The Great Surrender


“I’m afraid I’ll have to call you back,” I say into the office line, “I have an emergency call.”

“There’s been a down turn,” says Dad’s nurse on the phone with Mum.

“It’s time to come back,” says Mum.

Thirty hours after I left him, I am back at Dad’s side.

When I walk into his room, the nurses have just moved him. He calls out, unsettled by the interruption from his dreams.

“I’m here Papa,” I say, “It’s Katie, I’m here.”

His head raised off his pillow as his eyes and arms reach out above him.

I don’t know what he’s experiencing, but I see a warrior spirit fighting his way out of a dying body.

I lean over him. I take both his hands into my own and hold them as gentle and firm as I can to his chest.

I sing:

I’ve wandered far away from God, now I’m coming home

The path of sin too long I’ve trod, Lord I’m coming home

Coming home, coming home, never more to roam

Open wide thine arms of love, Lord I’m coming home

I sing it again and again, quieter each time.

Then, I hum the tune in bits and pieces all the while still holding his hands as they jerk and squeeze against mine.

Then, I remember what someone recently said. The hearing is last to go.

So I talk to my father. I tell him I love him. I tell him he is a beautiful soul. I tell him he has made the world a better place, that he has helped so many people and that they all love him too. I tell him it’s okay to let go.

Bit by bit, he calms and falls asleep.

“He used to call me Buttercup,” says a drop-in visitor I’ve never met before, “There was a song that went with it.”

The wave of visitors has calmed down to a trickle.

“It’s probably for the best you remember him as he was,” Mum tells the caring loved ones that continue to call.

“You deserve to be taken care of by lots of nurses,” says Buttercup, a retired nurse, “You fed all us hungry student nurses every Sunday.”

“We had such fun times, Sandy,” she says.

“Do you work?” asks Buttercup turning to look at me.

I tell her about my employer’s continued patience and compassion.

“He has a heart,” she says.

Three more days pass. Meals are now delivered to me and I only leave the ward for a shower in the mornings.

No longer able to speak, Dad talks to me by squeezing my hand.

As I walk the halls to the bathroom or for more tea, I notice the rotation of patients and their loved ones in other rooms.

One night, I hear sobbing from behind a closed door. The next morning, the door open, there is an empty bed.

“His big heart is keeping him going,” says Jessica.

A music therapist plays guitar and sings his favourite hymns. I watch his eyebrows rise at the chorus.

Doug reads Dad’s favourite book, Hornblower, aloud, while Susan and Mika take a shift at holding his hand.

Vera Lynn is the sound track behind the hours that pass.

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Keep smiling through

Just like you always do

‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

“Can any of you come to the hospital today,” I text the grandchildren, “I’m having a hard time.”

Alone for too long, I need someone to share the weight.

“Okay,” replies Taeja, “I’ll bus there in a bit.”

We sip tea together as Dad sleeps and when Taeja gets up to leave, I am ready to face another night.

“His breathing has changed,” says the nurse who’s come in for his midnight medications.

Mum has told me there would be a change in his breathing at the end.

I get up from the cot and sit down beside him.

He has visibly changed in the past couple of hours. His eyes are foggy and there is little life left in his body.

I hold his arm and I say on repeat what I’ve been saying for days.

“I love you Papa. I love you Papa. It’s okay to let go.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” says the nurse, “He hears you and is telling you he loves you too.”

Dad in his final breath calls out to me. It is quiet, but it is the battle cry of a warrior. Brave and strong.


With his ring around my neck and his spirit in my heart, H A (Sandy) Ormiston dies on February 23rd, 2017 at 12:15am.

What a love story it’s been, Dad.

I love you for always.

Thank you.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Work is the Curse of the Drinking Class

“You’re still here?” says Dad waking up from a drugged doze.

“You’re going to lose your bloody job,” he says, “You got to get out of here.”

I arrived at the hospital 4 days ago.

In need of a break, I go make a cup of tea.

A volunteer in the kitchen tells me what a privilege it is to be with someone you love when they’re dying. I hadn’t thought of it like that before.

She’s right. If I lived further away or had small children, a career of consequence, or a less generous husband, I would not still be here and I would not have built the relationship I have with my father.

“The doctor wants to talk to you,” says Mum.

I listen to Dad’s doctor tell me again how she doesn’t know how long the process will take and how these past days were the best time for me to have spent with Dad.

Mum has asked her to convince me to go back to work. She’s worried for me.

