After many failed interviews I found work for a short time in a geochemical lab. Then I applied to work in a medical lab only to be told that I would have to re-train since I had been out of the field too long. This rejection was my motivation to try new things. I had a decision to make. Do I spend three years of full time school retraining to get my old medical lab job back or do I try my hand at something new – something of my choosing? I opted for the new. The time for change had come. I would close the door on the scientific world and open another to take my life in a different direction. When I came to this decision I was filled with a sense of freedom. I felt some guilt too since I was departing from the life my parents had worked so hard to forge for me. Even though I was more or less forced into it all the feelings I had about this change were very positive. I knew intuitively that making my way through life on my terms was what I had to do.
My parents had been dead for over a year and I had made many decisions of my own accord like renovating the house and settling Mom and Dad’s estates. When it came to changing the direction of my life, despite the positive feelings, I wanted their consent – as if I needed to hear them say, “Brian, it’s all right.”
I went to St. Andrew’s cemetery and told Mom and Dad my plan as I stood in front of their headstone. What I got for a reply was a resounding silence. It was a shock but what was I expecting? I realized then that this grave was only a marker of my past life and not an anchor to it. Until that moment I couldn’t fully separate my parents from my new life. I had decided that since my parents were buried in Thunder Bay here is where I must stay. But the silence of their grave shouted back at me to make that final separation. Never again would I consider what my parents might have wanted. If ever I needed to leave Thunder Bay I would.
The question now was – what should I do? Drawing and designing were things I had always loved to do. So in September of 2002 I enrolled in the three year Architectural Technology program at Confederation College in Thunder Bay. When I started the program I weighed 186 lbs. With the stress of full time study adding to my bad nerves I resorted to comfort foods. At the end of my second year in the Architectural Technology program in April of 2004 I was 207 lbs.
That July my doctor discovered I had high blood pressure. I was shocked. My blood pressure had always been normal.
The doctor said, “Brian, the number one cause of high blood pressure is being overweight and not exercising.”
I sat for hours in front of a computer at the college, drove home to sit in front of the TV and I was very overweight. There was no denying it. I was fat.
The year before I started college I told Catharine about my frustrations in my inability to find work. “Thin people are taken more seriously than fat people,” I said, “I can’t do anything about my facial paralysis or my balance but I can thin myself out.” Even then I wasn’t seriously trying to lose weight. I sought to solve my weight problem with plastic surgery. I’d simply have the fat removed – a quick fix – and I started to look for a plastic surgeon.
After I was told that I had high blood pressure something clicked inside me. I became so frustrated with myself in knowing that I was the author of this. I had let myself get to this point. For years I said I should lose weight. I went on a diet and dropped a few pounds only to put them back on plus a few more. When I spoke to the plastic surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto who eventually operated on me, she said she could do the surgery but first I had to lose 50 lbs. There was no easy way out and that’s what I needed to hear. Now I was adamant. “I will lose weight,” I said and I set out a plan to do it. I made an oath with myself. “I’ll be 180 lbs by Christmas and after that I’m losing five pounds a month.” It was a challenging but realistic goal – a goal where I had to change my diet and lifestyle enough so the weight would stay off.
From then on I watched every calorie and reduced the amount I ate to the point of feeling a bit hungry most of the time. I needed to get my stomach to want less food. Comfort foods were out and fruits and veggies were in. The only exercise I could do with any proficiency was walking. So everywhere I went involved going for a walk. I went for a long brisk walk (and sometimes two) every day. By New Year’s, 2005, I was 180 lbs (close enough?), 175 by the end of January, 170 by February 28th, and by April’s end I had lost 50 lbs. I saw the surgeon in June of 2005 and we scheduled my surgery for October 30th. A pang of emotion swept over me as we set the date. “It’s really going to happen,” I said to her. The goal I diligently worked so hard at for over a year was going to become reality.
“Yes it really is,” she said.
I chose this surgeon because I sensed she understood why I was doing this. She saw it was part of what had become a personal mission to better myself and to get ahead in life.
For the months up until surgery I stayed on my weight loss regimen. As I got down to 160 lbs I asked myself, “How much weight is enough to lose?” My body told me. When I reached 140 lbs I started to feel thin. I knew I was close to the weight I should be. By the time I had surgery I was 131 lbs. I lost 76 lbs. This surgery was the first of two. It was a tummy tuck and buttock lift to remove the excess skin left over from losing weight and the skin folds I’d had for years from being on decadron.
When I woke up I had a gruesome-looking surgical wound that went right round my middle just above my hips. I looked as if I’d been chopped in half and sewn back together. Fortunately it didn’t hurt that much. I dropped ten pant sizes from 40 to 30 and medium sized shirts to small. Best of all my blood pressure returned to normal. The second part would be done the following October to remove the redundant skin folds on the insides of my upper arms and inner thighs.
The night before I went into St. Michael’s for my second plastic surgery I sat in a chair of my hotel room and thought. “How many surgeries have I had by now?” Counting them up I’d had 20. Tomorrow’s surgery would be number 21. Four years passed from when I started looking for a plastic surgeon to my second surgery.
But it wasn’t enough to find a surgeon. I had to pay for the plastic surgery. I used most of my savings to do this. It was money well spent. I have no second thoughts about that. My body is no longer the source of embarrassment that it had become for years. I have more energy and people take me more seriously. I’m proud of my achievement. All the positive feedback from people was terrific.
“Are you Brian Spare who …?”
“Wow, you lost so much weight I hardly knew you!”
It’s great to hear and it boosted my sense of accomplishment tremendously. I got comments like this for over a year.
My life quickly changed. It now took a different road – one which did not include my parents. As I endeavoured to trek down that path I asked myself, “Who am I now? What am I? Should my life take the direction it was heading when my parents were alive?” Only one thing became clear. Who and what I am had changed and I had to redefine myself. It was somewhere in that redefinition I would find answers.
