The Old Man’s Last Winter
The old man is dying. This is a series of notes I wrote while visiting him in Canada.
Return of the Prodigal Son
1974. I was touring artist colonies in the French countryside with my Grandpere, a retired French diplomat and hobbyist painter. He urged me to say, if asked, that I was Canadian. I’m not sure if that was for his benefit or for mine. Nobody liked Americans much outside of the United States.
My mother was French, my father, who died when I was little, was American. My stepfather was Canadian, and that was where we lived. As I grew into my teens I came to have a lot invested in my American nationality, even though I’d never been to the States aside from a summer in Dallas when I was 13, a summer in the Dakotas when I was 2, and a few months in New York after my father’s death when I was 3. That American thing seemed like the only connection I had left to my father. It seemed like the place I could start when I carried on his legacy.
It didn’t really matter how I identified. I never felt like I fit in here (although that speaks more to my perpetual state of being than it does to anything having to do with nationality). Kids from highschool, in Egypt (of all places) seem to remember me as “that really fast Canadian kid”. (I could run fast, once. Now I can only run long.)
These days, if I think about, (which I have been, lately) I’m a bit surprised to realize I feel a lot more Canadian than I knew. A lot of this might be because of the return to running, and with it the return to the mountains. My stepfather – the old man – was the guy who introduced me to the mountains. We used to go up there foraging for food – mushrooms, gooseberries, saskatoons, playing along the seismic lines, bird hunting in the foothills, ice fishing on rare occasions. He was a geophysicist, my father a geologist. They were rock guys, and earth guys, and I guess it’s no surprise that I studied geology (and forgot all that I learned years ago since it didn’t have much application in the world of sex, drugs and (punk)rock’n’roll).
I’m heading back up to Calgary for the first time in 36 years, return of the prodigal son, kinda, not just a hackneyed saying but with all that that parable means, at least as interpreted by an agnostic non believer like me. I kinda feel like I’m going home, which is weird, and I’m sure I’ll be disabused of that notion real quick: the place we once lived in, literally on the edge of town – behind us was country – is now in the center of a sprawling city. I doubt I’ll recognize much at all.
It’s probably a trip to say goodbye, in that awkward way that two very uncomfortable-with-all-of-humanity-and-especially-with-each-other men do. It’s likely gonna be a pretty permanent goodbye, too – the old man isn’t eating or drinking and he’s refusing his medication. Time is not on his side. And I suppose I need to somehow communicate how much I appreciate the fact that while I was running around chasing the ghost of my father the old man quietly and uncomfortably raised me and taught me about the land and the mountains and rocks and fossils and trilobytes and rodeos and fishing and, for better or worse, how to deal with discomfort (alcohol, the tried and true technique) and all sorts of other things that pretty much made me who I am. I’ve never really given him sufficient credit for any of that.
New Year’s Eve, 2015
He’s very old, very tiny, very frail, with a scraggly thin white beard, the only time I’ve ever seen him with a beard aside from photos on a seismic line in the northwest territories when he was in his early 20s, looking a bit like a young Farley Mowat. He doesn’t look much like Farley Mowat, now though. He’s gaunt, and his skin is like parchment, nothing underneath it but bone. I didn’t recognize him. This is not the robust man I remembered, even though the frailty was showing some the last time I’d seen him. He’s wearing a diaper. We spend about forty-five minutes with him trying to get into his hospital gown, the kind that cover your front and tie in the back, leaving your ass exposed, which in his case is covered by a diaper. He can’t figure the gown out. I tie it for him. He takes it off, and unties it. He tries again, and again I tie it for him, and again he takes it off, and this goes on for a while before we finally get it right. It’s heartbreaking to see him so confused. He’s good for just a few words before his parched throat cuts them off, but once the gown confusion ends there are plenty of smiles and an up-to-no-good twinkle in his eyes that’s a joy to see. New Years Eve with the Old Man.
The last day of 2015. There was a good cover of snow on the ground, and the temperatures were cold for an LA person, highs just below freezing, but nice for a Calgary winter. I’d been dreading the first visit. I was frightened of what I would see, and how I would feel. Try as I might, I’m not comfortable with emotions. I took a 7 mile run down along the Bow River bike path before our visit. The Bow River is an impressive river that begins in a glacier in the nearby Canadian Rockies, eventually merges with the Saskatchewan River and then flows clear across Canada, through Lake Winnipeg and ending in the Hudson’s Bay. It was named by the First Nations people for the reeds that grew on its shore; they used them to make bows. I only lived in Calgary for 10 years, but those 10 years were almost all of my childhood, and the Bow is central to those childhood memories. Running along it I felt at home in a way that I never feel in Los Angeles, despite having lived in LA for over 20 years.
New Year’s Day
There’s an undeniable element of homecoming to this trip, which adds a layer to something already very heavy. We took an early morning trip to Nose Hill Park, the largest municipal park in Canada, which used to be directly across the alley from our first house in Calgary, on Conrad Drive, then on the northwestern edge of town. The block is still easily recognizable. There’s the park across the street that we used to toboggan down all winter long. Kids still do, albeit now under parental supervision. The houses have all been redone, though, and I couldn’t spot ours. I remembered the view out the front window of the distant Rockies. It was even more impressive once we were up on the hill. Cold, clear, and a little windy. We took refuge in a small grove of aspen trees, the trees they have all through this part of the Prairie, a tree that always disappointed me as a kid because I wanted something old, gnarled, and sturdy, like an oak, with heavy branches you could climb. The aspen is none of those things.
