How a strong bond kept us together after our dad passed on

On a warm sunny day when harvest was fully underway, my father held me snug in his arms. Holding me in the protection of his grasp, he showed me the inside of the Agricore grain elevator in Standard, Alta. Dust littered the floor and pigeons flew overhead. Sun streamed in from windows that seemed high up on the wall. I was only two years old.

That was August of 1994. Later that fall, he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in March 1995. James Donald Swan was just 45 years old.

Now that I’m older I realize that I’m more fortunate than unfortunate. I am surrounded by three supportive older siblings, and a mother that has been my model of strength and grace.

A 2004 preliminary study conducted at the University of California on how parental My father holding me as an infant in our family home in 1992.
Photo courtesy of: The Swan Family
death affects children, suggests that parental loss reduce children’s health and education.

I do not feel I fit into that generality.

Being so young when my dad passed has both been a blessing and a disadvantage. It’s been a blessing because I’ve never really known life to be different. It’s a disadvantage because I never really got to know him like my older siblings did.

My mother, Eileen Swan, said that in the spring of ’94, he had taken a tumble out of the back of his pickup while trying to lift something. After that he had a great pain in his shoulder but didn’t really doctor with it much. When they found the cancer, the doctors figured it had started in his esophagus – then spread to his bloodstream and to his bones. The cancer was what he was feeling in his shoulder that spring.

I can’t remember his funeral at all. However, I recall quite a bit from the two-and-a-half years I got to know him. I’ve managed on occasion, to my mother’s amazement, to describe situations and events that took place even before my dad was sick.

A memory that will never leave me is how my dad used to feed me black licorice. To this day the smell and taste closely bonds me to him. Sometimes I will eat the treat not because it’s a favorite sweet, but that it makes me feel close to my dad.

When I began attending Westmount Elementary School in Strathmore it became increasingly difficult to explain his absence. Fellow classmates asked why he wasn’t at parent-teacher interviews. They asked why he wasn’t at Christmas concerts. They asked why I wasn’t enthused over Father’s Day.

It was Grade 3. Everyone around me was making gifts and crafts to present to their dads when they went home from school that day. I sat there at a loss, unsure of what to do; I didn’t have anyone to present these gifts to. Was I supposed to just work hard and throw these crafts away when I got home? The teacher began walking around to inspect everyone’s progress. Stopping at my desk she asked what was wrong. I remember burying my head down on my desk to hide the tears that began falling from my eight-year-old eyes. I felt embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t have a dad to make anything for.

The last family photo of the Swans before Don passed away. Back row, left to right: Dallas, Dinsmore and Alberta Swan. Bottom row, left to right: Don, Donella and Eileen Swan.
Photo courtesy of: The Swan Family
To this day I get questions concerning his whereabouts. At my summer job this past year, a colleague who has known me for almost a decade asked whether I still talk to my dad. It is situations like these that make me cringe because I don’t like to hear the inevitable “I’m so sorry” that follows after I explain the situation. This makes me feel uncomfortable because I look at my life as being healthy and happy. I have always been surrounded by a loving and supportive family and that’s more than some people have.

My dad didn’t teach me how to ride a bike, although, my brother Dallas was right there to take the training wheels off and encourage me. My dad didn’t teach me to skate. Again, my brother Dallas and my oldest brother Dinsmore did that by taking me out on the outdoor rink in Cheadle, Alta. My dad didn’t help me with my math homework but my sister Alberta did.

For everything else, there was my mother. She was my rock through it all. She took on the job of two parents. She was always willing to openly talk about dad and never tried to keep anything from us. She has always told us that she was too busy to really be sad when dad passed away; she had four children to worry about and three of us were under 18 at the time.

“I really had to learn to prioritize,” said my mother Eileen. “It was hard to balance everything happening at home, my job and the finances but I just had to make sure there was time to talk and to listen.”

Today I still miss my dad at times but I realize that the situation could have been much worse. There are orphans out there who have nobody in this world. I have been fortunate to be blessed with a great mother, and three supportive older siblings.

No, my dad won’t be there for my university graduation or my wedding. But I know my family is rooting for me to succeed, and I have two older brothers that will gladly walk me down the aisle. And I cherish the few memories I have of my dad.

In remembrance: James Donald Swan — 1949 – 1995.

dswan@cjournal.ca