I had bent down to kiss him. I didn’t want him to die without having done that. His beard was two days old. Washed and dressed by professionals in his lair of dying, he was unshaven more often now – unheard of when he was self-sufficient, an occurrence as rare as spotting a great auk. My earliest memory of my father is of running my hand across his scratchy furze when he came home from work at the end of the day. His beard was the armour that made him the father and me the boy. He still wore it in my mind, though he was no longer the knight he wanted to be. My dear old fallen dad.
Then I hit the rut, the bike wobbled, my rectum clamped in panic and I was back in the present – hurtling down a narrow pavement at 80 kilometres an hour in Christ-knows-where on a motorcycle, with no memory of the previous five kilometres. I decided to try to stop thinking about my father when I was on the bike. I was happy enough not to – that hadn’t been my dad, really; that was what was left of him.
In the fall after the old man’s fatal diagnosis, before we learned how fast he would fade, my brother and I drove him to Montreal, where he first landed in Canada, where he married our mother, where his four children were born and his life in austere service as our father began.
“What would you have done if you hadn’t married at 40?” I once asked him.
“I would have sailed around the world.”
“Yes, but after that.”
“No, that’s what I would have done, I would have sailed around the world for the rest of my life.” His option was no family at all, many a married man’s flip-side fantasy.
In Montreal, we made a tour of our collective past – our old house, his old office, his old sports club – in the hope these places would make him feel alive again. They seemed to. He had a visit with his granddaughter, who was in her first year at McGill. (He often called her from Toronto just to hear her voice, the sound of a future.) Then, the three of us, an old man and his two boys, drove to Provincetown, on the shore of Massachusetts, to visit the small hotel my brother had bought with his partner.
It was a good trip, with the sun and the sea and the sand, all the things my father had loved since he was a boy. Tim and Dad had their hair cut in adjacent chairs at a gay barbershop on Provincetown’s main street: the old man’s was white and sparse, fading up off his neck like a dying emperor’s.
He told us that our mother was the only woman he had ever slept with. If they met in 1943, then my father was a 29-year-old virgin. By the time she divorced her first husband and married my dad, another 10 years had passed. Perhaps all that helps explain his innocence, his lack of guile. Maybe it explains why he put up with her.
“Were you faithful to her?” I asked.
“Always,” he said.
“And she to you?”
“I presume so.”
On Sunday, as he and I were packing to drive back to Toronto, my father called from the bathroom.
“Willie, can you help me?” My childhood name.
He had been standing up too long, shaving. He swooned in my arms. I carried him to the bed. He was so light by then, 120 pounds at most, two-thirds what he had weighed in his prime.
“I need to lie down,” he said. “Can you get the cover over me?”
A moment later, he was unconscious and breathing in and out like a steam press, with a gasping, clutchy noise in between – a death rattle. I figured my brother might want to say his goodbyes.
I poked my head into the dining room. “Tim. Tim. Can you come? Quickly.”
He thought the old man was dying too. “It’s okay, it’s okay, Dad, I love you.” We couldn’t tell if he could hear.
One of the guests, a nurse, walked in and took his pulse. “Thready,” she said. “Would you like me to perform mouth-to-mouth?”