My father was 93 when he died on May 31st this year.
He would have turned 94 at the end of July, though the exact date was a matter of some debate in his family. When you live almost 94 years, some of the details get a little bit murky. He lived through, and fought in, a world war. He lived through the death of both of his parents and the deaths of his three brothers. He lived through nine decades. He lived through 94 renditions of every month, except June.
It’s that June that I keep coming back to, like a riddle with no answer or a sentence with no end. He had big plans for that June. He was going to travel with my younger sibling, visit his twin sister and his nephew, visit me. Instead, at the beginning of March, there was an unexpectedly large snowfall in the city where I grew up and where he still lived. Impatient and unwilling to wait for the person he had hired to shovel the snow, my father went to dig his car out of the garage. He fell and was found shortly after, by the person he had hired and his shovel, lying in the snow with a broken ankle. He lived for 13 more weeks, all but three days spent in a hospital. Complications piled, updates became less optimistic, orthopedic surgeons were replaced by infection specialists, were replaced by geriatric consults, were replaced by a palliative team, replaced finally by a young nurse named Paige who held a stethoscope to my father’s chest and shook her head slightly. You can live through 94 renditions of 11 months, survive a war and all but one of your siblings, and die because of a snowstorm.
I visited him twice during those thirteen weeks. The first visit was in April. I weaned Powerball and left the kids with Sea to go and sleep in my childhood bedroom in a city a province away. Each morning I would take a bus across the city to go and sit with my father. I wish I could say there we shared hours of deep conversation, but mostly we didn’t. Pain, medication, and a too long hospital stay had already begun to turn reason into confusion. He was simultaneously becoming more stuck in the here and now and lost in it. During that visit, I really understood for the first time the ways in which beginnings and ends mimic each other. It was there in the way I fed my father, worrying if the was eating enough. It was there in the way I calmed his panic when I stepped into his room and found him afraid. It was in the way I watched his chest as he slept, making sure I could see him breathe.
My second visit was on May 31st, a day after my mother called. I took a taxi from the airport to the hospital, where I spent the rest of my father’s life in his hospital room. He was already unconscious by then, so there were no final goodbyes. Instead, my sister and I sat with him. We played some music. My mother and aunt visited, then left again. Hospital staff came and went, unobtrusive in a way they’re undoubtedly trained to be. We talked, we laughed. When there was laughter, my father’s breathing slowed. I held his hand and, at some point, realized that his fingers were wrapped around mine. The room was very much a hospital room, but it was also filled with sunlight and stories.
My father was many things in his life. If you’re from my hometown you may have heard of him. If you’re not, you probably haven’t. He was a student organizer, an army veteran, a furniture store employee, a bookstore manager, a music impresario, a lawyer, a politician, a professor. He had written three books, was finishing a fourth, and was planning a fifth. He even briefly owned a couple of those kids’ rides you see in shopping centres. I was proud of all that he accomplished, but most of it happened in my periphery. I only vaguely remember a Christmas party at the legislative building and visiting his office at the university. What made him remarkable to me was who he was as a dad.
My dad loved reading, music, theatre, cooking, eating, playing bridge, telling stories. He was brilliant, witty, and kind. Despite the fact that his careers demanded that he be fierce, insistent, and argumentative, my father was one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. He very rarely yelled, mostly just letting out an exasperated “Oh, for goodness sake!” at the peak of an argument. He dropped me off at the beginning of each school day and picked me up at its end. Though he would let me and my sibling choose the radio station, always pop, he preferred classical music and the CBC. Sometimes he would pause as a piece of music played, entreating his entirely unmusical children to listen for its crescendo. He would listen to the radio while he cooked, packing every school lunch and preparing every family dinner. He only sighed slightly when I insisted that I was becoming a vegetarian. He cooked the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted. He told stories, some of them fiction but most of them his own. Every year on my birthday, he wrote me a poem. He didn’t care when I came out, accepted Sea as my partner without question, yelled “Bingo!” when we told him we were expecting our first child. He taught me to believe in social justice and the worth of every individual. He taught me to keep the peace, look on the bright side, and fight when it matters.
I am, in so many ways, my father’s daughter. I look like him, a fact that leaves me tender towards the physical features that have always made me self-conscious: my nose, lips, chin a living reminder of his. I act like him too. We were the calm half of a family of four, the other half of which was often passionate and wild. We could both tell stories for hours, but kept our phone conversations to a maximum of three minutes. We both loved a good dessert. These things were true of us, now they’re just true of me.
I want to be more like my father too, now more than ever. When Bingo and Powerball look back at their childhoods, I want them to recall the same unwavering love and comfort that I feel whenever I think of my dad. I want them to experience the same presence, the same calm, the same lack of judgment, the same fun, and the same trust. I want to show up for them in all of the ways my dad showed up for me.
I’m glad I could show up for him, in the end.
As the sunlight left the hospital room, my sister and I decided we would stay. The nurses weren’t certain that my father would die that night, but they also weren’t certain that he wouldn’t. We rearranged chairs into beds to imitate comfort, and began to settle in. My niece came by to bring my sister some things for the night. Then my dad stopped breathing.
(Writing a death story feels like writing a birth story. Beginnings and ends.)
Death isn’t how you might imagine it, if you’ve been lucky enough to only imagine it. He didn’t stop breathing all at once; there wasn’t a clear break between alive and dead. Instead he stopped breathing and then, after a pause, took another breath. Pause, breath, pause, breath. My sister and niece stood on one side of him, I stood on the other. I wrapped my arm around him, a hug he couldn’t return, and buried my face in his wild, white hair. I told him I loved him again and again. And then there were no more breaths. Ten minutes before his 94th May turned into his 94th June, my father died.
I don’t know what else to say, really. I suppose everybody dies with unfinished plans, months left unseen. Instead of thinking about that 94th June, the things my father could have/would have, done if he hadn’t gone out to shovel snow, I am trying to think about all of the things he did do with the 93 years and 11 months he lived. What he saw, what he experienced, what he accomplished, who he loved and how he loved them. How much I loved him and always will. I am trying to remember every story my father told me. I am like my father in many ways. Like him, I am a storyteller, and these are the most important stories I have. In these months and years my father will never see, I want to take each of my father’s stories and tell them to my own kids. I want to tell every story I have about him.