I concluded that I couldn’t stay in the Whalen St. house surrounded by the trappings of the past while I searched for my new life. I also realized that just changing where I lived wouldn’t be enough to remake myself. The church I attended had to change as well. The decor of Corpus Christi church would constantly remind me of the many Christmases, Easters and special events of my past life that took place there. The people had to change too. I needed to be part of a parish community where the congregation would know me as Brian and not as my parents’ son.
“If I’m going to move this house needs renovating,” I told myself.
Room by room I painted walls and steam cleaned carpets. As I worked my way around the house I sorted through literally one ton of books and gathered the collectables accumulated by my parents over five decades. No way could I cart all this stuff around with me nor did I want to. It was my parents’ life and not mine. I donated the collectables and novels. The old sets of encyclopedias went to the recycle depot. Working on the house was a transition period when I prepared for my new life.
Two weeks before Christmas I finished renovating. I called Catharine. “Why don’t you and the kids come for Christmas dinner? It’s probably the last Christmas in this house.” She thought it was a great idea. That year I did something I had never done. I roasted a turkey. We had a wonderful holiday meal. In so doing Catharine and I started to say good-bye to the house we grew up in.
By March, 2000, my mind was set. I’d sell the house and a FOR SALE sign went up on the front lawn. Three months later on June 15th, one year to the day that I laid Tara to rest, the house was sold. I bought a condo across town and took with me only a scattering of memorabilia and, of course, my Team Canada autographed hockey stick. Catharine came over the morning of moving day and we toured the empty house talking about all the things that happened over the years. We ended up in the living room and decided it was time to go. I followed Catharine out the door and locked it. She drove with me to my condo and helped me move in.
Once I was settled into my new home I began the search to find myself. My first plan was to travel. I wanted to visit Switzerland. I waited five years to do this. In 1995, when Mom and I flew overseas to see relatives during the month I took off from Tara, while in France, I wanted to tour neighbouring Switzerland. It wasn’t in Mom’s plans and I didn’t go. This time I set the agenda and I made it my first order of business to see Switzerland.
The other goal was to establish my own relationship with my relatives. On the previous trips I was an appendage to my parents’ plans. As long as I was simply a part of Mom and Dad’s visits I remained, at least in my aunt’s and uncle’s eyes, my parents’ son Brian the boy. On this trip I was visiting everyone by myself on a schedule that I set. I would be Brian the man and self-determining individual.
My journey started when I arrived in Paris the morning of August 1, 2000. First on my itinerary was a city bus tour. Seeing the Louvre and Eiffel tower again was nostalgic. They reminded me of my previous visit with my mother when I was ten.
“It’s been 31 years since I’ve seen this.”
The buildings hadn’t changed but I had. In 1969, I was a boy led around by his mother. In 2000, I was an independent confident man. The day was mine. I freely spoke with people and walked about the city.
Back at the hotel I got ready to begin the rest of my trip. As I reviewed my plans I was filled with an anticipation of both excitement and anxiety. I was going to see a country of my choosing and establish my own relationship with my relatives. That evening I eagerly waited at the train station to board an overnight train to Zurich to start a three day jaunt through Switzerland. Day one saw me on a bus tour through Zurich, the financial capital. The next morning I rode the train to Luzern. It was a quaint little town with all its shops. I felt so at peace. A cogwheel train took me up the side of Mt. Rigi through “Heidi country.” The third day I travelled to Geneva for the most awesome fireworks display on the waterfront. The sky was a perpetual burst of colour celebrating Geneva’s birthday. It was worth the trip to Geneva just to see that.
The next day I caught the train to Lyon, France to meet my relatives there for the first time by myself. I was openly welcomed by Mom’s sisters, Delia and Nell, and cousins, Claire and Johnny (Delia’s children). It was a very pleasant four day visit. All too soon it was time to go and Aunt Delia and Johnny saw me off on the train back to Paris to catch my flight to Dublin, Ireland. As I left Lyon I knew I was leaving behind aunts and cousins who had bonded with me.
I spent four days in Ireland at Aunt Gertie’s house in Corofin, County Galway on the farm where Mom was born and grew up. As soon as I set foot in Corofin something stirred within me. It’s hard to put into words the yearning in my heart that began when I arrived in Corofin. I had a burning desire to record and preserve these moments. From then on my trip became a mission which I was compelled to complete. I walked around the area taking pictures of everyone and everything. While I walked I tried to imagine Mom’s life growing up on the farm and her thoughts when she last visited here in July, 1995. Was I seeing this place for the last time? Would I have conversations with my relatives here again? When would I be back? I had no idea. So I had to document it all.
I stayed at my Cousin Kay’s house in Dublin for my last day in Ireland. She and husband, Tom, saw me off on the plane to England to visit Aunt Jean, Dad’s sister, in Northampton, and her daughters, Diane and Valerie, for a week. I went to nearby Lower Harlestone, the village where Dad was born and raised, and where I would have liked to have grown up. Roaming through the village I noted all the places in Dad’s stories. Just as in Corofin I had to photograph and commit to memory as much as I could.
For the last three days of my trip I stayed with Mom’s sister, Josie, in London. I wanted to see Uxbridge and Hillingdon Hospital. They were only a short train ride away. I had to see the town and hospital where my parents had worked and met and where my story began. I had no idea where in Uxbridge Mom and Dad had lived. So I looked around the train station knowing they must have gone through it many times. I needed to walk around a few streets of Uxbridge to get a feel for what they might have seen. Then I walked to Hillingdon Hospital. As I approached I took a picture of the old exterior and went in to walk around the ground floor halls. I wanted to get a feel of the place and wondered what the walls could tell me. Eventually I had to admit it was a hospital that looked much like any other and had no special appeal to me. I left Hillingdon Hospital and Uxbridge with the satisfaction of having been to see them. With my mission complete I headed back to Aunt Josie’s. Early the next morning I said a quick good-bye and thank you to Aunt Josie, got into the waiting taxi and caught my flight back to Canada. This trip gave me a sense of closure on my parents’ lives and on the life I had with them. It opened the door to my own relationship with my relatives.
