This article was originally published June 16, 2012.
In the anfiteatro, I built a small man of red rocks. This was in the Valley of the Shells, on a remote stretch of desert between Cafayate and Salta in northern Argentina.
It was March, when hardly anyone goes there. We were on motorcycles, the off-road variety, four men in our late 50s trying to cheat death in the Andes, to prove we could live forever. I had never ridden a motorcycle before. I liked it a lot, but it frightened me, and I often fell behind.
The anfiteatro, or amphitheatre, was a giant, clamshell-like declivity carved out of the sandstone of the Andes by a stream. The Incas used it for five millennia as a megaphone to implore the mountains (the gods of the Incas) for rain and good fortune. Then, in the course of 50 brief years in the 16th century, the Incan empire was wiped out.
I was the only person in the anfiteatro. It made my voice extremely loud and seemed to give me a slight New Jersey accent. I talked to myself out loud for a while, and then, in the middle of its open ground, in a pool of warm sunlight raying down through the top of the cavern, I built a small inukshuk. I don’t know why.
A man, a foot high. Narrow-chested, but well-balanced. It was a little cheesy, I suppose, but seemed preferable to painting “Moron Tour” or “Starsky and Hutch” on the walls of the cave, as previous visitors had.
Then I climbed back on my Honda XR 250 and leaned my way through the rest of the Quebrada de las Conchas. I loved the way the bike’s engine split the piled-up air in the narrow canyons, loved careening through my turns. Every moment demanded my full attention, which I figure is why I felt so alive. Condors hovered off the cliffs plunging down to my right. Elegant cardon cacti, the tallest species in the world, stood on the slopes like a crowd of dignified skeptics.
An hour and a half down the road, I spotted the others, bikes parked under a tree by a roadside restaurant. I was ordering a ham sandwich when my cellphone rang. For the first time in a week.
There was only a text, from my brother.
“Dad has died,” it said, characteristically brief. “Please call.”
According to the time stamp, the old man had dropped away just as I was making the inukshuk in the amphitheatre. Not that I put any store in that kind of thing. But a death in the family always draws out the ironies. While I was trying to cheat death, my father decided not to.
It wasn’t a tragedy. He was 98 and wanted to die, after a life that suggested he might not, ever.
Peter Henry Brown, born Feb. 7, 1914, at Winchmore Hill in north London, Essex, was one of the indestructible war generation. He played his last game of squash at 87, lived with his first and only wife in their own house until her death at 95, and was still going to work twice a week – he was a scrap-metal broker – at 98.
People liked having him around: He never willingly wanted to embarrass anyone, wasn’t pushy and was a good listener with a ready laugh and an eager interest in the news of the day – especially news that reeked of impending economic doom. He liked to be the one who read the omens first. He had lived, after all, through a stretch of history when they abounded.
Twenty minutes of rigorous calisthenics daily, without fail. His profanities were limited to bloody and the odd, eye-rolling Christ! for emphasis. After 80, he threw in an f-word more often (so did everyone) but remained even-tempered. Good with figures. Quick hands and feet (boxing, wicket keeper, flyhalf for the Saracens rugby team, a tryout for England). He only ever struck me once, after I’d been especially rude to both him and my mother; I never saw the blow coming. An affection for English tailoring and manners.
He held doors for both women and men, and wore a tie – to visit his lawyer, to birthday parties, whenever a show of respect was called for. He ate fast like a wolf (a product of three brothers, boarding school, scarcity and the navy), but never too much. He hated pears. Two scotches a day, or rye and ginger in the summer.
He was the kind of man who had standards – of ethics and cleanliness, especially – but no killer instinct. This made me pity him on occasion, but he had been the pawn of the world too much to imagine dominating it: shipped to boarding school at 6, yanked out at 16 to work in the Depression, volunteered into the Royal Navy in his 20s, commanded in the war to do secret and dangerous tasks by nightfall on shore raids into Norway and Sweden.
He fought at the battle of Narvik, and there lost his favourite brother, Harold, to a direct hit at sea. He kept Harold’s medals – all he had of him – a swell of loss that ran under the rest of his years. After that, he told me once, any life at all seemed like gravy.
He was married for 55 years to a woman he wouldn’t stand up to, who frequently treated him with disdain and even contempt. In return, he adored her and thought he was nothing without her. That old, complicated story.
This was my father. I want to make a case for him. It isn’t a straight shot: I am his son; I have my criticisms. He was too cautious and afraid to fail, too suspicious of change, too alert to the opinions of others to be as daring as I sometimes wanted him to be. He couldn’t protect us from our marauding mother, and left that fight to his sons. On the one hand.
On the other: He was as decent as anyone I’ve ever met. His rarest trait was that he had no discernible anger. Or at least he buried it so deeply, I only ever glimpsed it (he shouted back, once, at my taunting ma). I could not emulate him in this regard. He was the genuine item, a really nice guy. He worked compulsively – not for the money, which he didn’t really care about, but because the routine made him feel necessary. Feeling necessary made his life worth living.
Eventually that wore off. Last summer, at a routine vascular checkup, a doctor found him short of breath and admitted him to hospital. The aortal valve in his heart was closing up.
