Yesterday and tomorrow are my father’s 87th birthday. Turns out he always celebrated his birthday on Feb 8th, but in his later years, found out he was (at least on paper) born two days earlier.
He’s been gone since 1983.
Bill Higgins was never really much of a father. I came along nine years after my brother and sister. And no, I wasn’t a mistake. Apparently my siblings really wanted a younger brother or sister, and my mother wanted one more child. From what I know, my father seemed to express some interest as well.
And yet, not long after I was born, my father left his wife and kids with a newborn baby and went on a job to a remote corner of the world for the better part of a year.
That was his job. I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but he worked for a company that flew to various areas of the globe, such as Africa, the Arctic, Greenland, Trinidad, etc and found areas to mine resources. His job was to make sure the aircraft they used stayed in top running form. From what I can tell of his old Super-8 movies, he had a lot of downtime.
Left him a lot of time to feed the alcoholic monkey on his back.
And yet, the things he saw. The people he met.
I still have a book, From My African Notebook, by Albert Schweitzer that has, on the title page, an inscription:
“a Mr Higgins avec mes bonnes pensez, Albert Schweitzer, Lambarene, 4 juillet 1962”
Just one of the amazing people he met.
My father was one of the smartest men I ever knew. Some of the stories my mother tells me I know are misremembered. For instance, she told me he drew up plans for a plane with wings that could be folded. She’s told me on many occasions that if he’d had the confidence, he could have had that patented and made millions. But when I look it up, the first folding wing design was patented in 1913 and has been in regular use since the late 1930s, when my father would have been less than fifteen years old. My guess is, he likely saw the planes and figured out on his own exactly how that would work and designed it straight out of his head. That I could believe.
Why do I think he was capable of that? Because he created a one-man hovercraft all on his own. He took a starter motor from, I believe, an old Lancaster plane and used it to drive a fan inside a large inner tube also taken from a plane’s landing gear.
He also built many doodads and geegaws at home that entertained me endlessly.
I remember some great times with dad. I remember him sitting me in our La-Z-Boy, manipulating the various vibration motor speeds in the back, seat and footstool to take me on a plane ride. My favourite part was always when all engines were pushed to full and he angled the seat back as we left the runway. I remember trying to replicate that experience on my own, later, and never ever being able to duplicate it.
I remember how he used to call me “Tobe”. I remember his smile. His laugh. I remember his handsome face, the swoop of his hair. I wish I had even one picture of the man.
I remember a time, just shortly before he and my mother split when, for no reason that I know of, he took an afternoon off, drove me out to a park or field and we just walked and talked. It seemed like hours, but it seemed like seconds. I can’t remember anything we talked about, only sunshine, green grass and a feeling of absolute contentment, a rarity with my father.
Most of the time, I remember him with a glass in his hand, filled with a golden liquid.
After my mother divorced him, I remember all the weekend visits, which always seemed to go the same. He’d pick me up from mom, buy me a model car or plane, we’d go to a movie that he’d always fall asleep in, then, when it was done, we’d head back to his sister’s, my Aunt Ev, where he lived.
Typically, he’d fall asleep there as well, and Aunt Ev would feed me, clear a space for me to assemble that model, and get me to bed. Then the next day I’d be back home with another model for my collection.
Then there was the time he took me out and he scared the shit out of me. I wrote about it briefly here. After that, I stopped seeing my dad. It was my choice. I was likely no more than six or seven, so not even two years since the split. I never knew how dad felt about it. He never called, he never wrote. He dropped off the planet.
Mom remarried when I was ten and the man she married, Bob Elliott, legally adopted me. I had to meet my dad in court, as he had to give his consent for my name to be changed. I remember being shocked at how grey his hair had become. When he leaned down to talk to me, I saw how his nose had become swollen and lumpy, like a red golf ball, from all the drinking.
“You sure you wanna do this, Tobe?” he said.
I can’t remember my response, but I know I told him I did.
“Okay,” he said. He didn’t fight me. He didn’t hug me. He didn’t even put a hand on my shoulder. He just gave me away. He would have been 47 then.
Again, I never heard from him for a few years. About two or three years later, I’m now collecting comics on a regular basis, and I used to head to downtown Oshawa for some of them. I remember parking my bike, and walking past a billiard hall. A man came out, staggering drunk and bumped into me, hard. He turned to look at me. Then he sneered and kept walking. My father had not even recognized me.
It wasn’t until five years later. I’m now about eighteen and I’m hearing that my father’s doing better. He’s finally gotten the drinking under control, has found a job and moved to Calgary. He asked my mother if he could write me and we started up a brief correspondence. I remember his chickenscratch handwriting and his poor spelling. He always apologized for both in every letter. The thing I remember most from any of those letters?
“If you decided to do a bit of body building you wouldn’t have to take nothing from no one, but I’ve learned being rough gets you no where. Only if it’s really necessary. A smile is more intelligent than snarling.”
I don’t know if it’s apparent to you as someone who didn’t know him, but all I can see is two sides of a man warring with himself there. Trying to give me words of wisdom, but still bumping up against his ingrained nature to fight, to lash out.
I went and visited him that summer. I’d planned to try and stay for the summer, but I fled back home a week later. What I’d seen was a man who needed to down half a bottle of booze to quell the shakes enough to get him going first thing in the morning. I saw someone I couldn’t recognize as the once-brilliant man that could take me on plane rides in our living room.
I kept up a half-hearted correspondence for a while after that, but it fell off. I guess that was me giving him away.
In September 1983, we got a call. My father had collapsed in the streets of Calgary. Someone stole his wallet, so by the time he got to the hospital, he was a John Doe. And his organs were shutting down, his body had had enough. He slid into a coma. Somewhere along the way, a nurse managed to get a name out of him. I don’t know if he mumbled it, or came out of the coma. I don’t know. But they were able to trace that name back to Oshawa. His sister, my Aunt Ev. We got the first call that he was dying.
Shortly later, we got the call. He was gone. He was 58. He died on my brother’s 30th birthday, Sept 20.
Because he’d left no will and his family refused to do anything about it, my mother, now divorced from him for 16 years, went out with my brother and cleaned up his estate and arranged for his ashes to come back to Oshawa to be buried with his mother.
He was buried on my 21st birthday, Oct 6.
I never faced up to my complicated feelings toward my father for years. Then, I was driving from Port Hope to Oshawa with my then-girlfriend, now wife, when a song came on the radio. Mike + the Mechanics’ The Living Years. It’s a bit of a syrupy song, but certain words cut through me.
I wasn’t there that morning
When my father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say
And there, on the 401, it all broke inside me. I pulled off and basically lost it for quite a while.
I’ve since dealt with it. I’m still pissed with him. I’m angry that he gave up. On me. On his marriage. On his future. On his life.
I’m angry for all those conversations we missed. Deep conversations, stupid conversations, disagreements in the way we see things.
I’m pissed that he checked out before he could see my kids, his grandkids. I think he would have adored them.
But mostly, I just wish he was around so I could tell him all this.
And I wish I could know what he thought of the choices I made, the life I’ve made for myself. I wish I could show him that, despite all the stupid choices he made, all the mistakes he made, that he did end up teaching me, even if it was learning what I didn’t want to do with my life. But he still taught me. And in the end, isn’t that the job of a father to his kids?
He wasn’t much of a father, but he did give me life.
Happy birthday, Dad. I wish you were here to enjoy it.