“Good point,” he said. His sliver of a body shook with laughter. The sense of humour is the last thing to go.
At first, I didn’t notice any change. I still dropped by for a pre-dinner scotch every other Thursday. I still fetched him Saturday mornings to do his “banking” (he refused to use an ATM, preferring the “care,” as he put it, of a teller) and his shopping (a bottle of single malt).
This we followed with lunch at a restaurant. He liked going out, seeing the world, being seen. The sheer fact that he was in the game at 98 gave him pleasure. He always ordered eggs.
They didn’t do them to his liking (gently poached) in the dining room at the Amica at the Balmoral Club, the retirement residence 10 minutes from my house where he had been living in a pleasant one-bedroom apartment since the death of my mother two years earlier.
That was our routine. After lunch, we headed to my house, where I helped him to the garden to read the papers (he loved a good newspaper) or upstairs to the same chair he sat in when I was a boy (it had once belonged to William Shatner, when he was a young actor in Montreal) to watch “the golf.” He felt for Tiger Woods, but couldn’t find it in himself to cheer for Phil Mickelson. Ernie Els, the South African, was his favourite. He often stayed for dinner too.
Sometimes we repeated the routine on Sunday, though not often. He didn’t want to be a burden, and I didn’t want him to be. He was a burden, of course, an obligation. Until he was no longer there to be a chore.
As deaths went, his looked like it might be a good one. But after the diagnosis, he faded in phases, and the phases began to blur together. In December, he was so short of breath the Balmoral sent him to the hospital, and he didn’t leave for a week. He hated every moment. He wanted to die in his own bedroom. He arrived back home on an oxygen tank, and never came off of it. I should have known that was a sign to stick around.
From a distance, the raddled rocks of the Andes, under the cardon and pinon trees, resemble slabs of grilled top sirloin just this side of medium rare. Of course, it doesn’t help to rhapsodize about these details on a motorcycle. On the bike, you can’t let your mind wander, can’t care about anything beyond your own progress – a gorgeous selfishness. You concentrate so hard that you earn your destinations.
I loved the first terror-filled 20 minutes of every day’s ride, adored the inevitable gust of confidence that followed – edging faster and faster until I realized with a shock how fast I was going, how close I was to disaster, whereupon I panicked and braked again. I developed a habit of shouting “Baby!” whenever I slipped through these narrow slots of luck or when I had a close call, slithering in the dirt or bouncing off a cliff wall. Baby! Thrilled to be lucky.
But after the text of my father’s death, even the speed of my bike couldn’t stem my memory of the last time I had seen him. It had been a week earlier, 5 in the afternoon. I found him in bed under the covers, fully clothed, having a nap, or at least surfacing from the daylong nap he tended to take now.
“I don’t have to go on this trip,” I said.
“Not at all. I’ll be fine. See you when you get back.” His voice as thin as his hair. The head of care at the Balmoral had insisted we replace the double bed he had shared with my mother for nearly 60 years for one with railings that could be raised and lowered. The hospital bed was safer. He was going to die, but it was still safer.
In the new bed with its shiny rails that evening, he resembled a giant, ancient baby: his shambling thoughts, his insect arms (incessantly bruised by the mere act of living, and veins like cables), his knees and elbows (the widest parts of his limbs), the huge head, the watchful eyes, his implacable mildness. He wanted nothing. He had no complaints. He was waiting to die, impatiently. I can’t imagine how lonely he was.