The nurses pulled the chair at the foot of Dad’s bed around to the bedside. Mom sat in the chair for a while holding Dad’s hand. When she heard Catharine’s voice Mom got up to meet her in the hall. Catharine wailed. I stood aside when she came into the room and sat in the chair as she held Dad’s hand and stroked his hair.
While Catharine was with Dad Mom went to call Corpus Christi rectory to tell them Dad had just died. I went to the TV room to call my friend, Linda, who had worked for Dad in the lab at McKellar.
“Hi Linda . . . Dad . . . Dad . . .”
“died,” Linda finished for me. I just couldn’t say it.
“ . . . Yes, about half an hour ago.”
“Brian, I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ll tell everyone at work.”
When I got back Catharine was getting up. She looked at me with a questioning glance wondering why we couldn’t have called her in time to see Dad before he passed away.
“Kate,” I said, “it was so sudden.”
With her head downcast Catharine joined Mom in the hall to talk to the nurses.
It was my turn to sit with Dad. I held his hand while resting my head on his hip and I cried. Mom said she hadn’t heard me cry like that since I was a young boy. I was a little boy. Images of Dad flooded into my mind. I remembered my walks and talks with Dad and the comradery that we shared. I thought of all the projects Dad and I built together – the hovercraft, the lathe and Tara.
I remembered Dad’s warm smile, the genuine loving concern in his eyes and the reassurance I felt from the sound of his voice. Dad had not only been my father but my close, life-long friend and soul mate. He had always been there to help me in any way he could. I thanked Dad for his love and unconditional acceptance of me and for paving the way for me to succeed in life.
“Would I be where I am now without Dad’s help?”
Despite all my determination I knew that I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to make it in life without Dad supporting me.
As I watched the redness in Dad’s cheeks turn yellow and felt the warmth in his body fade away, I realized that the time for our final good-bye was near.
“Will I ever again have someone who understood me as intuitively as Dad? If Dad had lived longer what would we have talked about? Would we have found another project to do? Where would we have gone?”
In the end if Dad’s life had been longer I doubt any amount of time could have been enough. I would be as heartbroken by his passing as I am now and still wish I had more time with Dad.
Mom and Catharine had come back in the room to see him one last time. After a few minutes Catharine said she would drive Mom home. I stayed.
Finally I knew I had to let go. I stood up still holding Dad’s hand and looked at him for a minute lying there in peaceful stillness. “Bye Dad,” I said looking at his face. Then I looked down at my hand holding his and I slowly and reluctantly let go of his hand – Dad’s hand – the hand that had held me and helped me through life – the hand I knew the shape of intimately that was comfort, acceptance, trust and understanding – the hand I would never hold again. As I slowly walked away I stopped at the doorway to look at Dad one more time. After a minute I sighed a deep breath to collect myself. Then I turned and left.
I was consumed by a feeling of complete and utter defeat as I walked out of the hospital. I had lost the fight – the fight I could never have won. I knew deep within me that I could never have made Dad well again. Even so when defeat came it was hard to take.
When I got home Catharine was just leaving. She had to go back to her home and family. Mom was sitting in the living room. She got up and we hugged each other in silence. Both of us were trying to clarify in our minds what had just happened. We had prepared ourselves for this time. We knew it was coming. When it came we weren’t ready for it. Could we ever have been?
Mom and I talked about Dad until 2:00 AM. I remembered then that I had an appointment at work the next day. I sighed rubbing my forehead. At that moment the last thing I wanted to do was go to work in the morning. But I had a business to run and a responsibility to our customer.
“Brian, I know you don’t what to go but you have to keep that appointment. There is nothing you can do for Dad tomorrow.” Mom was right.
By nine o’clock Wednesday morning I was back at Tara. I stopped at St. Joe’s on the way. I had to see Dad’s room to solidify in my mind the reality of last night. His room was exactly as we had left it except that there was no Dad. The undertakers had removed him during the night. After a few minutes of looking around the room I went to work.
