A son guides his father on a final journey
It comes down to this, holding hands and listening to opera at a low volume, in a dimly lit room, with your father slumped in a black wheelchair, breathing fitfully. He wonders where he is each time he wakes. Skin touching his, whiskers to whiskers, is a superior language now. False assurances would only echo off the walls to haunt you. There is more dignity in silence.
You both drift. This passing beyond the end of life and into the beginning of death is a rudderless voyage through swirling mists of memory. 'I am scared,' he keeps saying.
You imagine his wheelchair is on the deck of an ocean liner, your legs covered with blankets, as if you've chosen to make this trip, as if you have purchased tickets and death can somehow be made grand. Best of Puccini is on the portable CD player. It's either that, or Artie Shaw, or the Pan Flute Melodies-Soft Hits. The Pan Flute CD will become the mainstay toward the end of the voyage and you will dislike the flute for the rest of your days.
This huddled companionship could be a painting. You will hold your positions for minutes, hours, days. Still life. Two deck hands, yours atop his.
He eats very little, doesn't mind being fed. He is no longer worried about going places. Last night you went for a walk down the hallway, 30 feet or so, to the end of the carpet, at his request, using the stroller, but before he could reach his destination he wanted to turn around. The horse no longer wants to leave the barn. A bite of banana is a triumph. His body doesn't want to take any excess fuel. Why bother? It won't be long until he forgets how to chew. He'll suck on a straw to get his liquids, then he'll forget how to suck. Or he'll just lose the strength to suck. It will be hard to tell which it is. And it won't matter. He has a DNR. Lingo for Do Not Resuscitate.
This is what you now face as a mutual challenge: to make something good out of this inevitable journey.
Einstein proved that time is an invention by imagining he was riding on a beam of light. He decided that if he was speeding away from a ticking clock, looking over his shoulder, the hands of that clock would be moving slower and slower the farther away he traveled. Your father is no Einstein. You can't imagine him traveling along a beam of light, using death creatively. Your father was a creature of habit, a man of self-imposed order. He avoided travel, feared it. He avoided religion. He was faithless. A hedonistic Taurus. In what way can he be comforted?
The dying person deserves a guide. In our culture, we tell jokes about Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, and in mythology, the boatman Charon takes you across the River Styx. There needs to be some sort of intermediary between life and death. You try your best to be vigilant but you have sailed into a murky zone.
As the days turn into weeks, you gradually accept the inevitability of one-way chats. But there are stops of interest along the way, viewpoints.
He decides to try taking a crap. He doesn't know he's wearing a diaper. You and the nurse get him off the bed and into his wheelchair to negotiate the eight feet to the bathroom. With the nurse on one side, you get him onto his feet, teetering. You turn him around. This takes about 10 minutes. He is fearful of trying to lower himself onto the toilet. Would it be preferable if he shat himself? You're not sure. With his cries of pain, we lower him onto the seat.
He cries out again because the toilet seat is cold. He decides he doesn't need to go. We try walking back to the bed, but his feet are so swollen with edema he can only shuffle an inch or two at a time. It is exhausting for him. You are holding onto his shoulder the whole time, making sure he doesn't fall. You are dancing backward together, too slow for the rhythm of any music.
Your dad is like someone in an old movie edging along a ledge on a skyscraper, many stories off the ground, and your empathy is so strong perhaps you fear the fall more than he does.
Powerless, your dad is nonetheless susceptible to the humiliation of defenselessness. Wheeled into the common room for meals, he has waved to everyone. You thought it was just his friendly nature. But eventually you realize he must have been mortified to be the sickest one in Woodgrove Manor. As if life is a game of musical chairs and he knows he will lose the next round. This is a new definition of mortification for you.
Your dad always had a feel for philosophy. You wish he could quote Shakespeare again. All those passages turned into clich?s. To be or not to be. To thine own self be true. Death, where is thy sting? Forty years ago he told you Gray's 'Elegy' was the greatest poem ever written in the English language. He could ramble off the first few verses by heart. Once, when you were out fishing in the rowboat, not catching anything, not even a nibble, he recited 'Casey at the Bat' in its entirety.