A stenosis, the doctors called it: You need 2.5 centimetres for the valve to work properly, and he had 0.8. That was why he had begun “puffing,” as he called it, going up stairs. The blood was backing up in his atrial chamber, leaking through his mitral valve, building pulmonary hypertension. Any one of these developments could bring on “sudden death.”
“He’s probably had it for 20 years,” the cardiologist said. (His name was Janevski, an unmemorizable one to my English father, who honoured him simply with Doctor.) “If they’d caught it at 75 they could have fixed it.” But at 97 “he wouldn’t survive open-heart surgery to replace the valve.”
My father didn’t want the operation anyway. In its place, the doctor prescribed water pills, a diuretic. They made him faint and pee (incessantly), and were thus infuriating. But they kept the swelling in his leg down. He was vain enough to care about such appearances.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked him a month later, at the follow-up.
“Pretty good,” my father said, in his crisp, good-natured British way. “I had trouble breathing, but then they decided not to operate, so I presume I’m fine.”
“Well, actually, that’s not the case,” Dr. Janevski said, and laid out the truth. The old man took it well, appreciating the honesty. The doctor gave him a year to live, what with his kidney function down to 25 per cent of what it ought to have been.
That was when he started to talk in earnest about wanting to die. The harder it was to live his life in a dignified, independent fashion, the less he wished to. That he couldn’t simply switch his life off and end the charade was the greatest indignity of all.
One evening, on his way out of our house, he shook his fist at the ceiling. “I’m really mad,” he shouted, “and He knows why!”
“Well,” someone said, “you’re going to be meeting Him soon enough. You might not want to piss Him off.”
“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.
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?”
“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.
“Death is scary,” Dan said, tucking into a grass-fed Argentine steak the size of a small footstool. “And I don’t see a cultural shift to accept it. I see fewer people paying increasingly more money to the government to fund my parents’ self-entitled generation’s losing battle against death.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “If I get cancer, instead of trying to cure it, I’ll just lie down and die, so you and your pals can have an easier go.”
But what I was thinking about were my own Saturday-afternoon conversations with my father at the end, as I limped him off to lunch and a beer.
“Why can’t I just die?” he often asked. He had been complaining about all the “tablets” he was suddenly taking, after never taking a pill in his life: Tylenol (he was convinced it helped him sleep), furosemide (the diuretic for his legs and heart), Senokot (bowels), Restoril (to sleep, but not so good for depression or bad kidneys or glaucoma, all of which he skirted), mirtazapine (for anxiety and to stimulate his appetite), Cosopt (eyes). “I can’t understand why God would make me live like this, in such a pathetic manner.”
“Yes, God can be thoughtless that way.” I tried to change the subject. “What do you think will happen after you die?”
He looked at me as if I were an especially elemental form of excrescence. “I presume I’ll see your mother again in heaven, of course.” Pause. “And that she’ll be quite put out that I’ve kept her waiting.” A smile.
We struggled into our chairs at the restaurant table with the usual complicated hydraulics – lifting, pulling, all the while pretending it was nothing, a breeze. Then, again: “Why can’t I just take a pill to die?”
“Because it’s illegal.”
Or one day in the hallway of the Balmoral just before Christmas, before they threaded him full-time into a portable oxygen tank, his final millstone:
“The ladies” – the women in the residence, who outnumbered the men 10 to 1 – “say there’s a way it can be done. There’s a machine. You’re a journalist, surely you know someone who could arrange it?”
He was referring to a morphine drip, used on young and old terminal patients alike, in palliative situations: The steady infusion of morphine decreases pain and eases anxiety but also naturally suppresses the breathing, until breathing is no longer required. The trouble was, he wasn’t terminal. Well, he was – we all are, of course – but not in the way he had to be to qualify for such a contraption of mercy.
“If he doesn’t have cancer,” the palliative-care counsellor explained when I inquired, “he wouldn’t be considered terminal.”
“But he is terminal.”
“The time of his death cannot be predicted with any precision.”
Here is what my father hated most about the final shrivelling of old age: The involuntary drip of saliva out of the right side of his mouth. Peeing into a hand-held urinal in his chair because he couldn’t get to the bathroom fast enough. Insomnia – he often called me at 5 in the morning after a sleepless night, frantic with panic. Not being able to walk, much less run. Losing weight. Losing his eyesight. Losing my mother. Not driving. Not gardening. And going to the toilet.
“If I learned that I was going to die at 2 p.m. tomorrow,” he said to me a year before he expired, “that would be fine, because then I wouldn’t have to go to the toilet again.”
“Going to the toilet is so bad?”
“At my age, going to the toilet is like single-handedly planning the invasion of D-Day.”
Here are a few of the things he still enjoyed: A whisky (sometimes two) with a companion. Surprise visits from people he liked. Any conversation about the news. His beloved daughters (my twin sisters). A fresh shirt and blazer and tie. His friend, Mrs. D. – she lent him espionage novels, a late discovery.
His care worker, Magnolia, who could get him out of bed, washed and dressed, in 20 minutes. Flirting with younger women (in their 50s and 60s) at parties. Fresh fruit. Any television sport requiring hand-eye co-ordination. Thinking about my mother and her sisters, his first close female friends. Gardens and flowers – the last ones he saw were some purple crocuses I wheeled him past two weeks before he died, before I left to try to feel alive again on a motorcycle.
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.”
“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.”