On the battlefields of World War One, chalk soils became rich in lime from rubble, allowing “popaver rhoeas” – poppies – to thrive. John McCrae’s 1915 poem In Flanders Fields made the poppy a popular symbol of remembrance, honouring soldiers who died in battle.
Lest we forget.
But for me, the poppy means something else. Not so much the flower, but the word. I say it every night as I tuck my Max into bed – “goodnight, Poppy Jim” – with a tender skyward gesture.
Poppy Jim, my dad, was no soldier, but he did fight a war. Cancer is the common enemy of so very many. When will we ever declare victory?
But instead of focusing on the loss, I focus on the legend; keeping it alive. For me, it’s easy; my dad is with me every day – his face, his voice, his humour. But for Max, I must take extra measures.
Max was just nine months old when dad got the final verdict. I still remember when he said to me, “I guess Max won’t know me very well.” A knife straight through my heart, all the way to China.
I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation; surreal is an understatement. But I was stronger than I knew, and I reassured him that I had a gazillion photos (dad loved getting his snap taken) and hours of video footage – of him and Max together! It's true; I had been taping him for months, immortalizing him on a high-def JVC camcorder. Quite possibly the best purchase I ever made. I bought it, not only to record the new little life in our world, but to capture the lives of those who might not be around forever. (Which is every one of us, really.) I didn’t know how things would play out with dad, but I wasn’t taking any chances. If cancer was going to win, I needed to record my unique and wonderful and crazy father as much as humanly possible – to show my Max one day. Roll tape!
I started with the photos right away. At least a couple times a day, I ask, “Where’s Poppy Jim?” And Max points to the big, beautiful photo on the wall of two hopeful and childlike faces staring up at the camera from a pillow on the floor.
I have a little photo album on a table in the living room, right in the midst of Mad Max’s Thoroughfare. Cover to cover photos of Poppy Jim. Sometimes I pick it up and show Max for a few moments. “That’s Poppy Jim!” I say happily. "And that's baby Max in his arms!" I poke Max's chubby belly to help him make the connection between the boy in the picture and the boy in the flesh. Sometimes I catch him flipping through the album himself, his nimble little digits savagely flipping through the pages. He throws it, stomps on it, bends the photos. I don’t care; I have copies. I just want poppy to be a household name and a familiar face; whatever it takes.
I know I can’t possibly make Max remember him. I mean, what’s your earliest memory? I have a vague recollection of kindergarten class - playing in the sandbox, and making impressions in Play-Doh with the soles of my Strawberry Shortcake sneakers. That’s as far back as I can go. So yeah, I don’t expect miracles here. I’m not trying to inspire in Max a memory of Poppy Jim; I’m trying to create a sense of him.
The books will help. Max has his very own copy of Jim Combden’s Fogo Island Boy. A gift to the future, for a teenage Max. There is also a second book in the works. A collection of the poetry and prose of Jim Combden, including 100 pages of his second, unfinished book chronicling his adventures as a young teacher in rural Newfoundland. The tale is incomplete and unedited, but I trust you will find some magic in his raw words nonetheless.
There are a million stories of dad. Dad the teacher, dad the golfer, dad the lunatic, dad the dad. And we must keep telling them, even if it hurts. Max will be proud of his pop, even if he doesn’t remember. The way I am proud of my father’s father who died at the age of 39 when my dad was just 10 years old. But his short existence is the stuff of legends. Google “Eli Combden” and “polar bear” and you’ll see what I mean. He was my grandfather, and though I’ve never seen his face, I am proud.
All this remembrance of Poppy Jim doesn’t come close to the actual experience of him, but it’s something. Max will know his poppy’s face. He will hear stories about his awesomely crazy character. He will have a sense of the legacy he left us. And there will be a place in his heart for the poppy he once met and cuddled and played with, but can’t possibly remember.
On this day, I leave you with a poem penned by the one and only Jim Combden.
Although the years have washed away
the blood upon the hills;
Although the birds in chorus sing,
where once the whine of shells;
Although the maples peacefully
replace the mighty guns,
and grassy carpet now contrasts
the blood of mothers' sons;
Although the cannons cease to bark,
and cries of war have died,
I still shall place a poppy on
my chest and wear with pride.