The measure of things
Even after I grew up, 'un papa' remained one of the ways I sized up my world
I've always used my father as a unit of measurement. Standing at six feet five inches, he was the tallest man in our village of Frelighsburg, Que., though a lanky local honey-maker came close. He used to throw my brothers, cousins, friends and I over his shoulder so we could soar through sunny summer air and dive into our pond's cool water. He could pick up a basketball with one hand, huge and callused with thick joints swollen from woodwork. As a man who resembled the Ent tree creatures from The Lord of the Rings, folklore had a way of gathering around him — his size 16 shoes added grandeur, too.
When first figuring out distance, I conjured an image of him on his back, on the ground, with identical versions of himself lying head to toe and head to toe. My own French metre determined by the king, my personal Roman imperial foot, un papa. The unit didn't change as I got older either, a 20-foot room was just about three papas, for example. As an adult, my head barely reached his shoulders, and when he wrapped his branchlike arms around me, he made everything quiet for a second: an epic feat in its own right.
He taught me to actually measure, too. He was a carpenter with tons of tools and, as one of the local hardware store's best customers, he sometimes received gifts from them. He won a circular saw in their raffle once, but the rewards were more often on the scale of the mini measuring tape key chain he gave to me. I still use it as a replacement for my wallet's broken zipper tab.
When I was five years old and he and my mother were separating, he converted the basement into a bedroom for himself, and I would hang around measuring things as he worked. The gyprock he used to line the closet where his XL clothes would hang was a half-inch thick, the double mattress he would sleep on, 10, the door that would shut his room to the rest of the house, 96 inches tall (1.2 papas). There wasn't enough tape to calculate the distance up the stairs to my bedroom at the end of the hall where I got scared of the dark.
Over 20 years later, when, on a cold winter day, he told me he had a tumour in his liver the size of a fist, I imagined one of his huge hands clenched up and knew that was impossible. I looked at my own hands, small extremities inherited from my five-feet-one-inch-tall mother and figured that must be closer. My vision went dark, blurred with tears. He wrapped his long arms around me, but they didn't bring quiet. My dreams started doing their own measuring, flashing numbers in the night: one year, six months, three weeks.
During his last days in a rainy April, my father had all but disappeared, branches reduced to twigs. His arms had gone and taken his mind, past memories became present, and he talked about cherry blossoms we didn't have in our yard. I was happy he saw sunny pink flowers when he closed his eyes instead of the grey spring skies.
Now, when I close my eyes to measure, I don't see his shrunken legs with only enough strength to lean against each other. I see him on a bright day with solid arms, skin slightly sunburnt from working outside, deep lines around his smiling eyes, strong legs, quietly lying head to toe and head to toe.
This article is part of the CBC/QWF Writers-in-Residence program. More information can be found here.