Saying goodbye with courage and polka music

March 2, 2021
Richard Dal Monte
Bill Pratt (right) and his father, Orville

Bill Pratt has been around. He was a competitive swimmer and water polo player, and even coached swimming professionally. He has lived across Canada, working in the charitable sector and helping people facing obstacles: the unhoused, seniors, people living with disabilities.

In 2020, amidst the global turmoil and life-changing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Regina resident faced his own major obstacle: preparing for the death of his 85-year-old father.

To do it, he reached not only into his educational past as a Master of Arts in Leadership graduate from Royal Roads University but, also, into the university’s future.

He also used a Santa suit, dancing girls, a pineapple and polka music.

Father and son

Orville Pratt knew everyone in town, his son says, remembering as a child they couldn’t go anywhere in Regina without running across a friend or acquaintance. He worked for the Province of Saskatchewan, in the Ministry of Health, and as personnel director of the Cancer Foundation of Saskatchewan. And he could fix anything.

He was funny and kind, and even made arrangements to have his car go to his mechanic when he passed, says Pratt, who is the chief relationship, research and innovation officer at Eden Care Communities and who also heads the Eden Care Communities Foundation.

So it was on Orville Pratt’s terms that he entered hospice in May 2020 after several years battling a blood disorder.

But while his father was prepared for his own passing, it took a little more work for Pratt, 57.

The work of saying goodbye was both complicated and necessitated by the pandemic-related restrictions that kept him away from his father’s bedside — his mother and one of his two sisters were the only visitors allowed.

And it was helped by three words: caring, creative and courageous.

Although Royal Roads hadn’t yet formalized those core values as part of its 25-year vision when Pratt graduated in 2019, he says, they were still part of his leadership education. And they were integral to his final expressions of love for his dying father.

He wanted to show his caring but, because he couldn’t be at his father’s side, he had to be creative to do it. And since that involved some, ahem, public displays along with private moments, he had to be courageous.

Every day, a memory

On the outside of the glass looking into his dad’s room, every day for two weeks he brought an artifact of their life together. A musical playlist. A bedsheet painted with the words “World’s Greatest Dad.” A fishing tackle box, which produced shared stories to go with each lure and hook, and resulted in the figurative passing of a baton — a fish bonker, actually — from father to son.

They celebrated Christmas in May with a nod to his dad’s Christmas Eve tradition — dressing up as Santa Claus, telling dumb jokes and giving family members bizarre gifts such as a yam or a pineapple — except, this time, it was Pratt all dressed in red and lugging a sack full of wacky presents.

“It was an invitation to talk about every Christmas,” Pratt says.

Two days after that, the whole family produced a 30-minute New Year’s Eve variety show on a couple of sheets of plywood laid on the lawn outside the hospice. “My sisters did dances, my nieces did dances, I told stupid jokes — it was like a TV show outside his window.”

Of course, they sang Auld Lang Syne — “That was, as you can imagine, hard. Really, really hard” — but soon switched the music to the upbeat Beer Barrel Polka, for his parents loved to polka. And at “midnight,” they popped a bottle of champagne, the cork flying in the air and landing on the roof of the hospice.

Pratt smiles and laughs telling these stories. And he apologizes for seeming overly enthusiastic about the Royal Roads core values but credits his time at the university for helping him get past his and his dad’s usual topics of discussion: the weather and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“We never really got deep on it until those last two weeks. I learned that at Royal Roads. I learned to stand with my creativity and stand as who I am.

“I look back on that time and I can’t think of a better two weeks with my dad.”

• How much does Bill Pratt love Royal Roads University? 1) He started a scholarship for other Master of Arts in Leadership students. 2) He has signed up for a second degree, a Master of Arts in Human Security and Peacebuilding.