As he grew physically weaker, his famous emotional self-control atrophied as well. He took to yelping, “Oh God, take me now!” as I cantilevered him into his chair in restaurants, a rare turn as a drama queen. The outbursts were followed by apologies – “I’m sorry to be like this, so hopeless” – which were in turn followed by long shattering bouts of silent sobbing.
By the end, it was happening at every meal, before the main course arrived. He could do everything on his own, and then he couldn’t, whereupon he wanted his life to end. He wasn’t what you would call sentimental.
The point is that he wanted to die sooner, but none of us could let him – not his family, not the home, not the system, not his body. End-of-life is an impressive management concept, but it’s people who die, and people we hang onto. When he was finally feeble enough that he qualified for palliative care – when he was sufficiently weakened that he could do nothing on his own, and all his needs could be met in his own room – only then could he die at home, mostly at his own expense.
A patient who dies of organ failure near the end of his or her life goes for an average of $39,947. Frailty’s cheaper ($31,881), but sudden death is the bargain: $10,223. I worked out once that my father’s nine days in hospital and month’s worth of part-time palliative care cost even less, less than $10,000 – $172 for each of the 58 years he lived in Canada. That would have pleased him.
There is a picture of him in Rockport, Mass., off the tip of Cape Ann, where he took us every summer for years: He’s holding my brother and me high in his arms, in the crook of each elbow – the strong man, so proud of his little, happy boys (he is 44; we are 4 and 2). He is wearing Black Watch plaid swim trunks, and what hair he has – he was already balding in his 30s, taking after his father – is still black. The sun he loved is shining everywhere in that picture: “All the sunshine has gone out of the house,” he wrote to my mother whenever she went away.
It’s my brother’s favourite picture of him, “how I still think of him in my mind.”
His hands were huge. He kept his mother’s Book of Common Prayer in his top drawer. He knew all the words to “If You Were the Only Girl in the World, and I Were the Only Boy.” His all-time favourite breakfast treat was white bread fried in bacon drippings. The advice he repeated most often to me was “stay clean.” My mother was the love of his life.
These are a few of the details I remember. There are many others. A man’s mother fills his heart for the first time. If he’s lucky, his father fixes his compass.
The landscape of northern Argentina is huge. Hiking on foot or bike or horse, you travel all day in the same stretch of valley, its vista unchanging. But 50 kilometres on a motorcycle slip by in an hour.
We rose at 7 a.m. to a clean light and the sound of dogs barking, ate a light breakfast and rode off into nowhere. We saved our feasts for the end of the day: meat, meat, more meat, meat and cheese, cheese, cheese and meat, and maybe a little ice cream, possibly with cheese. The average Argentine consumes 55 kilos of meat a year, plus cheese. The fact that anyone actually defecates in Argentina is a miracle.
Our final destination was Ngatzi Bay, a villa on the outskirts of ancient Salta, where the Incas once gathered gold. The villa was owned by a Rhodesian, one of South America’s busiest tobacco brokers. Separate sleeping houses of African design dotted a slope down to a vast and beautiful man-made lake. A pair of parrots lived in a cage. The wife’s side of the family had been tea growers in Malawi.
“I could sit all day looking at that,” my friend Ben said the evening we arrived. We were out on one of the vast verandas hovering over the lake, watching pejerrey fishermen turn on their bait lights against a Turner evening sky and a backsplash of steep green mountain. “Paradise.”