Saturday April 01, 2017

Miles Apart: Hitting the road with my deadbeat dad

Brett Purdy hit the highway for three days with his estranged father, Ray Purdy.

Brett Purdy hit the highway for three days with his estranged father, Ray Purdy. (Brett Purdy, CBC)

Listen 23:49

By Brett Purdy

I climb into the cab of a semi at a truck stop east of Winnipeg on a cold March night. I'm joining my long distance truck-driving dad on the highway to discover why he wasn't a part of my childhood.

Now a dad myself, with two beautiful girls, it's everything I've ever wanted it to be — the hugs, the smiles, the skinned knees. I love every piece of being a dad, but I often catch myself wondering, how could my own father not care enough to want those moments with his own kids?

Brett Purdy

Brett's riding shotgun with his trucker dad, Ray. (Brett Purdy, CBC)

Ray Purdy, the man who leaves everyone in his life in the rear view mirror, has agreed to let me ride shotgun and talk about our past.

Deadbeat is a strong word. I typically don't like to use it when talking about Ray because even though he missed basically all my birthdays and most Christmases, I know he's not a bad person. He's affectionate and demonstrative. It's just that you can go years without seeing him.

I had spent a lifetime reaching out to Ray, calling or visiting him in Ontario when I could. But it never really felt reciprocated. When I got married in 2009, he decided not to travel to Mexico to come to my wedding. For me, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. At that point I felt I had done everything I could. I would still call once or twice a year to ensure we were both still alive but that's where my effort stopped.

Ray Purdy with his late mother, Thora, and sons Brett and Mike

Happier times: Ray Purdy with his late mother, Thora, and his two sons, Brett and Mike. (Brett Purdy, CBC)

This past year, though, Ray has changed trucking companies. He's now driving through Winnipeg often. He is, in his own way now, reaching out more and trying to reconnect with my family.

As mad and frustrated as I find myself with him, there is a piece of me that wants to show him the life I've made for myself. To see if he feels any pride in me. But I struggle with opening up my world to him because of all the past letdowns and I fear letting him too close and into my daughters' lives, in case he would ever let them down in any way. 

When we're finally ready to start our trip, my dad sits behind the wheel. He's a shorter guy, so for him, stretching to the pedals is a bit of work. The hours and unhealthy lifestyle have added a few extra pounds to his small frame. His long hair and big beard would help him fit in with the family from Duck Dynasty quicker than my own. It's in complete contrast to my typical collared shirts and clean cut appearance.

Logs

Ray and Brett have a lot to unload on their road trip. (Brett Purdy, CBC)

It's a road trip away from home so, as usual, I've got my Jets hat on. I settle into my seat for what will be a long haul.

Listening to Ray talk for those first few hours, I hear a lot of the things I've heard before.

Miles Apart: 'Still your dad'2:20

He talks about how it wasn't his choice to move away. Which is true, my Mom left him and Ontario when I was just six months old, but I don't think it excuses a lifetime of absence. He says as a trucker you get paid by the mile so if you aren't moving you're not making money.

He also tells me the story of when he lost his job. It coincides with when child support stopped. He tells me that if I had been living with him then, I would have been living through the tough times, too. I had never thought about it that way before. All I had thought about was what the money would have meant to me, like hockey or other activities, things my parents couldn't really afford when I was younger.

I had added up the missed child support and for me it's well over $20,000. I've always felt a little entitled to it, but maybe Ray is right, maybe all I was entitled to was the rough road he was travelling.

I call Ray on some of the things he has done wrong, not ever making a real effort with me or my family and missing my wedding. He doesn't have any good excuses, but in these moments we're getting a bit of an understanding and insight into where the other person is coming from.

Miles Apart: Hard Questions4:45

On our last day of driving together, I'm still struggling to decide if I'm okay letting him be a part of my daughters' lives, and then he gets a call from his boss.

There's an emergency in Michigan and they've ordered 30 loads of transmission poles to repair storm damage in the state. It's a problem for Ray because he's supposed to be off work next week and my brother Mike is already on his way to Ontario to visit Ray for spring break. I can see the wheels turning in Ray's mind. He's promised to spend time with Mike's family but he can't bring himself to say no to work.

The truck idles as we wait to climb down for lunch and I watch him grapple with letting down one of his kids, one more time. He's nervously tapping his pen off the dash. If he takes the run he won't have time to get ready for my brother's family. Watching Ray in that moment I realize that my dad is who he is. Working and driving is always going to be his priority. It's where he's most comfortable. Not being on the road is the hard part.

Ray eventually agrees to take the load to Michigan and ends up losing the first day of my brother's short visit.

It's not how I would live, but I now know, it's not me, it's not personal. Ray can't say no. Understanding that now, I think I can at least let go of some of my anger and accept him.

We're dropping the trailer in Thornbury, Ontario. It's been more than 2000 kilometres in these tight confines, but we've finally reached our destination.

It's around midnight and I'm standing in a poorly lit gravel yard beside the flatbed loaded with logs. As the legs lower to support the weight of the trailer and I watch as my dad disconnects the airlines and drives the semi away from the load, it feels like everything is where it needs to be.

After I fly home, two weeks pass before the phone rings again. It's Ray. He's passing through town late on a school night. My girls are all tucked into bed and I probably should be, too. But I am my father's son. He can't say no to work and I can't say no to family. So I go meet him for a quick visit. It's short, but I think we both feel good that we've made the effort, and I think we both take comfort in the fact that the road ahead isn't closed.