Celebrating an Imperfect Person: Happy 90th Birthday to my Dad

UPDATE: I am sharing this post again as we lost my father this week (Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021) I have been trying to wrap my head around the loss, moving through waves of grief. My father was aware until the last month, his last week he experienced pain and I am grateful he is at peace. I am trying to concentrate on the gratitude for the time my children and I had with him. If you have not yet read this post take a gander.


It is safe to say that today, December 3rd, 2020 does not look at all how I expected. It’s currently 16 degrees celsius in Calgary. We are on month 10 of a global pandemic, but by far my biggest shock is my Father, Dr. Frederick Hilderman is alive and turning 90 years old.

I have spent my entire adult life anticipating my father’s death. He was 52 when I was born and there was always this clock in my head on losing him because of his age. He has had a myriad of health problems in the last two decades. Heart surgery at age 70, that was supposed to just be a simple stent and ended up being a triple by-pass, stent/valve placement and finding a hole in his heart. A broken shoulder/replacement from falling off a stool while stubbornly trying to hang a photo on his own. A massive 8 hour spinal surgery (I think that was about 15 years ago) where he came out of the anesthetic so groggy that he couldn’t remember the year, who was who or anything really for at least 3 days. There was the bacterial infection in his blood that made him pass out in the local rec centre’s hot tub and required IV antibiotics for 4 months, with pill form for nearly 2 years after. And must not forget the crowning achievement of breaking his hip on my wedding day in 2009 and then again 4 years ago while I was pregnant with my third baby.

The final nail in his independent living was when trying to still recuperate from the second broken hip, he insisted on living at home with help only twice a week. Only two days after leaving an assisted living facility and the week before I was due with my third, he fell when trying to get to the bathroom and was found what must have been a good 12 hours later by the care worker and myself lying on the floor unable to get up and delirious.

My father now lives in long term care and as hard as it can be to see him or hear him complain about his lack of independence I know he is well cared for and he wouldn’t have made it to 90 without them.

I have often said to the staff at my father’s facility or to really anyone that will listen that I feel selfish that I want him to keep living. I know the quality of life for him is not what he wishes it would be, there is no more travel, no walking, no swimming. He used to say to me from a very young age that if he ever started losing his marbles (lack capacity) or not be able to do all the things he wanted then he would be taking a ‘long cold swim in the Bow’ (as in Bow River). The man has a flare for the dramatics. I feel selfish because I want him to live so my children will have an opportunity to know him because a big part of me believes it’s impossible to really know me without first knowing my dad.

My father was the youngest of 3 for his mother, the only boy with two older sisters. By all accounts that I know of, my grandmother spoiled my dad something fierce, as much as she would anyone because apparently she was a hard woman. His father was a survivor of the First World War and suffered from what I can only imagine was PTSD as he ended up very unwell in later years. My Father always sounded a bit ashamed of the unravelling of his father’s mental health. He grew up in Calgary, spending extended time in Vancouver as well, I think, I only remember parts of details from stories told when I was young. My father was a self described natural athlete, excelling at any sport including Synchronized swimming as he often liked to remind me during my own synchro and swimming years – that he was part of a group known as Fred and his Aquabelles. One of the first people to do their Bronze Cross and WSI, according to him but believable given the timeline of 1945 being the first Bronze Cross certification.

My father accomplished so many things, he was in the Military at some point. He trained officers in physical fitness and had something to do with the Korean war – I only remember this because we went on a trip to Korea when I was a child as part of some recognition.

My father married young, age 19, to whom he would forever say was the love of his life, Beverly. He would describe her as smart, good with numbers, beautiful and gave him a challenge. They had 4 children by the time they were 27, when shortly after the youngest was born (again my timing might be off) Bev developed breast cancer and passed away. He was at the time in school at the University of Alberta.

I wasn’t around so I can’t say what he was like but I picture myself in his shoes and can only imagine what it must have felt like for him. Trying to make your way, both financially and mentally through medical school while having a sick wife and 4 young children at home. Not knowing what to do, not having the skills to parent and losing the person you cared most for. My father self medicated and without knowing what he was like before I can imagine this is when his dependence on alcohol began.

My father has a temper and when he drinks he can be terrible. He is incapable of admitting fault. He spent years after Bev’s death searching for a partner to help care for his children. Getting married 4 times in total afterwards, all ending in divorce. He just could never ask for help.

One of my earliest memories is of a terrible night where my father’s drinking got out of control and he went into an uncontrollable rage. I would have been almost 3. All I picture of the evening is my sister, only 13 months older, trying to open the door to the garage so we could escape and being unable to turn the knob. We did it and ran next door to our neighbours whom called the police. We spent the night at the Women’s shelter, where my other memory of watching Smurfs in a strange room. I never remember him saying sorry or talking about it. He must have because despite breaking my mother’s nose with a phone, she took him back.

We lived our lives walking on eggshells. Better not drop a sock or he will lose it. I remember being in Grade 3 (my daughter’s age now), when I forgot a coupon to Little Caesar’s at home. My father yelled at me in front of the clerk at the store and the entire way home. It’s not like we were stressed for cash, this was just his way. I asked my mother to leave him, it wasn’t that I didn’t love my dad but living with him was hell.

This may seem a strange tribute to share these terrible tales but to really understand my relationship with my father you need to know the good and the bad.

Some good memories largely include my Father making an ass of himself, like when he lost the parking ticket after seeing Cats or maybe it was Les Mis and instead of just paying the fee he berated the parking attendant and finally leaving while waving his middle finger yelling, here’s your f’ing ticket. Or he when was once frustrated with my sister and I for not being able to open the car trunk and having to get out but forgetting to A) put the car in park and B) take his seatbelt off, just picturing him struggle while inching the car forward still give me a giggle. My coping mechanism was and is to find the humour in his ridiculousness.

The thing about it is that my Father was also a great person. He was an awful husband and a questionable dad but as a doctor and a human he was good.

I remember one time when he and I were on one of our weekend afternoons together after my parents divorced, we were behind a couple of teenagers in line to buy tickets for a movie. The boys were scrounging together all the change they could. They had mostly coins, and it looked like they might not have enough. My father stepped in before they could say anything, asked for our tickets and paid for the whole thing. Leaving in a bit of a huff, uttering, something along the lines of use your money on treats.

This to me was textbook Dad, he couldn’t do something nice without being gruff about it. You couldn’t say I love you without him brushing it aside. He doesn’t give a compliment without also reminding you of what more you could do. He is hyper critical but also been my biggest cheerleader.

My Dad instilled a love of movies, always up to see whatever movie we picked and sometimes taking us to total inappropriate shows too. He instilled a love of music, whether it was pumping Paul Simon full blast or breaking into an operatic solo. He wanted to share his love of tennis, diving and theme parks with us but he wouldn’t ask nicely.

He is caring, generous, encouraging, charismatic, intelligent and hard working. He is also surly, stubborn (oh lord, to the point of inadvertently hurting himself), and fiercely independent. Not capable of asking for help, not capable of admitting fault but desperate to be loved.

My father is a complicated man. Today I want to celebrate everything that he is – good and difficult, because celebrating the good is easy but finding compassion for the negative lends itself to peace and love.

Happy Birthday Dad! Thank you for keeping on, thank you for being you. I love you.

One thought on “Celebrating an Imperfect Person: Happy 90th Birthday to my Dad

  1. Rest In Peace, Fred. You helped shape and guide a lot of young doctors along the way…lessons in what to do and what not to do! Thanks. David Rhine MD

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