The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

William James Welsh, 1929-2010

I received news today that my father had died.  He’d had pneumonia, the “old man’s friend”, but somehow I didn’t expect him to die of it.  He’d been written off so many times and pulled through that even though I thought it was theoretically possible, I didn’t really believe this would be it.  And perhaps the idea that my father could die, that it was possible, wasn’t something I really believed, emotionally

But he could.  And he has.

A big man, both tall and broad with a red face, my father was one of those men for whom “larger than life” was coined.  His temper was legendary, and he often seemed to radiate fury.  I had seen him, in his prime, wade into large crowds, and a path would melt open in front of him without a word being spoken or him having to push at all.  I have seen men literally shake when he lowered his voice to a whisper.  His ready temper made him a bad father in many respects, and a worse husband, but it had its uses.  I still remember, when I was 23, and extremely ill, the way my father used his fury, a living thing which seemed barely leashed, to make sure I got the care I needed, and was treated the way he felt I should be.

He had me late, at age 39, so I never knew him as a young man. From the time I was 1 till I was 5, we lived in Malaysia, and we seemed to be quite wealthy. But a business deal went bad, due to politics, and my father lost it all.  He never really recovered.  There was a nasty edge to his temper afterwards which I don’t remember from before.  Always a bit of a boozer, he hit the alcohol harder, drinking every night when he came home.  We returned to Canada, but somehow he seemed out of place there.  He was a man meant for Asia, a man more at home in other countries than in his own.

In my life, he seemed most comfortable as a boss, especially in third world countries.  When he managed a large project in Bangladesh during my teens, he seemed in his element  The temper which in Canada caused him problems was shrugged off, and his loyalty and fairness shone through and were respected by those who worked for him.  I remember his second in command, a local man, telling me that he didn’t care about my father’s rages, what he cared about was that if my father was wrong, or did wrong, he would admit and apologize.  What mattered is that when man’s wife was sick, and needed medicine, he’d get it for him.  What mattered is that if a man needed help in court, my father would be there for him.  In Bangladesh the temper was not an issue, and his virtues were respected.

Infamously focused on “getting the job done”, he didn’t manage UN FAO (Food and Agriculture) headquarters well, cutting past their procedures and concerns time and time again.  I remember hearing the blow-by-blow of his battles with “Rome”, year after year.  He was protected by the fact that the locals whom he was there to help, including the Chief Forester and the Minister, loved him.

Eventually, of course, Rome finished him off.  They told his supporters in country that it was bad for his career to stay so long in one place, removed him from Bangladesh and his support, then they never gave him work ever again.  A beautiful piece of bureaucratic infighting, from which he never fully recovered, being a man who needed a job to do which mattered.   Playing nice and by the rules had won out over getting the job done, and my father was a dinosaur, a man who grew up in the Great Depression, a man with little finesse and no respect for rules which didn’t make sense to him.  The bull had been gelded.

My own relationship with my Dad was rocky.  I didn’t like how he treated me, and more importantly, I didn’t like how he treated my mother.  For a couple years in my twenties I cut off all contact with him, and unfortunately with my mother (it being one of those households where it was impossible to get to the wife without going through the husband.)  His drinking and his temper revolted me.

As with many men, much of what I am today is in direct reaction to my father—in direct reaction against him.  And yet, the truth is I have many of his characteristics, including his distaste for game playing, his belief that doing the job right is what matters and his unwillingness to tolerate bullshit and hypocrisy.

But as he aged, he mellowed.  We arranged that there would be no drinking during my visits.  And, perhaps most importantly, when I was deathly ill in my early 20s, he charged out from Victoria BC, to Toronto and helped in every way he could.  It’s something I’ve never forgotten.  The one time it really mattered, he came through.

