“Yes,” I said. “Almost.” I hoped my father had such a view, wherever he was now. Or at least I wished he could see it. I have these primitive thoughts sometimes. The other day a robin stopped in its tracks and stared at me for the longest time, chirped and stared again. I thought: It could be him, that robin – sturdy, well-dressed, forthright but unaggressive, an energetic hopper.
You miss your mother in a different, more dramatic way: You were ripped from her body, after all, and so when she dies, a part of what was once you disappears for good. But your father stands apart, watching, the one who shows you how life works, who provides context – your instructor, your guide, your tracker, your friend (if you’re fortunate, and I was) and finally your companion. Eventually, if things go the way they are supposed to, he leaves before you do and you face the world without the person who first ventured it beside you.
What he leaves is a gap, a fissure in your belief that the world is worth exploring. It doesn’t feel like much at first, especially if he was a good father, because he’s made you believe you don’t need him. That is the job of the father, after all – to fail his children, gently.
When he finally died at 11:30 that morning, as I flew through the mountains of northern Argentina on the back of a quivering motorcycle, my father had been in bed for two days. He had stopped eating: If he couldn’t get the morphine drip, he was going to do it himself. He had always been able to rely on his body. My wife, my brother and my brother’s partner had had a few laughs with him the night before he went. I had spoken to him by telephone two nights earlier, but it wasn’t the same.
He died quietly, with no gasping, in semi-slumber, just as he wanted it, in the company of two women who took care of him at the home.
“He was ready to go,” Marlene Dixon, the head of care, told me a week later. “And he wanted to go. And he just let go. I think he was at peace with that.” She said a few more things. Then she said, “He saw himself as more and more of a burden as he declined. ‘I don’t want to be a bore,’ was how he put it.” Her own father had died three decades earlier, at 69, when she was 21. She spoke of it as if it had happened the day before.
It took me five days to get back from the middle of nowhere, by which time my siblings from New York, Denver and Chicago had gathered. The funeral was gracious. The wake was pleasant. We’ll scatter him in the North Sea, where he can at last join my mother off the coast of Suffolk, where they first met and were once so happy. I don’t feel sad too often, but I find myself unexpectedly driving by his place on my bike or in the car – the place where I saw and held and loved him, rather than his memory.
A few days later, I went by to fetch his notebooks, the ones with everyone’s phone numbers repeated anew every few pages, the props he used to maintain the routine of a normal life until he couldn’t pretend any more. I was on my way out again when I ran into Scholastique, the Congolese nurse who had administered to my father as he weakened. She said she was sorry. “But for everyone, one day has to be the last day.”
I agreed, and thanked her, and stepped onto the slowest elevator on Earth for the last time. There I found Mrs. Cassels, another resident of that strange place, a tall, very pretty woman in her 80s. My dad had talked about her: He said she was a first-rate golfer, and rumoured among the residents to be from a vast pile of old Toronto money. Old money always fascinated my Pa – he wanted to know if it made all the difference the old-money types claimed it did.
“You’re Mr. Brown’s son,” Mrs. Cassels said.
I said I was.
“How’s your Dad?”
“He died,” I said. “About a week ago.”
“Oh,” she said, alert but not surprised. “Oh! He was great! He had lovely English jackets.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, he did.”