It was a very quiet day at Tara. Nobody came through the door except my appointment that afternoon. I don’t think I accomplished anything that day except to make a sign to tape on the door that said, “Due to a family emergency Tara will be closed until Monday.”
I sat at the office desk – alone. I had to call home every hour to talk to somebody. Mom or Catharine answered. As we spoke I could hear the voices of friends who had come to give their condolences and I wished I was there. After they left Mom and Catharine went to the funeral home to make the final arrangements for Dad’s funeral. I wanted to be one of Dad’s pall bearers. It was the one final duty I needed to perform for him. I had to carry Dad to his final rest just as he had carried me through life.
When the appointment ended I locked the door at 3:00.
The next day was difficult. Mom, Catharine and I went to see Dad lying in his casket. Dad looked as if he was just asleep – as if I could reach over, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Dad, wake up.”
Then Friday came – the day of Dad’s funeral. We gathered for a half hour visitation at the funeral home at 11:00 AM. I sat with Mom and Catharine through the service and then joined the other pall bearers to put Dad into a hearse for the drive to Corpus Christi for his funeral mass. Then I rejoined Mom and Catharine.
When we arrived at the church Mom, Catharine, and I, along with Fr. Carey, a long time friend of the family, met Dad’s hearse and we carried him into the church. As we entered the full senior choir was singing. Many of them had taken time off work. Dad had been a member of the choir for years. Fr. Carey gave a glowing eulogy. I can’t recall what he said but I remember feeling proud of Dad as he spoke. I followed Dad’s mass, listened to Fr. Carey speak, heard how wonderfully the choir sang but it all seemed shrouded by a fog.
When mass was over we brought Dad to St. Andrew’s cemetery for his interment. I and the other pall bearers carried Dad from the hearse and placed him over his grave. Then I stood with Mom and Catharine as Fr. Carey said prayers over Dad. After a moment of silence we left to go to a reception in the church hall.
That evening Mom and I sat across the living room from each other. Her eyes met mine. No words were spoken but her look expressed both our thoughts. Dad’s presence had left our home. Although Dad hadn’t lived in the house for a month we never truly felt his absence until he was buried.
However while the Smile-Surgery was a success Tara’s fortunes were fading. The good contracts that made 1996 so successful were winding down and the new testing wasn’t making up for it. Reluctantly in March of 1998 I had to let Jeanne go. It was back to Mom, Dad and me again. The work that came in was just enough for us to handle.
By May of 1998, Tara was running at a good pace when Dad found he had trouble closing his left hand. Then his back started to bother him. He went to see a doctor who found that Dad’s cancer had spread to his brain and lower back. There was little the doctors could do. Chemotherapy wouldn’t work this time and radiation therapy was ineffective. This cancer seemed untreatable. Dad’s condition steadily worsened. Eventualy he lost all movement in his left hand. He had more and more trouble walking. Finally Dad had to use a walker. He clunk-stepped his way around the house just as I had.
One Saturday in July at home he fell. He had put out his right arm to block his fall but broke his arm. An ambulance took him to Port Arthur General Hospital where they set his arm. Dad spent a week in hospital and then came home. The movement in his legs got worse and the arm with his good hand was now in a cast. Dad became bed ridden. Now I pushed Dad around in a wheelchair. Within two weeks of Dad returning from the hospital we realized we couldn’t take care of him at home.
Tuesday August 5, 1998, Dad was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital hospice unit. An ambulance came to take Dad to the hospital late that morning. He never looked back as the paramedics put him into the ambulance. Dad sensed he would never see home again.
The hospice unit was a row of 14 private wards on the fourth floor. They faced the front of the hospital and lined one side of a wide hallway with a large picture window at the end of it. On the other side of the hall were supply rooms and a nurse’s station. Dad had the last room at the end of the hall. I brought Mom to see Dad every evening. Catharine often came to visit with Dad then too. I stopped by to see Dad each morning on my way to work.