So I’ll miss the old bastard. I wish I’d taken his illness more seriously this time, and gone out to see him, but I’ll try and honor his memory by remembering the best of him, the man who got the job done in the third world, saving many lives and to hell with Rome; the man who charged out to Toronto and helped me when I was sick; the man who helped many of those who needed it, who was loyal to his friends and those who worked for him.

If there is an afterlife, may he find in it a battle worthy of his rage, and the wisdom to know when and who to unleash it on.  In many ways he wasn’t a good man, but he was a man, and if he wasn’t a good family man, it is still true that the world is a better place for him having lived than if he had not.

May we all be able to say the same when our own time comes.


Getting Ready for the next Disaster


Nice country you have there, be a shame if anything happened to it


  1. I was persuaded not to go visit my birthmother during the Christmas of 2008, and then she died suddenly and unexpectedly last March, so I empathize with your feelings of having missed a final opportunity to speak. Sorry to hear this.

  2. My condolences. It can’t have been easy to find out about it this way.

  3. Tina

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss Ian. huggs

  4. Having been in a similar place (and it seems like yesterday) let me say that I hope that you’re well-advised, and sign as little as possible. It’s amazing to me that the one of the top two events in life (birth being the other) has almost no social support structure other than writing checks to various gatekeepers, but it’s so.

    Take care of yourself!

  5. Rumor

    My condolences on your unexpected loss, Ian. Be well.

  6. Ian, thanks for sharing this honest and heartfelt remembrance. It truly brings to life a bigger-than-life character for those of us who never knew him.

    There are far too few who disdain game-playing on matters of great import, and far too few who refuse to turn off the honesty switch. If your rare qualities in those regards stem at all from your dad, that says a lot for him.

    My condolences to you on your loss.

  7. Marsha


    Yesterday you did your mother proud. Today you did so for your father.

    Sorry for your loss.

  8. Lex

    My condolences, Ian.

  9. Brian S.

    I’m sorry too Ian. This post was a pretty good remembrance for him. Brian

  10. Sorry to hear about your loss.

  11. My condolences, Ian.

  12. Jeff W

    My condolences, Ian. vastleft said it perfectly for me.

  13. egregious

    Oh Ian. I’m so sorry.

  14. Ian, my heart is with you.

    That is a tough, beautiful, true memoir of a real person, and I’m grateful to have read it.

  15. Celsius 233

    Sorry to hear; my condolences to you and your family.

  16. BC Nurse Prof

    This is hard. Writing helps. So does talking to others.
    Do both.

  17. Eli

    So sorry, Ian. I have some people I’d like to sic his ghost on.


  18. ian

    i’m so very sorry for your loss. my condolences to you and yours.

  19. Jason Rosenbaum

    So sorry Ian, may there be peace.

  20. tjfxh

    Deepest condolences, Ian. They say, “Like father, like son.” I’m sure he was a great human being and will be sorely missed by those who knew and loved him.

  21. Margot

    My condolences, Ian.

  22. Gregg

    Ian, that was a moving tribute. I am sorry for your loss.

  23. Fine words about your parents, Ian.

    You wrote “And yet, the truth is I have many of his characteristics.” To the list you offered, I’d add “directness and honesty.” Your open and unflinching words about both your dad and yourself in this post tell me that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

    In that respect, I’m glad you learned those things from your father. Your presence, too, makes the world a better place, and I wish you peace as you say goodbye to the old bastard.

  24. Justin

    My Condolonces Ian. This is a beautifully written tribute, that I’m sure your father would be deeply touched by.

  25. Kim Kaufman

    Sorry for your loss. You wrote very graceful pieces for them both. I grew up in an alcoholic family, too, and while the situations differ, the dynamics and feelings are similar. More than the loss of your parents now, I should say I’m sorry for the loss of your childhood.

  26. Vaya con dios Mr. Welsh. Ian, my condolences.

  27. Ian Welsh

    Thank you everyone. I appreciate your kindness.

  28. editor_u

    A lovely memorial. Gloriously, gorgeously fine piece of writing.

    Thank you.

