I came across this photo today of Tony Hawk and his son Riley. This candid moment between father and son messing around in the family’s pool was captured several years ago during what was meant to be a denim photoshoot. Few men have been quite as enigmatic or as innovative in their field as The Hawk. There was something about the quiet and playful bond in this photo that made me not only think of the relationship I have with my own father, but also, more largely, the impact a man’s individual legacy factors into the legacy of family.
There seems to be a sort of fleetingness to the legacy a man leaves behind in his personal conquests, whereas, familial legacy seems to have a much more lasting lifecycle. One might think there is a great codependency between former and latter but that often is not the case, great men frequently raise miserable children and miserable children frequently become great men. Without a doubt, the legacies of great men typically live beyond the man. I can Google “Tony Hawk” and spend an entire day sorting through images, videos, musings, and the like, learning much about his accomplishments. However, a day’s worth of Googling will tell me very little about the man – more specifically, the character of the man, and without this, it is very hard to know if in fact, Tony Hawk, is or was a great man.
Conversely, if asked about my own father, I could speak at length about his character, share obscure things others likely could never know, I will likely pass along personal stories to my own children one day, and then there are the intangible explorations, such as, how much of myself is a result of my father’s legacy? It is hard to know. My father and I have had an interesting relationship which has had its convergences and divergences in equal parts. To say it has followed a meandering and often separate path would likely be an understatement, though I know my father to be a great man from whom I have learned many wonderful things.
My mother wholeheartedly believes that balance is the essence of living what one might call a “good life.” She is wrong in thinking so, but that is ok, because she is not entirely wrong. In fact, for the majority of people she would be right. This is because, most people do not know what they want from life, or to put it another way, most people do not know what will make them happy in life. Balance ensures stability, stability affords satisfaction. Satisfaction is better than extreme disappointment and or sadness. For anyone that does not know what they want from life, reaching at a guess and then failing miserably, is a very defeating feeling. As such, treading that middle place is the best place to be for most people.
Why bring up balance at all? Well, greatness is not achieved through balance. Anyone who has achieved greatness knows that it comes with almost intolerable sacrifice. As it pertains to our discussion of fatherly legacies, the reason there seems to be a disconnect between great men and great fathers, is because to be either, it is very difficult to balance the two. I had friends and acquaintences growing up whose fathers were great men but horrible fathers. You know the sort, the father is a CEO of such and such a company, ergo, the child is rich in access, possessions, you name it, but is completely poor in character.
I am not wishing to be misleading here in suggesting that greatness in anyway hinges upon financial success, because it does not. Nevertheless, it does well to serve a point of deeper interest, insofar as, what then is a fair measurement of greatness? As humans, we tend to look to the quantifiable in almost every aspect of our lives. We live by the metrics, timelines, promotions, possessions, these are signifiers to ourselves and to the world around us that we are doing something right if our numbers are favourable, and yet, right is not great. Rightness is playing a measurable game with similar rules, biased starting positions and unpredictable ends better than most others are playing it themselves. Most others in this game, 80% in fact, live on less than $10USD per day. Nevertheless, great men who have done great things come from the 80%. Seemingly, greatness is something quite a bit more abstract than rightness.
Greatness, to me anyway, is birthed from nearly untenable positions. In other words, ignoring the game, its rules and its players, and then creating the game that you actually wish to play. Doing so creates a kind of obsession that does not allow for much else, including balance, and is also, quite isolating for others because they cannot play your game, at least at the beginning. Greatness presents new boundaries for what was previously thought possible and there exists a steep learning curve for even the most capable of playing the new game. When Tony Hawk first did the 900, he changed an entire sport, not simply because it was thought physically impossible but because the rules had changed as a result, and therefore, so too did the expectations on its players. For Tony however, none of those things ever crossed his mind, before, during or afterwards, he was merely doing what he always knew to be true.
Riley chose to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a professional skateboarder and I suppose that says something about the relationship the two shared. He respected his father’s greatness in such a way that he felt it worthwhile to continue that familial legacy. He is a good skateboarder by any measure, but he will never be one of the sport’s greats. If I had to guess, and that is all any of this is, is that there is a passion trickle down effect. In essence, Riley did not dream of being the greatest skateboarder of his generation because he knew that to be his truth, rather, he grew up surrounded by that passion and confused it for his own. More simply, he did not know what he wanted in life.
