Updated: Oct 7, 2020
I got a phone call from my dad that my mom wasn't doing well. Booked the first available flight from Dorval to Saskatoon. Was staring out the window when the wing next to me was struck by lightning. Huge flash. Noted the time. My aunt and uncle were supposed to pick me up at the airport but somehow missed me. I didn't know they were there and jumped a cab to the hospital. Met my brother and father in the entrance as they were heading out. My mother had died hours before, about the same time as the lightning strike. They took me up to see her. Shrunken body and a face I barely recognized. Left my dad with my brother and other relatives that night (my wife and kids were still in Montreal) and went to a movie to clear my head. Didn't care what. Turned out to be The Fisher King. Incredibly sexy performance by Mercedes Ruehl. Couldn't believe I was noticing that. Got a speeding ticket on the way home. Only one in my whole life. Vowed I wouldn't pay it because there was no agreement between Saskatchewan and Quebec that would have compelled me to do so. My dad paid it the next day. Every time I see Mercedes Ruehl, I feel like Gilles Villeneuve.
But the point, for our purposes here, is that a few days later, I found myself holding hands with my father at my mom’s funeral. He kept referring to her as “Shug,” a pet name I had never heard before. As she lay in the coffin he repeatedly kissed her on the lips, which I had also never witnessed while she was alive. It made me kind of queasy. There must have been times in my early childhood I don’t remember, but I can recall holding my father’s hand only three times. That was the second time.
The last time I held my father’s hand was when he was dying. His world had shrunk in the preceding week into a lunatic paranoia about a non-existent thief who would sneak into his room when he was asleep to pilfer cans from the box of Ensure supplement drinks I had bought him. And so now I am alone in the hospital room with him and his ocean-surf breath, which has lapsed into a gravel-laden death rattle, and he is holding my hand and I am holding his and he looks like a terrified little boy and the nurses keep popping by to crank up the morphine and I am holding his hand but he is not holding mine and a nurse tells me he is gone and a doctor confirms it and I clean out the drawer in his night table bearing his watch and the wallet with his driver’s licence and $27 and I abandon the remaining Ensure cans to whatever grand larceny ensues.
I wake that night, alone in my childhood room, feet jutting from a childhood bed, to the light of the brightest full moon I have ever experienced. At the funeral for the man everyone called Chuck, a minister he never met refers to my father as Charlie. In the front row, Uncle Charlie flinches each time he hears his name and will himself be gone before the year is out.
The first time I can remember holding my father’s hand was for an arm wrestle when I was 17 and he was just north of 50. He was a brawny foreman at a potash mine. Stood five-foot-11 and weighed 210 pounds. Had once been all muscle but was starting to sag a little around the middle. I was 6-2 and weighed maybe 140, but I had discovered in high school contests with stronger boys that I was surprisingly good at this. As they used to say in those old Battling Tops commercials during the Sixties, it was all in the wrist action. I don’t recall the details of how the faceoff with my father came about, but it was all in good fun until the unthinkable happened and I won.
I was elated for the half second that it took me to realize how crestfallen he was. For him, it was confirmation that turning 50 really had signalled that he had been inexorably exiled to life’s back nine. For me, something had shattered — that illusion of eternal parental potency and protection we all subscribe to as children if we’re lucky enough to have loving mothers and fathers. Never again could I quite evade the apprehension that I was doomed to witness my parents’ slide into infirmity and non-existence if I lived long enough. Just like everybody else.
Today I’m older than my mother got to be and closing in on the old man, another inevitability if one keeps on truckin’. (Perhaps your father died first and then your mother, but the view from there is equally vertiginous.) I’m dreading the day my soon-to-be 13-year-old grandson — already my superior in tennis and one-on-one basketball — challenges me to an arm wrestle.
Surely some revelation is at hand. Wrist action, my ass.