Note from David: I was looking through my old folders and found a post written a year ago this week, but never published – and I know why. It brought up a lot of painful memories, particularly some behaviour I’m not very proud of. But if my mentors have taught me anything, it’s to be honest and transparent about “who we are” so that we can move forward in life. And so with that in mind, I’m posting it today – sort of.
I’ve edited it for two reasons. First off, the original version got a little more personal than is fit for print, and to be honest, is not reflective of where I am at today; and secondly, I’m a much better writer than before, so I tightened it up a little. Other than that, it’s 100% real 2014. Thanks for reading.
In the late summer 1999 my ex-wife announced that her partner had taken a job in Ottawa, and she was moving there, and taking Tristan with her… Huh? This move not only meant separating father and son by the whole country, but would seriously limit the opportunities for us to spend time together. Regardless of this, off they went; and I can honestly say – even as tough as things had been already – this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
A couple of months after they arrived, the unthinkable happened: Tristan was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, making what was already a difficult situation even worse. With approximately 3,400 km between us, I knew what I had to do, and did it: I quit my job, packed up my stuff and drove for five long days down Highway One, to be with my son in a strange land called “Ottawa”. To be honest, it was all very surreal – just a week earlier I was having dinner with friends, and then suddenly BANG! I was a ” Stranger in a strange town”, trying to figure out WTF just happened? Other than Tristan, I only knew one person in town; someone I’d met while travelling China the previous month. Fortunately, they kindly offered to put me up for a few weeks while I got my bearings. With no other friends, contacts or support system – and now the burden of Muscular Dystrophy – it was a brutal transition, one that weighed heavily on both my mind, and shoulders…
I soon moved into a shitty, overpriced apartment, because it was all that was available to rent – and in the year 1999, was considered a bargain at the low price of $995 a month! Next, I tried looking for work – but since the dot.com bubble had recently burst employment prospects were bleak, so instead I had to get by on my dwindling savings. During my down-time (and there was a lot of it) I scoured that new thing called “The internet”, trying to learn more about the illness that had abruptly entered our lives.
Thank goodness I had Tristan with me most of the time, or I’d have gone totally crazy. We kept really busy, swimming, going to movies and museums, to parks, the beach, indoor playrooms, etc. One time I asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween, and he excitedly said “Scooby Doo”! I tried to convince him to be a ghost (a.k.a. a bed sheet with holes cut out for eyes) but to no avail – so I mustered up the courage to create a homemade costume for him. Looking back now, I realize the situation had me calling more on my five year old to be a best friend than a son; and as a result, our bond grew stronger each day. When he wasn’t with me, I rattled around my strange apartment, in a strange town – often in minus 20 degrees – depressed, lonely, and missing him terribly.
Eight months after my arrival in Ottawa, my ex-wife announced they were moving to Vancouver Island, and – no surprise – Tristan was going with them. Having recently re-located, I can’t express the depth of frustration and anger I felt at this news; but I also knew I couldn’t just follow them again, for fear of this becoming a habitual situation. Besides, six months in Ottawa with little work had left me broke financially, and broken emotionally, so I made a bold decision: I’d move back to Sun Peaks, and try to negotiate back partial ownership of my old Bar & Grill, which – inside information had informed me – had tanked since my departure. This was a Win-Win move for us all – The business would get back on track, and I knew the move would (a) enable me to earn a good living, (b) allow me to rebuild my life, and (c) do so with a support system of good friends. The offer was accepted; and so as quickly as I arrived in Ottawa, just eight months later I was leaving again, cruising down Highway One for the second time…
Long Drives Every Six Weeks
When I settled back in Sun Peaks, I got right to work building a new life, but who was I kidding? I was heartbroken, and desperately missed Tristan – but at least I was able to see him every six weeks. To accomplish this I’d drive from Sun Peaks to Tswwassen Ferry terminal (in Vancouver) where his mother would drop him off, and then we’d turn around and drive all the way back again. On average, this was a ten-hour drive round-trip, but often twelve if in the winter; looking back now, I realize we drove this many, many time in blizzards and snow storms, trying to negotiate the icy roads of Highway Five… better known as “The Coquihalla”!
Navigating the next couple of years was difficult, to say the least. With no trust between his parents, I now realize that Tristan was witness to far more bad blood than I believe either me, or his mother realized – and if there is one regret I have in my life, it’s this. I’m ashamed to say that at times, I let the situation get the better of me. Oh sure, I had every reason to be angry; but at the end of the day, I should never have let that anger get the best of me… especially in front of my boy. For that, I’m truly sorry.
Four years after settling in Sun Peaks, T’s mother and I agreed the time had come – for Tristan’s sake – to set aside our differences and try and work together. We mediated an agreement that included me selling my business, giving up life in the mountains, and would see us moving to the island to share equal custody of my son. The timing was good, since I’d met and married Paula the previous year, and she and I had discussed moving to a better environment than the hectic pace of running a ski-hill restaurant and bar. And with Tristan recently transferring to a wheelchair, I wanted to be there to help him cope with this difficult transition, so everything seemed to be falling into place. And so, two months before Tristan turned 10 years old, we moved to the island, and I went about trying to get to know my son again. The date was November 2005.
