What is the place of writing in a writer’s life? I’ve been recently attacked for taking it all too seriously. I gave the comment perhaps more consideration than it deserved at the time, but that is neither here nor there. This extended monologue of mine is entitled ‘Notes on a Crisis,’ and given my age and so forth, one might assume that mine is mid-life kind of crisis – the bleak recognition of youth now forever left behind, and all that.
But as readers of my fiction should know by now, I rarely come at things in a direct fashion, and while it may appear at first glance that I’m talking about this, in truth I’m talking about that.
This is actually about a journey taken and written about in its midst, qualifying in every sense as a journal. Today, I reached a place in the tenth novel where a very personal truth was revealed. And such was its shattering impact that I am forced to pull away from the story, to try and give shape here to what I am feeling.
I will warn you now, what to come is brutal, and all those fun-loving folk content to skip and dance through life, evading all that might sting, for the sake of your ease of mind, read no further.
Life As A Human has in the past few months invited contributors to write essays to commemorate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and many of these essays have been profound and moving. Both times that I received that invitation, I did my own sliding away, for reasons I was not yet ready to face square in the eye. In a more critical moment, I might call it a failing of courage.
I am told by those closest to me that I have not been the same person since my father’s death. Was this just a measure of some protracted grief, verging on the aberrant? My father was a gifted but also deeply flawed man, and long before his death I had made my own peace with who he was, and the last years of his life I was pleased and proud to share my time with him. There was nothing left unresolved about our relationship.
So what, precisely, is going on here?
As much as one engages in that dance of evasion, things sneak through, and for me it is the dark aspect of my writing that I am relentless and remorseless regarding the world of sensibilities from which I proceed to create and imagine on a daily basis. Today, not 20 minutes ago, one of my characters put into words a truth I was not ready to face. But here it is now, and what lies beyond remains unknown and unknowable.
I was in my second year at Iowa, and my second year of marriage, when my father called me from Winnipeg. My mother was in the hospital – but that had occurred a few times before, as her blood disorder slowly advanced into full-blown leukemia. But this time, when he had come into her room, he’d seen that she had removed the rings from her fingers and they waited on the bed stand. By this gesture he knew that she had realized that this time she wouldn’t be coming home.
It was a cold winter that year – we’d not come back for Christmas so my last memory of her was hugging her goodbye outside the house before driving down to start my year in Iowa – and I remember crying as I drove away, since she’d felt so frail in my arms.
Over the phone I told my father that we were on our way.
I phoned the department at the university and said I’d be gone for a week, and then my wife and I got into the car and began the drive north. We pushed as hard as we could, staying in a motel somewhere in Minnesota before continuing on the next day.
Crossing the border, we stopped at a gas station and I managed to get a call through. My brother had flown back from Vancouver. The word was she was fast fading, and from what I got from my brother, he was horrified at her deteriorated condition. Things were fraught over there.
We were driving into the outskirts of Winnipeg when she died.
My brother has since said he considered me the lucky one – to have not seen her in those last moments. I understand his conviction on this matter My last memory of her remains that goodbye hug on a warm September morning.
Let’s call that … gentle.
Without doubt, her last 10 or 12 years of life had been good ones – the years poverty were behind them, and she and my father were content together. There were grandchildren to visit, relatives to see back in Sweden. We’d all known the mortal clock was ticking, and we made of it all that we could.
She was 69 when she died.
Track forward a span of years. My own family is settled in Victoria, my brother over in Chilliwack, and my father is sharing a new life with a woman in Nanaimo, a two to two-and-a-half hour drive up-island from me.
Following a tragic and infuriating misdiagnosis from his GP, the cancer in his bladder has metastasized to his bones and the oncologist informs us all he had at best three months to live. In that time, we drive north again and again to spend time with him. It is a relief that he is not alone and that he is being cared for (I won’t even get into the twist in that aspect of this tale), but those visits are nevertheless hard, and hard to bear.
Our son goes off for the summer break and my wife prepares to fly to the UK to visit family. Daily the calls go back and forth between me and my father’s partner as we track the swiftness of his fading away, as we try to find comfort in the details of the things done and the things still to do.
One evening I get a call – my father has not spoken all day, and when the phone is held close him I can hear his labored breathing. Yet, when I speak to him, he stirs to answer me. Just monosyllables. Weak ‘yes’s and no’s.’ I ask him if he wants me to come. He says ‘yes.’ From his partner I hear the shock in her voice – she’d not expected him to hear me, much less find the strength to speak.
I tell him I will come in the morning.
Let’s pause there. I am pretty upset at that moment – there is the grim war of the waiting and wanting it to be over. There is a kind of exhaustion that leaves one numb. I can list these things and recognize their truths, their validity for that moment. And I was later told that he’d fallen unconscious shortly thereafter, never to reawaken, so it was likely that even had I immediately departed for Nanaimo I would have found him already in a coma – though in truth I can never know that. I can’t know that he wouldn’t have risen up from the depths again, as he’d done over the phone. I can’t know.
Today, I finally understood my unwillingness to leave for Nanaimo that night. I have had to face the failing of courage that was that moment – the fear of yet another hopeless drive, the fear of finding in my father what my brother said he wished he’d never seen in my mother. My imagination is more than sufficient for that transformation; I didn’t want my memory to suffer the same. Fears held me in place, and in some ways I am still standing there, phone in hand. I’ve yet to take a step past that moment. And I wonder now if I ever will.
So, how does all of this relate to my writing? Today, a fictional character uttered the opinion that the only worthy place to die is in someone’s arms. And in the wake of that utterance, everything just sort of tumbled down inside.
I am a living with a regret. Whether he ever knew it or not, he should have died in my arms. And I had the chance to do that.
That same character, almost in the next breath, then went on to say that ‘to die in someone’s arms – could there be anything more forgiving?’
If I am to take the full meaning of that odd choice of word (forgiving) – and it’s a word that in that context demands considerable thought, then … well, we will see where I stand when this last tale is behind me. Maybe I’ll be ready to set the phone down. Take that first step.
But that is my struggle, to deal with as best I can. So, what is it I have to offer you readers after this modest little confession? Just this. Should you face that time … be there if you can … and take your loved one in your arms. So often the bed the person is lying in – at home or in the hospital – is viewed as some kind of sacred place, an island to be waded around but never touched. But it’s not the bed that’s sacred, it’s the person lying on it. It’s not the bed that is forgiving, it’s your embrace.
Could I go back for another chance…
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