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Ian Brown: What we lose, when our fathers are gone Add to ...

“No, no,” I said, “I’ll do that.”

And I did. His stubble against my inner lip as I tried to cover his mouth, the sour taste. Three, four puffs. I was trying to gently perform CPR with my left hand, as I pinched his nose with my right. His skin was as thin as onion paper.

He came to. It was slow at first. He wasn’t making any sense.

“D’you think he’s had a stroke?” Tim said. The implication was obvious: I had saved his life so he could become a vegetable.

Ten minutes later, my father was sitting in the breakfast room, scarfing eggs and bacon, charming the guests with tales of the war. They adored him.

We left that night, but not before a last supper of lobster rolls, corn chowder and Cape Cod clams, the old man’s favourites, at Neptune on the south side, the gold September evening light spilling over the skyline of the convoluted bowel of downtown Boston. But he ate only the chowder. “I no longer have an appetite,” he said. I still have the bill in my wallet.

I helped him to the men’s room, returned to the table to wait. He took so long now I thought about carrying a deck of cards.

“I just don’t want the conversation to stop, you know?” Tim said, glancing at the restroom door.

Then through the labyrinth of Boston to drop my brother at the airport, me driving, my brother navigating and saying what were possibly his last words to his father.

Tim: [To me] Left here. LEFT. [To our father] I may not see you again, Dad. But I love you. You’re a great guy.

Me: Now where?

Tim: I love you. I may not see you again. There’s nothing I can do.

Me. A large cash payment might work. WHICH WAY?

Tim: RIGHT. I always appreciated how kind you were, how great. All those vacations, and school. Now left. LEFT.

I have a photograph of the three of us on the frenzied curb of the airport, arms around each other’s shoulders: Tim red-eyed, me trying to shore up the scene. But it is my father’s expression that is most interesting. He wears his existence and nothing more. He knows he will not be part of our adventuring together much longer. The three of us, shimmering with the expectation of that loss.

It doesn’t matter how rational the death of your father is. It is never rational enough.

In a hotel room in Utica the next morning, it happened again: The collapse, mouth-to-mouth, resuscitation, eggs and bacon 10 minutes later. This time, it was just the old man and me.

And again three hours later, on a handkerchief of grass in front of the Syracuse rest stop on I-90 .“You need help?” a passing fireman asked “No, he’s okay, just having a spell.” I brought him round again.

This time when he came to, he said: “Don’t do that again.” Another joke. Hilarious, really.

He sat in the car while I gassed up and phoned my brother. “What should I do? Should I take him to the hospital?”

“No! If he dies in the United States without health coverage, it’ll cost us at least $30,000. Keep him alive until you cross the border, and then go to the first hospital.”

Fine. We set off at 140 clicks an hour. My father fell asleep, sagging against the seatbelt. He looked dead. I’m not going to wake him up, I thought, because if he’s dead, I don’t want to have to lie about it intentionally at the border.

But he wasn’t dead. We made Toronto. He signed his own Do Not Resuscitate order. We added a few hundred dollars’ worth of nursing care to his monthly bill at the Balmoral, bringing it to $5,000 a month.

Five grand! He was paying for it out of the proceeds from the sale of their house after my mother died. At that rate, he was good for another five years, as long as he didn’t need long-term care.

Looking back, I wonder if that wasn’t another reason he so eagerly wanted to die. Maybe he figured his worn-out existence wasn’t worth the money.


In the evenings in Argentina, after a day of cheating death by moto, we debated the cost of living. Dan, a thirtysomething lawyer from Toronto who was a late addition to our group, a lovely guy, was convinced selfish baby boomers like me would bankrupt his generation with our “late-in-life treatments,” our heart surgeries and our cancers and our palliative care. He had a point. We need to rethink the end of life.

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