That would be the ideal way for him to go. A bravura performance of 'Casey at the Bat.' Those rhymes must be stuck somewhere inside his head. Nobility appealed to him. He had an abiding passion for the Duke of Wellington. The Great Duke. In dying, he would want to appear noble. But how can he appear noble when he's got a plastic tube stuck up his shriveled penis and there's a bag of urine strapped to his leg?
You could talk sensibly with him for 40 minutes just a matter of days ago, but now you must lean forward for his few alarming moments of clarity, spurts of sanity. You both strain for some dignity. 'I'm not a paragon of anything,' he says, 'but I've tried to be friends with people.'
You tell him all the nurses like him, and he is relieved. He is unfailingly polite with them, obedient. They think he is being a gentleman, but you know it's a bit more complicated than that. He is afraid of rebuke.
'Let's have no B.S.,' he stammers. 'I'm not scared of dying. I'm afraid of something else.'
There's a little boy in there, frightened of doing something wrong, frightened of being left alone. The man in him knows that he is sick. He accepts that he has cancer and Alzheimer's, both raging at once. He feels he is blameless about having these diseases, but he is chronically worried or fearful about something else. His thoughts turn hallucinogenic and increasingly paranoid.
Offstage, there are weird and depressing side effects among the supporting cast. Death is a corrosive force. Within the family, just the four of you, there are divulged secrets, slights, injustices, denials, favors transformed into alleged debts, divided loyalties, varying degrees of distrust from day to day, and regrets percolating to the surface, seeking their share of recognition.
If Dad gets to suffer, we must expose our sufferings, too. Who can have the role of the Good Son? And who can rightfully claim the role of Leading Lady? The 96-year-old mother? Or the girlfriend who cared for him prior to Woodgrove?
Where's the first wife? Where's the second wife-the one he divorced and remarried? Does he care? Does he remember their names?
King Lear staggers on the heath of his nightmares. Sometimes, when he wakes, you try to tell him it was only a bad dream, but you know it's far worse. For most of two weeks he has been trapped in the same pathetic loop. He wakes, a few times bolt upright. He stretches out both hands. 'I'm scared!'
There is no gentle transition between sleeping and wakefulness anymore. It has become one landscape of confusion. You just watch. You lie down with him, pat his back, kiss him.
His mother makes a final visit, sits by the bed. You don't leave. By this time Dad can hardly speak and he's heavily sedated with morphine. With injections every few hours, his fatigue begins to look natural. It's almost calming to sit with him. His terror is barely decipherable now. He wakes a few times, anxious. She gets just a taste of this, a glimmer. It's just enough to make her want to retreat. She realizes this is more than she can handle.
She takes you into the hallway. 'He told me he wants me to look after his money,' she says.
He said no such thing.
They dab his lips with a swab to give him water. He stares slack-jawed at the ceiling. You give him three kisses on his forehead, while he's still alive. The holy trinity, all absent. One for his mother, one for his son, one for his girlfriend.
You get to learn what death throes are. An upward croaking, as if the spirit wants to escape. It's not spooky, just a relief.
So long, Dad.
They leave you alone with the body. You flip the Pan Flute tape to track 13, that Richard Marx song. A few tears for the road. Not much to do, just tidy up his things. You've already notified the Memorial Society, given them a heads-up. He's going to be cremated but you leave nice clothes on a hanger. It just seems proper. You don't mind touching him when he's dead. It's just a body. You try pulling down his eyelids. One of them shuts but not the other.
Vancouver author Alan Twigg has written 11 books, most recently Understanding Belize: An Historical Guide (Harbour, 2006). Reprinted from the Canadian literary magazine subTerrain (#41). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (3 issues) from Box 3008 MPO, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X5, Canada; www.subterrain.ca.