Mom often told me the story of how she met Dad.
“I met your father in the men’s washroom at Hillingdon,” Mom smiled and laughed as she relived the moment.
In the summer of 1953, Mom was assisting a male patient to the washroom one afternoon. She met a handsome young man, Peter Spare, the Assistant Clinical Chemist. As a nurse she was one of the few women permitted into the men’s washroom.
“He was surprised to see me,” Mom said.
A few days later when they crossed paths they smiled as they talked about their bathroom encounter. That started a two year courtship.
Once Mom and Dad got to know each other they found, despite their very different upbringings, they had many things in common. Both had grown up on a farm and hated the farming life. Each had chosen a profession in health care and had achieved their education through their own means, hard work and determination – and they both desired to leave the UK. When it came to getting an education and forging ahead in life Mom like Dad found her helping hand at the end of her own arm.
Dad owned a three-wheeled, two-seater, Bond Minicar convertible powered by a motorcycle engine. It was constantly breaking down so he kept a tool box in the back to change a spark plug or whatever needed fixing. Often it needed a push to start it. But Mom didn’t know how to drive. Dad would have to steer while Mom pushed. When the car started Mom jumped in and off they went. They made a good team.
“I swear I pushed that car everywhere we went,” Mom said.
September 3, 1955, Mom and Dad were married at St. Patrick‘s church in Northampton, England, and they spent their honeymoon at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford on Avon. When they returned from their honeymoon Mom and Dad made their final preparations to set sail for their new life together in a new land. In early October they sailed to Canada. They docked in Montreal and rode the train to Sudbury, Ontario, with just $18.00 cash between them.
Soon after they arrived in Canada Mom and Dad tried to start a family. I was born four years later and they adopted Catharine three years after that. Mom and Dad were dedicated parents who raised Catharine and me in a loving and stable environment. They were always supportive to each other and were unwavering in their parental duties.
All through my grade school years we had family, neighbours and friends in and out of our home and guests over for dinner. For every occasion throughout the year we had people and parties at our home. My illness changed all that. From my neurosurgery at Sick Kids in Toronto until my recovery the house parties stopped. During those two years only a few friends came by. An elephant lived in our house and many people didn’t know what to say or do. Adults with healthy children were silently thankful they weren’t in Mom and Dad’s shoes.
The traumatic experience of my brain tumour had affected all of us. I was left with disabilities and the plight of adjusting to them. Mom and Dad had to recover from coping with the distress of watching me get sicker during 1973. They seriously wondered if I would live though it. Catharine quietly watched as the world focused on me. Being younger she weathered the storm better than any of us. When the two years of my recovery had passed, and I was getting out again, the house parties gradually started. Once more other people’s voices enriched our lives.
Mom and Dad continuously applauded my efforts to overcome my disabilities. They did anything and everything to forge a successful path in life for me. Mom never accepted what had happened to me. She had a mother’s guilt of thinking she could have done more for me. She saw the perfect little healthy boy that she had prayed so hard for become sick. Mom was thankful for me but felt cheated that she couldn’t bear more children. Also Mom didn’t become the woman of wealth and prominence she had dreamt about. Mom lived her days looking back to her troubled childhood and it influenced every decision she made. She worked hard to get out of her impoverished life and she sensed she was succeeding in her aims only to be thwarted by circumstances. She wondered when the cruelties of this world would let up on her. Mom felt as if life had been very unfair to her.
“Why do some people go through life with hardly any problems,” Mom said to me, “and others get so many?”
The culmination of all her worries sowed the seed of her depression that didn’t surface until the 1980s. The love that brought Mom and Dad together and bonded them through their life’s journey was always there. As Mom’s depression took root a wedge was driven between them.
Part of Mom’s depression stemmed from the fact that she had no siblings in Canada to support her. “If only Rita had lived she would have come with me,” Mom said to me with a mournful sigh. I recall how her spirits were lifted when she received a letter from one of her sisters. Mom yearned to return to Ireland but Dad had no desire to do so. Although she dearly loved her husband Mom very much resented his choice to stay in Canada. Mom and Dad remained together out of their commitment to each other and to Catharine and me.
Even after Mom’s depression started to take hold of her the get-togethers with friends continued. Not until 1985 did the house parities start to taper off. During the three years I was in London, Ontario, things really diminished. When I came back to Thunder Bay the house was much quieter and even general house maintenance had been left. It demonstrated to me how central I was to Mom and Dad’s lives. Without my presence they lost the focus of what had driven them forward together for many years. Mom and Dad lost each other in their efforts to build a life for me.
When we started Tara Scientific Laboratories my parents found a renewed energy in helping me build a future. Running Tara demanded a lot of our time and by and large took the place of our social lives. Not until the final three months when Mom and I were shutting Tara down did I truly notice just how quiet the house had become. Many of the family friends who were in and out of the house over the years had moved out of town, passed away, or just stopped coming – friends who were never replaced. Our home had become a lonely place.
Once Tara was finished and Dad’s affairs had been put in order, Mom began to lose her positive outlook. She sensed the emptiness of our house too and didn’t see how or have the energy to liven it up once again. Mom lost her focus of helping me build a life now that Tara was gone. She had seen me to my 40th year but she could find no more of herself to give. Mom died of a heart attack in her sleep June 10, 1999. I think her spirit drained away over the last three months of her life.
