About the Author
Diana Bishop has spent twenty years as a TV news correspondent and independent film producer for CBC, CTV, Global Television, and NBC News, telling stories of some of the biggest newsmakers of the day. In 2002, she co-produced a documentary about her famous grandfather entitled A Hero To Me. Diana now runs a communications and personal branding business called The Success Story Program. She lives in Collingwood, Ontario.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
On November 10, 2010, the night before Remembrance Day, my father called me.
“Hello, helloooo. Are you there?” he bellowed into the receiver. At eighty-seven Dad was going deaf, and he thought everyone else was, too.
“I am here, Dad, but it’s 9:30 at night. Is anything wrong?” I asked, raising my voice a little to make sure I didn’t have to repeat myself. I was already in bed reading, but with an aging father in a nursing home, a late-night phone call always put me on edge. Normally, Dad would be fast asleep at this hour. Tonight he sounded as though he was on high alert.
“No, no, nothing wrong,” Dad chimed. “Just wanted to call and let you know that I got myself all dressed in my suit. I have put my medals on and am ready to go.”
Now I was confused. What was he talking about? My first thought was that he was giving himself a little dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s activities. After recent eye and dental surgery, the only Remembrance Day service and speech for which my father could summon the strength was the one he intended to give at breakfast to a room full of sedate nursing home “inmates,” as he’d dubbed them.
“Yes, sir, I am going to show these peasants what Canada is all about.”
My father had grown up in a world where, as he put it, “God is an Englishman” — quite different from the socially and ethnically diverse population he lived with at the nursing home — even if it was called Kensington Gardens after the Royal Park in London.
I knew that the thought of having the floor in the nursing home’s dining room, however brief and unsolicited the moment would be, was still enough for my dad to dress up proudly with his medals — a symbol of his most glorious era — above his heart, and, of course, to remind all of us who he was. But Dad needed no rehearsal. He had attended so many Remembrance Day ceremonies in his lifetime that I knew he had it all down pat.
Did he plan to sleep in his clothes so that he would be ready to go in the morning? In his old age, Dad often fretted that he might sleep in and miss something — hard to imagine, as he was still the nervous ball of energy that he had always been.
My biggest worry whenever my father called was that I might have to get up, get dressed, and go over to see him. My presence was often the only thing that would calm him down. Despite my complex relationship with him over the years, I had an unwavering sense of duty to my father. I felt it was my responsibility to step in and take care of him after my mother died. I was Daddy’s girl, loyal to a fault.
I was trying to formulate some response when Dad boomed, “Got to go. I have to get to the dining room before breakfast is over.”
In that moment, as Dad hung up and left me on the line, holding nothing but silence, it hit me: my father was leaving me, bit by bit. I knew it; I had known it for some time. And yet that moment stunned me, stung me, and wrenched at my heart.
My whole life I had watched my father, Arthur Bishop, the only son of Canada’s and the Commonwealth’s most famous First World War flying ace, step up to various podiums around the country on Remembrance Day. A former fighter pilot himself, flying Spitfires in the Second World War, Dad was invited to scores of military and aviation events, and he revelled in his stardom at each show. He was masterful, playing a part that he had been born into — though it was not one he had selected for himself.
On many of these occasions, he told a captive audience that, between them, he and his father had shot down seventy-three German planes. “My father shot down seventy-two, and I shot down one!” Dad would proudly joke.
I can’t recall the first time I heard Dad use that line. Like so many stories about my grandfather and my father, it felt as if I had always known them. I do remember that Dad always delivered the quip with a wonderful mix of humility, pride, and humour that people loved.
Of course, it was a joke that masked a difficult truth for my father: he had grown up as the son of Billy Bishop, a legend, a Canadian icon. Dad had a lot to live up to.
In fact, his father’s mythical status had only grown over the years. There were books, documentaries, and a highly acclaimed play about him. There were also stamps bearing his image, as well as streets, bars, cafés, an air force building, a museum, a mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and a couple of airports named after him.
