What we talk about when we talk about life

Herbert, Richard Louis Passed away peacefully at McNally House in Grimsby, on Wednesday, September 26, after a long illness. He was in his 72nd year. A longtime resident of Fort Erie, Richard was a dear husband and best friend to Judie (nee McNally) and loving father to Peter (Nady), and Glen (Laura). He was a cherished “Beepa” to Grace, James and Charlie. Richard is survived by his father, Harry, brother Barry (Shirley), and sister Cathy (Jack). He is also survived by nieces Lesly, Lisa (Randy) and nephew Rick (Judy). Richard was predeceased by his mother, Vera, and infant sister Susan. Words cannot express the gratitude we feel for the loving support of Dr. Heather Roelfsema and the McNally House Hopice. Visitation will be held at 10 a.m. at Trinity United Church at 100 Main Street in Grimsby; a memorial service will follow at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations would be appreciated in Richard’s name to McNally House Hospice, 148 Central Avenue, Grimsby, Ontario.

My father was, it could seem, an archetypal product of the 50s. Complete with a Cary Grant dimple on his chin, his memories of high school sparkled with the clarity of a string of sun-shiny days, football practices, cruising around the town in a baby-blue car—this is how I picture it anyway—stopping at the soda fountain. His bedroom had pennants on the wall, bed made, and everything in its place. He and his brother were just like the Hardy Boys, except that Rick and Barry weren’t fictional, they didn’t share a room, didn’t solve crimes with their dopey friend Chet and, in time, they grew up.

It may be unfair of me to suggest that my father’s life was uncomplicated, but in comparison to that of his parents, it really was. His mother, Vera, and father, Harry, lived through the depression years and the war years and they never forgot it. Their first child was born at term, yet only seven months after they were married, which didn’t help to ease the already tough times. Harry got a job in order to support his family, but he was enlisted during the war. When he returned he found that his job had been given away — something that none of us today might accept in the way that he did, which was with resignation and defeated resilience. He did piecework, cleaned floors, built plane wings, lawn furniture and camping trailers until he founded his own carpentry business. He helped other people build houses and, when he wasn’t helping them, he built houses himself. There is a house, still standing, that he built entirely himself—wood, wiring, windows, paint. Into his 90s his memory was still sharp, as trauma and discord have a way of doing that. He remembered the name of the doctor who laid his mother across the kitchen table and, after a shot of brandy, proceeded to pull out all her remaining teeth. I used to be amazed that he could remember those kinds of details, but, really, I suppose they’re impossible to forget.

In contrast my father was of a decidedly different generation with a decidedly different set of expectations, which may be one of the reasons that his memories, by and large, weren’t as crystalline as those of his father. He was one of the baby boomers around whom the whole world seemed to prostrate itself. He married my mother, Judie, and they bought a house. He became a draftsman, which is a job no one has any more, but it allowed him to be photographed in the 60s wearing a ribbon tie leaning over a drafting table looking like a cross between a Watergate thug and a member of the Apollo mission control. It was a time of promise, in so many ways. In June of 1969 he paced the halls of a hospital corridor waiting to be told  that it’s a boy. Then he handed out cigars (which I suppose goes to show that it’s not a behaviour confined to New Yorker cartoons).  A month later he photographed the TV when Neal Armstrong stepped foot on the moon.

My father organized summer vacations with fastidious precision, and within the space of a decade of summers we’d seen all of the provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador. He had a model train, a collection of antiques, and took photographs of flowers and sunsets for the photography club. The kids left home, he retired, and life went on. He attended high school reunions. He did just what people do.

And then he turned purple. Soon his skin began to itch unbearably, and then in time to fall off in sheets. First his legs, then it moved around until it was everywhere. He made the rounds of dermatologists who suggested that my mother change the detergent she was using. She did, but the condition worsened, and my father saw more doctors until he was diagnosed with something the vast majority of us, himself included, have never heard of: mycosis fungoides, a cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. Cancer.

