This is about Doug. He was my step-dad and I first met him when I was eight years old. It was not a good meeting. He was a stranger, and worse, he was apparently my new father. After my biological father’s death, my mother, a widow at 24, did what she needed to do to survive. She entrusted my care to her parents, returned to university, got a teaching degree, joined the Air Force and met Doug. They married, had a son, and, along with Doug’s two daughters from a previous marriage, came to collect me to complete their family. Surrounded by strangers, I was to leave with them and move far away from my known world.
It was the 1950s and Doug was a big man, handsome in the fashion of the Mad Men character, Don Draper. He was an air force pilot and fit the role. Used to military responsibility and discipline, he was assertive, comfortable taking and giving orders and used to being obeyed. As his child, Doug never needed to threaten me with physical punishment. He would glare at me and I would fear for my life. In later years, this same glare constricted my dating options to only the bravest and most confident high school boys.
I feared Doug, but mostly I was resentful and angry. His marriage to my mother was the reason that I no longer lived with my adored grandparents and worse yet, why I was a cog in the wheel of this family of strangers. I was consumed with the grievances of yesterday and as a result, Doug and I never spoke much until my 20s, when the whole world changed. No milestone marked the event, I simply grew up.
War stories animated Doug. A Royal Canadian Air Force pilot in the Second World War, he flew over Mt. Everest (the Hump) from Dum Dum, India to Kunming, China to deliver supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Imperial Army. He loved recounting his adventures in Europe, Burma, India, Russia and the Egyptian desert. I marveled at his knowledge and insight into cultures I scarcely knew. He showed me the wonders of the world and made me want to experience them for myself. When I would ask why we had not previously talked about such things, he would simply point out that I had been an angry child and he was waiting for me to grow up.
Happy stories led to the sad ones, his mother institutionalized with mental illness, his father’s abandonment of the children, Doug removing his siblings from an orphanage and leaving school far too soon to support them, a wartime marriage that ended with his first wife’s descent into schizophrenia and institutionalization, Doug alone with two small daughters while he visited his wife and mother in the same mental hospital. Through stories we bonded and Doug became my dad. In my 20s he was the rock that anchored me and when life would fall apart, it would be Doug who would stomp into the room and say, “What in the hell is going on and how can I help?” My stepdad never criticized, nor did he hide his pride, but his advice was always tempered with a lesson. When I was in medical school and proud of an 80 per cent test result, he would congratulate me then urge me to study some more. No one, he chided, wanted a doctor who only knew 80 per cent of the job.
As a young adult, I loved Doug and even more, I respected him for being no one other than himself. When he developed prostate cancer I could hardly bear his suffering. The surgeries, the hormones that made him teary, the pain where metastases gnawed his vertebrae, these he never discussed, he simply endured.
Years after he died I organized Do It for Dad in his memory. I wanted others with prostate cancer to have the support Doug lacked and to demonstrate that one man alone need not bear this disease. On Father’s Day, when I jogged the course of Do It for Dad with Doug’s granddaughter, I thought of him every step of the way and thanked him for his patience during my long adolescence and his support of me when I was old enough to be worthy of his wisdom. He gave me much to be thankful for and he is the man I think about, with love and respect, on Father’s Day, Remembrance Day and Movember.
Dr. April Sanders writes on a variety of topics for The Morning Star. She is a physician at Sanders Medical Inc. Vein and Laser in Vernon, B.C.