I laid Dad to rest and then Mom. On June 15, 1999, the day after I buried Mom, I filed Tara’s final taxes. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Mom and Dad steered the course of my life for its first 40 years. Tara Scientific Laboratories was the last part of it on which my parents had influence. When I laid Tara to rest I put aside my parents’ capacity to shape my life. Now navigating my way was solely up to me.
Mom looked to be doing quite well during the first six months after Dad’s passing. We worked to close Tara and she sorted out Dad’s affairs. She had a positive outlook and appeared to be adjusting well to her new life. Catharine noticed it too.
Over the next three months Mom’s health declined. She lost her positive attitude. Mom became quiet and withdrawn and she got thinner and frail. Catharine said she was afraid to give Mom a hug in case she broke a bone. It seemed as if Mom had given up on life. I was doing more for her care.
Mom took me to dinner for my 40th birthday. The following week I found Mom dragging herself around the house. She literally didn’t have the energy to eat. I was concerned. Mom wouldn’t see a doctor but towards evening, due only to my insistence, she said she said she would try to see her doctor the next day. This relieved me somewhat. I helped Mom into bed at 11:00 PM. She didn’t want to read as she usually did. Instead she silently curled up resting her head on the pillow and sighed as she closed her eyes.
In the morning I looked in on Mom from her bedroom door before I left the house at 8:00 AM. She was sleeping. When I came home two hours later Mom was still in bed. As a rule Mom was up and about by 9:00 AM. It occurred to me that she said she hadn’t been sleeping well the last few nights.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll give Mom a bit longer then I’ll wake her up.” I went downstairs to work on my computer. An hour later I came back upstairs to find Mom still asleep.
“I’ll make Mom a cup of coffee and call her.”
At 11:20 AM, with coffee in hand I walked into her room and put it down on her bedside table. Mom was lying on her side facing away from me as I stood at her bedside with the window behind me. “Mom,” I called. She didn’t move. “Mom,” I called a bit louder. She still didn’t move. Then I reached out to nudge her shoulder. As soon as I touched her I knew. Immediately the logical Mr. Spock in me plainly said, “Mom’s dead,” but my heart wouldn’t accept this. “No, no, no. That can’t be. Keep trying to wake Mom up. She’ll wake up.”
In disbelief I ran around the bed bending down to look closely at Mom. Her eyes were closed. She lay motionless. It was too dark to see properly. I ran around the bed, yanked the drapes open and ran back. Making the room brighter didn’t change anything. Mom laid there in total stillness.
“Mom,” I said loudly as I watched her. No response. “Mom! … Mom!!” I called louder. Still no response. “Mom, don’t do this to me … Mom!!!” I was screaming at her now. Again and again I tried in vain. I felt as if somebody had kicked me in the stomach.
Eventually I knew I had to call someone. Taking a few paces toward the door I stopped and turned back to scream at Mom some more. My heart could not accept that Mom was really gone. I finally made it to the kitchen and stared at the phone on the wall.
“Who do I call?”
Then I remembered that Mom had called Corpus Christi rectory the night Dad died. So I picked up the phone and called the number I knew by heart having dialled it many times since I was a boy. Monica, the church secretary, answered. I told her Mom died during the night and that I had just found her.
“Your Mom!” she exclaimed. “Brian, I’m sorry … Are you alone?”
“Have you called the police?”
“No,” I answered.
“Brian, you have to call the police. I’ll call for you.”
“No,” I said, “I’ll call.”
“Alright then I’ll call someone to go and see you.” I thanked Monica and hung up.
“Kate,” I said to myself. I wanted Catharine to see Mom lying in bed as I had found her before I called the police. When I phoned I got her answering machine. I said, “Call me as soon as you can.” Not knowing how long it would be until she called back I decided to call the police.
“Police,” I wondered, “what’s the number?” I thought some more. Then it occurred to me, “Inside cover of the phone book. That’s it.” So I got the phone book out, placed it on the kitchen table and opened the front cover. In the top right corner was a big, bold 911. “That’s right, 911.” I calmly said to myself and I dialled. Never in my life had I been so stressed out that I couldn’t think.
The woman who answered asked where to direct my call. “… police,” I replied quietly.
She put me through and the lady there asked why I was calling. “My Mom, I think she’s dead.” I knew Mom was dead. I just couldn’t say she was.
“Where is your Mom?” she asked.
“Are you alone?”
There was a pause and then she said, “Okay, we’re on our way.”
Right after I hung up the phone rang. It was Catharine.
“Kate, come right now.” She came as fast as she could but the police, paramedics and firemen arrived first.
I led the police into Mom’s bedroom followed by the paramedics and firemen. They looked around the room and then at Mom. The paramedics started to lay Mom flat on her back. I turned away. I couldn’t watch. As I walked down the hall toward the kitchen followed by a policeman I asked, “She’s dead isn’t she?”
“Yes,” he replied.
Somehow I needed conformation of what I already knew.
As we got to the kitchen the door bell rang. It was Joe our long time family friend. Monica asked him to come and see me. As we sat at the kitchen table talking Catharine came in the door. She had seen the Emergency Response Vehicles parked out front as she approached the house. “What’s going on?” she asked frantically.
“Mom died last night,” I said.
She wanted to see Mom and we walked together to her bedroom. The paramedics had laid Mom flat on the floor across the foot of her bed and covered her with a sheet. Catharine pulled back the sheet. She gasped when she first saw Mom’s face in death. Then she looked at me and I told her how I had found Mom – the story I’d just told Joe and the police.
More neighbours started to come. Joe, who was still in the kitchen when Catharine and I got back, could see that I was far from alone now. He expressed his deepest sympathies and said he should go. I thanked him as we walked to the door. Joe and his wife Peggy happened to be leaving for a trip to Ireland that evening. At the door I asked Joe to say hello to Ireland for Mom. He smiled saying he would.