  29. Jim

    Ian, very nice remembrance. I respect your honesty.

  30. Ian, you are a tremendous man, a great man. He may or not have something to do with that, but you make his legacy live proudly. my deepest condolences and support.

  31. scruff

    My condolences, Ian. You are a man with worthy insights into the workings of his family, and that is an admirable thing.

  32. My sympathy to you and your family, Ian.

  33. Rayne

    Wishing you the comfort of good memories when you need them most. Thank you for sharing this personal commemoration; it can’t have been easy to be so open with yourself and with us at the same time you are grieving.

  34. And be sure to get plenty of sun. This is a tough season for sadness.

  35. Ah, sympathies.

  36. bystander

    Condolences, Ian. May your Dad find peace, at last. I’d argue that you assimilated the best of him. Ergo, the best of him lives on.

  37. My deepest condolences, Ian. You certainly inherited your father’s strength to fight the good fight.

  38. Teddy Partridge

    Ian, my thoughts are with you at this difficult time. You did a good son’s work in writing this. It very well conveys this complex man who raised you.

  39. beowulf

    I’m sorry for your loss Ian. The world is a better place with you in it, so you (and we) can thank your father for that.

  40. Oaktown Girl

    Ian, it’s staggering how much your parents’ lives and relationship mirrors that of my parents. Only major difference is my parents checked out younger than yours (mom in ’92, dad in ’94). Selfishly, I wish I didn’t understand and empathize with what you are experiencing as much as I do.

    Heartfelt and warm thoughts being sent your way.

  41. Ian,
    Your dad is blessed by your memory of him. We should all do so well by our sons.
    (I can relate, too, to how much of me is formed in reaction to my dad).


  42. A beautiful and honest in memoriam, Ian. It brings a moment of reality to us all, and for many of us speaks of a common experience of conflict between those who want to solve problems and do things right, and who believe people come first; and those who just want to do things in a way that doesn’t offend anyone else, that maintains their organizations, and who believe that organizations come before people.

    We need more people like your father very badly now. We need more people who care for others and who care about justice. Thank you for telling us about him, and please accept my most sincere condolences.

  43. nene

    I read constantly but rarely comment anywhere. You have my condolences for your loss and my admiration for your writing, your spirit, and your passion.

  44. Formerly T-Bear

    Heartfelt condolences Ian.

    When the formative years were such as your father knew, the times were tough and hard. To be in those times made people tough and hard to survive. Your fathers contemporaries all had or were learning that quality. Your father learned well and honed that quality for survival well. Being soft or failure was not an option for those generations, ever. A song goes, “The child is father to a man”, a child of tough and hard times grown into the mould and it is hard to find the heart and the human beneath the honed surface. I think you did get a glimpse, your tribute here shows it, let that grow to be your memory of your father.

    Your loss grieves many here.

  45. My condolences, Ian.

    I, too, had a difficult relationship with my father, and somehow it was harder on me when he died than when I lost my mother.

    Stay close to good friends.

    Carolyn Kay

  46. BDBlue

    Very sorry, Ian. Take care of yourself.

  47. Ian, the way you wrote about them, made me feel as if I knew your parents. They live on in your memory and your words.

    You have my most heartfelt condolences. Please follow your own advice and make sure to live free.

  48. Ian,
    You have my sympathies and condolences.

  49. DancingOpossum

    I lost my father several years ago and it never fully goes away. The worst part is all the inevitable regrets. But you have comemmorated yours beautifully here, as a bigger-than-life, real, wholly vivid person, flaws and all. My most sincere condolences.

  50. John B.

    Thank you for a beautiful and honest memory. Father and sons are rarely easy. Peace be upon you.

  51. Katherine Calkin

    A beautiful piece, Ian – no less than I have come to expect from you. So sorry for your loss.