The nursing care was exceptional and Dad was glad to be there. Dad’s condition quickly worsened. Being bed ridden he developed pneumonia. Two weeks after Dad was admitted to St. Joe’s he suffered a small stroke during the night. It affected his speech. The morning after his stroke his speech was slurred and I couldn’t understand him. I could tell from the sound of his voice and the way he looked at me that Dad knew what he was saying. Dad repeated himself but I still couldn’t grasp his words.
“Dad I wish I could understand what you’re saying.”
I knew then the heart-rending frustration Dad must have felt in not being able to understand me when I was 13 during my radiation therapy reaction. It was a few days before I understood him again. After his stroke Dad spent a lot of his time sleeping. Now when I stopped by in the mornings I mainly watched him sleep. I stood by helplessly as Dad’s life trickled away day by day. I knew my time with Dad was growing short but my heart wouldn’t accept it. I would have willingly stayed with Dad all day but each morning Tara called me. Tara was doing well but Dad was slipping away.
The afternoon of August 25th, Mom had Fr. Allen, the Corpus Christi parish priest, give Dad the last rights blessing as he lay in his bed at St. Joseph’s hospice. Fr. Allen stood to Dad’s left and Mom stood at his right while I watched from the foot of his bed. Catharine was tied up at work. Dad was silent through the prayers but just after Fr. Allen left Dad broke down. This was final. His tears said what all of us had avoided saying. Dad’s life was coming to an end.
That evening as Mom bent over Dad to settle him for the night Dad looked up at her. With deep sincerity in his eyes and voice he said, “I kept my promise. I stayed with you.”
“Yes Peter. You did,” Mom replied stroking his hair.
It was apparent Mom and Dad’s marriage had been strained for years, but at that moment there was a spark of the love that brought them together. Right then I don’t think either of them was aware that I was present.
As his cancer progressed there were times when I think Dad didn’t quite know who Mom, Catharine and I were. For a man who used his mind all his life it was hard to see it fading. Dad got to know the nurses. They were around him all the time. There was one nurse in particular he liked named Clara. Once he winked at her and another time he told her she was beautiful when she was bent over him tucking him in for the night. Dad’s body was failing him and his mind was fading but there was nothing wrong with his eyesight.
On the evening of Tuesday, September 1st, exactly four weeks after he was admitted to St. Joe’s, Dad knowingly looked at me and called me by name to ask me to adjust his bedside lamp. I hadn’t heard him say my name for a week. At twenty to ten Mom and I were getting ready to leave Dad for the night. The nurse taking care of Dad that evening went to settle another patient down for the night. Then she would come back to settle Dad. After that Mom and I would go home. Mom walked out of the room and stood in the hallway looking out the picture window that we had both looked out of many times. I sat in the chair opposite the foot of Dad’s bed. He was resting quietly on his back when all of a sudden Dad popped his head up looking at me in distress as he waved his arm. He couldn’t call out. Dad seemed to be choking. I rushed out of the room and up the hall to get the nurses. Mom saw me and knew something was wrong. She hurried in. When she saw Dad she cradled his head. “I’m here Peter,” she said. Mom knew it was all she could do.
I found Dad’s nurse. I said, “I think he’s choking.”
”Choking!” she exclaimed. She and I hurried down the hall followed by nine other nurses. When we got back Dad had lost consciousness. I stood with most of the nurses at the foot of Dad’s bed and watched with them.
While still cradling Dad’s head Mom said, “Brian, hold Dad’s hand.”
The nurses made room for me to go beside Dad and I held his hand. Then Mom picked up the phone on the bedside table. “Catharine, come to the hospital … come now.” She cradled Dad’s head again. Catharine lived 20 minutes away and came as fast as she could.
The pauses between Dad’s breaths became longer. He started to snore as he inhaled. Then there was one long pause, a sharp snore, a slow exhale and then silence. The head nurse, who had witnessed all of this, took out her stethoscope and listened to Dad’s chest. Then she put it away.