There are likely deeper things at play, such as, approval of the father and the like, though that too would be a guess. It is not my desire however, to take anything away from their relationship because I really do not know anything about it. I was very mindful from the onset, to frame this entire piece around the notion that only the son can truly know the relationship he had with his father and central to this discussion, the character of his father.
Something I can speak to with a bit more clarity though is the relationship I have had with my own father. By my own judgment, I would say my father was, or is rather, a great man. As a child he dreamt of flying and as soon as he could, he did just that. More so, he was one of the best. My brother and I, like Riley, fell victim for a period of time to that aforementioned trickle down effect. We thought we wanted to be pilots ourselves and went so far as to put in the many hours to get our flying licenses and at a very young age. My brother in fact, at the time, was the youngest in the country to have ever flown solo.
I still to this day cannot decide if it was my father’s weaknesses or strengths that led to the cessation of that path. Without getting into the sorted details, pressures and outcomes of divorce, he basically sat my brother and I down one day and asked us if flying was what we really wanted to do with our lives. A rather large question for a sixteen and fourteen year old to answer. For him it was a simple matter of economics, flying is an otherwise expensive hobby and he was feeling financial constraints from many angles. Of course at that age, we could not with any certainty give him an answer that would convince him to allow us to continue flying, and so, as it stands, I have flown once on my own ever since. It took many years afterwards for me to find my own path, but what he did for me on that day whether he was aware of it or not, was prevent me from travelling down a path that not only would not have been my own, but also, a very difficult one to step off of.
Soon after finding my own path, I had the opportunity to take my brother and best friend along with me to London on a work trip. It was one of the first times in my life that I was not flying standby, and coincidently, the airline happened to be Air Canada, which was where my father had spent the majority of his career. I suppose three kids sitting in first class is cause for curiosity because the flight attendant inquired as to the nature of our trip. I rather embarrassingly shared that we had been in England for the Prince of Brunei’s birthday, amongst other work related things, with my employer Janet Jackson. A few minutes later the captain came back to speak with me because he was a big fan of Janet’s. During that conversation, I asked if he had ever flown with my father. He had and as it turned out, he was an even a bigger fan of my father’s than of Janet’s. One of Air Canada’s most senior pilots not only had many stories about how impactful my father had been with his fellow pilots, but also, that he was the best pilot he had ever flown with.
Several weeks later I was in Los Angeles and got a phone call from my father in Canada which was unusual because we were not speaking all that much at that time. It seems that he had crossed paths with the captain I had spoken to on a layover somewhere and he had told my father that he had met me on one of his flights and was quite impressed by what I was doing. It was perhaps the first and only time we have had a real moment of mutual respect for one another. As things go, in my thirty years our separate pursuits of individual greatness have crossed paths once through a happenstance encounter with another great man, my father’s colleague. One year earlier, my father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, one year later, he flew his last flight.
We never spoke much about some of the larger implications not only of that diagnosis, but also, that happenstance encounter. In fact, I do not think that we have ever addressed it directly. However, at its most basic level, just as my dreams had begun forming roots, my father’s dreams had begun wilting into their final season. The matter of course for my father was far more complicated, he was in an irredicuble condition, and about to embark on the hardest journey of his life. When things slowed and I decided to permanently return to Canada, his condition had dramatically worsened, and yet he remained bonhomous and optimistic, not only about life, but also, flying again. I will never forget the haunting truth of seeing how a man’s will to fight for his truth can outlive even the impossible. It is the one thing that keeps him alive now, and is perhaps, the one thing that has kept him alive his entire life. That to me, will always be the mark of a great man.
In my father’s case a unique and indirect thing has occurred, his legacy lives on through me. While our own pursuits for individual greatness could not have been more different, at its very core, in many ways, the path that I did take is a result of the one and only thing that ever really mattered in our relationship, we shared an acute understanding that men must follow their hearts and must do so even when faced with life’s greatest obstacles or adversities. Man must live his truth, those who can do this can become great men. Unlike my father, I do not believe that he will ever fly again, commercially at least. However, I can relate to his position because I too am beholden to the notion that men can defeat the seemingly impossible and believe so to a degree that most others would likely find insane. While I never quite did follow my father’s path, I suppose that one day I will likely finish what I started with him many years ago, and in a small plane somewhere, we will cross paths again, father and son, doing what his heart so greatly loved and what so greatly helped to shape mine.