  52. Eric Gen

    As noted above, a beautiful piece, Ian, as was your piece on your Mom awhile back at the Agonist. My login at the Agonist was messed up back then, so I couldn’t comment at the time, but at least I can now. I’m very sorry for the loss of your parents. It’s encouraging that you’re able to see your roots in each of them. I’ve always appreciated your writings and I appreciate your willingness to share who you are. Thanks!

  53. bob mcmanus

    Sorry for your loss, Ian.

  54. B Schram

    My condolences for your loss. Your writing was beautiful and makes a fine tribute to the complex person he no-doubt was. It was heartening that you were able to see the admirable qualities in him beyond the difficult ones, that speaks well of you and will help immensely in the grief process. Best wishes . . .

  55. splashy

    My mother just died a few month ago. I was lucky enough to get to see her when she was able to recognize me, before she went downhill.

    I also had a love-hate relationship with her – it wasn’t her temper, but her unpredictability and inability to adjust to the needs of others. It was who she was, and as long as things went her way, everything was fine.

    I did love the fact that she let others go their own way too, including her children, so it wasn’t like she was dictatorial. I learned to self-regulate at a very young age because of that, which has stood me well over the test of time.

    I imagine we all have things that didn’t go well with parents, after all they are human too and we get that from them.

    My condolences.

  56. mainsailset

    Ian, you’ve grounded their lives with the best kind of writing, the kind that comes from honesty, they were lucky to have you and may you continue to rediscover the good memories of them.

  57. ElizabethF

    My condolences Ian. Reminds me of my Dad. I learned to keep (as you seem to do) the best and not take ownership of the worst.

  58. adrena

    Thanks for sharing, Ian. May the ship of time sail smoothly so that grief can turn into peaceful memories. My sincere sympathy.

  59. max

    My condolences, Ian, both on his departure from this world and his incapacities as a father.

    [‘2010 is starting to look an awful lot like 2009.’]

  60. Rick

    For better or worse, but mostly better by far (I can only assume based on your work online), you are still your father’s son, just as I am my father’s son. Our parents often teach us more about “how not to be” than “how to be,” and perhaps that’s the way it’s really supposed to be––the heartening thing for me still is just how all that seems to work out for the better over time. I still haven’t a clue, even though it’s been a long time since my own parents passing and I’m still trying to figure that out myself.

    Still, for all the problems parents can and often do present their children, you seem to have learned rather well what you needed to learn… and for that, the old man (and mom) deserves both credit and blame. Mine too, as it were. Which is why I find this post touching and most redeeming.

    So be well. You may find yourself ruminating about a lot of things historic and trying to give them new context. It did a lot of good for me, I can tell you that much. But your mileage may vary, eh? :^)

    Lastly, you are a damn good writer at times. This being one of them. Thank you for sharing.

  61. Rick

    Edit: Please scratch the term, in the last graf, “at times.” That was profoundly stupid of me to leave in. Apologies.

  62. Ian Welsh

    LOL. That’s not necessary Rick, I took it as a compliment. No one writes damn well all the time, I’m happy if I do it some of the time (though more of the time would be good, but in part, that’s sheer laziness on my part. )

  63. Glen

    I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. I was shocked to learn that a family friend had just died from cancer. I hadn’t spoken with him in a while since our work schedules and locations had changed. I should know better than to take our presence here for granted at my age, and had sent that email or picked up the phone to say hi.

    Hang in there, look after your family, look after yourself.

    To quote another great Canadian – Remember, we’re pulling for you. We’re all in this together.

  64. edgery

    My condolences for your loss, and congratulations for the maturity of your understanding of your father.

  65. Allow me to repeat edgery: My condolences for your loss, and congratulations for the maturity of your understanding of your father.

  66. Hillsfar

    My sincere condolences, Ian. To lose both one’s parents is a sad thing.

    I’ve always wished – since coming upon your works on FireDogLake – that you were advising Obama directly. Even if you ARE wrong about California and its budget, you’re just about right on everything else. 🙂

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