“What?” I thought. I reached over and felt Dad’s neck. “I can’t get a pulse,” I said.
“I can’t get one either,” she replied.
It was only then that I realized I had held Dad’s hand as I watched him die. I looked at Mom. “Dad’s dead?”
“Yes Brian. You didn’t know what was happening?”
“No,” I said.
“He threw a clot,” the head nurse said to me.
No more than five minutes had passed from the time Dad waved his arm in distress to his final breath.
Tara’s most successful year was 1996. In June I hired a knowledgeable and responsible self-starter, Jeanne, to help with the workload. That October, just when Tara was doing so well, Dad developed a persistent dry cough. He saw a doctor who quickly referred Dad to a thoracic surgeon to perform a bronchoscopy. Dad was admitted to McKellar General Hospital the night before his bronchoscopy.
Bronchoscopy: A surgical technique where a bronchoscope is inserted through an incision in the trachea (tracheotomy) to visualize the trachea and lungs to examine them for tumours, bleeding and inflammation.
Mom, Catharine and I went to see him that evening. It struck me as soon as I saw Dad sitting in bed that he had always been the one who watched me in bed. We stood around his bed trying not to say what was on all our minds – what would the surgeon find?
Dad asked me, “What does a general anesthetic feel like?” It hadn’t occurred to me that Dad had never had an anesthetic. I’d had more than I cared to count.
“You go to sleep and when it’s over you wake up,” I replied. I couldn’t think of how else to describe it.
The next day Mom and Catharine stayed at the hospital while Dad had his bronchoscopy. Jeanne and I ran the lab. At 4:00 that afternoon Catharine showed up at Tara.
“Has Dad had his bronchoscopy?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she replied.
“What did the surgeon say?”
“Go home and see Mom,” Catharine said, “Jeanne and I will lock up.”
When I got home Mom rose from the kitchen table. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she threw her arms around me.
“Dad has cancer,” Mom said as her voice cracked, “What will we do without Dad?”
Mom, Catharine and I saw Dad in the hospital that evening. All of us knew the gravity of this diagnosis. It was the beginning of good-bye. We looked at each other as we searched for the right words to say.
Dad spoke, “They want me to start chemotherapy within the week. I’m seeing an oncologist tomorrow morning.”
I asked Dad what the surgeon told him.
“The cancer started in my trachea and spread into my upper right lung. He felt chemotherapy would be effective.”
That night I lay in bed wide awake with my hands behind my head as I stared into the dark. The only thought that echoed through my head was, “Dad has cancer.” If ever in my life I had prayed fervently it was then.
“Please God, I need my Dad.”
Not until I heard those three words – Dad has cancer – had I seriously considered what my life would be like without Dad. I couldn’t even begin to contemplate living without him.
The dawn came up but I hadn’t slept.
Dad was discharged after the oncologist saw him. At 10:00 AM when I arrived at McKellar Dad was dressed and sitting in a wheelchair beside his bed.
“Hi Dad,” I said trying to sound as upbeat as I could, “Ready to go?”
I wheeled Dad past the nurse’s station to the elevator and out to the patient pick-up area. Arm-in-arm I helped Dad into my car. As I did I couldn’t help but think of how Dad had done the same for me in December, 1973, in this very spot. I wrestled to quell the lump in my throat as I fought back tears. It was my turn to be strong. We drove home in an awkward silence. What did the future hold for us? When we got home I helped Dad into the house and to the kitchen table where Mom was waiting. I saw by the way Mom and Dad looked at each other they wanted to talk so I said, “See you later Dad,” as cheerfully as I could and left.
The tables were turned. I went to work and worried about Dad just as he must have been distracted in his work as he worried about me. When I arrived at Tara Jeanne asked how Dad was.
“Fairly good,” I said.
Then she asked how I was. I looked at her and sighed as I said, “Okay.”
