Tell me, can you see that painting? Are those daffodils? I’m really not sure I like that painting. Do you like that painting?
Dad was starting to get agitated. Propped up in bed in the palliative care ward at St. Paul’s Hospital, he was leaning forward, squinting over at the only picture on the wall of the otherwise utilitarian surroundings. It wasn’t actually a painting he was looking at, but rather a photograph of a field of sunflowers. I suppose it was meant to be a cheerful picture, sunny and joyful. I wasn’t crazy about it either if I’m being honest.
Sunflowers dad. They are sunflowers. Like Van Gogh’s sunflowers!
I was speaking loudly, as by then dad was almost completely deaf in at least one ear. He didn’t make the connection, though once he would have. He was one of those guys that would sit in front of Jeopardy! and answer question after question in succession, or motor through the morning crossword with mom. But for years dementia had been pushing him further away from us and more and more into his own internal world. He had frequent memory lapses, and his thoughts had become increasingly muddled.
I hadn’t had any idea what to expect when I first walked into his hospital room. Between me living eight time zones away, and the pandemic which had shut down almost any form of global travel, I hadn’t seen him in person in over two years – two years too long. But now, after jumping through numerous hoops, and filling out shedloads of paperwork, after two weeks of quarantine, and several covid tests, I’d managed to get back to Vancouver to spend some time with him and say our goodbyes.
When I did finally enter the ward, I encountered a frail and weak old man who I scarcely recognized. His hands were thin and pale, not the hands I remembered: the strong hands that had spent a good part of their life on dusty construction sites thrusting a 19-ounce framing hammer at nail after nail. His were working hands, which – unlike my artist’s that spend most of their time tapping on a computer keyboard – were often nicked, bruised or calloused.
I suspect some part of dad had wanted me to carry on the business, and when I was younger I did spend a couple of summers working alongside him, learning something of the carpentry trade, but it wasn’t for me. I had no stomach for balancing on top of roof joists, working in the rain, or wielding power tools that just gave me visions of lopping off a finger or two – perhaps not an unreasonable fear given dad himself had once removed the tip of his thumb using a table saw.
Well someone is full of beans today..
The nurse was smiling, observing how her patient was unusually lucid and sharp today. ‘It must be the effect of seeing his son,’ she tells me, before giving him a mild sedative that seems to calm his nerves. His attention shifts from the picture, and for several minutes things seemed incredibly normal. We were having a conversation we could have had ten years previous.
He remembered that I lived in London, and what I did for a living. He asked about my wife and even correctly noted that my son would soon be going into his senior year of high school. We talked about old times, of the camping trips we used to take.
It’s great to see you, son, he says. So great. You know we really should spend some more time together. When I get out of here we should take a trip somewhere again…
I told him that would be really nice, we definitely should do that. Maybe take a drive up the coast into the mountains. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we won’t be taking any more drives together, or that he won’t be going home again, but I think he probably knew.
To shift the topic, I took out my phone and grabbed a selfie of the two of us. Then I brought up some pictures to show him from my life back in the UK – shots of the cat, the house, our family vacations. He remarked how tall my son had become; He was a grown man now.
Then, instinctively he reached out and grabbed the phone out of my hands, to take a closer look, and somehow – to this day I don’t know what combination of buttons he managed to press – he managed to activate some kind of hidden accessibility function on the phone which caused it to start very loudly barking out every button press and gesture. It was alarmingly loud.
Startled, he handed the handset back to me with a confused expression. I frantically tried to turn the volume down, or switch it off, but absolutely nothing I did would shut it up.
There we were, in this sombre palliative care unit surrounded by dying people and their distressed relatives, and my phone was going batshit crazy, shouting out commands that echoed through the ward. Nurses and orderlies were flashing me dirty looks, as I desperately tried to stuff the phone in my pocket to muffle the sound. It’s like he had unlocked some mysterious feature that only reveals itself to half-deaf geriatrics at the end of life.
By the time I had made it down the hall and ducked into an elevator where could try to quietly disable it, I found myself palpably irritated him. Ham-fisted old fart I thought. Why does he always have to muck around with my stuff? The man has never used a mobile phone in his life. Yet with his Midas touch he had managed to set it into a mode I didn’t even know existed.
Then of course I felt instantly ashamed, how could I possibly feel irritated by a dying old man who was just being curious about some pictures? I found myself shaking my head and laughing at the irony of it. Even in death, I think. No one can find your buttons and push them like a father, or indeed a son.
I know it is a skill I’ve mastered with my own teenager. It only takes one inadvertently disapproving glance or ill-timed comment and I can send him clear into orbit, bringing on a flurry of slammed doors and the sounds of distorted music blaring through a pair of headphones. For my son’s part – well he can reduce me to a gibbering, wild-eyed irrational lunatic without even applying himself.
I finally managed to silence my device, and returned to dad’s room, where I found him drifted off into a deep sleep. I took a seat near his bed and watched him lying there peacefully. The room started to fall into darkness as the sun crept below the Vancouver skyline.
I took out my laptop, put on some soft music and started doing a little work while listening to the sound of his laboured breathing. Suddenly it stopped. I looked up, and a full 20 seconds passed. I put the laptop to one side. After another 4 or 5 seconds, I found myself getting out of my chair walking towards him. Then, just as reached him, and as if calculated for maximum effect, he drew in a huge breath of air and began snoring away.
I sat with him for a couple more hours, watching him repeat this trick several times until it was getting late and time to leave for the night. I gathered up my stuff to leave, and took the picture of the sunflowers down off the wall and stashed it out of sight behind a curtain. I wished I had a couple of my own pictures with me to put up for him instead. I wonder what he would have made of them. I flicked off the light and walked back to my hotel.
Dad passed away three weeks later, in his sleep, in the early hours of the morning. A blessing, in the end, an end to the suffering. Yet as my friend rightly remarked: you hope for the end, and then start missing them the moment they are gone.
On Sunday it will be father’s day, which I am looking forward to spending with my son. I hope we don’t wind up arguing, though sons will be sons and dads will be dads. But I am sure we will have also some laughs and if nothing else maybe I’ll provide him with some funny dad stories to share with friends sometime in the future.
My dad wasn’t much for skype or zoom, and in recent years our phone calls would more often than not just leave me frustrated and him distressed as we struggled to communicate over phone lines with bad reception and worse hearing. Birthday wishes and Christmas greetings were mainly passed along as messages through mom. Still, I’d always try to call him and bark down the line a Happy Father’s Day. I wish I could do so tomorrow.