I have seen my dad in person less than a handful of times over the course of my adult life. He was a hedge priest in the truest sense of the term though he’d have ripped you a new one for implying his service to the almighty was anything other than the gold imperial standard. He was born in 1942 in a little rural city in Southern Ontario called Belleville. Somewhere among 11 children. He didn’t talk about his family, I don’t actually know if he was an older brother or a younger one. I don’t know if it even matters when you’re 1 out of 11. I know they grew up poor in a rough part of town and that alcoholism was a dark pall that hung over their lot. At least half of them were dead by the time I was born and I have never in memory met any of those who remain, if any of them even do. He was 1 of 11 in every sense. I don’t even know their names and I suppose now I never will.
I am being a bit over-dramatic because I am feeling a lot of feelings right now. I know one of their names, Jack, but I never met the man. My old man’s name was William, apparently. I know that Jack was most definitely not a man of the cloth, when my mother talked about him she painted him up like an old gangster though my dad always seemed to see him more as a hustler and a grifter. William was not the name I knew my old man by, there was this surreal 5 days sandwiched somewhere in the middle of the last three weeks where I had to keep saying that name into an ICU intercom to get the doors to open.
(intercom) “Who are you here to see?”
And then the two extra wide, magnetically locked doors would swing open and admit me into the timeless liminality that is a critical care unit. Except I totally wasn’t there to see some guy named ‘William’, I would whisper this strangers name and then walk in and see my dad there in that bed with tubing jammed into his every open orifice. Whose name (as I knew him) was Clifford or most generally just Cliff, if you were wondering.
When I was still very young we fought over a choice I had made for myself regarding the faith. It was a terrible argument and we merciless cut each other down with our words. When I walked away that day I did not look back for a very long time. Though as the years passed our relationship softened again the chasm of that ideological divide never really dissipated. The best parts of me I got from my dad. If I am thought to be handsome it should be known I am his spitting image, if I am thought to be clever it should be known I adopted his razor wits, if I am thought to be good with my hands it is because he taught me genius is useless if it isn’t grounded into nature. I also got his sense of conviction and so there was always that secret tension there beneath the surface. An old rural preacher and his apostate son.
When I got the call 3 weeks ago that he had taken a major stroke and might die I rushed to see a man I haven’t seen in many years now. We talked once a year or so, around all the important things in our lives, about fixing cars and hilariously dangerous contracting gigs, whatever kept the conversation going long enough that we both felt comfortable letting each other know that we still loved each other. I arrived at the hospital roughly 3 hours after the ‘event’, an arterial obstruction which had cut off circulation to the left side of his brain causing a massive stroke to reach its black fingers into his left hemisphere. He would hold onto lucidity for another 12 hours or so before the swelling of his brain from inflammation would loose his grip on rational thought. He was still in the hallway of the emergency ward after a long ambulance ride out of the sticks, waiting to be moved to the stroke ward when I got there. When he looked up at me from that harsh looking mechanical hospital bed a big smile exploded onto the left side of his face, the right twitched a little as his brain tried to figure out how to send the muscles there sensible instructions. Struggling to mobilize his tongue into action he said to me in a near perfect (though accidental) Elmer Fudd voice, “Ooh, wat bwings yu here?” And I burst out laughing and told him, “I figured if you were going to go to all this trouble to get me here.”
Another day broke and by the time he had been moved up the stroke ward all of his 5 kids had gathered around him. The doctor warned us in a quiet voice in the hallway that the swelling would get worse before it got better, that he would get increasingly irrational and delirious. Then as night fell they told us that visiting hours were over that our emotional tribe had to vacate the premises. He said the last words he will ever say to me that night when I came in to say good bye. With tears rolling down his cheeks he grabbed me with his left hand and quite literally dragged me onto his bed and said, “I’m sorry it has been so long.” Then tears were rolling down my cheeks and I was saying I was sorry too and that I had always loved him with all of my heart. I don’t remember my words exactly, just holding him there in that bed.
They rushed him into ICU. Pulling the tubes which were saving his life out of himself was to become a theme over the next few days. Needless to say, one thing which we can all safely state will not help you recover from a massive stroke is a massive seizure. The swelling would now be much worse, at its apex he lost the ability to swallow, or attain to either waking or sleeping states of consciousness. The doctor showed us the CT scans of his brain, the dark grey anemone of dead cells throughout the left hemisphere. ‘Dead’, not coming back. That was the doctor’s word for them. If you are right handed, the left hemisphere of your brain controls motor function on the right side of the body and is home to your speech centers, and emotional and empathetic responses. The profound aphasia which left him with the ability to understand what was being said to him but unable to convert his own thoughts into spoken words never showed any signs of subsiding. This mad old man whose living will stated quite emphatically that he was not to be preserved in the event of a medical condition that rendered him unable to take care of himself, ended up with a respirator jammed down his throat, a feeding tube down his nose and a catheter up his dick. When he came back out of the darkness, not understanding anything anymore, loaded up on drugs he used the last of his considerable strength to fight his treatment. Left side shackled to the bed he tried to chew off the respirator and somehow managed to Shawshank his feeding tube out 3 times while he was in the ICU. The 5th time he got the feeding tube out they couldn’t put it back in anymore.
The mortal coil he found himself in on the other side of that dark night was simply unacceptable to him. He refused food as well as the tubes at the end. He chose his time and place. He could perceive no victory in fighting nature. I thought a lot about the Hagakure, that belligerent old samurai writing about how a dignified old man should die. In his own space, with his family to make sure he falls with his face towards the sun. I thought about how he taught me to drive and working on cars together, the old piece of shit ’67 Mustang he bought for us to fix up, the junkers that needed work or else we wouldn’t have a car period and that we spent far more time on than we ever did that old ’67. We clutched each other’s hands with a physical intimacy that was entirely without precedent in the whole of our history, all sense of manly propriety tossed out with a complete disregard. There could be no more words. Words are so clumsy anyways, it was better to just hold his hand like that. For me and my dad words had only ever got in the way. With the tubes out and the shackles off we just held hands and watched the snow fall.
It’s hard even just to write this part. He died at a little past 10 in the morning yesterday, while the snow was falling. Like an old samurai we turned his face toward the sun.
Good-bye dad. I love you.