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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

It was given with all of the love, affection and relief that one could hope a kiss would deliver. It was the physical collision of two people who would have found each other whatever mazes of city streets or hospital hallways were in the way. And it reflected a love decades in the making.

Many hours before it happened, just after midnight, I had been drifting off to sleep when the phone rang. My sister was in a cab rushing to our parents’ lakeside condominium. Our Dad, a retired cardiologist, had been self-diagnosing chest pain for the previous hour. He got up, walked about the living room, and concluded that he might indeed be in cardiac trouble. Just in case it was an overreaction, though, he called my sister rather than the ambulance. She, in turn, called the ambulance, then a cab, then me.

Our parents met in 1950. My father, who grew up in London, Ont., was led to believe that he was being given a free ticket for a University of Western Ontario football game. But he was being set up. He did not know until game time that a hitherto unknown young woman from Toronto would be accompanying him as his date. The next spring they attended a formal dance at my mother’s school. Unbeknownst to my Dad, a corsage arrived at my mother’s door from “a secret admirer” – a still-anonymous relative of my Mom who had worried that her small-town date might not be sufficiently schooled in protocols of the day.

In the subsequent years they both undertook ambitious educational plans. Mom would be one of only three women in her year to graduate from veterinary medicine at Guelph, which was then the University of Toronto. Dad completed his medical degree at the University of Western Ontario. They married, settled in Toronto and raised a family together. Mom eventually became a homemaker and committed herself to endless causes, including a home for unwed mothers and the food bank; Dad worked long hours at Women’s College Hospital.

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The greatest gift that they gave their four children in those years was a harmonious household where there was never a raised voice between them. Ever. It was not a relationship where disputes were repressed or kept behind closed doors; it was instead the most loving, equal and respectful partnership.

In 2010, my Mom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Together, my parents walked to raise money for the Princess Margaret Hospital, marching up University Avenue, hand-in-hand, to be met at Queen’s Park by the rest of their family. In the face of uncertainty that comes with a terminal disease, the walk was an act of defiance that they took together. But eventually the ravages of cancer brought decline for Mom. Dad retired and committed himself to her care; Mom acknowledged her condition but, not wanting to burden others, kept worries about her deteriorating health between them.

So Dad’s middle-of-the-night chest pain was an unexpected reversal of possible life scenarios.

I was now with my Dad at the hospital. My sister Martha was at the apartment seeking to pacify Mom who, left behind by the ambulance, was near frantic with worry. And in phone calls and texts with our two other siblings, we confronted impossible dilemmas about how to manage these two irrepressible people in those overnight hours. Dad worried he might be leaving behind, for good, the love of his life when she needed him most. Mom worried about being, suddenly and unexpectedly, without him as her health continued to decline. Could we negotiate with the physicians to have these octogenarians brought together in these desperate early morning hours? Would moving either one of them further jeopardize the health of themselves or the other? How could they be kept apart?

For medical reasons, my Dad and I were ferried from one hospital to another, met by ambulance drivers, nurses and physicians who conducted themselves with extraordinary skill, professionalism and empathy. For me, the clueless bystander long sheltered from the races-against-time of an urban hospital emergency room, it was a vivid and bewildering experience. For my parents – united in worry but still neighbourhoods apart – it was a matter of concentrating on surviving to increase the chance of being with the other again.

In the darkness before dawn, my father was given new life after a stent was inserted through a vessel and into the clogged artery of his heart. Later, with the physician’s blessing, my mother was brought to the hospital and wheeled into the room already crowded with life-monitoring equipment. As they came together, the morning sunlight streaming in from the window focused on them as if they were the only actors on stage. My sister and I, rendered speechless, disappeared into the shade of the imaginary gallery. Our parents’ faces conveyed their mutual sense of relief at both having cheated death for another day, and the unmitigated happiness of being reunited again.

And then, almost before any words were said, there was the kiss.

This was not a Hollywood kiss of passion. While there was no love in this world stronger than that between those two people, they were born in an age when public displays of affection were more restrained. It was, nonetheless, a kiss that said, “I love you, I am filled with joy that you are [still] here, I cannot imagine being without you, and I want to live every minute of the rest of my life with you.”

Both of my parents have since passed away. Mom died in November, 2019; Dad in July, 2021. Between this life-affirming moment when they came together and their deaths there were, of course, other kisses and long hours when they cared for each other. But there, in that hospital room, after a lifetime together, they were reassured that the only person in the world who really mattered was the other, and that no illness was going to keep them apart.

Ian S. Spears lives in Toronto.

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