Tara soon had me busy with the day’s work.
Six days after Dad had his bronchoscopy he started chemotherapy treatments. Dad’s chemotherapy made him so sick that he hardly ate for a month. He spent most of the time lying in bed. About the only time he got up was to go for his treatments. In all my years I never saw Dad throw up until then. Dad and I never discussed his cancer. Although he confided in me once that in all the years he taught his students about cancer he never thought he would get it. The chemotherapy worked well on his lung cancer.
Dad didn’t return to Tara until his chemotherapy finished three months later. During Dad’s absence Jeanne and I ran the lab. We developed a good working rapport. She kept a level head for me. I wasn’t thinking clearly during those stressful months. When Dad returned to Tara in January of 1997 I looked to the future again.
Second Period. The game is tied. A week and a half after I was sent back to the neurosurgical ward at Sick Kids I was transferred to Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto to receive the radiation therapy treatments. I met more kids there all of whom had been diagnosed with one form of cancer or another. Even though I didn’t have cancer I would receive the same radiation therapy. Two of them were from Thunder Bay – a little four year old girl named Tina and a boy, John, who was a year younger than me. John and I quickly became friends.
Tina returned home with her mother a week after I got to Princess Margaret. Dad and Catharine had to go back to Thunder Bay at the same time and the four of them travelled together. Sadly Tina didn’t live to see Christmas.
John returned to Thunder Bay before I did only to be admitted to McKellar Hospital for more treatment. The doctors in Toronto felt they had done all they could for John. They sent him home for one final attempt to save him. John lost his life to cancer near Easter of 1973. When I found out I was shaken. I never knew the actual date he passed away but every Easter I think of John.
Although I appeared sicker than most of the kids in that hospital ward with my poor balance, unsteady motion walking and slurred speech, the one thing I had going for me was that I didn’t have cancer.
In preparation for radiation therapy an orderly brought me downstairs to have a plaster cast helmet made. The technician sat me on a chair and donned a tight, stretchy, rubber sort of shower cap on my head that covered all but my face. She covered the cap with strips of cloth soaked in Plaster of Paris. She said, “Sit there for 20 minutes while the plaster dries and don’t turn your head.” Staying still for 20 minutes was the hardest part.
When the plaster dried she picked up what looked like a carpet knife to halve the helmet. She started by running the point along the middle of the top of my head from my forehead to the crown and down the back. I gasped as I felt her run the knife along the top of the helmet. She made a second pass and finally a third. The two halves parted and I could breathe again. The shower cap came off and it was over.
I saw the helmet again a week later at my first treatment. The Chief Radiologist at Princess Margaret decided to treat my tumour by administering 5,250 rads of radiation over a course of 30 treatments from late November 1972 to early January 1973. Blast the hell out of it!
Rad: Radiation Absorbed Dose is the unit for measuring the amount of ionizing radiation delivered to the body.
An orderly walked me down to the radiology department for my first treatment. The radiologist sat me on a chair in the middle of a 10×10 foot room and clipped the helmet around my head. Each half sported a 1×2 inch hole cut out around my ear lobes. I looked up and saw what looked like an X-ray machine suspended from the ceiling on rails. She guided it over to me and connected one end to the opening in the right side of my helmet. Once again I had to sit still but for only 2½ minutes. After she went into her booth I heard the machine start up. I waited. Then I heard it shut off. She came back and repeated the procedure on my left side. This would be the drill for the first five treatments. “Piece of cake,” I thought when the first treatment was over. No pain, no hassle, no problem at all. This was going to be easy.
The second treatment went differently. The next day another orderly came to take me for treatment number two. We walked downstairs. I got my radiation therapy without incident and had almost made it back to my room when I suddenly felt violently nauseous. “I feel sick,” I blurted out and hurried to the toilet to throw up. It didn’t happen after every treatment, but sudden nausea happened a number of times during my radiation therapy. The rest of the treatments would alternate between my left side one day and right the next. Adding it up at five minutes apiece for the first five treatments and 2½ minutes each for the rest I logged 1½ hours sitting in that chair being bombarded.
