Death, Grief, Bereavement

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Measuring Up

On Fathers, Sons, and What It Takes to Build a Home
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All Things Consoled

All Things Consoled

A daughter's memoir
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Excerpt

     My mother came home the next day. The residence doctor dropped by in the afternoon, sturdy, energetic, reassuring. We had learned he was from Aberdeen, a fact that only endeared him further to my parents, for the Hays traced their origins back to the same part of Scotland. My mother greeted him cheerfully, and he said, “So you’ve come back.”
     She had. She had come back to us.
     Then once again, around the middle of March, she lost her words and twenty-four hours later showed no signs of recovering them. “I’m thinking—throne—thinking—th.” Starting on a word with an opening sound like “th,” she could not escape it, any more than a month earlier she had been able to escape “window—whether.”
     After I got her lying down, I went into the living room to talk to Dad, who was staring out one of the windows that overlooked the road and the canal beyond. Without turning, he said, “I don’t think she’s suffering, she’s just lost.” He choked up, as he did so very easily, before going on. “We just have to hope, or maybe hope is the wrong word. If she doesn’t make it, maybe it’s for the best.”
     The next day, “It’s snowing snowing snowing snowing,” she said, as we sat on a bench in the glowing sunshine.
     Certain words were no problem for her: yes, okay, right, super, thank you, well, son of a gun, really. Over the telephone, I told Sochi about the automatic responses that still issued loud and clear from her grandmother. Sochi laughed and remarked that they were all affirmatives; someone else’s might have been shit, goddammit and fuck. My mother’s “son of a gun” was as close as she came to an expletive and it was always said with good humour.
     Then the next morning, when I walked out of the late-winter sunshine into their living room, exclaiming what a beautiful day it was, my mother stopped me in my tracks by replying from the chesterfield, “Yes, it is a beautiful day.”
     Lazarus was back from the land of the mute. Open in her lap was the book I had brought to them several days before about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, and now she said how interesting she thought it was. Sitting beside her, washed over by relief and excitement, I flipped to the page with the photograph of ice flowers, delicate white rosettes blanketing the surface of newly frozen sea water on February 16th, 1915—four years before she and my father were born. I told her about seeing them in patches on the canal last winter and on a pond at the arboretum. And we made conversation. “Your words have come back!” She nodded and smiled and talked, and everything she said made sense.
     But Dad was less excited by her recovery than he was upset with her for having wet the bed. “And who is going to wash the sheets?” he wanted to know. I asked him what happened to the diaper I had helped her into before leaving the night before. Well, in getting her into her nightgown, he had taken it off. Then immediately on the offensive again, he lit into me about her bone-strengthening medication. Had she had it or not?
     “A nurse is supposed to give it to her early Sunday morning,” I said, “which is today.”
     “You haven’t answered my question!” he thundered, only to back off a heartbeat later. “All right,” he admitted. “Somebody came in and gave it to her.” Only to blast me again, “But then she fell asleep! She’s not supposed to fall asleep after she gets it!”
     He took things hard and he made them harder. There would come a day when he declared that the nursing care in this place wasn’t “worth coon shit.”
     I liked “coon shit.” Never in a million years would I have imagined those words coming out of his mouth. We went down for coffee, and then Mom and I went outside into the open air and abundant sunshine while he remained behind in the library reading Maclean’s.
     In the flooding light we walked to the corner. “Did you have wrens nesting in the garden in London last spring?” I asked her.
     “I am forced to confess that I do not remember,” she said, speaking in her old formal way. Her teachers at Renfrew Collegiate had been sticklers for grammar and well-formed sentences, and my mother had been an excellent student.
     “What was it like for you, the last couple of days, when you couldn’t find your words?”
     “It was unsettling. But it’s been unsettling for a while.”
     We walked on. I asked her what she was thinking about.
     “I’m thinking about what the future holds.”
     “Are you worried about that?”
     She said something vague about no one knowing what the future holds, or perhaps I said that.
     I had pulled from the wastebasket in their rooms another of her efforts at a letter, one she had been working on somedays before, wanting it, she said, to be “a reasonable letter from a reasonable person.” She intended to have it do yeoman’s service for all of the friends she hadn’t yet written to.

There must be a way in the English Landwich to say to
your English speaking friends a great deal more emphatic?
I’ve tried many ways but the best I’ve managed is

Thank you so very much from all of us
The Hays

     Around this time, I remember her taking several bananas—the three on the counter and the one from inside their little fridge—and lining them up on the seat of her walker, then pushing her walker into the living room. I didn’t follow for a moment, washing dishes in their kitchenette. Then when I went into the living room, the bananas were nowhere in sight. “Where are they, Mom? Dad, did you see what Mom did with the bananas?”
     “Sure I did.”
     “Where are they?” Looking around.
     “Well, just don’t sit on the chesterfield,” he said.
     I checked under the cushions and there they were: fourbananas lined up in a row.

