Happy Birthday Dad! (With a Seemingly Unrelated Story)

When I started at Dawson College in Montreal, I dutifully attended the pre-first-day-of-classes orientation session, listened well, and took copious notes. (Although it was truly helpful, I either completely ignored or was mostly inattentive in every other orientation session since I graduated from there).

Anyways, I learned you could sign up for a mentor for your first semester—a teacher who could help you out and give you advice if you felt like you needed support while transitioning from high school to college.

I was never happier to be out of high school (bloody hated it), but I thought signing up for a mentor would be a good idea. After all, I had no predictor of how good or bad my experience was going to be, and any in-college support was a plus.

I was signed to a man named Simon. (I used to mentally call him by his full name, but now I can’t remember it anymore). He was a sweet man, though he did have a certain air—or attitude—that, to this day, I can’t put my finger on. Perhaps I didn’t seem like the awkward, nervous teen he thought would be the type to sign up for a mentor. Or maybe he found my mile-a-minute speech pattern and general enthusiasm a bit odd. (I have no idea, really. I’ve never been good at reading people).

Anyways, it’s suffice to say that he was a nice guy…there was just something slightly “off” that I can’t specifically point out. Not that it mattered much in the long run, really. We had several sessions and then I left for good because my time was up and he had another mentee. I hardly ever saw him again. In hindsight, I could have done just as well without him—there wasn’t much in terms of help/guidance that I particularly needed. Still, I liked having someone to chat with about regular stuff, especially because I hadn’t made friends close enough to hang out with yet.

The reason I bring this up is I suddenly remembered something today…which is coincidentally my dad’s birthday. You see, from the age of twelve to nearly twenty, my dad and I lived in entirely separate countries. When we moved to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia, he stayed behind to work. (First in Saudi Arabia, then Qatar, where he still is). Three years in Lebanon and five years in Canada were all spent with my father visiting a few times a year. (We saw him more often in Lebanon, as his visits were more frequent and we also used to go back to Saudi during our breaks). I missed him terribly, but the situation just meshed in as a part of our lives. I never felt distant from my father. I always felt his presence in one way or another, despite the fact that, the vast majority of the time, he wasn’t physically there. My mother spoke with him on MSN on a regular basis. We sent emails back and forth. He was very much a part of our lives when we were all in Saudi, and we spent as much time as possible with him whenever he visited after we moved away. This has always stuck with me. 

This isn’t a unique situation for people. Several families we know (and about a million we don’t) live the same way. The father/husband stays behind in the Gulf to continue working and the family is sent overseas for the kids to continue their education or to get American/Canadian/UK passports. I just accepted it as a situation that just…happens.

It was during a session with Simon that it dawned on me that this kind of a relationship could be perceived drastically differently. I was mentioning the moves I’ve been through—from Saudi to Lebanon to Canada, and how my dad stayed behind and yadda-yadda…

When he interrupts in the most offhand and perfectly knowing tone, “So, you hardly even know the guy!” and chuckles.

For a long half-second, I was struck dumb. What? Did he just think I had an absentee father…someone who is just a distant shadow who had a hand in spawning my form and not much else?

My answer, in reality, came out lightning fast, although my mind was reeling because I did NOT want him to have this view of my father as someone I didn’t even know. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I do know I vehemently denied his careless assessment of my dad’s stance as a parent, of his effect on my upbringing and in my life. I was a little upset, but I didn’t show it. How could he be so nonchalant in throwing out such a judgment?

I know that it’s a logical conclusion, technically speaking. If someone tells you they lived in a separate country from their father since they were twelve, you might just think there wasn’t much “fathering” going on in their lives. But it killed me because I read so many books featuring kids who didn’t know their dads, or whose dads lived in the same house but kept their distance. Mine wasn’t like that—how could he think so?

My dad had traditions with all us kids. He used to make boats out of orange peels and put orange slices in them, reciting lines from the Arabic-dubbed version of Treasure Island. He would kiss us all good night on the forehead, and—when we were younger—sometimes he’d cuddle into bed with us, and we’d just talk, one-on-one. He read us stories that to this day I still mentally read in his accent. He taught me how to swim and how to check if a surface is hot by waving my hand over it first. Math was my absolute worst subject, but when he stayed up with me, he detangled it in my head, almost literally. It took little time, and everything suddenly made perfect sense. So much so, I solved a problem on the board in fourth grade using a method a grade above what my teacher was teaching, thanks to my dad’s tutoring. He gives amazing hugs, and I’m sure I got my love of cuddle hugs from him. As kids, we used to all pile under the blankets with him, squeeing in glee, because it was cold outside and we were going to all sit under his wonderful blankets and be awesome together. (He had two blankets he ALWAYS slept in. They were unique and smelled just like him). He took us on vacations to Turkey, Egypt and London. He always made sure we stayed in the best places, and visited every important landmark he could discover. He’s a ceaseless reader and explorer and never stops learning. He’s the pillar his entire family leans on, and is the most honest and hard-working person I’ve ever met in my life.

So to anyone else who might have a Simon-like reaction, I say this: You don’t know just how much I know him, thank you.

Happy Birthday, Dad. I couldn’t ask for a better one.