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Mom and Dad are watching from the box seats like they always do. It’s been three years since Dad was diagnosed. Lou Gehrig’s disease, the same thing that Stephen Hawking has. Dad had to stop skating in the first year of it. He uses two canes to walk when he can but Mom forces him to use a walker which he hates. But he’s never missed a game. He and Mom rent an apartment just outside the city during hockey season, they did this without a second thought. I told them they could just watch the games from home in Vaughan but Dad wasn’t having that. Mikey, you crazy? Think I’d miss this?
He still gives me advice and makes mental notes on the players I face. He’s had trouble speaking lately and the doctors gave him a keyboard to type with which he usually ‘forgets’ to bring with him. His stubbornness drives Mom nuts. Knowing they’re here helps me keep focus. Dad taught me everything I know about this game and now it’s paying the bills, so I must be doing something right.
We win 3-2 and Dad insists we go out for a bite after the game. With Christmas looming, he’s in the holiday spirit. She grunts at first but Mom smiles at him as we sit down to eat. She still looks at him as if they first started dating. She momentarily forgets about his condition in that moment and for now, we’re out as a family, enjoying each other’s company after a hard fought win. I can’t think of a better feeling.
“I-I...” Dad slurs the next words and then pauses as he struggles to move his jaw. The weight of reality suddenly strikes Mom once again. “I knew...y-you guys would p-p-pull ththrough, Mikey.”
“Thanks Dad.” It means a lot to hear that. Everything hurts. I need to get home and ice my knee after this. A player took a run at me in November and my shoulder’s been banged up ever since. I’ll be damned if that means I’m giving up the starting position.
“J-J-Judy, our b-b-boy’s going places!” Dad says the last part to Mom really fast but it comes out clearly with just a little slurring. Mom smiles at Dad and me but it does little to cover her pain. Every word is an effort for Dad and it’s impossible to pretend this isn’t hard to watch.
It’s hard to think this is the same man who used to shake me out of bed every Saturday morning for practice. It’s hard to think this is the same man who would spend hours on the ice with me, taking shots and teaching me the ropes, telling me off that I shouldn’t be tired, because I’m just a kid and he’s an old fart with a bad knee.
He still goes to every game. He’s still watching me like he did when I was 11. He’ll make me wheel him into the rink if he has to, even if he does mumble and bitch the whole time, Mom said to me one night. But we all know it will come to that at some point. I just hope he sticks around for a little while longer. Dad’s love of the game is still intact, probably the main thing that keeps him going. Mom and I help him with his dinner and we go over what I could have done better in the game.
I ease my fingers on the handles of the wheelchair and place a hand on Dad’s shoulder.
He tilts his head up as best he can and smiles at me. Gently I push the wheelchair onto the ice. It’s my first time on an NHL rink, and I want to make sure I share this moment with him. The ice is fresh, reminding me of all those morning practices. The thin wheels of the chair glide smoothly along the ice. Dad looks up at the championship banners and honoured numbers that hang above us like immortal spirits. His jaw drops in awe and so does mine. We’ve seen them before, but never like this.
“What do you think Dad?”
Slowly his head turns to me. I wipe the bit of saliva that has formed at the corner of his mouth. “Perfect, Mikey,” he manages to say softly.
I put my hand on his shoulder. We look at the massive blue and white logo at centre ice. The arena is quiet and peaceful. I look at all the seats. I remember the first time he took me to see the Leafs and I chuckle. “Really are a lot of seats.”
Dad’s smile hasn’t left his face once. We take in the arena together. This week the Leafs brought me up from the minors as the team’s back-up goalie. Can’t say what will happen. Maybe the Leafs will sign me if I play well, maybe I can make a good first impression. I’m not overthinking it.
I wheel him off the ice. He tries to say something as we pass the dressing rooms and I lean in so I can hear him. It takes some effort but he manages to say it: “Playing for the Leafs.” I listen to him as he forms his next words. “No pressure.”
I laugh and tap him on the shoulder. We walk to the exit and it hits me today (as it does every day) that Dad doesn’t have much time left.
I’ll be suiting up for the hometown team and Dad is going to see it, that’s all that matters right now. We made it.