“Son of a bitch is trying to steal my daughter,” says Dad when Lynn arrives from the mainland to say goodbye.

Dad is angry like I’ve never seen him.

“Totally out of character,” says Mum.

“It’s probably the come down from the drugs,” says my stepdaughter, Zoe.

Dad has no experience with pain killers and the nurses gave him a double dose by accident. It’s been a rough day.

Though Dad loves Lynn and appreciates his help at the farm by nicknaming him Mr. Fix-It, it’s true that he will take me home with him for a few days so I can catch up at work.

The next morning, before I leave to the ferry, I visit Dad alone. I feed him water and small pieces of boiled egg. I paint his chapped lips with vaseline and sing him a favourite hymn:

This is my story, this is my song

Praising the saviour all the day long

“Sleep well Papa,” I say, not wanting to say goodbye.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

I slide his ring off his finger to keep him close while I’m gone.

“I’m getting some work done,” I say, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hello In There

Ya know that old trees just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wider every day

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

– John Prine

“What are you whispering about?” asks Dad as Jessica and I talk in low voices so as not to disturb his rest.

“I know about you,” he says wagging his finger, “I’ve been warned.”

A volunteer comes in and hands me a form to fill out. They want to know Dad’s likes and dislikes.

Dad likes bananas, ice cream, candied ginger, obituaries and Winston Churchill. Easy.

Dad dislikes vegetables. But what else?

Stumped, I ask Jessica.

“He hates being ignored,” she says, and she is so right.

Dad has walked through life looking for eye contact with strangers and an excuse to say hello. I know because I’ve inherited the same gene.

For the most part, people oblige us with a smile or a nod. But sometimes, we get ignored. Dad takes it personally, and I might too.

“A smile doesn’t cost you a thing,” says Jessica.

“They’re all coming out of the woodwork,” says Dad when I list the visitors to see him, “I must be dying or something.”

At one point, there are at least ten people in the room, all come to tell him they love him. He drifts in and out, awake and then asleep, or somewhere in between.

“If you want to have friends,” says Dad, “You have to be one.”

With his grandchildren, we sing Amazing Grace. He joins us from his dreams to sing along.

Taeja tells us a story about when she was a baby in his arms.

“She looks like you,” her parents said, “She’s bald.”

Dad took Taeja’s tiny hand and gave them the finger.

“Who are all these people?” asks the doctor visibly surprised by our numbers.

“He’s a generous and loving man,” I explain.

“We raised a bunch of kids, didn’t we?” says Dad petting his contraband lapdog.

“The basement kids,” says Jessica.

Back in the day, when Dad and his friends spent Sunday nights eating undercooked roast beef and world class Yorkshire puddings over wine and passionate politics, a younger generation multiplied in the basement playing pool, shooting darts, watching TV, and smoking pot in the sauna.

“He was a second Dad,” says Doug.

“He predicted I was pregnant with twins,” says Susan, “He called them Pete and Repeat.”

“Hail hail, the gang’s all here,” says Dad.

Even Mika, Dad’s Japanese daughter, the foreign student that never went home, comes to hold his hand.

My sister Kristin does what she can while working from Japan and reaches out to those who should know Dad is dying.

And so they come: members of the congregation, my godparents, a nephew who flew over from the mainland.

Special mention to the most loyal of the long-standing Sunday dinner crew, formerly known as ‘the Women’s Libbers’: Pauline, with a broken arm from falling on the ice, Ellie, the ‘card carrying Socialist,’ and Gail aka Speedy Gonzales, all find their way to Dad’s side.

With advanced MS, Gail, once stopped for speeding on her scooter, takes the long transit journey from downtown Victoria to the Saanichton hospital and back.

“I brought you something Sandy,” she says handing Dad, barely conscious, a single piece of raw broccoli.

“The devil made me do it,” she laughs.

“The Warden’s here,” shouts Dad when Mum comes in the room, “Call out the guards! Call out the guards!”

“Sit where I can see you,” he tells her, “My good-looking wife and I can’t see her.”

Mum is busy taxiing me for showers and others like Dorothy, who no longer drive, to come say goodbye to Dad.

I compliment Dorothy on her cat-lady shirt.

“You should see my underwear,” she says.

“Good thing the door is closed,” says Mum, “There’s so much laughter in here. We’ll disturb the other patients.”

“That can’t be Barbara,” Dad says, “You’re too beautiful to be Barbara.”

