Champion dads

Wade Davis

Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, Wade Davis is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Author of 23 books, including One RiverThe Wayfinders, Into the Silence, and Magdalena: River of Dreams. He holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia. He lives on Bowen Island with his wife, Gail, and spends much of the summer in the Stikine Valley of northern British Columbia. He has two daughters, Tara and Raina, who are in their thirties.

Words from Wade:

My father was infinitely kind and understanding. I think at some level he understood that he was not going to be able to provide the mentorship I needed, and he was never anything but delighted to know that I had found guidance in someone else. It was as if he understood from the start that there was only so much he could teach me. We never spoke about this, so I don’t know if it’s true—but if he did feel any resentment toward the amazing men who guided me, it never became apparent. He sacrificed a great deal to send me to Harvard, for example, knowing full well that every day I spent there widened the social chasm between us. It took me some years to appreciate what an amazing thing this was and how different my experience was from that of my more polished peers, with their burdens of family pressure and expectations. I never had any pressure to be anything or to follow in anyone’s footsteps. I was never told that there were limits to what I could do or become.

My father lived with a lot of stress. I think about how I handle stress. People are amazed at what I do and what I get done, but it’s not bad when you do something you love. Hard is good, hard is what makes it good. Stress is when you are trapped in a world and you can’t get out of it. My father had his first heart attack at fifty-eight and then another at sixty-eight that took his life. I was living in France when he died and made arrangements to return to Canada as quickly as I could.

When I reached the funeral home in Victoria, I was told by the director that time was of the essence and they could only allow me a few minutes with my father. As I entered the room where my father lay, I politely told this dreadful character, this merchant of death, that I had come a very long way to say goodbye to my father, and that if he or any of his staff interrupted me, they would be lying beside my father on the marble slab.

I went in. There was my father, stone cold, a bit of stubble from the morning’s growth. I lay on him, I held him, I wanted so desperately that contact, that closeness with him that we’d never had in life. I cried, I wept—and then I wailed. I wanted to say all the things left unsaid. This is the thing when someone dies suddenly: if Dad had lived another twenty years, there could have been some reconciliation. We would have found peace.

Becoming a father was the most amazing moment in my life. When my first daughter, Tara, was born, I simply stared at her in bliss for about six months. I had never before experienced true selfless love. When my second daughter, Raina, came along, I wondered how I would possibly love her as I did Tara. Then of course the moment she appeared, slipping out of her mother’s body with an ease and grace that she carries to this day, I learned—and really for the first time—that love is indeed infinite.

In general, I’d have to say that the biggest surprise was how easy it was to be a good dad. I feel for my parents’ generation—all that they endured, all that they wanted to insulate their children from, all the challenges of raising families in a time of total social and political upheaval, civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, drugs, the environment. We have had it much easier, for the social chasm and generational gap that divided us from our folks simply does not exist with our kids. My girls have always turned to me for support, and when they reached puberty, I had the privilege of being the one they sought for guidance. Those adolescent years were rich; we had such open, strong relationships.

Excerpted from “Forty Fathers: Men Talk About Parenting”, with permission from Douglas & McIntyre, 2022.