If he had never risen above the masses before, he did now. While there are others who have the disease, my father distinguished himself by having it worse, more consistently, and in a form more resistant to treatment. In the last, he was given one of the strongest chemotherapies that you can get, during which his disease continued to advance. The chemo did nothing except nearly kill him. When I once visited him in the hospital—he had been admitted for infection—the floor around his bed was littered with little piles of his own skin. The oncologist told us that it would be weeks, not months, and that there was nothing left to try. “Things will start to go quickly now,” she said. He’ll get more tired, and weaker, “and then he’ll pass.” That’s how it was said. There were no string quartets rising in the background, no close-ups. It was simple, almost comforting in the lack of drama around that simple statement. My mother and I left the meeting—my father was too ill to attend—largely in silence, wanting only to get past, as quickly as possible, all the other people waiting for their appointments with their oncologists. Some would hear a similar message. Others, perhaps not. But they were all just waiting, quietly, for their turn.

Though it struck heavy at the moment, a week later, the prognosis was getting harder to believe. His symptoms had eased, and he went on with things: planning the fall trip to Maine, complaining about a court date for a traffic ticket that was to take place in October. He gave things away. He showed my mother how to use the garden hose, how to set the thermostat. He tried to show his grandchildren how his wood lathe works, but he was out of wood, and in any case they were too young to really take note. If that pained a bit, I suppose the feeling soon faded into a haze of other thoughts. One afternoon in the car on our way to visit his father, after a long period of gazing out the window at the passing fields of corn and soybeans he said, simply, in a voice just a few feet north of a whisper, “It’s not fair.”

The only thing surprising in all of this is, perhaps, that I’m writing it now. At the beginning of E. Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers, the narrator, Oswald, says:

“I shall not tell you in this story about all the days when nothing happened. You will not catch me saying, ‘thus the sad days passed slowly by’, or ‘the years rolled on their weary course’, or ‘time went on’ because it is silly; of course time goes on whether you say so or not. So I shall just tell you the nice, interesting parts and in between you will understand that we had our meals and got up and went to bed, and dull things like that.”

Indeed that’s exactly what we do whenever we tell a story, especially the story of a life: we leave out all of the dull things that comprise so much of what living is all about. In life, the sad days do pass slowly by, and the years do roll on their weary course. We watch TV and buy garden hoses. We have our meals, take out the trash, go to the bathroom. How much of our lives are spent sitting at stop lights, gazing off somewhere in the middle distance thinking, literally, of nothing in particular? The stories of life don’t tell us those things because we, just as Oswald, find them beyond mentioning. Yet they happen, we know they do, whether we say so or not. There are many days, frankly, when nothing truly of note happens, at least in the way that Oswald cares about, and they account for so much of our time on earth.

And, frankly, we should all be so lucky. Unlike his father’s life, the drama of my father’s life came at the end, and at this moment, that’s what we think about out of proportion to the rest. We’ll think about how he was given the prognosis that all of us dread, and how he dealt with it in the only ways he knew how. He had his meals, he checked the thermostat, he put gas in the car, he sold the coin collection. It wasn’t fair, and it got less fair as it went on. There was increasing pain, decreasing mobility, until he was forced, simply, to wait. We watched the Antiques Roadshow together. He reminded my mother that you have to close the left-hand door of the closet first, then the right, or else it won’t close properly. In the last days the pain became unbearable and cruelly resistant to his pain medication. He was moved into hospice, his pain was brought under control. He said, “I can’t do it,” though it wasn’t clear how awake he was when he said it, or what he meant. (I think I know what he meant, and believe that he was fully awake when he said it. That I equivocate is simply because I wish, out of a sense of care, that he wasn’t. Some truths are too heavy to lift to the light.) And then he went to sleep.  Sometimes, apparently, that’s just how it happens. Whether we say so or not.


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