The other neighbours all expressed their condolences as well but there was really nothing they could do. They gradually left leaving Catharine and me with the police and paramedics to wait for the coroner. The only other visitors were Fr. Randall and Fr. Alan, the parish priests from Corpus Christi, to give Mom the last rights as Catharine and I watched.
It was apparent to the Coroner after seeing Mom that a blood clot had worked its way through her body finally lodging in her heart during the night. He estimated Mom died about 4:00 AM. I know for sure she was alive at 2:00 when I last looked in on her before I fell asleep. The police called the funeral home and they arrived 15 minutes later.
I had to see the undertakers carry Mom out the door and put her in the hearse. Catharine and I stood on the front lawn and watched as the hearse drove down the street and disappear from view. We walked back into the house. Catharine wanted me to go back with her and stay the night. “Thanks Kate,” I said, “I’m alright by myself.” I just wanted to stay put.
The next day Catharine and I went to finalize Mom’s funeral arrangements. Sunday we went to the funeral home to see Mom as she lay in her casket dressed in her fondest off white suit. Just like Dad Mom looked as if she was sleeping. Catharine and I sat quietly with our thoughts and watched Mom. Eventually we looked at each other and knew we had to leave. The following evening I went back to stay with Mom for an hour until they closed. I was trying to reconcile the disbelief in my heart.
Tuesday morning we gathered at the funeral home for the half hour visitation. I sat with Catharine through the service and only she and I rode in the hearse to Mom’s funeral mass. As we entered the full senior choir was singing. Fr. Carey spoke warmly of Mom and said prayers over her at St. Andrew’s cemetery. I carried Mom to her final rest.
As we left Mom’s graveside to go to a reception in the church hall a few darkened clouds drifted by. The breeze picked up slightly and the skies threatened to rain. Catharine was too lost in her thoughts to notice the weather. I looked up at this and thought, “Ah Mom, a stormy end to a stormy life.”
When Dad was 14 he got a job at The Northampton Electric Light and Power Company in nearby Northampton. He fixed fridges and stoves, well pumps, installed wiring in houses that had never had electricity until then and wired up runway lights at Northolt Aerodrome so the allied bombers could land at night. World War II was raging in Europe at the time. Northampton, not being of industrial importance, was unscathed by German bombing raids. Dad remembered seeing from where he lived 20 miles away in Lower Harlestone the night glow of the manufacturing centre of Coventry burning from German bombs.
Dad could wire up anything. When I was growing up if any wiring needed doing around the house such as installing a light or electrical switch Dad would take care of it. I helped and he showed me a few basic things such as how to properly connect two wires. But on the whole Dad was left to do it. As a kid I accepted that this was Dad’s job. As an adult, and especially after Dad died, I wish I had learned more from him when I had the chance.
I listened as he told me about the people he met on his travels around the district to do various jobs. Roger, the butler of one of the houses Dad wired up sat him down at the pantry table when he had finished and said, “Here, have these.” Dad looked at the plate of different kinds of chocolates in front him that was unavailable to most people during the war.
“Where did you get these?” Dad asked.
The butler replied, “This is too good for those people,” referring to the Lord and Lady of the manner.
An elderly man in Northampton, Mr. Thomson, called regularly to have something fixed. He often asked specifically for Peter Spare. Dad showed up to fix the stove or whatever Mr. Thomson needed doing. Usually there was nothing wrong with it. He just wanted someone to talk to and he liked talking to Dad. All the jobs were timed so they knew at the shop about how long it would take him to return. Dad said, “I have to go they’re expecting me.”
“Oh, tell them the kitchen light and the fridge needed fixing as well,” Mr. Thomson was lonely. He had the money to pay for the all the work and having Dad’s company was well worth the expense.
One afternoon Dad arrived at what should have been another routine job. A Mrs. Jenkins had a problem with her space heater. He knocked on the door. No reply. So he opened the door a little and called in. Dad listened and heard a faint, ”Help! Help!”
Dad went in to discover Mrs. Jenkins elderly mother in bed with the bed clothes on fire. The space heater had shorted out and set the fire. Mrs. Jenkins mother was bed ridden and couldn’t get out. Dad pulled the burning bed clothes off and threw them outside before the flames got to her. Mrs. Jenkins had just gone to the barn when Dad arrived and would not have been back in time to help her mother. Needless to say both women were very grateful.
When he wasn’t telling me about his days in Lower Harlestone Dad talked about his time in the Royal Air Force and his posting to India. Dad volunteered for the RAF when he was 17 rather than be drafted into the army at 18. His Uncle Ted was an engineer in the RAF stationed in Dayton, Ohio, developing the jet engine with the US Air Force. Ted was Dad’s idol and the reason Dad wanted to be an engineer. But that would have to wait until after the war. Dad wanted to work with radar – the new technology of the day. The RAF wasn’t hiring for that position but they needed people in the medical lab. So Dad changed his plan. It turned out to be his life’s career.
When Dad was signing up the officer taking down the personal information asked the Irishman in the line in front of him, “Name?” then, “Occupation?”
The Irishman and his friends had been smuggling goods across the Irish Sea. When they realized that the authorities were catching up with them they decided to enlist.
“Smuggler,” the Irishman replied.
“A what? I can’t put that down,” said the astonished officer.
The Irishman turned to his friend further back in the line, “Seamus, I’m a smuggler, right?” Seamus confirmed this. The Irishman looked at the officer who thought for a moment and then wrote transportation.