They hold hands and look each other straight in the face.

Dad mouths the words, never saying it out loud.

“I love you.”

“I’ll be dead soon,” says Dad.

“Don’t worry about me,” he says, “I like martyrdom.”

“Round the table,” says Susan.

The basement kids hold hands in a circle, like we have always done.

Dad returns briefly to consciousness and joins us in the song he taught us to sing:

The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed, the Lord is good to me, Johnny Appleseed, Amen

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Respite for an Open Heart

“I’ll be right back,” I tell Dad as I let go of his hand, “I’m going for lunch.”

“While I starve to death,” he says.

I take a quick break from death and walk down Mt Newton Cross Road to RnR Diner in Saanichton.

“How’s your Dad?” asks Kelly, a server and friend from when I worked there on Tuesdays.

“Are they giving him ice cream?” asks Bunny, another server walking by.

“Never take away that man’s ice cream,” she laughs.

While I wait for my comfort dosage called ‘beef dip and onion rings’, I read signs posted on the wall:

Amazingly enough, I don’t give a shit.

I’m not really a bitch, I just play one in your life.

People say I have a bad attitude, I say screw ‘em.

Today’s menu – take it or leave it.

Someone has grown a thick skin.

“George said he met you at the hospital,” says Bunny.

George is the friendly man in his nineties I chatted with while he was visiting a friend in the same room as Dad a couple weeks back. I remember admiring how strong and healthy he looked.

“He was admitted himself a few days later,” says Bunny, “He had his 26th heart attack!”

“That was him?” I ask.

I hadn’t realized it at the time, but George was on the other side of the curtain from Dad when the doctor gave him the results of the tests. It was good news – he was going to be discharged the next day. I remember listening as he prayed to Jesus Christ to thank him for the opportunity to be of service for another day.

George’s heart keeps breaking and yet he keeps giving.

I read a sign in the Palliative Care lounge:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy. – Rabindranath Tagore (19th century poet)

“Remember to take care of yourself,” says Mum as she tries to delay my return to the hospital after a shower.

Irritated, I ask her to please not block me from being close to Dad. It hurts less when I’m with him. That is, until it doesn’t.

“Please come and get me,” I cry into the phone at 12:30am on my third night laying beside him.

Dad is having a hard time and my heart has broken.

At home on the farm, I climb into bed and hope that tomorrow I will rise up like George to be of service again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Sibling Rivalry

“I have 4 daughters and 2 sons,” says Dad to the nurse, “I lost my sons.”

Dad has two families. One with my mother, the woman that left him. And another with Jessica’s mother, the woman that got away.

Though Marty, Lisa and Jessica weren’t Dad’s biological children, in some ways he was a better father to them than to us when we were growing up.

“Oh John,” says Jessica of my brother in a warm tone.

“Marty was always nicer to me than John,” I confess during another morning together in Room 1456.

“John was always nicer to me,” Jessica laughs, “Family dynamics.”

“Lisa came to see you last night,” I remind Dad, “She came all the way down from Nanaimo.”

“‘You are the kindest man in the whole world,’” I say, “That’s what she told you.”

“What kind?” says Dad.

Jessica and I reminisce about old days motherless at the farm, the dirt bikes and absence of any and all supervision or rules.

“She’s one of my favourites,” pipes up Dad about Lisa.

“Hey now,” says Jessica.

“She has a sense of mischief,” says Dad, “Just like me.”

Jessica and I remember the time Dad took us kids to Portugal. We were teenage girls with an all access pass to his wallet for drinks at the hotel bar.

“Lots of good times,” he says, “Not so many bad times, though there were a few.”

Jessica and I have never liked each other. Less than a year apart, the competition for Dad’s affection was fierce.

Every loving thing he did for her was proof he didn’t love me.

She got the bigger room at the farm. She got the cooler used car. She got more of his attention.

As teenagers both living with Dad, Jessica made me so angry I remember crouching low to the ground to give her the finger.

“Fuck you,” I said, and I meant it with every cell in my dark adolescent soul.

“With all these beautiful daughters of mine,” says Dad, “I can’t keep things straight.”

These past 6 years since Dad developed dementia, Jessica and I have hit heads over what’s best for Dad. It has resulted in a clear boundary.

Sunday dinners with Dad are hers.

“Time heals all wounds,” says Jessica.

“A long time,” says Dad.

As I get older, I try to remember two things. We all deal with pain differently. We are all doing our best.

