How I Learned to Play Guitar

by Kala Vilches from Victoria, BC

My dad has been a tree-planter all his life. He’s never done anything else, and that’s just fine with him – the outdoors is where he was born to be. From March until October, its just him and the mountains In the winter, however, when the ground is too hard to dig and the terrain too snowy, my dad is forced to settle down, lucky me.

Most weekends in the winter, I usually find myself making the almost silent, hour-long drive up island with my dad to a cabin that he likes to rent on Shawnigan Lake. 

Once we get to the cabin, we start a fire, make a pot of spaghetti and sprawl out on the L-shaped couch and watch “the game” on the old fuzzy TV. During commercials, my dad picks up his old guitar and plays “Mr. Bojangels”, “Time of Your Life” or some other song that he’s taught himself that summer. When I was little, I used to find this distracting, but now I’ve come to notice, almost enviously, how talented he is – how easy he makes these intricate pieces seem.

One weekend last February, when I was going through a particularly bad Rolling Stones obsession, I said during one commercial break, “Dad, do you know ‘As Tears Go By’?” He responded by pulling out an old tattered music book and opened to a page that he had highlighted years ago. He showed me which frets to put my fingers on and waited patiently until I got all the chords right – G, C, A7, D: C, E, D… After practicing quietly while my dad watched the end of the game, I took a look at the words and started singing softly along with my strumming. My dad, the game now over, turned his attention to me and said, “You’re doing really well. I never knew you were so good at singing.” I blushed slightly and continued singing, louder and stronger than I had been before. He joined in.

A compliment like that meant so much to me – my dad is so confident and independent, and he has so much talent that it is sometimes intimidating, so to be able to do something that really impressed him, especially something that he knows a lot about well, to me, that was a big accomplishment.

The last time I visited my dad – in the Vancouver Cancer Lodge where he now lives – he picked up his guitar and tried to play like he had last winter. But the same drugs that have made his face swell and his body shrink have also made his hand shaky and unsure of the notes. Not long after he picked it up, he sighed sadly and put it back on its stand in the corner of the room, muttering about the drugs and his shaking hands.

Later that day, I walked to the corner of the room, picked up the guitar and slowly tried out the chords that he had taught me not a year earlier. As my steady hand strummed the chords – G, C, A7, D, C, E, D… my dad looked at me enviously.