In his poignant memoir, Charles Foran presents a portrait of his gruff-but-fond father wrestling with the end of life as Charlie acts as witness, solace, and would-be guide while facing his own mortality. What story can we tell ourselves and those we love, this radiant book asks, to withstand the inevitable mutability of time and self? A powerful meditation on fathers and sons, love and loss, and what it means to be alive "just once, no more."
Dave Foran was a formidable man of few words, from a different era than his sensitive, literary son, Charlie. As a younger person, Dave had lived alone for months in the bush, overcome snow blindness, hauled a dead body across a frozen lake on a dogsled, dodged bullets in a bar, and gone toe-to-toe with a bear. Some aspects of his life were rollicking while others were more restrained: A decent father and a devoted husband, Dave was also emotionally distant, prone to laconic cynicism and a changeable mood. As Charlie writes: “He struggled most days of his life with wounds he could not readily identify, let alone heal."
The year Charlie turned 55, his 83-year-old father began a slow, final decline, and Charlie surprised himself by wanting to write about their relationship. On the surface, his motiavation was to reassure his father that he was loved. But there was also a deeper desire at work. “Late into the middle of my own lifespan,” Charlie writes, “sadness took hold of my being . . . I wanted to say so frankly, never mind how uncomfortable it made me.”
In spare, haunting prose, Just Once, No More pulls on these delicate threads—unravelling a fascinating personal story and revealing its poignant universality.
About the author
CHARLES FORAN is an award-winning journalist and author of ten books, including four previous novels. His biography Mordecai: The Life and Times won the Charles Taylor Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Literary Nonfiction and the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award. He holds degrees from the University of Toronto and University College, Dublin. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Just Once, No More: On Fathers, Sons, and Who We Are Until We Are No Longer (by (author) Charles Foran)
During the winding down of my father’s life, I also began tracking an uneasiness within myself. The disquiet was new, and so out of character that I could not at first put a name to what I appeared to be experiencing. Until I could: late into the middle of my own lifespan, sadness took hold of my being. I should probably write “a” sadness, or “a different kind” of sadness, and not use qualifiers like “appeared to be.” Only that wasn’t the sensation, or the condition, and I wanted to say so, never mind how uncomfortable I was with such language.
The truth was, I hadn’t internalized sadness much until then. I had felt sad on occasions, naturally enough, not being a rock in a stream. Never for long, though, and never, I suspected,
the way other more sentient humans did—as an awareness permanently informing how one lived and loved and understood experiences, especially loss. In its mature form, sadness was an emotional state I could barely claim familiarity with.
I felt the same about boredom, but ascribed that to a rest- less, eliding intelligence, combined with a puppy keenness for any fresh object to chew on. I was okay with never being bored,
nor imagining I could be. Boredom is about negotiating with time, and my negotiation was straightforward: I didn’t have enough of it, and wouldn’t, ever.
Not “getting” sadness was different. It had seemed a personal failing, the strategy of someone who could manage only the shallow end of adulthood, even as he declared himself a capable swimmer who happened not to care to venture into the deep. I was lucky and blessed, crudely capable and lazily entitled, and aware that others had faced, and were facing, far greater challenges than I, although they might reject these designations as my baggage, not theirs. Also, I had known loss. People I loved had died. Important relationships failed or faded. Favorite pets were killed or put down. Thrilling experiences ended and treasured moments passed, never to reoccur.
And what about the colossal, overriding sadness of mortality? Why hadn’t I, like so many, been almost incapacitated by it? When I gazed up at a clear night sky, at stars glimmering without casting light, or studied a grain of sand on my fingertip, I never discerned God or eternity or intimations of an afterlife. I just saw sky and sand. I just saw myself seeing these things.
How pitiful, not to believe in a reality beyond what is here; to believe only in what is visible, only in who I am, or think I am, at this moment. To others, faith appeared a sustaining joy, while faithlessness, its presumed opposite, was an ineffable sorrow. For me, faith was a nonstarter, but I felt neither joy nor sorrow over this, and I could not be persuaded, or perhaps humbled, otherwise.
A friend liked to tell an anecdote about his older brother. Alone among his large family, the brother, a property developer, had not shown the slightest interest in the big questions: Is there a God? Who are we? How should we conduct ourselves? Such questions irritated him, as if they were a waste of his time, even, somehow, of his money. One day my friend asked his brother if he had never heard of Socrates’ dictum that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. His sibling had not. He gave it some thought, but quickly became exasperated—with himself or, more likely, Socrates—and complained that he needed to be somewhere ten minutes ago, and his kid brother was making him late. Before he hurried away, though, he did voice an opinion about whether the unexamined life isn’t worth living. “Bullshit,” the brother said.
Now I wondered: Had this been my false front for decades, pretending I hadn’t the leisure to understand deep sadness, calling “bullshit” instead?
Then sadness kindly stopped for me.
I can assign a month and year: October 2015. My father was in hospital with a kidney infection, and I was driving up from the city to visit him. It was a Saturday, the air crisp and the light honey-hued, oak and maple trees in flame. I was traveling country roads and tracking my progress using a private network of beacons. These were the barns a generation or two beyond purpose and, increasingly, repair. They dotted the landscape, some distressed but still standing, timber walls quaking and roofs askew, others with one side down and top caved in. A few were full-on ruins, stone or concrete foundations supporting piles of wood, funeral pyres awaiting a torch. It was the ruined barns that interested me the most.
Unbidden, a list formed in my mind as I drove, complete with a title. I pulled over in front of a farm and keyed it into my phone.
Why older people get sad:
• Death of loved ones
• Loss of driving purpose: mating, children, career
• Ebbing of once-vital relationships
• Overall feeling of diminishment—intellectual, creative, sexual
• Health issues
• Pattern recognition in nature—i.e., mortality
• Tired of same old self
• Less and less taste to food
• Inability to find/feel/experience God
What a curious impulse, I thought to—and about—myself. Oddly emphatic. And plaintive, as if I had forgotten to wear clothes that morning and was sitting naked behind the wheel. Putting the phone down, I carried on to the hospital, slowing along the way to admire the trees in autumn beauty and the barns in collapse. The smell of a fire, a pyre, was not yet in the air.
“A meditative rumination on issues of mortality, family, and what it means to be alive in the world. . . . [Just Once, No More is] a series of lyrical musings . . . that cumulatively comprise an emotional cartography of the author’s developing understanding of how to exist in a body among other bodies, both human and animal. . . . The payoff is being in the presence of a supple, inquisitive mind . . . through the vicissitudes of human existence.” —Toronto Star
"A beautiful elegy on the aches of an aging heart. Sad, yes, but in a luminous way, like a flickering, crackling vintage lightbulb. Truly, a book that is wise and moving." —Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi
“Charles Foran, at his dying father’s bedside, traces the giant, altering moments and the end-of-day tender ones that shape them both. This is an eyes-open memoir about how we fly apart and come together; about the fierce and gentle hold of fatherhood; about the ways art can make meaning; about love, sadness, and the ties that bind. Elegiac, intimate and honest, this is a beautiful, tender book, so spare and lovely, so full of little diamonds of truth.” —Lisa Moore, author of February
Other titles by Charles Foran
Extraordinary Canadians: Maurice Richard
The Last House Of Ulster
A Family in Belfast - 10th Anniversay
The Story Of My Life (so Far)
House On Fire
The Life & Times
Join the Revolution, Comrade
Journeys and Essays