“Happy birthday to me,” sings Dad, a cardboard makeshift bowl of cake and ice cream in hand as he sits lopsided, battered and bruised in the emergency room.
Dad fell. Though not the first time, it’s the worst so far. I catch a float plane to Victoria.
“How the hell did I lay brick with arms like this?” says Dad. Exposed in a hospital gown, he is more skin than muscle.
The doctor and nurse in charge of his care aren’t around when I get there, and a student nurse is the closest I get to a medical update.
A patch covers the gash on the back of his head. Dry blood is still caked down his neck. Mum and I are told tests have come back negative and he can be discharged.
“But he can’t walk,” I say pointing at his shaking legs.
It’s not safe to take him home. All us caregivers agree. Something is wrong.
Dad disagrees. He wants to go home to the dogs at all costs.
I pace the halls while Mum goes for back up – a community nurse in a building across the parking lot.
“KKKKatie, beautiful Katie” sings Dad as he shuffles and shakes with a walker past the nurses at the counter and down the hall towards me. His aging body shutting down, his eyes bright as ever.
“She’s an emotional girl,” explains Mum to the community nurse.
Tears stream down my face; I smile and laugh for him as best I can while he attempts to transform a humiliating mobility test into a theatrical performance.
“Push,” the community nurse says to me, “Ask to see the doctor.”
So I do. Then, from the sidelines, I watch the nurse inform him of my request.
At first glance, the doctor reads arrogant, selectively charming, and unpracticed in authentic human to human connection beyond status, strength, beauty and youth.
I could be wrong. My anger at his dismissive behaviour blurs my perspective.
“You’re supposed to be my buffer,” I watch him respond to the nurse, clarifying to me the source of her general irritable demeanour.
Neither the doctor nor the nurse come talk to me.
Instead, the community nurse pushes for us. Dad is admitted into further care and now awaits a bed in another ward.
“We have to find out why you’ve been falling,” says the community nurse when Dad asks why he can’t go home.
“I’ve been falling in love with you,” replies Dad.
“I’m not going home,” he says to himself, twice.
I stay quiet because I don’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t want to make promises I may not be able to keep.
He starts to sing:
“Open wide thine arms of love, Lord I’m coming home.”
He recites a poem:
“It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.”
“Please look after the dogs,” he says to me.
“What’s going to happen to our place? Are you going to keep it? Sell it?” he asks.
I tell him I’m not going to think about that now.
“Make sure Nigel and Emilly are looked after, and Samson the cat,” he says.
I make the promises I can.
“At least I won’t have problems with Ollie anymore,” he laughs.
“Poor Ollie,” he says with pity instead of anger for his bitter neighbour.
“Alan Curtis and Mark Payne will still keep in touch with me,” says Dad.
We list the names of old friends and family he’s counting on visiting him: Mum, Nicol, Virtuous, Jessica, Ellie, Pauline, Doug and Sue, Speedy Gonzales…
Dad is hot and cold, and then hot, and then cold. I shift the blanket back and forth across his legs.
“I’ve had a good run, dear. My sister made it to 103, but I’m not going to make it,” he says.
A few minutes later, his perspective flips.
“Sybil made it to a 103. I guess you’ll have to wait around with me in a nursing home until I’m 103,” he says.
He comforts himself with the past.
“All the schools my men built. The ship boilers we did,” he says.
He tells me stories we both know well. Stories about his men, aka ‘The Leper Colony,’ a group of bricklayers he trained himself. Complicated characters with whom he built a mutual loyalty that has lasted his lifetime.
“Work is the curse of the drinking class,” he says, his humour returning.
“The working class can kiss my ass, I’ve got a supers job at last.”
“I don’t care. it’s up to you what you do with the place,” he says.
“I know you’ll look after the dogs, and Samson,” he says.
Dad shifts on the bed. He can’t get comfortable.
“You’ll come to it too,” he says, “It comes to us all.”
“What am I doing here?” asks Dad when I arrive to his new bed in a new ward, “Am I going home now?”
I remind him about the fall and tell him we’re still waiting for the doctor’s verdict.
Dad turns his hand into a gun against his temple and pulls the trigger.
“What are we doing?” Dad asks.
“We’re getting you into the wheelchair so your daughter can push you around the hospital,” says the nurse.
“Taking me to the top of the hill and letting me go?” he jokes.
I push him down the hall in search of a window to admire last night’s fallen snow.
“They shoot dogs and horses, you know,” he says as we pass the cafeteria and head to the chapel.
Dad tells me about the old friends whose funeral we recently attended. Unable to continue caring for his wife living with dementia, he smothered her and shot himself.
Another old friend recently followed through with the new medical assisted dying law that came into effect in 2016. She had had enough with pain so she too faced the end on her terms.
Helpless, my heart aches like she’s wearing the bruises of a twelve round boxing match.
Alone at night and down the hall from his empty bedroom, I feel like life and death are scooping out my insides with a table spoon.
There’s nothing funny about it. Dying is hard.
The Following Friday
“The family plot is in the cemetery at St Stephen’s,” Dad says, still in purgatory at the hospital for the doctor’s verdict as more tests are run, “John’s there.”
He tells me about the church ladies he imagines attending his funeral: Josie and the Icelandic one for starters.
“Did you know Icelandic women are the most beautiful women in the world?” he says. His mother’s parents immigrated from Iceland.
“I had a good time in that place. It didn’t do me any harm,” he says of St. Stephen’s.
“You got to be a bit of a bullshitter to get along in the world,” he says.
“If you’re good to people, you won’t have too many problems,” he says.
Dad tells me a story about George Stromwell, the Norwegian neighbour when he was growing up.
“Our septic tank broke down,” says Dad, “George hadn’t even met us yet and he put on his high waist waders and jumped into the tank and cleaned it out for us.”
“The old man said, ‘it’s bad enough to do it when you’re paid for it, but a man who would do it for free can’t be half bad’” Dad laughs, “They became friends for life.”
Dad tells me how his mother made him and his brother be pall bearers at French Margaret’s funeral. The former Madame of a whore house in Prince Rupert had married a friend of his father’s. When the husband died, my Grandpa stood up as a friend to French Margaret, and when she died and Grandpa was already dead, my grandma stood up for her too.
In my life, I have watched my father’s dedication to visiting dying friends and aquaintances in the hospital and attending their funerals. I have watched him house people in need and give away his riches to lend a hand.
Dad’s favourite stories are of laughing with a friend at his deathbed minutes before he dies, an estranged wife putting aside infidelity and betrayal to nurse the ex-husband to his death in her home, and an unfaithful man taking care of his forgiving and now demented wife as an act of love and repentance.
I want to be a hero in one of my father’s stories. Someone who honours friendships and shows up at your darkest hour. I want to have the courage to bring you chocolate and sit by your side while you face the existential terror and loneliness of looming death.
I want to be this hero for others because I hope one day someone will be that hero for me.
I drag myself out of bed, and head to the hospital to sit with Dad.
“He used to pretend to measure me for a coffin,” he says.
Remembering back to what Laverne Sands, the witty and deceased undertaker, used to say to him, Dad laughs,
“I’ll be the last one to let you down.”