourhood or my own siblings would find me there. Either way, the man in the house would be alerted and who knows what would happen?
I decided to sneak back in and attempt my own rescue. Up I went, waddling, penguin-like down the cement walkway towards the front door. I didn’t hold much promise of pulling this off, just as I knew sitting out front of the house on the two steps down to the sidewalk with a full load in my pants was not viable.
DUDLEY STREET, HALIFAX, N.S
Approaching the door, carefully, legs spread wide most uncomfortably, with a serious demeanour, I reached for the front handle.
To my surprise, suddenly it opened from inside and there stood my father. He towered over me, handsome I suppose, looking poised in his sleeveless T-shirt and crew-cut hair, smoking a cigarette I’m pretty sure. Looking me up and down, the paralysis of my body matching the stunned look on my face, he exhaled smoke and enquired something to the effect of, “Had a little accident, son?” How did he know?
He had a neutral look on his face from what I can remember. There was no hint of disgust or disappointment. It was all a matter-of-fact sort of thing. I know I stumbled a weak reply, affirming his suspicion and adding in explanation.
In answer, all he did was toss his finished smoke pass me onto the lawn or driveway and say, “Well, let’s get you inside and cleaned up.”
No lecture. No waggling fingers. No raised voice. No angry story about letting anyone down. No accusation about doing it on purpose. No nothing. Just sanctuary and the promise of cleanliness and fresh clothes.
Whomever this man was, I felt a physical shift I can still remember. He’d earned the right to be called my father at that moment. He was strong, powerful, undeterred by the problems at hand. He was unrushed and purposeful. He was in charge and that was fine by me. No tragedy was too great for him to handle. Unflappable and confident he was. It’s my purest image of masculinity.
It was with great relief I submitted to my father’s care that day. I don’t remember much of how he got me whole again, but I remember a deep respect for him from the experience. He had modeled something I had not seen, and it’s never left me, not in the more than half century since.
BACK TO TODAY
It was not me answering the worried call of my boy’s lament this morning. No. Not at all. It was my father who exists inside of me who today rose to the challenge in the same way he had all those years ago.
It is he who calmly took charge and without judgment got the boy out of his clothes, washed him off with the hose and poured him a warm bath. It was my father who toweled off my boy as he chattered about the experience to me in broken images of how it all came to be. It was my father who listened patiently and joked with the boy so that he smiled and laughed and stayed connected. It was my father. It was all my father you see.
And now, my 89-year old dad is languishing in a memory care ward at an old age home. He was put there by my sisters for his own good, his dementia having progressed too far to live at home any longer. He’s busted both hips, one of them twice, and the falls were becoming too numerous for their care to allow. He’s sometimes incoherent, a travesty for a man who lived surrounded by books.
Of those ten pregnancies, he and my deceased mother raised nine children. My father has five sons, four of whom had sons. Yet, none named a boy after their dad, Howard Carew Wallace. I teased him it was because he was a drinker when a young man and pissed everyone off—so no one thought to ensure his name endured.
To be fair, neither did he encourage it. You see, my father’s father was also named Howard. Howard Vincent Wallace was a WW1 vet and had disowned my father right when he was about the same age as I was that day in Halifax. His first memory was of his father striking his mother and leaving the family destitute and abandoned, and not returning for over 30 years.
My father had attempted to reconcile with his father in the time since his return to live in Ottawa, but it never came to pass. I remember angry arguments between them as a boy growing up. Dad lived his whole life burdened with the self-loathing of the rejected. Named after his father, and his spitting image, he waited for some sign of acknowledgement. His father insisted he was not his.
When my grandfather died aged 98, it was my father who held his frail old hand, still waiting for recognition, for a sign of reconciliation and acceptance. It never came.
It was this understanding which allowed me the kind of awareness I needed to move past this part of my father’s legacy. Despite the odd glimpse of what could have been, his pain was too great and compounded over too many years to allow him to be much of a father himself.
He did his best. It wasn’t good enough but it’s all he had.
As I moved through my own life the effects of the men before me followed like a curse. It was my first son well over thirty years ago which forced me to confront the chaos that had followed us all. It was there I took a stand. If at first just an impulse to survive knowing there had to be a better way, eventually I was forced to go deep and find the wisdom I know my father would have wanted to teach had he been able to.
TAKING A STAND
I can trace five generations of Wallace turmoil through the men before me. It was up to me to stand up and decide as a father and as a man: the pain stops here.
Every so often over the years, as I’d tell dad something about my approach to parenting, he would remark to someone in the room, “Christopher is doing his best to not be like me,” and I would know it was his way of approving without contesting his own deficiencies.
At first I didn’t realize it was that obvious but later saw I was proceeding as a father exactly as he observed, with all my might.
When I got a second gift at parenting, it was finally time to give my father a namesake. Indeed, that little boy who shit his pants this morning is also Howard. Howard Thomas William Wallace. I dare say, when Little Howie visits with me at Grandpa Howie’s, it’s magic between them.
It wasn’t a burden helping the boy this morning, it wasn’t at all an inconvenience. No. For my father, for us both, for all the Wallace men before me and after me, it was an honour; it was a privilege.
And that’s the way it works among us, isn’t it? It is insufficient to describe we each inhabit ourselves alone. The idea you are you and I am I, that you are over there, and I am over here, is a weak explanation for how we really live. For this is not at all true. We clearly exist in each other.
My father was once a cub reporter for the very Halifax paper which carried the news of his own idolized grandfather’s death. He’d been taking a shortcut with his horse and buggy and was struck by a train in 1919. I found the original article for him a couple of years ago, when he was still lucid and could read. Still searching for an identity all this time after having his own robbed during his lifetime, he thought it was a great find, considering his grandfather a hero.
He spent the better part of three decades in Her Majesty’s Royal Canadian Navy and rose to Lt Commander, visiting over 50 countries. He chaired the group which wrote the English style book for the public service of Canada. He taught me how to write when I was fifty.
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away, said McArthur. My father sleeps 22 hours lately. He has slightly better days and not so good ones. Probably soon, he will stop eating as he winds down like an old clock.
But he’ll not be gone, faded yes, but not gone. Instead, like any of us connected to each other, he’ll echo endlessly down through time in the people he affected along his way. Especially in those he loved and who loved him.
Today, for a few moments, I was happy to be my father.
Unknowingly, so was my boy and hopefully, my father will appear in my boy’s boy one day too.
For better or worse, fathers exist in their sons.
True and Free,