The new recruits were sent to Yorkshire in the north of England for three months of basic training and to life in the RAF. All kinds of people from every walk of life were thrown together to work as a team. Some of the men in the unit couldn’t take it and broke down. Dad’s non-judgmental nature allowed him to accept people as they were and to make the best of whatever situation he was in. It enabled him to both endure and prosper by seeing the good side of whatever he did, wherever he was, or whomever he was with. Throughout his life Dad could see the humanity in people that made them who they were and accept them for it. He would find people who were interesting for what they knew. But moreover he liked people because of their character that made them different in some way. It’s what I learned to like about people too.
Dad and the other recruits were each issued a riffle and taught how to use it. Then they were ordered to board a Lancaster bomber for the long flight to Karachi which was in India at that time. The men sat on hammocks strung over the bomb bay doors that didn’t quite close. Their hammocks were strung low enough that when they sat on them the men could put their feet on the bomb bay doors and watch the land or sea go by through the crack. They all hoped nobody opened the doors. In Karachi they helped to run the RAF #10 base hospital.
The war in Europe was coming to an end so the hospital’s main function was to treat British casualties who fought the Japanese in Burma along with receiving British POWs held by the Japanese. Dad squeamishly talked about the huge jungle sores he saw on the casualties and the emaciated state of the POWs. The jungle sores and other injuries were treated and the POWs were fattened up before they were allowed to return to Britain. They also provided medical treatment for the local people.
The RAF brass regularly ordered the British lab staff out on a route march. A sign was posted on the bulletin board giving them notice: ROUTE MARCH WEDNESDAY 0900 HOURS. Dad’s commanding officer, who was a physician, called to head office, “Look, we don’t have time for this. We’re trying to run a hospital.”
A note to state that the march was cancelled was later attached to the bottom of the sign. The RAF brass didn’t catch on. They kept ordering route marches and Dad’s CO would be on the phone to get them cancelled.
After four years in Karachi Dad was sent back to Britain. He always spoke warmly of the Indian people and his time there. Although Dad never went back to Karachi a part of him never left.
Dad returned to Lower Harlestone and to the job he had before he left. He now wanted to become a Clinical Chemist and work in a hospital. The regular program in London at the University of London was full. So Dad worked full time during the day and took evening courses in Northampton set by the University of London for four years to earn his degree.
After a full day’s work Dad often came home to find that he had been volunteered, usually by his mother, to repair the stove or a light for a neighbour. Everyone helped each other in a small village. He had to squeeze it in between supper, going to class and/or studying. By the time he graduated Dad was tired of being Mr. Fix-it. Uncle Ted told Dad that he couldn’t stay where he was if he wanted to get ahead in life. Dad decided then that he would leave the UK.
In 1952, when Dad received his degree, he took a job as assistant Clinical Chemist at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge in Northwest London. Before he left to go to London his father, Pop, advised Dad, “Son, if you need a helping hand you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”
Dad never forgot it and it influenced many decisions he made throughout his life. He would do things by his own device rather than seek help – an ideal that also influenced me.
One Saturday morning close to a year before he died Dad reminisced about his boyhood years in Lower Harlestone. He looked straight at me with an expression of sudden realization on his face and said, “You and I would have been good friends.” I have no doubt we would have.
Instead Dad and I enjoyed a close friendship as father and son. Dad called me Pal. I was his pal and he was certainly mine. My heart ached when I realized I would never hear him call me Pal again.
The next morning, Saturday, when Dad and I would have had our chat, I sat at the kitchen table and looked at Dad’s empty chair. I imagined him sitting across the kitchen table from me just as he and I had done for as long as I can remember. From topic to topic we expressed our opinions. We were mostly alike in how we saw things, but we appreciated each other’s points of view when they differed. We sailed the seas of each other’s thoughts knowing we would never be judged or refuted. Everything was interesting to us. Because our minds were very broad we discussed all sorts of things – be they world events, past or present, the projects we were working on, people we met or just to be there to listen with a sympathetic ear. Dad and I had a natural curiosity about people and places and had an insatiable appetite for learning new things.
Dad’s views were staunchly conservative – a stand-on-your-own-two-feet and a cash-on-the-barrel stance. Although I shared Dad’s conservative nature I was more liberal in how I saw things. My reality was that we all need support at some point in our lives.
Our Saturday morning chats were times for us to find respite from an often crazy world. We found solace in sharing our thoughts even if it was just for an hour. For the last few years of his life Dad‘s mind narrowed in scope. I found this disheartening but our comradery more than made up for it.
Dad often recounted his days as a boy and young man. I loved to listen to these stories no matter how many times I heard them. As Dad reminisced he roamed the streets of the village where he grew up and I was there with him.
Dad was born Peter Dennitts Spare on October 27, 1926, in Lower Harlestone, England. It was a village of centuries old sandstone tenant houses owned by the Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s family. Young Edward John (Johnnie) Spencer, the future 8th Earl Spencer, Diana’s father, was a few years older than Dad. Dad got to know him as well as someone from the village could get to know one of the Spencers. Johnnie liked to escape from Althorp, the Spencer family manor, to go have a pint with the boys at The Fox and Hound (now The Dusty Fox), the local pub. It wouldn’t be long before his father sent the chauffeur to bring him back. Dad’s sister, Jean, who was considered prim and proper enough by the Spencer family, was invited to Althorp from time to time to have tea with the young Anne Spencer who later was Diana’s aunt.
Lower Harlestone was a community where everybody knew everyone and all about each other’s business. All the adults looked out for each other’s children. The house Dad grew up in was next to the blacksmith’s forge. Dad told me many times about blowing the bellows of the furnace while Mr. Smith, the blacksmith, heated a metal rod in the flames to shape it or helping Mr. Smith shoe a horse. Dad told me about the time when he and his friends found some small tires, a wooden box and other parts in the village dump to make a go cart. Then they rode it down the shallow sloping road past the blacksmith’s forge. When Mr. Smith saw them he called out, “You young devils, you’ll break your necks!” He put brakes and a proper steering mechanism on it before he let the boys use it again. Of course Dad and his friends knew Mr. Smith would do this and that’s why they rode it past his forge.