“You’re a good bunch,” says Dad, “Bullshit artists like me.”

The day Dad entered in the Palliative Care Unit, something changed between Jessica and me.

We had hit heads only a few days earlier, but when I walked into Room 1456 and saw her sitting beside Dad with eyes that looked like my own, she was no longer my rival.

She is a great ally in our final days with Dad.

Jessica loves my father as her own. She spends every morning in this room with him. And when he is in her presence, I can leave him for a shower, breakfast and whatever else I need to get done because he is in the hands of a daughter’s love.

“How did I get so lucky to have such beautiful daughters?” says Dad as we sit on each side of him.

Later in the day, visitors stand in a circle around Dad as he comes in and out of consciousness. To remind him he is not alone, I name them: Jessica, Pauline, Ellie, Nicol and Virtuous.

“And you too, Katie,” says Jessica. Her hand touches my back.

“Yes,” I laugh, “But I’m one of the crew.”

And then after all these years, I understand. Family dynamics.

“I’m ready to step out,” says Dad to Jessica and me, “But I hope you stay close.”

Different cities, different circles, I doubt Jessica and I will talk or see much of each other after Dad dies.

But we will stay close. This shared experience of loving and losing our father is an intimacy one never forgets.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments



“You’re pretty fast on your feet, kid,” says Dad when I get back from calling the nurse.

“Almost as fast as your father on the way to the beer parlour for 10 cents a glass,” he says.

It’s our second night together in Palliative Care. I walk the halls in pajamas and bare feet.

“I was having a sweet dream,” he says to the nurse as she takes away his troubles and I climb back into bed.

“Is that my daughter over there?” he asks pointing at me in the low light.

“I’m going nuts,” he says before I get up again and reassure him it’s me.

“Are you okay now Dad?” I ask before the nurse leaves the room.

“As soon as I see these beautiful women I feel better,” he says.

I kiss him goodnight.

“You get more and more beautiful,” he says to my eyes.


“Pain,” yells Dad. I’m up and off again for a nurse.

Waiting for her to bring him more meds, I lay down and sing for him, ‘Lord I’m coming home.’

Distracted, Dad joins me in song and then goes quiet.

We look at each other from where we lay. He waves at me. I wave back.

“What am I going to do without you, Katie?” he asks.

“I’m right here,” I reply.

“You look like my daughter,” says Dad the third time I call for the nurse in the night, “Is that you Katie?”

“What are you doing here with an old man like me?” he asks as the nurse comes into the room.

“Would you like me to move you into a more comfortable position?” asks the nurse.

“I’m comfortable looking at my beautiful daughter,” he says.

She slides him into place and tucks him in.

“Just so I can see my daughter,” he says, “That’s all I need.”

Later that day, my nieces and nephew join Mum and me in Dad’s room while he sleeps.

They bring a Dutch Bakery Vanilla Slice Cake with my name on it.

Happy birthday to me.

I love and I am loved.

It is a gift.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Holy Shut-Ins

“And you’re a man of the cloth!?” says Dad needling the visiting St Stephen’s minister.

Poking Dad back, he mentions old rumours he’s heard of Dad drinking whiskey with another man of the clergy.

“That was the priest’s fault,” says Dad, “I thought it was wine.”

The Anglican keeps up the game and offers to take Dad’s confession.

“I haven’t the time,” says Dad.

Now serious, he asks,

“Do you want to talk one to one?”

“I’m passed that now,” says Dad at peace with his maker.

The Minister opens his bible and reads from John and the Revelations. He reminds Dad that this is not the end.

“It’s the end of the beginning,” says Dad.

The Minister has us stand to join hands around Dad while he says a prayer.

“The Lord is with you,” he says as he leaves.

“Thank you very much,” says Dad.

A few minutes later, two more church men walk into Dad’s room.

“Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war,” sings out Dad as they make their way to a chair on each side of him.

“Here to give me my last rights?” laughs Dad.

Instead, in the Anglican tradition, they open a black box with purple velvet lining and take out its mini versions of a chalice, wine cruet and wafer capsule.

They hand Dad and I a booklet titled: The Ministry of Holy Communion to the Shut-Ins.

I listen and participate as best an atheist can.

“A long time going down to the church,” says Dad to his friends when they are finished, “A long time fighting the Bishop!”

They get up to leave.

“Don’t let the next time you see me be when I’m in a casket,” says Dad.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments