When I was a child, our family would take summer road trips west: four hours to the Rockies, three days to the west Coast. As we drove, my dad would entertain me with stories about the gnomes and other creatures who lived in the forest. With the consequence that, once we got to our campsite, I was afraid to go into the forest for fear of meeting one of these creatures.
I also recall being young and trying to keep up with my dad. One day we went cross-country skiing, and my dad waxed up his skis according to the snow conditions while I tied on my plastic ski-shaped objects that were meant to be kid’s skis. We went out into the park near our house and my dad picked up speed as he got into a skiing rhythm, while I shuffled behind on my plastic boards. Or the time my dad took me on a bike ride down a dirt road I hadn’t explored before – he would sometimes get ahead and I would fixate on his red panniers, pedalling hard on the gravel road to keep up.
He was gone a lot when I was a child – he commuted 1.5h a day to the city to work, and he often went on lengthy business trips. I used to love when he went away because I was guaranteed at least one meal at MacDonald’s: my mum would take a day off cooking and we would walk up to get a burger or chicken McNuggets.
I loved the outdoors but my parents weren’t that keen on things like hiking and backpacking, or fishing or hunting. Camping was an affordable way to have a vacation, and we camped our way across Canada when I was a kid. Not that I remember much of that trip except that we had the dog with us, and sometimes he got car sick…
What was more up my dad’s alley were the experiments we did together using my child’s microscope: looking at orange peels and bugs under the scope, and at salt crystals – then adding water to see them dissolve in real time. Or putting pennies in a bath of vinegar and baking soda lined with tinfoil, so that they would chemically react and become shiny and clean. I remember my dad came to do the same experiment in my elementary school classroom, and while I was embarrassed at the time, I think my class thought it was really neat.
He drove me to all of my music lessons: piano, French horn, viola. Sometimes he would drive to the city twice in one day: once to go to and from work, a second time to my viola lesson and back. I was an awkward teenager and we didn’t have a lot to talk about, which made it a pretty quiet drive.
My dad was always doing something – whether that was working on a second Masters degree or a second PhD degree after his retirement, or fixing his VW van (the same one we travelled across Canada in), or working in the garden, or fixing something in the house. Or giving seminars about corporate social responsibility to mining companies in South America, or writing a book about it based on his (second) PhD thesis that had way more downloads than I could have imagined. He worked hard as part of the International Association of Professional Geoethics (IAPG), and as late as last year was still going to the European Geophysical Union meeting in Venice to present his work.
He was an obsessive reader of the Lee Valley Tools catalogue, enjoying the quirky product descriptions and reading them aloud to my mum. He also read Scientific American and New Scientist, from cover to cover, and would send me articles he ran across that he thought I might like.
As a Type 1 diabetic, my dad has lived longer than the average diabetic life span, and without complications – he would have been 80 this fall and had only recently stopped going swimming because of a painful shoulder. It was his obsessive managing of his diabetes that allowed him to live for so long, even if we didn’t always understand his drive.
My dad’s dream was to live in South America and sit in a plaza drinking coffee and/or wine and talking to people. He loved his trips to South America and the people he interacted with down there. He also loved South American folk music, which he would blast on the stereo when my mum left the house.
I only saw my parents once a year for the past few years, whenever they came out to visit us. I haven’t been able to travel much so haven’t been to their home in Ontario in ages. It’s hard not to be able to be with my mom and sister as my dad spends his last days resting in palliative care, but we are making do with email, texting, and phone calls. Soon I will only have memories, so I have to make this time count.
Safe travels, dad. I’ll miss you.
Note: Jan Boon passed away peacefully the evening of July 22, 2020.