What I Want My Dad to Know This Father's Day

06/11/2013 02:22 EDT | Updated 08/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Yesterday, in a small town on the Canadian prairie, there was a celebration. A public space had been reclaimed and turned into a park where residents could go for rest and reflection. More than 200 people showed up for the official dedication. This might not seem like much until you consider that a day earlier the same number of people attended the grand opening of another public space - the long-awaited Poppy Plaza near downtown Calgary.

I know about the dedication of the small town park because the person behind it was my dad. The space was once part of the hospital grounds, but after the hospital closed and the order of nuns who had founded the hospital diminished, the park became a bit overgrown. In his semi-retirement, my dad arranged for pathways and lights and dedications to the faith of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, who for so many years were synonymous with health care in my hometown of Macklin, Saskatchewan (pop. 1400). This park is a tribute to them.

That's not to say he did this alone - there was lots of help from people in the community - but I think most would agree that were it not for his vision, St. Joseph's Park would just be that space beside the old convent that you hope is mowed in time for the high school graduating class picture each June. At least that's how I remember it. I've been away for a while.

That he would undertake this kind of a project didn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows him. Both of my parents have spent countless hours volunteering for various causes in our community. Perhaps one of their greatest lessons to us is that we have an obligation to use our time and talents for the benefit of others and it was taught - not by words - but by example. "We raised you to make a difference," he once said to me and I've tried Dad. I've tried.

This hasn't been the easiest year for Dad. In January he lost two of his best friends - his brothers - unexpectedly, and less than a day apart. He would speak with Uncle Art or Uncle Bob (or both of them) every day. Both of them were regular visitors at our house. They spent many hours together watching sports and having a drink or two. Completing the park gave him somewhere to focus his energy; who knows what new project he'll settle on now that it's done. I'm sure my mom has a few ideas.

It's been hard to see Dad so sad, because in much the same way he wants us to be happy, that's what we want for him too. I am compelled to let him know that I no longer take my time with him for granted, at least not in the same way I might have just six months ago. Up until that time, there would always be another phone call, another visit, another chance to say "I love you." Now we know that those moments are gifts; sometimes small, but always appreciated.

I have a letter that Dad wrote to me just over 17 years ago. I was performing in one of my last music recitals of my high school 'career'. Dad misjudged what time I would actually be on stage and ended up missing my performance. In 1996, text messaging was still a novelty and there were few ways, if any, that I could have got in touch with either of my parents to let them know that they'd better hurry up. I was devastated, in the way that only a self-centred teenager could be. I was so used to my parents always being there that it felt really personal the one time they were not.

And so, the letter. In it, he apologized profusely and described the kind of week that I am so familiar with now. The kind where you are running back and forth trying to meet your obligations to everyone else. The kind where you're not sure what day it is, only that there is somewhere you need to be and someone who has to come along for the ride. I was reminded that he'd adjusted his schedule every day that week to be there for my siblings and I, and he was right. He was always there, and with that one minor exception, he always has been.

Now that I have children of my own, I have a much better understanding of everything he and Mom did for us. I have a hard enough time juggling the schedule to manage activities for two kids; I can't imagine how they balanced five busy children (including one with special needs). I don't remember ever being made to feel like it was a burden to them either. Mom worked too, and they split chauffeur and parenting duties long before it ever became popular. It was Dad who drove us to music lessons every Monday and Dad who took care of us every Thursday night for nearly four years while Mom completed some university classes. We ate a lot of noodles and beans, but that was okay.

A few days ago I saw Dad at yet another family funeral. Again, we had the opportunity to reflect on what we want to leave behind, and how we want our family and friends to remember us. So many of my cousins knew Dad as the bachelor uncle before he finally settled down with Mom and had children of his own. As my Uncles pass on there he is, letting his nieces and nephews know that he's thinking about them and will be there for them when they call. He will never ever replace their own fathers, but "You're just like my dad," is what they say to him.

As we got ready to leave after the service, a wave of emotion swept over me. I started sobbing as I hugged him goodbye, just grateful for the opportunity to be able to do so.

Happy Father's Day Dad.