He was the kind of man who had standards – of ethics and cleanliness, especially – but no killer instinct. This made me pity him on occasion, but he had been the pawn of the world too much to imagine dominating it: shipped to boarding school at 6, yanked out at 16 to work in the Depression, volunteered into the Royal Navy in his 20s, commanded in the war to do secret and dangerous tasks by nightfall on shore raids into Norway and Sweden.
He fought at the battle of Narvik, and there lost his favourite brother, Harold, to a direct hit at sea. He kept Harold’s medals – all he had of him – a swell of loss that ran under the rest of his years. After that, he told me once, any life at all seemed like gravy.
He was married for 55 years to a woman he wouldn’t stand up to, who frequently treated him with disdain and even contempt. In return, he adored her and thought he was nothing without her. That old, complicated story.
This was my father. I want to make a case for him. It isn’t a straight shot: I am his son; I have my criticisms. He was too cautious and afraid to fail, too suspicious of change, too alert to the opinions of others to be as daring as I sometimes wanted him to be. He couldn’t protect us from our marauding mother, and left that fight to his sons. On the one hand.
On the other: He was as decent as anyone I’ve ever met. His rarest trait was that he had no discernible anger. Or at least he buried it so deeply, I only ever glimpsed it (he shouted back, once, at my taunting ma). I could not emulate him in this regard. He was the genuine item, a really nice guy. He worked compulsively – not for the money, which he didn’t really care about, but because the routine made him feel necessary. Feeling necessary made his life worth living.
Eventually that wore off. Last summer, at a routine vascular checkup, a doctor found him short of breath and admitted him to hospital. The aortal valve in his heart was closing up.
A stenosis, the doctors called it: You need 2.5 centimetres for the valve to work properly, and he had 0.8. That was why he had begun “puffing,” as he called it, going up stairs. The blood was backing up in his atrial chamber, leaking through his mitral valve, building pulmonary hypertension. Any one of these developments could bring on “sudden death.”
“He’s probably had it for 20 years,” the cardiologist said. (His name was Janevski, an unmemorizable one to my English father, who honoured him simply with Doctor.) “If they’d caught it at 75 they could have fixed it.” But at 97 “he wouldn’t survive open-heart surgery to replace the valve.”
My father didn’t want the operation anyway. In its place, the doctor prescribed water pills, a diuretic. They made him faint and pee (incessantly), and were thus infuriating. But they kept the swelling in his leg down. He was vain enough to care about such appearances.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked him a month later, at the follow-up.
“Pretty good,” my father said, in his crisp, good-natured British way. “I had trouble breathing, but then they decided not to operate, so I presume I’m fine.”
“Well, actually, that’s not the case,” Dr. Janevski said, and laid out the truth. The old man took it well, appreciating the honesty. The doctor gave him a year to live, what with his kidney function down to 25 per cent of what it ought to have been.
That was when he started to talk in earnest about wanting to die. The harder it was to live his life in a dignified, independent fashion, the less he wished to. That he couldn’t simply switch his life off and end the charade was the greatest indignity of all.
One evening, on his way out of our house, he shook his fist at the ceiling. “I’m really mad,” he shouted, “and He knows why!”
“Well,” someone said, “you’re going to be meeting Him soon enough. You might not want to piss Him off.”