On the whole I was handling the radiation therapy treatments well,. The doctors decided I could to have the bulk of my treatments as an outpatient. When Mom and Dad found out how long my radiation therapy would take they knew they couldn’t spend the next two months in a hotel in Toronto. They started to look for an alternative. One evening riding back to the hotel from Princess Margaret Mom asked the taxi driver if he knew of any places nearby. “There’s a new apartment hotel called the Town Inn at Church and Charles,” he said, “You can rent a small suite with a kitchenette by the week.” They checked it out and decided to take it. The suites were modest but affordable. I travelled from there each weekday for my treatments. Mom, Dad, Catharine and I spent Christmas and New Years there together with some friends from Toronto.
After my first few treatments a doctor informed that me that my hair would fall out in the area I was getting the radiation. I imagined myself going completely bald. How could face my friends with no hair? I didn’t like this at all but what could I do? After treatment number 15 my hair started to fall out. I wore a hair net at night. I could reach back to pluck the hairs out of my scalp without feeling a thing.
The skin became tender and crisp on my ears and especially on my ear lobes – like after a bad sun burn. They were cooking my ears but they had to pass the radiation through them to get at the tumour. My ears kept getting worse until the treatments finished. The skin healed over the next two weeks. I thought my hair would grow back but it never did.
Forty years later I still have a one inch wide band of baldness going across the back of my head from ear lobe to ear lobe. I keep it covered up by letting the hair above grow over the area. I’m careful to point this out every time I get a haircut with instructions to leave the hair longer there to keep that spot covered. Hair stylists are generally okay with this. Some have commented on it being an odd place to be bald.
“Yes, isn’t it?”
When I was in Princess Margaret Hospital I started to get headaches during the night. I walked out to the nurse’s station to tell them only to be given two aspirin and told to go back to sleep. One evening I discussed this with a nurse on duty. She realized I hadn’t had a bowel movement since the day before surgery and I was badly constipated. She ordered a Fleet enema for the next day. The enema cleared my rectum and the headaches stopped. Somehow during the month since I had neurosurgery nobody checked to see if I was having bowel movements. Since I didn’t feel the need to “go” I never thought about it. I had lost the ability to have a bowel movement. The surgery must have affected the nerves for that. This meant getting a lot of enemas to keep me “regular.” Most were administered by Mom. Four months after surgery my ability to have bowel movements was coming back – or at least the feeling to want to go. It was a lot of effort at first but by eight months after surgery, when I was 14, it was pretty much business as usual.
Dad had to work and Catharine had to go to school so just Mom and I stayed in Toronto at the Town Inn for the two months while I had the radiation therapy. Dad and Catharine visited a few times and our Toronto friends stopped by as well. Mom and I went for walks around the Town Inn. We got to know the area fairly well. Our walks often took us past Postal Station F. I remember the big grey squirrels scurrying about. They had to be at least three times the size of the small brown squirrels in Thunder Bay.
My last treatment was on January 6, 1973. In the two days until we caught a plane back to Thunder Bay we packed our things and said good-bye and thank you to our friends who had seen us through the last three months. As we got ready to leave the Town Inn for the airport I reached into the closet and pulled out my Team Canada autographed hockey stick. I grasped it firmly on the taxi ride to the airport, on the plane and on the drive home.
Joe, a family friend, picked us up at the airport in Thunder Bay to drive us to our home. Along the way I happily looked left and right to gaze at all the familiar buildings and streets. It seemed I hadn’t seen them for such a long time. As we turned a corner my heart jumped for joy when I first glimpsed the sight of our house.
“I’m home. I’m finally home.”
It was a sweet homecoming and a welcome chance to breathe a long sigh of relief. We had endured the three month ordeal in Toronto. As that ordeal ended another was soon to begin.