Dr. Kenneth Charles Wilson
Seeing it there, in it’s entirety, makes me both proud and very, very sad. I loved my father, so much, so deeply and so abidingly. Not just the kind of love that a small, wide eyed girl has for her daddy, but the kind a grown woman feels for a father who has unconditionally loved and supported her for all of her life. I am talking the deep emotional connection that goes beyond blood ties and shared experiences. He is a part of me, and as such, a part of me has died.
Because just over two weeks ago, on May 14th at 11:14 pm, he died.
He was in excruciating pain at the end, so in many ways it was a blessing. But that doesn’t make my heart hurt less, or my tears flow less generously. He died less than 6 hours after I had arrived in Victoria to spend this weekend with him and try to bring him comfort. Knowing that he waited for me, in spite of all that pain, so that I could be there when he died, so we could see each other one last time, and he could grin his mischievous grin at me one last time, and twinkle his knowing-eyed look at me one last time … it makes those last few hours that much more poignant, precious and rich.
He had many gifts:
- His ability to tell a story in such a way that you felt like you were right there in it, with him on the journey; to bring it fully alive, whether it was a travel story, a tale from his youth (like the time as Lighting Director that he darkened the stage at Kits High so as to make the point that the Crew needs to be invited to the after-party too), or a bedtime reading – me snuggled under his left arm (Winnie the Pooh, The Just So Stories, or Asterix and Obelix come to mind most readily).
- He kindly choose to forgive transgressions. To let them go, to never mention them again. In fact in general he was a kind man.
- He was generous: with money, with time, with ideas.
- His mental agility. His humour was mostly centred around wit.
- He loved words (like most of the Wilson’s) and languages (I sometimes wondered if he would have been just as happy a Linguist as he was an Engineer), learning all sorts of them, from the obvious French, to the more obscure Latin and Ancient Greek, and everything in between. And of course, he learned to speak Icelandic so as to better understand his wife, my mother, and her culture, and so that we could be raised speaking Icelandic. Takk fyrir Pabbi.
- He liked to stand out. Whether pursuing and achieving Summa Cum Laude status, or having a wife and kids with such unusual names as Vilborg, Bjarni and Signy – ensuring they always needed to be spelled out.
- He was committed to and took a stand for excellence in his profession. He marked hard (and our little secret was that I helped, starting at the tender age of about 12, to mark his engineering exams), never suffering fools gladly, and took on intellectual battles that he deemed important. He insisted on being an engaging lecturer, always dressing in his academic robes (hmmm, one more way he stood out), thus earning himself the nickname of “Batman”.
- He was a life long learner. Even after retiring and moving to Victoria he signed up for Gaelic lessons, in which he was definitely at the bottom of the class, not a comfortable place for him, but he persisted.
- The easiest summation? He was a character who loved his family (immediate and extended), cats, learning and travel. What’s not to love!?
While he was many things to many people (professor, only male in his generation of Wilsons, thesis supervisor, colleague, mentor – to name a few), I was his only little girl, and I have specific memories as such.
I will remember him, not as he was these last few hard years, but in his prime (although I will remember how much softer he became in these hard years, grateful for the smallest things, almost gentle):
- Going for his evening stroll (he loved to walk – one of the biggest heartbreaks of these last few years was seeing him unable to walk freely), so as to visit with the neighbourhood cats. And they came running when they saw him, for a scratch under the chin or a piece of contraband cheese smuggled out of the house for them.
- Lecturing to a room full of unruly engineering undergrads, whose names he had learned by heart, using Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh to make his points more interesting. Or at a conference filled with erudite colleagues, some of those also unruly, which he had to tame with verbal witticisms and theatrics (stories of him play hooking someone who was going on and on and on when my dad was chairing a session was often told).
- Playing Santa Claus (how perfect, right?). First for the “Civil Kids” (the children of the Queen’s Civil Engineering department professors), and we were anything but, still he mesmerized us by speaking in our many different mother tongues, all the while entertaining the adults with his double entendre. Then for all the Civil Students, breaking their candy canes if they had been naughty (for things like partying too hard at Homecoming, or particularly egregious April Fool’s Day pranks).
