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