One time they found an old motorcycle in the dump. They cleaned it up, put some kerosene in the tank and got it running. Another time they found a mold for making lead musket balls lying on the edge of the garbage pit. They scrounged up some lead and melted it down to cast musket balls for their sling shots to shoot rats. Dad said he couldn’t hit a moving rat but his friends got pretty good at it. Lead was much easier to come by in those days since it was used for plumbing and to shingle roofs.
The village was laid out in a large square with the houses facing inward. Behind them stretched farmland and pastures. The kids spent summer days romping through the fields. They seldom went hungry. If they wanted something to eat they pulled up a carrot. Often they went scrumping in the vicarage apple orchard. The vicar said they could eat the fallen apples. If there weren’t any apples lying on the ground they gave the trees a good shake.
In the 1800s Dad’s family was silversmiths and quite well off. A couple of alcoholics in the family drank the business and had drained the wealth by the time Dad was born. Luckily living in a village where everyone looked out for each other they seldom wanted for anything. Crime was unheard of. No one locked their door – even if the door happened to have a lock on it. Parents only worried about their kids when they weren’t home for supper.
During the week Dad attended the small two room village school. The four to eight year old children were taught in one room and the nine to fourteens in the other. The lavatories were outside enclosed by five-foot-high walls but no roof. The urinal in the boy’s washroom was a long, gently sloping, shallow trough on the floor with a small stream of water running down it. The boys stood at the trough and instead of peeing into it they had competitions to see who could pee the highest much to the dismay of Mrs. Miller who lived next door. She had an ongoing complaint to Mr. Derbyshire, the head master of the school, about the spouts of urine arching over the wall onto her rose bushes. Dad laughed, “Little boys can pee a long way.”
Dad’s favourite teacher, Mr. Guest, had a gentle way about him. He instilled within Dad a love for learning. Mr. Guest could demonstrate practical applications for everything that he taught his students in class. He took his students for field trips around the village to show them things such as how to estimate the height of a house or tree using trigonometry. For memory training he got them to memorize and recite poetry in class. Years later Dad could still recite many of the poems. Wearing a broad smile he recited “Leisure” by the Welsh poet, William Henry Davies because the sixth line, “Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,” made his best friend, Ron, laugh uncontrollably.
Dad said Mr. Guest could make anything interesting. He would have classes after school for the brighter students who wanted to learn more. He believed in teaching his pupils as much as they were able to learn and Dad willingly learned everything Mr. Guest could teach him.
Dad and his sister, Jean, visited their Grandmother on Saturday mornings to help her bake. Their Grandmother gave them each a lump of cookie dough to shape. She took the well-worked dough shapes blackened by active young hands that needed washing and put them in the oven to bake with the other cookies. Then she sent the two children off to play. Amazingly their cookies came out of the oven baked all clean and well-shaped like the others. Another reason Dad and Jean liked going to their Grandmother’s house was because she was completely deaf. They could make all the noise they liked and it didn’t bother her.
On Sundays Dad assisted with the church services as an altar server, singing in the choir, pumping the bellows of the church organ or, Dad’s favourite job, chiming the bells in the church tower. From Dad’s description of St. Andrew’s you would think it was a big church and to Dad as a young boy it was. When I saw it years later it was a small village church built in the 1400s made from the same sandstone from the same nearby quarry as the houses. In the churchyard cemetery I found headstones dating as far back as the 1600s.
Uncle Arthur and his wife Lillian were two of Dad’s favourite relatives. I know very little about Uncle Arthur except that he was a man of his convictions and faith. One evening he went out in the rain to help neighbours fix a wheel on their cart. He caught pneumonia and died. Arthur’s wishes were that half his ashes be scattered over the moors and the other half among the firs. The first part of Arthur’s final request was carried out. But Aunt Lil couldn’t bear to part with the remaining half of his ashes. Uncle Arthur in his urn, or rather half of Uncle Arthur, went back home with Aunt Lil and took up residence on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in her bedroom.
Aunt Lil sailed to America annually for some years after her husband died but, in a sense, never alone. Arthur in his urn travelled with her. When she got back home Arthur went back in his spot above the fireplace. When Aunt Lil died Dad took Uncle Arthur’s urn from the mantelpiece. His remaining half was interred along with Aunt Lil’s ashes in the family plot in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Lower Harlestone.
Dad told me about Dr. Churchouse who was a portly old country doctor with a low, gravelly voice who thought highly of himself. He visited Lower Harlestone once a week and ate his midday meal at Dad’s house. “And boy could he eat!” Dad said. His round figure was testament to his healthy appetite. The doctor’s remedy for everything was to prescribe a laxative. Each winter Dad got the flu which gave him an upset stomach and diarrhea for two weeks. When Dr. Churchouse came by on his weekly visits he would inquire about young Peter. Hearing of Peter’s ailment the doctor gruffly pronounced, despite the diarrhea, “Give him California Syrup of Figs.”
Dad hated this and put up a valiant fight by clamping his mouth shut. His father held him still and pinched his nose so he would have to open his mouth to breathe. When he did in went a spoonful of the mixture his mother had waiting for him. Dad promptly ran outside to throw up. This happened regularly but to Dad’s parents the doctor’s order was beyond question.
California Syrup of Figs: A fruit laxative containing Senna leaf and fig extracts in syrup.
The nurses pulled the chair at the foot of Dad’s bed around to the bedside. Mom sat in the chair for a while holding Dad’s hand. When she heard Catharine’s voice Mom got up to meet her in the hall. Catharine wailed. I stood aside when she came into the room and sat in the chair as she held Dad’s hand and stroked his hair.
