My father died today. It’s been expected. I had a chance to go back and see him when we knew the end was near. He’s had Mantel Cell Lymphoma and although he “kicked it” when it first showed up five years ago, it came knocking again in November (2010) right around his 90th birthday. And this time he couldn’t handle the chemo. Once he was off the meds, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
I flew out of Dominica to see him on January 4th.
I was picked up from Ondine by Charlie Love (one of the local boatmen) during some huge rainstorms. There was so much rain that the Indian River that spills into the bay had overflown and the water was a muddy brown. As Charlie pulled away from Ondine, his propeller stirred up water from deeper depths and the wake of the boat turned black. It looked almost as though he was spilling motor oil into the water. Not the crystal clear beauty that we’ve come to expect from the ocean we’ve been sailing in.
The rain abated long enough for me to get ashore and took up again as soon as I got into the taxi for the airport. It felt like everyone in Dominica knew why I was flying home. It’s such a small place and we’ve been hanging around such a long time. That’s a double-edged sword, because I’m not really sure what to say about my Father passing away.
Boarding the small plane that left Dominica for Puerto Rico was still very much part of the aesthetic that is Dominica: a tiny island of 71,000 people, it’s four dramatic and lush peaks draped in cloud and rain; breathtakingly beautiful whether you drive, hike or fly over them. Once the plane pushes through the clouds into sunshine, Dominica appears every bit the mysterious Caribbean island of legends: its peaks shrouded by clouds and the waves crashing against its Atlantic coast.
And suddenly I’ve left.
I’m no longer sailing with my family. I’m flying home to say goodbye to my Father. As if to emphasize the change, Puerto Rico (my first stop) quickly looms into view. And much to my surprise, although they are both Caribbean islands, the change from Dominica to Puerto Rico is as big as my change in circumstance. Having lived my life in the capitals of the world (London, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and others), I am not a stranger to modern developments. But our lives have slowed down to such a degree, and we have become so used to the one road town of Portsmouth (Dominica) that even Puerto Rico seems dauntingly huge in comparison.
The rest of the trip is a 30 hour blur: A connecting flight to Tampa where I slept on the floor in the airport (a six hour layover means that once you factor getting in and out of airport security a hotel just doesn’t seem worth it); then the plane to Dallas; and on to Vancouver.
Boom. I’m in the house with my Father and his wife Claire. (He re-married 11 years ago a few months after I got married so calling Claire my “Step-Mother” doesn’t seem appropriate).
My Father is confined to bed and is a shadow of his former self. But despite this there are funny moments: He is completely lucid.
Canada (or more specifically, British Columbia/Vancouver) will provide nurses for up to 4 hours a day to visit your home and help you look after a “palliative care patient” (my Dad fits the bill). But Claire has rules, one of which is that you are NOT allowed to wear shoes in the house. Everything is white. Carpets, walls, couches, chairs. Even Claire’s shoes! So once you walk inside, you’ve got two choices: Stocking feet or different shoes. But these government-supplied nurses are union employees and they have rules as well, including a clause in their contract that says that they are NOT allowed to remove their shoes when they come into the house due to potential liability issues. (Nope, I’m not kidding.)
This upsets Claire. She even tries getting them to wear little baggies over them like the ones surgeons wear in an operating room. But they refuse.
An upset Claire is an upset Dad. He’s pissed with the nurses. When they come in to examine them he is incredibly rude to them. For example:
Nurse: “How are we today”
Dad: “What do you think? I’m dying of Cancer”
Nurse: “Is there any change from when we last saw you”
Dad: “Nope, you still won’t take off your shoes when you come to see me”.
All delivered with a dry slightly upper crust English Accent. (Not that he was born with that, his Dad was a coal miner.)
Dad doesn’t want to talk about dying. My Mother didn’t either (she died in 1998). This surprises me. But all of his affairs are in order, and he’s never been one to chat about anything personal (so why am I surprised?) A member of “The Silent Generation”, he’s always kept himself to himself and shunned all emotion. He’d have made a great Vulcan. Indeed, he chose the profession that – in my opinion – is as close to the Vulcan philosophy as you can get here on earth: he became a diplomat for Her Majesty’s Government. His last assignment before retirement: United Kingdom Representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization. You should have seen the size of the nameplate on his desk.
I share photos from our trip: pictures of his grandkids sailing a dinghy with me. Just as he once taught me to sail at the same age. I remind him that if it were not for him we would not be taking this trip. It’s unfortunate he can’t just hop on a plane and join us.
Claire and I behave as though everything is normal. Despite the doctors visits, nurses comedies, trips to the hospital, draining of lungs, arrival of a hospital bed, help with bowel movements and spoon feeding. I’m now his flat mate. I’ve always been here. And indeed that is nice. Dad doesn’t want to talk. But he tells me that he likes having me in the room with him. I’m moved. But say nothing.
Finally, I’m about to leave and want to say something. Even though I know it’s more for me than it is for him.
“Dad, I’m leaving tomorrow, and whether because of my poor sailing skills, or your virulent affliction, it is possible we won’t see one another again”
“I just wanted to tell you that you’ve been a good Dad. You provided me with what I needed and you where there when I needed you to be. Thank you.”
“You’ve been a good son”
“I love you Dad”
“And I love you James”
A swell in two pairs of eyes.
A short hug – a little awkward given the hospital bead and the personality.
“Let’s talk about something else…”
I left the next morning.
That was about four weeks ago.
Today he had a massive heart attack. It lasted four minutes. He was scared. He knew what was happening. My sister was with him. I was not. I will fly home for the funeral.