We were exhausted by thoughts plaguing our minds. Mine was the dream that had haunted me, in one form or another. For Papa J, it was the thought of seeing his dead brother later that day. We sat in our Lumina, with donuts and large coffee’s, the horizon was still a solid line as we entered Alberta. Medicine Hat was not far away, and our secret fears that managed to lie still thus far, began to stir.
I never wanted to attend another funeral, ever. I thought they were too traditional and showy. Everyone dressed up and “celebrated”. We found our own ways skip past death. We didn’t search for reasons, rather felt finding meaning was enough.
Cancer had no meaning to me. It destroyed my father, a man who endured war, endured the sea; endured a life’s worth of work, endured children. He even endured our tears. How could he do that? Cancer was not so much a disease; rather it was a bullet shot through my father, hitting everyone else in one way or another. Horrified as I was, I had to see someone else go through that.
I never wanted to see another person when I hopped that train in Toronto. Now I had to face my nightmare all over again.
Who do we think we are, so quick to give into the morbid afterthoughts of death? Let the dead lie. They are not the side-show, we are. I began to formulate my escape. There was no way I would be a part of the equation. It was the very equation that I was running from.
“Were you there when he died?”
The words shook me to the most inner parts of my being.
“Your father, were you there?” Papa J. said, staring at the highway.
“You talk in your sleep. You have bad dreams. I know enough to ask. Besides, I figure you and I have become old friends. I need to know what it was like, because, as old as I am I have never seen a family member dead. My parents were both cremated before I got back, and I preferred it that way. But my brothers wife wants to do open casket, and I’m scared son. More than I can admit. So, if you don’t mind helping me out…” He broke off.
I did mind in fact. I minded a lot. Those images of my dad were not easily erasable, though I had been able to fog them over. I felt like jumping out of the car, but something caught my eye. Papa J. holding onto the wheel like it was life itself. His knuckles were so white I swear it was bone. My heart sank as I saw the little brother in him, and realized my world was far bigger than the backyard of my mind.
“It was surreal.” I began, slowly. “I remember how cold it looked outside. The Grand River wasn’t frozen anymore, but blocks of ice were churning their way down river. My mother and sister were at my father’s side. He wasn’t really conscious; drugs, you know. His body was shutting down. We all saw it, but said nothing. I couldn’t look at my mother, with her silent tears. My sister was holding on, but I saw daddy’s little girl, full of fear. I couldn’t look at any of them. Instead, I looked at a basket of fruit given by someone I didn’t know. It’s one of those token gifts you give when there is nothing to give. The apples looked fake, the pineapple was delicious.
When my dad died, it didn’t sink in. He stopped breathing but that didn’t seem like the end; funny how hope is not trumped by our last breath. I felt hopeful for a minute. Then I wailed. I hurt from a depth I had never known. As my father’s arms twitched, I screamed Daddy! Everyone in Oncology must have heard. Nothing prepares you for what it looks like, no movie, no book, and no pep talk in a car. It hurts, no matter what. The only thing that really helped me focus was that stupid basket of fruit. I recall staring at the dumb card stuck into it. “Get well”. It was meant more for me than my dad all of a sudden. Like I said, it was surreal.”
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