- At the cottage on Green Bay. Letting his brain rest and getting sweaty and dirty building a porch, launching a laser, fighting off porcupines and felling trees (remember he was a BC boy, so trees just get in the way of the view).
- Taking me to Canadian Tire right after I bought my new place and getting me every single tool (including things I have never heard of and never used since) that a homeowner ought to have (somehow this is something that only works with a father and daughter), and then proceeding to help me replace all the broken sash cords in my 1930’s home. It was a labour of love. In so many ways. It felt good to work side by side with him, on something that will hopefully outlast us both.
- Giving a tradesman, who had buggered up the job of building us kitchen cupboards and cheated us to boot, what for, while we hid from the raised voices in the attic. Later bounding up the stairs to tell us it was all over, to recount his victory (as if we couldn’t hear it, he had one of the naturally loudest voices I have known – students commented that they had found his lecture particularly interesting that day, then revealed that they were in a different classroom as he was giving it), and remember times when he had cowered when his father has given tradesmen hell.
- Partying hard, drinking late into the night, with the Icelanders, with the Luke’s, with friends and colleagues who were over for dinner parties.
- Taking me to riding lessons, every Wednesday night for about 5 years, even through some tricky teenage years. Eventually taking up riding himself to stave off the cold of the winter arena. Him on Scarlett, me on Tojoe. Our special time together.
- The many, many travels together as a family. Including a trip through Europe when I was about 7. The sabbatical year when I was 10, taking the boat from Iceland through the Faroes to the tip of Scotland. And most recently the many trips organized by my brother. I tear up remembering the “Farewell Tour” to England, Cyrus, Egypt and Malta. Those three and a half weeks of special memories created, while returning to some important places that we knew would be the last time we’d be there as a family (specifically South Kensington where my parents met, and Cyrus where we lived 18 months when I was a baby).
- Walking me to grade school, during the winter months in Ontario, my tiny uncovered hand in his. Uncovered because his hands were so warm that I didn’t need a mitten when I had him. Besides I would rather be cold and feel his skin on my skin, than be warm in a mitten. I am reminded of this slice from Winnie the Pooh:
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
He gave me his curls, his wit and humour, his smile, Vancouver as my city, his ability to hold a room, his mischievousness, his love of cats, and his kind and generous heart. I am grateful for that, for him, and to have had him as my father, my teacher, and my friend.
So what can I give to him?
How can I keep his memory alive? How can I share his legacy?
- By telling the special people in my life that they are special to me.
- By playing with words, whenever possible.
- By continuing to learn, until the day I die, and fostering that love of learning in others, particularly my godchildren.
- By picking a mate that sees all of me, that knows me – down into my soul and values, who I am and all that I bring, asking me to bring it out further, to turn up the volume louder.
- By learning to love more fully, more out loud, than I currently let myself (not that he modelled this, but this is what he inspired in me now).
- By learning to fly a plane.
- By travelling more, now that I am freed up from not wanting to go too far away from him while he was sick.
- By taking a stand when things are not working for me or don’t feel right (he didn’t do it often enough, but when he did, boy was it memorable).
- By taking the time to let my brain rest. My body too.
- By learning to speak Icelandic again.
- By visiting the neighbourhood cats.
In the meantime….how to grieve a parent?
This is a new path for me, I have no idea how to navigate it. I apologize ahead of time if I blunder, or make mistakes. Already I notice that my concentration is lessened; everything is slower, whether I like it or not, like I am moving in molasses; I don’t care as much about the little things (read: there are a bunch of emails just not getting responded too – sorry if that’s you). Bottom line is that I don’t know how to be in a world without him. I have not had (nor ever wanted) the experience. I don’t know how to do this, and there is a gaping hole, in my life and my heart. Instead of going to my father to ask advise, as I would have in the past, I must find my own way. And the door in… is through my feelings.
I can’t help but turn to A.A. Milne for inspiration, especially during this particular hard time. And as always he doesn’t fail me, so I will contemplate this:
To help me in that process, I would love to hear your stories of him, your memories or the qualities in him that shone the brightest for you. To honour him by remembering him, who he was, what he brought, what he contributed … bring on the stories!