A proud daughter bragging about her dad this close to Father’s Day is not new, but John Belanger’s story really is something to write about.
The Barrie man worked 60-plus hours a week as a general contractor for more than 30 years with the same company. He was an avid snowboarder, snowmobiler and loved riding bicycles with his kids.
“He was creative in our childhood with helping us create the best homemade, two-storey forts," says daughter Alyssa Rowe.
But their lives were turned upside down on Aug. 31, 2014 when John was involved in a serious car crash in Barrie, suffering catastrophic injuries, including a brain injury and ongoing chronic from the wreck.
The multi-vehicle crash happened at Essa Road and Anne Street.
"Someone ran a red light and hit Dad and swung Dad around and he hit another car," Rowe says. "His car was totalled, as were three of the four cars that we know of.”
Due to his condition following the crash, life changed for John and his family. He lost not only his driver's licence but also all sense of smell, taste and the ability to see colours due to his traumatic brain injury.
While he has gotten better over the years, John still can't be left alone due to risk of a fall or because of his memory loss.
And although his recovery has been a blessing for the family, it's what has happened since that is truly inspiration, the family says.
John, 65, has written more than 40 books, with two on the verge of being published and a third not far behind.
BarrieToday met with John and his wife this week at their home in the city's west end. In the living room, his book is clearly visible on the shelf.
When asked how he went from sitting in a dark room in a chair with his eyes closed for 15 hours a day and not being able to communicate to writing a book, John began to tell his story.
“After the accident and looking back, everything went really dark," he says. "The way I look at it and try to explain it is that it's like 1,000 doors shut in my face. I lost everything and for six months sat in the dark because I couldn't tolerate light."
During this difficult time, something unusual happened.
"These ideas started to come to me as dreams and thoughts and I started to write them down," John says.
He said his occupational therapist started to see how much he was writing and trying to get thoughts down, so she connected him with an iPad.
“The first book I started was six months to the day after the accident," he says. "It was like one door opened and it was a room full of kids wanting me to tell their stories. My second book, The Grim Factory, is about a young boy who was born into the wrong world. It's about abused children and I feel it's a story everyone will want to read.”
Meanwhile, his first book, Daddy: Open Doors That Only He Sees, is full of fantasy storytelling and what John calls a “crazy Harry Potter.”
“That one is about a girl, born in Barrie, who finds out her dad is a wizard and that he can open doors that no one else can see,” he says. “It's way out of this world, but it's perfect for children of any age.”
Before John’s car accident, he says he had no prior experience writing and said that he “barely picked up a book, and my spelling wasn’t the greatest.”
His wife, Barb, says John left school after Grade 10 "because he knew what he wanted to do, and felt he knew more than the teachers."
“But with his story writing, his iPad ran out of memory so we had to get him a MacBook Air so he could keep all his notes and books in it,” she says.
The couple, who mark their 45th anniversary later this year, credit several experts for John's much-improved condition, including a local eye specialist.
“You wouldn’t think an eye specialist would help in this situation, but he did, immensely,” John says. “When I looked straight ahead, it was like looking at railway tracks in the distance. I would look at a chair and the floor might appear three feet higher than normal. I was always in a dense fog and the eye specialist changed that.”
John says his physiotherapist has also helped so much they make sure they still go.
And as far as John has come in his recovery, his wife says he still uses a cane outside the home, and his depth perception and peripheral vision will never return.
Barb admits that, during the first few years after the accident, she felt that life would involve a 24-hour care worker.
“There are still memory issues and such, our life has changed drastically. He was lucky to remember his name half the time,” Barb says. “Life is much better now. He can cut the grass, spend some time with family for long periods of time and, of course, it's just unbelievable that he has been able to get books published and looked at by publishers.”
John admits he's still not the best at typing, but Barb interjects and says that has more to do with his previous career.
“We’re talking about a hardcore construction guy with big fingers pounding away at the keyboard. But he is doing great,” she says in a reassuring tone.
Rowe tells BarrieToday she's amazed at how far her dad has come in this journey since the crash.
“Who knew that something began with him writing on notepads, what didn’t seem to make any sense at the time to anyone but him," she says. "Something that helped him sort through his trauma and explore a world he never had before, allowed him to get up out of his chair, which for the longest time was very hard for him, and simply live.
“Both my mother and father have overcome something devastating, something that they didn’t ask for, that none of us could have predicted would ever happen in our family, but it has created something for my family," Rowe adds. "This journey continues to give me the will to push harder, stay focused, celebrate every moment, and have as much joy in my life as possible.
"My parents are my heroes, and I am proud to share their story and have them as parents.”
Daddy: Open Doors That Only He Sees will be out in about a month and is being published by Page Publishing, based in the United States.
John has a message for anyone thinking their current state, regardless what it may be, is what defines them as a person.
“It's never over, right? Keep pushing through whatever you’re going through,” he says. “I went from probably not supposed to be here to getting books published and enjoying my family again. It is possible.”