(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, August 27, 2016)
HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ It was a different time and place on the day I watched another human being die in my father’s arms. I was just a boy.
Bert had epileptic seizures, medically uncontrollable then. Tall and lanky, he’d crumple and fall hard on the floor in the house, or outside under the apple tree, or in places between, shaking, convulsing, rigid as a board. I’d watch. All the time. Bert lived with us.
One day, while Bert seized, my father held him on his lap, there, at the kitchen table at the window to the outside world. It was just the three of us. Eventually, unexpectedly, like a punctured bike tire, he gave one, last exhausted breath. My father held Bert for some time. I remember the breadth of my father’s forearms. Funny, recalling such a detail.
Others died, and lived, at that home, my home, my family’s home, which was also a community home for lost souls unable to care for themselves. Some were old, maybe stroke victims. Others were young, often with psychiatric histories. Many had no visitors. Even family. Ever.
It was an education. There was Gerry (the boxer, a best friend, really), Steven (who died one Easter Sunday), Walter (kidneys shot from drink), Donna (arrived at 28, brain already fried), plus an entire church choir of out-of-tune characters. Some days I could write a thousand books on it all. Other days, not a word.
Today falls somewhere between, a day to celebrate what anyone wants: to be remembered and honoured for one’s life, a dignity and courtesy, it seems to me, easily offered the dead, but not nearly enough to the rest of us, the living, who could use it more.
Today, August 27, my father turns 85. Yes, my father is living, very much, and I, for one, am grateful.
His youth was filled with chaos not unlike today’s refugee experience. At 13, as a young German, he was taken prisoner by the Soviet Red Army in war-ravaged Germany. While he survived, his family split apart. Later, he immigrated to Canada, joining family already arrived.
In 1960, in Niagara, he opened a therapeutic massage practice, his choice of a healing, if not arduous, vocation. He’s continued ever since, for 56 years, even into his frail years, more than a decade after Ontario’s therapeutic massage association formally recognized his longevity and remarkable professional contributions.
Plus his running of that home for more than 20 years, while a widower and single dad.
My father once told another newspaper of his desire to live a life of service in the spirit of his Mennonite heritage, recognizing his many “bonus years” after those early wartime traumas.
Some days it’s hard to know what to make of it all: family, war, peace, finding what only you can give the world so you can somehow receive back what you in-turn need: wholeness. Some days you want to run from it, life’s traumas and banalities, both. You want to protect your elderly from the indignities of aging and your children from their own threatening shadows.
Then you wake up to realize that neither is possible nor helpful. Not really.
My own kids have just said goodbye for many months, again, to their friends and family, including my father, their Opa. With my stepmother, he’ll remain in that memorable, old 1870s estate home, the place where those struggling souls sought shelter and dignity in my youth. This, while I return my family to Africa, a place where, unremarkably, people also die in each other’s arms.
One day it was Timothy, a dear Ugandan friend. It was cancer. He was 15. That day, at his home, he walked to his mother, reached up, and simply collapsed in her arms. Then, seeing whatever he saw, he spoke the last word through the last breath his exhausted lungs could push: “Jeeeesuus.”
After the funeral, my son, Jonathan, then 8, said, “You mean he died in his mother’s arms? Right in her arms?! Dad, I thought that only happens in the movies!”
Sure son. In the movies. And in real life. Real holy life.
All things considered, to go so divinely, so naturally, in a loving hug, what more could anyone, anywhere ask?