They reminded me of characters out of Beckett. A pair of solitaries who had always headed out to the studio, in my mother’s case, or downstairs to his study, in my father’s (each to his own lair) were now sharing two rooms. They were like the aged parents trapped in dustbins in Endgame. Like Laurel and Hardy in another fine mess. Or like old Joshua Smallweed in Bleak House throwing cushions at his imbecile wife.
     “Oh the weather,” my mother said to me, “the weather now is the pits of wet roses.” She had been reading in the newspaper, she said, about a woman in her thirties “who came down under the overburden of blankets and probably isn’t going to live.”
     Her turns of phrase rather confirmed my view that poetry issues from the holes in our head, that whatever faculty produces the startling contractions and coinages and leaps in logic that we call poetry is also available on an unconscious and uncontrollable level to someone suffering dementia. One morning on the telephone, ever solicitous about my sleep, she asked, “How did you severe the night?” Blending the words “fare,” “survive” and “persevere” so deftly that a lifetime of labour in the sleep mines got summoned up and summed up. “Dad’s behind a shave,” she added, “but I think he’ll come to the phone.”
     Later, when I went over to see them, “Do you know what I had for breakfast?” she said to me.
     “What?”
     She leaned forward. “Too much.”
     But that was her sense of humour. Like her abundant hair, it was her lasting glory.

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Through, Not Around

Through, Not Around

Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss
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The Daughter’s Way

The Daughter’s Way

Canadian Women’s Paternal Elegies
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Unearthed

Unearthed

Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden
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Just Let Me Look at You
Excerpt

After decades without, I finally bought myself a boat. My dad would approve.
Because of him I grew up on boats. When I was young I fished from them with passion. In my late teens and early twenties I lived most summers on a boat, in small marinas up the coast, starting with Egmont. On Cormorant I fished and guided. I also played lots of soli­taire, partied, and wrote my first two books on board, clunking away on the typewriter as a fluid world moved underneath.
I loved sleeping aboard, likely for what are narcotic or even return-to-the-womb reasons: a dark enclosure and softly rhythmic motion. After we met, my wife Dede, who knew none of my past, saw me fall into a trance if we happened near a marina. I’d have to study the boats, eyeing their features for those I’d like, wondering if they had a writing table or much of a galley. Lately I check to see if they have downriggers, winch-powered cables that send your cannon ball-weighted lure down to the deeps to troll for salmon.
Boats are magic. That metal or fibreglass can float is a marvel, one your life depends on. It’s not a romantic thought, I feel it in my body. It’s easy to find bygone power in the word vessel.
Sylvan is an old fibreglass tub with a big back open cockpit for fishing. Its twenty-six feet include a miniature bowsprit, a railed plat­form shooting off the bow where, if someone else steered, I could teeter onto and declare myself king of the world. It has a small cabin with V-berth, tiny sink and enclosed bathroom, or “head.”
I’ll avoid nautical terms. At marinas you run into people with boats smaller than mine who say “helm” and “starboard” and, of course, “she.” My boat’s an it. Sylvan is its brand name, painted on the stern, like a big Ford. Its navy canvas top highlights the seagull shit. It’s powered by a big, gas-gulping inboard, plus a small outboard, or “kicker,” for trolling. Both motors are old and the big one has begun burning oil. Many of the switches—for instance the horn, running lights, inside heater, windshield wipers—don’t work. I’ve duct-taped rips in the canvas.
I bought the boat on a whim, but one that felt fated. Out of the blue, after forty years, I was contacted by an old high school teacher. I’d had a crush on her, a Texan who’d moved north for political rea­sons. She had prematurely greying hair, wore serapes and went bare­foot. It was she who’d implanted the idea of writing. In any case, she apparently liked my books, and after I blamed her for inspiring them, her next envelope contained a cheque for ten thousand dollars. I tried to decline it but she insisted, explaining that it was something she did every year, sending this amount to whomever she felt like, from Patch Adams to Obama to unknown poets. She told me to use it on “some­thing missing in your life.” After I had two downriggers installed, Sylvan cost exactly ten thousand dollars.
The boat is decent in moderate waves, and once the motor gets going it tends not to quit. I keep Sylvan in Silva Bay (how fitting is that?) at the cheapest marina and the only one without a waiting list. Reportedly my berth bottoms out in extreme tides, but I’m assured it’s soft mud down there.
The transaction that brought us our place on Gabriola felt fated too. When our father and then mother died, my brother and I sold their condo and, not seeing a wiser investment, bought a place here for the exact amount, to the dollar, we got for the condo. Our two families share it. Somehow it felt right, and also practical, both of those. When I sit on the cabin’s sundeck and view the small orchard and pond, or when I walk the hushed trails through the woods, there’s a palpable sense that this is the fruit of my father’s hard work. His imagined link to this land keeps him alive in ways I can feel. Less poetically, I know I bought this place with his money, feel like a spoiled brat, and imaging him liking it here eases the guilt a bit.
 