While Catharine was with Dad Mom went to call Corpus Christi rectory to tell them Dad had just died. I went to the TV room to call my friend, Linda, who had worked for Dad in the lab at McKellar.
“Hi Linda . . . Dad . . . Dad . . .”
“died,” Linda finished for me. I just couldn’t say it.
“ . . . Yes, about half an hour ago.”
“Brian, I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ll tell everyone at work.”
When I got back Catharine was getting up. She looked at me with a questioning glance wondering why we couldn’t have called her in time to see Dad before he passed away.
“Kate,” I said, “it was so sudden.”
With her head downcast Catharine joined Mom in the hall to talk to the nurses.
It was my turn to sit with Dad. I held his hand while resting my head on his hip and I cried. Mom said she hadn’t heard me cry like that since I was a young boy. I was a little boy. Images of Dad flooded into my mind. I remembered my walks and talks with Dad and the comradery that we shared. I thought of all the projects Dad and I built together – the hovercraft, the lathe and Tara.
I remembered Dad’s warm smile, the genuine loving concern in his eyes and the reassurance I felt from the sound of his voice. Dad had not only been my father but my close, life-long friend and soul mate. He had always been there to help me in any way he could. I thanked Dad for his love and unconditional acceptance of me and for paving the way for me to succeed in life.
“Would I be where I am now without Dad’s help?”
Despite all my determination I knew that I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to make it in life without Dad supporting me.
As I watched the redness in Dad’s cheeks turn yellow and felt the warmth in his body fade away, I realized that the time for our final good-bye was near.
“Will I ever again have someone who understood me as intuitively as Dad? If Dad had lived longer what would we have talked about? Would we have found another project to do? Where would we have gone?”
In the end if Dad’s life had been longer I doubt any amount of time could have been enough. I would be as heartbroken by his passing as I am now and still wish I had more time with Dad.
Mom and Catharine had come back in the room to see him one last time. After a few minutes Catharine said she would drive Mom home. I stayed.
Finally I knew I had to let go. I stood up still holding Dad’s hand and looked at him for a minute lying there in peaceful stillness. “Bye Dad,” I said looking at his face. Then I looked down at my hand holding his and I slowly and reluctantly let go of his hand – Dad’s hand – the hand that had held me and helped me through life – the hand I knew the shape of intimately that was comfort, acceptance, trust and understanding – the hand I would never hold again. As I slowly walked away I stopped at the doorway to look at Dad one more time. After a minute I sighed a deep breath to collect myself. Then I turned and left.
I was consumed by a feeling of complete and utter defeat as I walked out of the hospital. I had lost the fight – the fight I could never have won. I knew deep within me that I could never have made Dad well again. Even so when defeat came it was hard to take.
When I got home Catharine was just leaving. She had to go back to her home and family. Mom was sitting in the living room. She got up and we hugged each other in silence. Both of us were trying to clarify in our minds what had just happened. We had prepared ourselves for this time. We knew it was coming. When it came we weren’t ready for it. Could we ever have been?
Mom and I talked about Dad until 2:00 AM. I remembered then that I had an appointment at work the next day. I sighed rubbing my forehead. At that moment the last thing I wanted to do was go to work in the morning. But I had a business to run and a responsibility to our customer.
“Brian, I know you don’t what to go but you have to keep that appointment. There is nothing you can do for Dad tomorrow.” Mom was right.
By nine o’clock Wednesday morning I was back at Tara. I stopped at St. Joe’s on the way. I had to see Dad’s room to solidify in my mind the reality of last night. His room was exactly as we had left it except that there was no Dad. The undertakers had removed him during the night. After a few minutes of looking around the room I went to work.
It was a very quiet day at Tara. Nobody came through the door except my appointment that afternoon. I don’t think I accomplished anything that day except to make a sign to tape on the door that said, “Due to a family emergency Tara will be closed until Monday.”
I sat at the office desk – alone. I had to call home every hour to talk to somebody. Mom or Catharine answered. As we spoke I could hear the voices of friends who had come to give their condolences and I wished I was there. After they left Mom and Catharine went to the funeral home to make the final arrangements for Dad’s funeral. I wanted to be one of Dad’s pall bearers. It was the one final duty I needed to perform for him. I had to carry Dad to his final rest just as he had carried me through life.
When the appointment ended I locked the door at 3:00.
The next day was difficult. Mom, Catharine and I went to see Dad lying in his casket. Dad looked as if he was just asleep – as if I could reach over, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Dad, wake up.”
Then Friday came – the day of Dad’s funeral. We gathered for a half hour visitation at the funeral home at 11:00 AM. I sat with Mom and Catharine through the service and then joined the other pall bearers to put Dad into a hearse for the drive to Corpus Christi for his funeral mass. Then I rejoined Mom and Catharine.
When we arrived at the church Mom, Catharine, and I, along with Fr. Carey, a long time friend of the family, met Dad’s hearse and we carried him into the church. As we entered the full senior choir was singing. Many of them had taken time off work. Dad had been a member of the choir for years. Fr. Carey gave a glowing eulogy. I can’t recall what he said but I remember feeling proud of Dad as he spoke. I followed Dad’s mass, listened to Fr. Carey speak, heard how wonderfully the choir sang but it all seemed shrouded by a fog.
When mass was over we brought Dad to St. Andrew’s cemetery for his interment. I and the other pall bearers carried Dad from the hearse and placed him over his grave. Then I stood with Mom and Catharine as Fr. Carey said prayers over Dad. After a moment of silence we left to go to a reception in the church hall.
That evening Mom and I sat across the living room from each other. Her eyes met mine. No words were spoken but her look expressed both our thoughts. Dad’s presence had left our home. Although Dad hadn’t lived in the house for a month we never truly felt his absence until he was buried.