November makes me melancholy. It’s a combination of having to acknowledge that summer is well and truly over. That we face months of short gloomy days when we hunker inside to keep warm. But most of all because of Remembrance Day. November 11th. When we were kids, my mother would always make us pause (back then it was a school holiday) and bow our heads. At the time I didn’t understand why it should be so solemn. When I grew older, I realized that our little ceremony honoured my father and what we as a family had lost because of the long-lasting impact of the Second World War on my father.
I remember, when my Mother died ten years ago, some woman – no, not some woman – it was my former writing coach, the author who toiled for two decades on the biography (finally printed in 2007) of her Warsaw-ghetto-grandfather whom she frequently extolled as ‘the Jewish Shakespeare’ – emailed a sort-of condolence in which she opined that losing a parent should be viewed as liberating. This from a woman who didn’t think much of her own contemporary ‘folks’, as she called them, but lived her life idolizing a man she barely remembered. I hated her bloody smugness, made all the more easy because all the family she had was a nutty ex-husband and two children she toked up with, to keep herself ‘in touch’ and ‘relevant’.
Makes you wanna go, huh, doesn’t it? But I’d gotten over my rage at her thoughtlessness by the time my father fell ill. No, that’s not true. He didn’t fall, because there was nothing abrupt about his descent into the narrow confines of himself. The call from his wife came just after supper. Her voice was more resigned than sad. Come when you can. Ten minutes later the social worker called and told us, come now, right now! My husband and I packed up the car and raced to his bedside.
Hospitals = enormous factories with lots of rules. It’s odd the snippets of things I remember.
The emergency waiting room looking like a voyage of the damned; rows of green vinyl seats were filled with flat-eyed men and women, wounded inside as well as out, their accoutrements lots of crutches, yellowing bruises and bandaged limbs. How clean the floor was, which was a good thing, since a couple of tattoo-sleeved men were snoozing between the rows of chairs, with their heads resting on rolled-up jacket pillows. The teams of attractive blonde EMTs exchanging recipes as they waited in the hallway for their gurneys to be emptied. My hubby settling into a corner by the sole electrical outlet, working away on his laptop. He was the only one who looked like he didn’t belong.
When I checked in at the emergency room desk, the nurse gave me a sad smile and said in a low voice, “He’s not going home, you know.” Yes, I knew. I knew.
Dad was MRSA, the troublesome bacterial gift acquired during a long ago visit to another hospital, so we had to put on face masks and paper gowns and rubber gloves. If he’d been able to open his eyes, what would he have thought of the motley assembly in canary costumes? His wife, a white-haired spectre sitting silent and small beside the rails of his bed and me, the sturdy, pushy daughter blocking the hallway, peppering the reluctant nurses with questions or my tall, cop-authoritative son with tears in his eyes, pulling the doctor out of earshot just in case grandpa could overhear the awful prognosis.
Where’s the liberation of watching a strong man decline for five years from daddy who danced to the music into a wizened comma under the frayed covers in the palliative care unit of Hamilton General? I touched the smooth skin on his head. He was burning with fever. Behind the thin crepe of his lids, Dad’s eyes fluttered as if he was watching some fast-action film unspool. Was it his life he saw? His lips puckered and withdrew, as if he was making a speech. Was he dreaming of one last wish, but instead of the condemned man’s final cigarette, his mouth was remembering a rib-eye steak dinner with rice and peas and gravy?
This was the man who’d written a poem for me, who’d sit in a living room chair – just over there in my mind’s eye, and I’d drape one leg over the arm of the couch and we’d sit in the sun and read old Readers’ Digests as we listened to Mozart. Was the basso gurgle-struggle for air really something I’d remember as I fell asleep every night?
Even without his dentures, his face looked younger than its 88 years. He might be 90, though. We have no birth certificate, so it’s a wild guess, given that the official records of his birth in Cuba disappeared too long ago to be important. He had enough ID to enlist in the British Army Corps of Engineers and escape from tropical poverty to desert war, though. His three medals are resting in a Crown Royal bag in my basement safe. There’s a cool, absent heaviness as I lift up his thought-less gardener’s hand, half-curled into a lifeless fist. He was a machinist, you know, and a dreamer, a farmer, a master tree-pruner, a fixer of things mechanical, but not so good with spontaneous hugging.
When the nurses left the curtained cubicle, I scanned the medical charts cataloguing his old body’s breakdowns. The printed note said DNR (do not resuscitate), which meant no fluids or food because, as the attending physician said half a dozen times in case we were too stunned or stupid to comprehend, he’s dying, implying, what’s the use?
They’d told us he could go at any time. Except that he hung on for a week afterwards upstairs in the palliative care wing, thirsty, starving, in a world where he was the only inhabitant, evaporating back to elemental bone. A fat pulse continued to throb lazily along the side of his scalp. His kidneys had shut down. His decline was neither fast nor painless. The ‘experts’ were all so wrong, wrong, wrong. The only consolation was that after I complained for the tenth time about his obvious suffering – finally shrieking with rage and threatening lawsuits – they’d given him narcotics to quell the tide of pneumonia that had collapsed his lung and was slowly choking him.
He slipped away on April 30th, an hour after I left his side. By then, I was ready to let him go. At the funeral home, I handed the smiley guy in the navy blue suit a sheaf of family photos, including a couple of my mother, to tuck into his jacket pocket. He was husband, father. EVen as ashes, he wouldn’t leave this world without us.