“You know ... I was fourteen when my mom died and it was ... really sad. Twenty-two when my dad died and it was ...well ... also sad.”
“What was your mother like?”
“She was nice.”
That’s when the expected happened. With the mere mention of his mother, Dad turned away on the bed, facing the window and the afternoon sunlight filtering through blinds. The grandmother I never knew was a topic of discussion he routinely avoided, and today was no exception. Sometimes, I figured, a whirlwind of emotions and memories are condensed to single, simplistic adjectives.
I hit pause on my iPhone that rested on the nightstand.
The problem wasn’t solely how guarded Dad was or the vagueness of his responses, but more that I wasn’t sure what questions to ask. I wanted to reach him, but I wasn’t sure how.
What could I possibly ask now that I’d want to ask him in the future—when I couldn’t?
In journalism school, we unpacked the art of the interview—the subtle and nuanced techniques for probing for details and getting someone talking. The sympathetic nods, the fluff comments to break the ice, the softball questions to build rapport, mirrored body language, affirmative statements, and so on. But any skills I had acquired over the years became irrelevant as I sat in the spare bedroom on the carpet next to Dad’s bed. In the interview that mattered most, I was choking.
It didn’t help that I was questioning my toughest source yet.
In journalism school, we unpacked the art of the interview—the subtle and nuanced techniques for probing for details and getting someone talking...But any skills I had acquired over the years became irrelevant as I sat in the spare bedroom on the carpet next to Dad’s bed. In the interview that mattered most, I was choking.
After ten minutes of surface-level responses to inquiries about his childhood, Dad turned on Netflix. “We’ll continue this later,” he said.
We’d been ploughing through an endless stream of movies together. Recently we watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The part at the end when Brad Pitt’s character decides to leave his family seemed to bother him deeply.
“I just don’t get it,” Dad said.
“Why would he leave?”
“He doesn’t want to be a burden for his wife and daughter,”
I said. “His age is rapidly reversing, and he doesn’t want to be a helpless baby that they have to take care of. He wants to keep the memory of himself intact.”
“No ... he’s leaving his daughter before she’s three years old, before she could even remember him. He’s leaving before any lasting memories can form.”
“Maybe it’s easier that way,” I said.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said, scratching his head. “If he really loved them, he’d stay as long as he could.”
I wondered if there was something revealing about his past hidden in this reaction. I had heard that Dad stayed home with his mother the summer she died, when his two siblings were off at a sleepaway camp, travelling back home every weekend. I didn’t know the details of her decline. But I did know—although, not yet from first-hand experience—that terminal illness has a way of reversing the age of the patient, rendering them, eventually, as helpless and dependent as an infant. Maybe, though, seeing her that way was preferable to not having her in his life at all.
Over the years, I had grown accustomed to being forced to guess what Dad was feeling. He had always been a devoted father, ready to drop everything for his family, prepared to drive any distance, wait out any line, spend any dollar to enrich or benefit our lives, but, often, he could seem distracted. Whenever he was stressed, his jaw would tense, and he’d scratch his scalp and pace around whatever room was dominated by legal files.
His work, after all, was another way for him to show his devotion to us; it offered the means for providing us with financial security and the small luxuries of a middle-class life.
But he normally seemed unwilling to share with us whatever was going on in his head, preferring to keep his anxieties locked up. In place of emotional vulnerability, he’d unload a long-winded rant about a recent case, a convoluted monologue filled with legal jargon that was impossible for my younger self to decipher. When I was growing up, this sometimes made conversations with him difficult.
But movies have long been our space of togetherness. With movies, nothing needs to be said. Nothing should be said as you escape into the story flashing across the screen. With a box of popcorn and squeaky theatre seats, being next to him was the only necessity. When I was twelve, he took me to see Casino Royale, the first James Bond film with Daniel Craig.
Movies have long been our space of togetherness. With movies, nothing needs to be said. Nothing should be said as you escape into the story flashing across the screen. With a box of popcorn and squeaky theatre seats, being next to him was the only necessity
It was a franchise Dad was always fond of, especially the Sean Connery originals, and we spent twenty minutes after the credits running around the Cineplex parking lot, ducking behind parked cars with finger guns, pretending to be double-0 agents on a mission.
When he’d pose and point that finger gun, he’d say the iconic line: “Bond. James Bond.” (His British accent always sounded Indian.) Often, our best moments were when we both became a couple of kids running around. During these sprees of play, Dad’s age would reverse, like Benjamin Button’s.
When accelerating on the highway, he’d sometimes turn to me and say, “All right, Mitch, time for your Fast and Furious audition. I’m gonna need you to open your door and jump onto that passing truck. Then you’re gonna have to smash open the windshield, decapitate the driver, and get off at the next exit. Easy, right? Okay, on three. One, two, three!” As the reality of his illness began to manifest itself, I was afraid that the sporadic playfulness that was so common in his personality was beginning to fade. The palliative team had prescribed twenty-milligram morphine tabs for the excruciating pain in his rectum, and they normally knocked him out before we could finish each movie. Drowsiness had joined agony as a constant companion in Dad’s post-diagnosis life.
As he drifted off to sleep, I closed the door softly, squeezing my iPhone tightly, wondering how many more chances I’d get to ask the deeper questions, and how many more movies would fill the silence of answers unsaid.
During a pandemic lockdown full of pyjama dance parties, life talks, and final goodbyes, a family helps a father die with dignity.
In April 2020, journalist Mitchell Consky received bad news: his father was diagnosed with a rare and terminal cancer, with less than two months to live. Suddenly, he and his extended family—many of them healthcare workers—were tasked with reconciling the social distancing required by the Covid-19 pandemic with a family-based approach to end-of-life care. The result was a home hospice during the first lockdown. Suspended within the chaos of medication and treatments were dance parties, episodes of Tiger King, and his father’s many deadpan jokes.
Leaning into his journalistic intuitions, Mitchell interviewed his father daily, making audio recordings of final talks, emotional goodbyes, and the unexpected laughter that filled his father’s final days. Serving as a catalyst for fatherly affection, these interviews became an opportunity for emotional confession during the slowed-down time of a shuttered world, and reflect how far a family went in making a dying loved one feel safe at home.