It was a bit awkward at first, since really, we were strangers who were suddenly co-habitating; I remember worrying if all the strife and bad blood that existed between his mother and me had any real effect on him – I think any divorced parent wonders about this. I know I’d said things about his mother that I shouldn’t have, (and vice-versa) things which I later discovered actually hurt him, and created conflict within. Upon learning this, it broke my heart. I tried my best (although failing at times) to curb this destructive banter and take the high road – but unfortunately, some damage had already been done. As I said, I’m truly ashamed of my behaviour back in those days, because of how it affected Tristan – it’s my greatest regret in life. No kid should ever be exposed to his parents petty squabbling and fighting, let alone one struggling to make sense of an insidious illness – like he needed our crap as well? I couldn’t control what happened elsewhere, but knew Tristan deserved better from me; so moving forward I worked to forge a strong relationship my son, and become the kind of father he’d be proud to call “His Dad”. It wasn’t easy at times, but I was definitely motivated not to keep screwing this up; one day at a time, one day at a time…
Paula, Tristan and I just celebrated our 8th year on the island together, with T (who turned 18 not long ago) living with us half of the time. Life has calmed down considerably, due to a long progression of everyone learning to find a common ground to co-habitate, and get along for the good of our son. To be honest, the first few years were rough, being marred by a long history of the bad feelings, “control issues” and anger, all things that eventually faded or disappeared (a) as time moved on, and (b) since Tristan is no longer a child and can form his own opinion about things.
I couldn’t be prouder of what a nice, polite, smart, intelligent, interested, interesting person he has become; and yet those old, insecure feelings of whether or not I’ve ever really connected with my son on an emotional level I wanted to still dog me. I mean my style is far more structured, and even a little more demanding than at his other household, but for good reason; and I’ve placed expectations on him that aren’t always popular with teenagers, (“Please turn off the computer and read”, “We ARE going for a walk today”, “You can’t eat cheese for every meal”, etc.) all so that he could grow into someone who understands basic life skills such as respect, manners, hard work, sacrifice and commitment, which I’m proud to say he has. But as the key disciplinarian in his life, I feared that we never became the kind of friends that Fathers want to be with their sons… until last week. Something so remarkable happened that took all these fears away, and is the reason why this otherwise awkward and uncomfortable story has a happy ending. Here’s what it was:
In Tristan’s English class the teacher gave the students an assignment: While studying Hamlet, they were to write an essay about “How Shakespeare Changed My Life” in which they would explain how the words they read correlated with their own life experiences. For his efforts Tristan got a perfect mark of 6/6, the highest in the class, and the remark “Fantastic Synthesis Tristan” from his teacher! Here’s his essay; and in reading it you’ll see that I have no more reason to worry about how my son feels about his father.
How Shakespeare Changed My Life By Tristan Knapp-Fisher
In the article “Shakespeare Changed my Life”, By Robert McNeill, he describes how reading Hamlet at the age of seventeen had an impact on who he is today. He was tired of being told what to do in general, but especially in school, and Hamlet helped him discover how he was. Hamlet was angry at his Mother and the fact that she had married his Uncle and he needed to express his feelings. This was also what Robert McNeill did as he developed an interest in Shakespeare.
In 2005 my father moved back to Sidney from Kamloops and we were able to spend time together again. We had only been able to spend short periods of time together because it was difficult to get together because of the distance, and the fact that I was in school. My Dad brought movies that he would pick up at the library or video store and we would watch them. It helped us to build a relationship with each other. Wet talked about the movies, the actors, the directors, the music, and how we felt about them. I go to know my Dad well and he got to know more about how I think and feel as well. The themes in movies are similar to many of the themes in Hamlet. Love and hate, revenge, loss and death, and funny things in life. Robert McNeill also used the themes of Hamlet to express himself and his feelings.
Through my experience of watching movies and talking about them, I could understand myself better and begin to challenge myself by doing things with other people As well, I would like to share Shakespeare with my Dad to show him how it relates to so many things in life. Hamlet was outgoing and a bit crazy compared to me and I think I could relate to how he acted even if I didn’t do it myself.
My Dad is also a more outgoing person and I am able to appreciate that part of his life even though I am more quiet and reserved. I enjoy being with him when he is doing activities and talking with people and just sharing in those moments.
I know… incredible, eh? I mean, I always knew Tristan would mature into a – um – mature young adult; but this interpretation of our relationship has blown me away. And while he’s really shown what a fine young man he’s become, I’m hoping that in some small way I’ve also been able to contribute to him becoming the person he’s become. Because to be honest, after all we’ve been through with this whole situation, I know I didn’t always set the best example possible.
Here’s what I’ve learned from this ugly chapter: Regardless of what happens, always, ALWAYS do your best to take the high road – especially if it involves your children. If I could grab a Delorean and go back 15 years, I’d tell myself this, and warn me of the dangers not doing so. But I can’t; however I have learned something. When, if by chance we stumble, we need to learn from our mistakes, then get back on the horse and head down the high road. It’s less crowded, and far more rewarding in so many ways – something I learned from Tristan’s essay.
Thanks for reading my difficult story, and know that I’m so proud (and thankful) to call Tristan my son; he has definitely taught his old man a thing or two.
I love you Tristan! Thank you for EVERYTHING! Dad xo