The river is frozen, I can see that. As the airplane taxis to the terminal, I notice a pack of wolves frolicking on the runway, animals down from the north, famished. Welcome to Montreal, ferocious town. Welcome home. I am in from foreign parts, and it is the third week of January. They said that my father is dying, that I must come quickly. But I hate winter.
He’s in a private room in the Ross Pavilion of the Royal Victoria Hospital and I aim to turn his last hours into a piece of writing, literature is to be my brilliant career, although it hasn’t yet started, and never does, all I ever am is the wary child of a great white grizzled sea captain, the last Edwardian, at this moment snoozing in a hospital he isn’t ever going to leave.
This city is grey, not charming, not vivant. Steep streets nasty with ice. Just inside the hospital’s main door, the Queen Empress sits heavily on her throne, rings on her fingers, eyes blank as stone. The hospital so warped and warrened by overlapping reconstructions that first- and second-year medical students study maps while steering themselves from one era into another. It’s Montreal, January, early 1980s. No acrobats in town, not yet; no Euro-clowns; a month’s worth of festivals as yet uninvented, and what I feel here, baby, is the cold.
He stirs, recognizes me, and insists that I check to see that his seabag is undisturbed in the closet. It is, and he orders me to start packing, for he has been in hospital long enough; he’s bored, and prepared to ship out. Sliding open the drawer in his bedside table, he displays a sheaf of passports along with his favourite chronometer. We can go anywhere, he declares, and there is plenty of time.
I live in a town on the beachy central coast of California, my own anti-Montreal. An excellent surfing break, sharks offshore, black cod, halibut, a shortage of safe anchorages and no deepwater harbour. Oranges, Meyer lemons and avocados fester in the backyards. I sail a pickup truck into a dusty zone beneath the freeway, and labourers scamper on board and ride back to the house to eagerly gut the bathroom, lay sod, pick oranges, do anything asked, in return for meagre wages. This is horrid, I agree. Yes, this is exploitation. Not very Canadian at all. But I never have liked winter and won’t pretend otherwise.
If we can’t leave here in a taxi, he says, why, let’s at least step down the hall and find ourselves a cup of tea, which he calls tay, an Irish pronunciation, borrowed from the French. My father is – let’s keep him in present tense for the time being – a mariner. An old captain, a bucko seaman, who has known many a storm, and carried many a passport, and now finds himself dying, just like everyone else, which is something of a surprise to both of us. He swings his lovely legs out of bed: for the first time in a week, his nurse admits. My father groans and whistles while I slide red leather slippers onto horny feet and help him into his seersucker dressing gown. He clutches my arm with some ferocity as we exit the death chamber and start tottering down the corridor for the solarium, where afternoon tea is being served. We can smell the buttered toast. How nice.
The sheaf of passports? My old man has travelled too far, past the point where he ever could return to good old Ireland, England, Germany or even Brooklyn. Pack ice has closed in on my papa, snapped his vessel to splinters, he’s another Franklin who has gotten hopelessly lost searching for the Northwest Passage, for the cheap route to China. Way back in November, he was already eating his sled dogs, and they told me he would chew his boots in the waiting room, at the radiation clinic, every second Thursday.
The dying man’s voice is missing here. What about it, dad? Do you hear wolves barking? Are you seeing everything? Are you snow-blind?
What I feel here, baby, is the cold. The father dying stops the callow son like missing an elevator does. It’s nothing at all like getting on a plane and flying back to California. It’s not like coming home to the sun.
Peter Behrens is the author of the Governor General's Literary Award-winning novel, The Law of Dreams. This story is from his upcoming collection Travelling Light, due in 2013 from House of Anansi.
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