I admit readily that it took me a long time to fully appreciate both the blessing and the burden that my father carried around with the Bishop name. Children only have their own experiences to rely on, and my experiences with Dad as a youngster were something of a roller coaster ride. Although there were things about him that were quite wonderful, there were many others that were awful. I battled internally and at considerable emotional cost trying to reconcile these two sides of his character because, more than anything else, I so desperately wanted my father to be a hero to me like my grandfather was.
On the one hand, he was a very funny man. Everyone thought so. Dad could walk into a room and have everyone laughing in no time. He was endowed with the perfect sense of timing, and he could really tell a joke. In fact, I was convinced he was the one who came up with new jokes — usually dirty ones — because he was always the first to tell them before they made the rounds.
Dad was always full of surprises. You never knew what he might do out of the blue, but you knew it would have you in stitches. He could give everyone real belly laughs — once at a resort Dad got up when they were playing Mexican music. He was in his mid-fifties by then, but he took the floor in front of a large dinner crowd to do the most energetic hat dance you have ever seen. As the music got more intense, so did Dad’s dancing. Ten minutes later he was still at it, with the crowd cheering and madly clapping. I was convinced he was headed for a heart attack, but no, he went on and on until the music finally stopped. He ended his big solo by taking a bow.
All his life my father had been wiry and compact, with unbridled vivacity; you could almost see sparks flying off of him in all directions. Surprisingly, dementia had not taken away that fire in his belly or the twinkle in his eye, but his body had diminished, a much tinier version of its former self. In casual and sports clothes Dad had always looked messy, but in a suit and tie he could really put it together — a bit of a metaphor for his life in general, or so it seemed to me.
As I held the phone, I knew Dad would be drowning in his navy-blue suit jacket. But my heart burst with respect, knowing that he would have expertly knotted his tie with the tiny Spitfires all over it. He would have remembered to wear a deep red poppy, the familiar emblem of Remembrance Day, and his breastplate of war medals would be in place over his heart.
I imagined him determinedly working his way down the long hallway of the nursing home using his walker and arriving at the dining hall, perplexed to find it dark and empty — it was 9:30 at night, after all. That was if he even made it that far; it’s likely the evening nursing attendant would be surprised to see him up and dressed at that hour, and, as diplomatically as possible, would try to coax him back to bed. There would probably be quite a scene.
It was at that moment that I felt an overwhelming sense of panic. I knew that my father would not be here much longer, and I needed to face the facts: For all my devotion to him, particularly in his waning years, I had spent much of my life not only struggling to understand this larger-than-life force that was my father but also trying to resolve my own complicated feelings about him, feelings that had burdened me my entire life. I had to reconcile the fact that a man who could do a Mexican hat dance long enough for a Guinness World Record and keep a room full of people in stitches could also be so very cruel to those closest to him.
I felt I needed to understand more deeply the forces that shaped my father’s life and, ultimately, my own. Not surprisingly, it all seemed to lead back to my famous grandfather.
Our Billy Bishop was not just Canada’s war hero; he was our hero, too. As his family, we worshipped him — who he was, what he did, what he stood for — even when it didn’t always make a lot of sense. Billy certainly wasn’t perfect, yet we still held tight to our unshakeable super-human image of him. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that Billy Bishop has been one of greatest influences in my life, propelling me to be adventurous and courageous, but also haunting me to try too hard, be too hard on myself, and feel like I could never measure up. That impact is what I needed and wanted to understand better.
I think we all struggle to find ourselves in our family narrative. I certainly did, realizing that, like my father, I had grown up feeling that I must live up to a legend. When I think about the years I spent as a journalist, telling other people’s stories, and then as a communications and branding specialist, helping people to tell their own stories, I understand that all along I have been searching for a way to tell my own story.
These are the factors that sparked this journey to explore the forces that were unleashed with my proud military heritage and the impact it has had on my life and my family’s life because living with the memory of Billy Bishop has been like living with a ghost — a friendly ghost, yes, but one that has always been there with us in spirit, shaping our lives in particular ways, and challenging me to contemplate what is a hero? And what role do heroes play in our lives?