By Roy Ratnavel -
April 18, 1988 forever will be etched in my memory. It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry. Like most Tamil men of his generation, my father mostly lived the stoic ideal. He was the bread-winner of our tiny family, the rock against which the family could lean.
But not that day. He was uncontrollable at the Colombo airport, and came apart at the seam. I will never forget that moment. That’s the day I left Sri Lanka. He was no doubt experiencing a complex mix of emotions.
That’s the last time I saw him. He died three days later on April 21, 1988 — a single bullet killed him at the age of 53. A piece of me gone, my flesh and blood, my father, myself.
A faithful Sri Lankan, proud Tamil, who enjoyed fine food, literature, and biking. Whenever we had the opportunity, my dad and I would be on our respective bicycles. I truly enjoyed biking around with him — so did he. It was ‘The Dad Thing.’ Northern coastal city was ideal place for this. A road nestled by serene Indian Ocean, vibrant commercial activity and it was a good place for him to get away.
Ever since his death, Father’s Day became just another day for me. No frantic last-minute effort to obtain the perfect card or an attempt at hunting down a meaningful gift. It was just me and my painful thoughts. Wanting, wishing and waiting that Father’s Day passed quickly.
I remember sitting in the kitchen in Toronto, feeling suffocated by the news of his demise while yearning for a nostalgic past that I hadn’t quite let go yet. Our shared activities in their camaraderie in nature played in my mind like a slideshow. Watching Ben‐Hur at Savoy. Walking around the charming promenade along Colombo ‘Galle Face Green’ together with ice‐cream in hand discussing literature.
I miss the little things about him: the way he’d mimic historic figures — his favourite was Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish Prime Minister of England for his fiery words. I miss seeing such impersonation, and his sharp wit which is now a fleeting memory I try desperately to recall. Our conversations were a constant noise in my ears.
He was my first English teacher. He taught me literature — his favourite was ‘Hamlet.’ Once, he taught me how to recite William Blake’s poem ‘Piping down the Valleys Wild’ for a poetry recital contest at school during a long bike ride — I got the second prize. The kid from Papua New Guinea beat me to it.
Ever since I lost my dear friend — 24 years ago, I have been trying to fill a hole. A hole in my heart so big I don’t think it will ever close up. Walking around Toronto in the first few days after his death, with my body and mind numbed by the shock, my 18‐year‐old brain just kept thinking selfishly, “My dad is not dead, it is someone else’s and the news I got was incorrect. Everything’s going to be great again.”
I had pushed the idea of my father demise so far back in my mind that when it was finally confirmed, I was crushed. Wrapped in my own arms, my body tried its best to reject the onslaught of emotion. It was at that moment in that kitchen in Toronto the hole inside me began to burst open. Tears flowed. Anger rose. I couldn’t breathe.
Plato understood that emotions could trump reason. After the tragic and untimely death of my father, I was a living proof of that for years after this life changing incident — I was engulfed in resentment. While other 18‐year‐old boys were chasing girls and worried about university entrance, I was struggling to deal with my father’s death.
My son’s birth marked one of the many special occasions where I felt this way too. Ever since, I have felt the most raw and exposed on Father’s Day. No amount of time could ever fully heal the pain. So I wait. I wait for this day to pass and I wait for a day when I can look back on my life and be at peace with my dad’s death.
That day came on Sunday June 20th, 2010 — Father’s Day. It was me versus melancholy — as usual — I thought. But I spent the whole day with my son. A joyful 5-year old little guy who understood what father’s day was all about as exhibited by his genuine and valiant efforts. Also he was excited about learning to bike. When I got his new bike out of the garage he was so excited, as evidenced by the wet, sloppy kisses he kept giving me.
If there’s one thing I have taken from my loss, it’s that you can find strength in vulnerability. My father’s death has made me more resilient and strong. I never thought something beautiful and positive can come out of darkest and most painful experience. I want his death to be meaningful.
More than half of my life, I have lived without my father in it, a fact I still have a hard time accepting. I’m getting there. Slowly, but grudgingly. As someone who lost a parent as a teenager, I am part of a club that no one wants to belong to. Unfortunately, there are no perks in being a member. All I hope is that he thinks I turned out okay, despite his absence.
My son once asked me what happened to his ‘appapah’ (Granddad) and I lied, “He died in an accident” to spare the kid from my nightmares. My dad’s death is, and will always be, the defining moment of my life. There are no words I could say, amount of tears I could cry or wishes I could make that will ever bring him back. Without fail, a deep ache follows.
But for the first time on that Father’s day, witnessing my son’s beaming smile and excitement in overdrive when I took him on his solo bike ride; I realized that I was occasionally doing the right things to bury the ghost of the past.
I know that my son will, once again, have the time of his life riding his bike with his dad. What more can I want for my son? It is ‘The Dad Thing.’ My dad knows. He knows my internal dialogue. It is all around, this casual talk is suddenly so full of sharp and painful edges.
With every passing day, no matter the rage inside me, no matter the pain in my heart, no matter the nightmares in my head, there is some moment, some beauty, some extraordinary display of life through a little boy, helps me breathe, helps me smile, helps me be grateful for all that I have, all that I am, and all that I am becoming.
Since 2010 Father’s Day, I have decided to cherish the memory of my father differently. I am committed to spending more time thinking about how he lived, and less time thinking about how he died. I cherish the time we had together and stop asking myself resentfully, “what if?” We both deserve that.
I am left only with memories, the photos — his mischievous smirk, the confident smile, the bicycle ride. It makes me smile fondly even in the midst of my overwhelming loss; reminding me that somewhere in this tragic epoch there will always be the life it represents, like an echo I no longer hear but swear I will never forget — who I am and what I need to do as a father.
I look forward to many more bike rides with my son along the seawall in Vancouver by the Pacific Ocean for occasional fall, and grinding of the gears, while listening to our own breathing — in, out, in, out, in, out. A sign of living. A daily salve for my red and angry wounds.
Happy Father’s Day!
I look forward to many more.
Writer’s email: email@example.com