 
——
 
 
I have an image that catches him perfectly. Not an image really, but a mid-eighties Japanese comic book. I came upon it again a week ago, digging through his stuff. Not knowing how to read Japanese, I think of it as The Big Bob of Mystery Beer Fishing Art Book.
I’m about thirty, still living in Vancouver and over for a morning visit. My dad is late-fifties, newly retired. Morning is the best time. I find him at the dining-room table flipping through what appears to be a comic book he’s just got in the mail. Unlike our comic books, this one is thin, fragile paper, including the cover. And it’s in Japanese. My dad looks befuddled.
The captions are all Japanese characters. Every page or two has a sidebar or sometimes a full-page drawing, rough but artful, of various fish. The cartoon boxes depict a young man, an artist, on a fishing trip, sketching everything he sees.
“Hey,” I say. “This is that trip you took last year. That charter out of Egmont.”
“Right. Right.”
“I remember you telling me about some Japanese artist guy? Drawing everything? He got stung by a rock cod?”
“Right, right. Drawing everything. I remember that guy now.”
I recall it was a business perk, my dad and some other executives wooed with a freebie aboard a forty-foot aluminum houseboat. He’d come back from the weekend with stories about “this funny little Jap” who didn’t fish at all but got all excited when a fish was caught. He’d lay tracing paper on the fish and run charcoal over it.
“It was really something,” he’d said. “It showed all the scales.”
Always instructive, I said, “A ‘rubbing.’”
“He sure was a funny little guy.” My dad had sounded almost affectionate.
It’s too perfect that the comic is Japanese. He still hated them. They were sneaky, they weren’t to be trusted. I didn’t blame him for these feelings. He’d been in a war, he’d had friends die. If I occasion­ally wondered aloud that they couldn’t be all bad, that some were forced to fight, he’d turn away. Fine. I’d never been in a war. An American, my father joined up right after hearing the radio broadcast about Pearl Harbor. He tried the air force, was too tall to be a pilot, so he joined the navy.
But he hated whoever he thought was Japanese. Koreans and Chinese and Inuit were “Japs.” It was sadly funny that for decades he lived beside Layton Wing, a shy family man who was unfailingly friendly to my father, who was only reservedly friendly back. After a few beers, in private, my dad would rail against “that Jap” next door. He’d settle down when I explained again that not only was Mr. Wing Chinese, but that the Chinese hated the Japanese probably more than he did. But he’d forget, and he’d grumble about “that Jap” whenever Layton appeared to be trying to keep up with the Joneses, like when he installed a pool. I actually thought it a good thing that Layton’s pool was a bit smaller than ours. Again, I found it more funny than sad. It was the big, American stupidity, that of not learn­ing who your enemies really are.
I can’t say I believe in the more colourful kind of karma, the one that says if you’re a pickpocket you’re bound eventually to get your pocket picked, if not in this life then the next. But I have to wonder about my dad and his hatred of Japs and those he mistook for them. Near the end, when he broke a hip and suffered a stroke in surgery, he could no longer walk or talk and ended up in a facil­ity where he was tended almost exclusively by Asians. Most were Filipina, some Vietnamese. I never saw a Japanese caregiver, but I did see a certain look in my father’s eye as they spooned him his food, plumped his pillow, and all the rest, bantering in halting English. He wasn’t all there but I know his pride remained, and I can’t imagine how he felt when, chirping, “How you today Bob, you look good,” they washed him and changed his diaper. It would have been an odd hell.
And now we’re looking at the oddest comic book. It’s part graphic novel (though I don’t think they existed yet in the West), part natural science guide to Pacific Northwest fish, with those cool charcoal rub­bings. The story boxes show the artist landing at the Vancouver airport, lugging his art supplies, tongue sticking out with effort, cartoon sweat shooting off his brow. It shows a bus ride, a first meal with clumsy knife and fork, mishaps with mysterious money. Egmont scenery in the back­ground, it shows the houseboat, and him stowing his gear. A seagull wanders close, begging. Overleaf the gull is rendered, full-page and fine art. It really is bizarre. It gets more bizarre when, early the next morn­ing, he wakes up as the houseboat lurches, nearly tipping. He rushes out to encounter a giant climbing aboard. In one hand the giant clutches a beer and the other he holds out to be shaken, “I’m Bob!” emblazoned in caps on his T-shirt in such bold lettering I can hear my dad’s basso profundo voice in the letters. In the next box the artist suffers a crushing handshake and falls to his knees under the giant’s shadow.
The only English in the entire comic book is the “I’m Bob!” on his shirt. The artist has nailed my father’s likeness, though exaggerated: twice the height of everyone else, he wears a skewed cap, and loudly gets in everyone’s face. He appears to lurch like John Wayne. His nose is red. It’s hilarious.
Turning pages, my dad chuckles nervously.
The story shows the men fishing, eating, drinking. My dad is never without a beer. Now he wears the captain’s hat, a ball cap with gold braid, and the captain wears my dad’s hat and doesn’t look happy about it. One box is just my dad’s face, his eyes closed and stars and birds circling his head, passed out. But he is also helpful, showing people how to fish. Near the end he’s battling what appears to be a whopper, and then, chagrined, holds up a minnow.
My dad closes the book, snickers insincerely and flicks it so it spins and slides three feet across the dining-room table. Partly he doesn’t recognize this version of himself, this Bob the rest of us have known for years. And partly he just doesn’t remember that weekend, not a thing.

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