Monday 23 October 2017


Yesterday I had the delicious pleasure of sitting in a small, country community centre hall with seven other writers. We were there for a workshop at the invitation of Brian Doyle, my neighbour who also happens to be a highly distinguished Canadian novelist. My favourite book of Brian Doyle's is his acclaimed Boy O'Boy, a tale of growing up during WW11 with a sibling who has disabilities and their encounters with a music teacher who has sinister intentions. I encourage you to explore Doyle's entire oeuvre - he's a wonderful writer and one of Canada's best.

At the workshop, we all read something of our own work and paired it with a passage by a writer we admire. I read from my book, The Four Walls of My Freedom, twinned it with a snippet from the (Nobel Prize winning) Alice Munro's story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain. You might know this searing, complex tale of Alzheimer's and marriage from its film version called Away From Her. 

But today, I want to share a short essay by another of my fellow writers, Suzanne MacDougal. This piece is called, 'David's Death' and I hope you are as moved by its tender complexity as I was.


I walk into the dimly lit hospital room and look at the man on the bed, breathing the way people do when they spiral towards death. My daughter, who is also his daughter, is holding his hand, rubbing his arm, wiping his damp face with a cool cloth, watching him breath, listening to him breath. She talks to him. His eyes are closed, and now part of his brain is closed, as he slips steadily into the coma the doctors predicted.

When I speak to him, his breathing changes slightly, unexpectedly. His eyebrows lift, but the lids only stretch, unable to follow. It is a sign that he is still hearing.

I feel the cool clamminess of his skin and fight the urge to let go of his hand and dry myself with his bed sheet. I touch his head and push back an imaginary lock of hair. His thick wavy hair, which had begun to grey but not thin, was lost during treatments. I remember the hair, and I stroke his head as if it is still still there. I talk quietly to him, in a way that feels uncomfortably familiar and intimate, "Hi David, I am here with you. Everyone is here. We are all with you."

Why am I here? I am watching a life end, the life of a man I have known longer than anyone else in the room. I am watching a death, the death of a man I wanted out of my life so many years ago. Someone I divorced more than 20 years earlier, after ten years of marriage. And, in the shadows of this room, I found myself wondering, "What was all that about?"

Over the past twenty years we have spoken little, usually when we had to, and with increasing formality as the years passed. No more screaming, no more insults or hurts. Just a polite recognition of having known each other. But now, in this hospital room, I am watching him die, gasp for air, dampen the bed with whatever life was still in him, droplets of his life, soaking the sheets and wetting my hand.

His death was expected, there was plenty of time to prepare, say the things one would, should or could say. But what was it I had to say?

I grieved more than twenty years earlier, in public, in private, over the loss of a love we both thought would last forever. Over the loss of a partnership, good or bad. I grieved over the huge financial cost, or to put it more succinctly, resented every trip he took, every new car he bought, his new furniture with the gold leaf trim, while I repainted the old. I survived the scrapping over who pays the dental bills for the child, who is responsible for math tutoring, who pays for summer camp.

I found myself cutting, cutting coupons, cutting corners, cutting the ties to a former life. Dividing furniture and friends. Whatever I had to do, it was a necessary process for me. It was part of the grieving. All part of starting over, with no regrets, no baggage, no history, no connections to that old life, my failure to make it work, to love forever, through good times and bad. Through sickness and health.

Sickness - it was, in the end, what brought me back to his side. So there I was, among the grievers at his bedside. Struggling with what was twisting my stomach, pulling at my tongue, words unsaid. In the end, that was my only regret. I should have talked to him sooner but I didn't know what to say.

The cancer cells had been doubling weekly. Inside his body was raging with impending death, cell destruction in frightening numbers. The leukemic cells were coursing through his failing heart, flooding his brain, choking his kidneys. They pulsed in huge numbers to all parts of his body, challenging and discarding any signs of life.

I found myself alone with him, late on Friday afternoon. I held his hand and stroked the tight, grey stubble covering his head. I leaned in close to him and told him that everyone will be fine.

"Let yourself go," I said, "let your breathing relax. Just let yourself go. You've had a long, brave battle, let yourself go."

And then I found myself taking an unexpected trip.

"Do you remember", I said, up close to his ear so no one coming into the room would have heard, "do you remember the night we went out on our first date? We went to Les Mas des Oliviers, and while we were up dancing, someone stole my wallet, all my pictures in it and only 50 cents? Do you remember the old Pontiac, and the night you drove in reverse in the parking lot, and there were no other cars in the lot, and you hit the only pole in the lot, and how we laughed for ages after. Remember the shopping we did at the Salvation Army, that fur coat I bought for $10, and the sofa we bought and covered? I still have the sofa, you know. That was a great deal. And do you also remember....?"

There, in the near darkness, and in that stillness that creeps in before life slips away, I sat looking at the face I once knew. I kissed the hand that once held mine. I struggled for words.

He died about eight hours later.

I wonder if he knew I was trying to say "I'm sorry."

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