Among my most vivid memories of my father is being with him in Toronto, nearly 40 years ago, in the moments before he delivered a speech to a design convention. We were having coffee in the Colonnade, my beloved father and I. He had of course written his speech, which was supposed to be about trends in industrial design. That’s what had been advertised — plausibly, for Jim Warren was, at the time, a practicing industrial designer, with foreign and teaching experience. He was a former president of the Association of Canadian Industrial Designers, just the sort of guy to tell you about design trends. There would be an audience of, as he put it, “Self-consciously modern and progressive people, entirely in favor of trends in design.” They would be easy to please.
My father had just decided to throw his speech out. It had suddenly struck him that design trends were garbage. There is good design, and there is bad design — the trends may swing either way. But more to the point, there was a world out there, full of people buried under consumerist junk. We were at the peak of the hippie movement, of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Papa was no kind of hippie — spitfire pilots from World War II make unconvincing hippies. Yet he was countercultural.
He wanted to say that we should forget about trends, in design or anything. We need to think about truth instead. We need to think about questions of life and death. We need to take responsibility for the world we have inherited and are leaving to our children. We need to get into a position where we can answer for ourselves, where we have thought through what is important and discarded what is not important. That was what he wanted to talk about, and as his speech would be starting in another few minutes, he would wing it.
I also spoke with my father after the speech; he was fully aware it had been a disaster. He had been earnest and articulate, but one could actually feel the annoyance of the audience at being subjected to a sermon about the good, the true, and the beautiful — when they had come to hear about design trends.
I said the speech was a disaster, but I was impressed that Papa didn’t care. He was actually pleased with what he had done. He had said what he wanted to say, and if nobody much liked that, then tough for them.
This behavior was very much in character. It helps to explain why, at various points in my childhood, our family was rather poor. My father had a gift for finding new jobs — which was good, for he also had a gift for losing old ones. Indeed, he had the wonderful gift for complete candor, as I was reminded recently reading one of his old CVs, in which he frankly reported how each of his several previous adventures in conventional employment had come to an end.
The most impressive entry was where he explained that he had not, in fact, been fired from his last job, at the Smith & Stone company. He had, however, felt obliged to quit, after making a silly miscalculation on some industrial tooling that had cost the company a few hundred dollars. Typically, that was for a product — a polyethylene bicycle carrier — that went on to make a few million dollars when the company sold the rights to it around the world. And typically, my father’s share in that brilliant success, the direct result of his own original handiwork and refusals to compromise, was zero.
Also, typically, he never whined about that. In all my memory of him, there is not a single instance when he regretted what might have been. To the end, he accepted fate, and at the end, when I last saw him struggling to breathe in that little room in St. Joseph’s Hospital, and our eyes met, there was a look of benignity in his face such as I cannot describe.
I have stressed the paradox of victory in defeat, but it would not be fair to my father’s memory to depict him only as a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, even if that is what I most admired. He was no respecter of rank in persons, but rather a stalwart friend and a man for all seasons. Most boys rebel against their fathers at some stage; I failed to do so. There was actually no moment in my life when he was not my hero — and that is not grief speaking; I know it to be true. He was a man who was very gentle and kindly, droll and amusing, instinctively gallant, who loved to act a part. A man forgiving of faults and slights, dutiful, unselfish; indeed, recklessly generous, even to total strangers. A family man, an ardently loving husband and father. He had a quick temper, too, which disappeared as he grew older, and the power to shut everyone out when he was reading or thinking; and likewise, the power to listen when you came to him — to you, and only to you.
My father was not religious by disposition, though he was by implication. He was of a generation that was shy to speak about last things. There were many subjects he never mentioned, and yet his views could be known.
A week ago, three days before his death, I gave him a very Catholic crucifix. He could not speak in words anymore, but he chose to wear it, in his last moments of lucidity, and was still wearing it at his death. The last photograph taken of him, through my sister’s Blackberry, shows not only the cross, but the face of the man who wore it. A painter might call it a face of St. Simeon:
Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand . . . .
Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
According to thy word.
Death is the end of the road in this world, as it crosses the frontier into the world to come — the world we see only in distant glimpses — the purple in the mountains, far far away.
There was a moment in the mountains of Abbottabad, Pakistan, when I was very young, about six. My father gave me a plum from the market, in its deep purple, freshly washed. I beheld it: I thought there was magic in my father’s gift. The color was that of the deep dusking sky. When I bit into it, I thought it must be a plum from heaven — the original and perfect, immortal.
Christ, you will recall, was nailed up with a couple of thieves. One of them railed at Him, saying, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” The other rebuked the first, saying, “Dost not thou fear God?” And then this good thief asked of Jesus, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
This event happened about the sixth hour — midday, and yet darkness was descending over the hills of Judea, for the Light was passing out of this world. That purple.
I will honor my father, in the spirit of the commandment. And I will remember the answer of Jesus from the Cross, given to a sinner, as the darkness encroached upon them: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”