The Old Man was glad to see us. We talked about the mountains, about the house on Conrad Drive, about Kananaskis Country and Canmore, which really means we talked and he responded with a smile or a nod or maybe a word or two.
The day before, we’d read to him from a crime novel he had out. He pointed at the book, and we read to him again. “Do you remember what the story is about, Dad?” He smiled and shook his head, but he listened attentively as we read to him about the murder of a lawyer in the not-too-distant future.
“You’ve caught him on an upswing,” the doctor says, “As difficult as that might seem to believe.”
“He’s not ever going to leave here, is he?” I ask.
“I don’t think so, no.”
The nurses work a few days on, a few days off. If a patient deteriorates rapidly, as seems to happen often here on ward 42 of Peter Lougheed Hospital, they might not be aware of the change. Certainly none seem to realize that the old man is no longer able to feed himself, and hasn’t been getting enough food. At my urging, they start feeding him by hand. This seems to work. Pureed everything and thickened water, because he has dysphagia, which means he can’t swallow very well, and there’s a chance that things will end up going down the wrong tube, into his lungs. No one is sure why he has dysphagia. It could be the result of dementia. The years of drinking have taken their toll, and he suffers from alcoholic dementia. Scans of his brain show shrinkage and some atrophy. His lucidity comes and goes, and the problem is compounded by his inability to speak more than one or two words at a time.
The daily runs save me. They are a time when I can feel myself alive. The sub freezing air feels thick as it goes into my lungs, or maybe sharp; it has shape and substance and a jagged edge, and I am aware of every breath.
Calgary, it turns out, is a runner’s paradise. There’s abundant green space, lots of city parks, and long trails along the rivers – plural – the Bow, the Elbow, Nose Creek, Fish Creek. Fish Creek Provincial Park, in far south Calgary, is one of the largest urban parks in North America. It winds 12 miles along Fish Creek, with abundant singletrack winding through the woods above and along the creek. The creek was frozen, and you could run on top of it, following the paths laid down by Nordic skiers and fat-tire mountain bikers. For a few hours, I hardly thought about death, and that break was needed. Still, there were moments alone on the singletrack, no signs of anyone near who might witness me crying, that I’d let the tears flow gently.
The drives through Calgary brought back memories – more memories than I expected I’d have of a place I hadn’t visited in 36 years, and hadn’t lived in in 40. I felt at home, and this surprised me, even though I’d recognized the sense before we left LA. As we neared the old house on Wildwood Drive I knew exactly where we were, and that the house was on the other side of the park we’d hit as soon as we rounded the corner. Unlike Conrad Drive, very little had changed. The street was still thick with packed snow, like it was when I was 12 and we’d play hockey on it, sliding on our shoes and only grudgingly moving out of the way if a car should try to pass. Behind the park was the trail that paralleled the Bow River, visible through the trees far below. Our old backyard gave on to the trail. I smoked my first cigarette down there when I was 12. It was disgusting but thrilling because it was illicit.
Shave and a Shower.
The hospital used to supply disposable razors but budget cuts have done away with this luxury. A nurse’s aid tells us he’ll give the Old Man a shave if we provide the razors and shaving cream. After the shave, he looks more like himself. Getting him in to the shower takes two of us. As recently as the beginning of November he was walking with a cane, but two months of hospital bed rest and he is unable to walk without a walker and at least one person supporting him.
Saturday he took three walks. We didn’t go far – 10 feet or so – he’s not allowed to leave his room because he has MRSA – antibiotic resistant staph – and this is a ward full of people with suppressed immune systems. During the third walk, he fell asleep. I stood in the doorway holding him, calling quietly for a nurse to help me get him back into bed. He probably doesn’t weigh much more than 100lbs, if that even, but 100 pounds of sleeping old man is hard to hold on to, especially when his bones feel so fragile I’m afraid they’ll snap.
The shower and shave seem to give him some life. The old man becomes determined to do things on his own. “Leave me alone!” he says to the nurse when it comes time to feed him, and he insists on feeding himself. Someone has left him a glass of real water, and he’s coming as close to guzzling it down as you can with dysphagia and trembling hands. The odds are greater that he’ll aspirate on this than on the thickened sludge, but it’s probably a risk worth taking. He’s probably going to aspirate on something anyhow, which will lead to a case of pneumonia that he’s not likely to survive. The doctor tells me pneumonia is “the old man’s friend”. I’ve heard this before. Apparently, it is a very pain free way to die.
The old man is almost defiant as he feeds himself. The soup is a hit, and I get him another before the kitchen closes. Eventually he loses his grip on his water glass and spills it all over himself. He needs clean, dry robes and bedding. His defiant self sufficiency seems to end with a humiliating need for help from others. It saps his spirit.
We’re old fashioned, manly prairie types. Cold winter winds on the Great Plains; we’re not the kind of guys given to expression of emotion, especially not to each other, and so I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’ve ever said it when, on my way out, I said “I love you, Dad.”
I was sure he was asleep when I said it, but he looked surprised, and pleased, and responded.
Canmore, Montane Traverse Trail.
The Canadian Rockies are jagged and harsh in a way that the American Rockies are not. They are, in fact, completely different mountain ranges. The American Rockies are granite and gneiss, metamorphic rock; the Canadian Rockies are limestone, shale, and other layered sedimentary rock, jagged from heavy glaciation, sharply pointed mountains separated by wide, U shaped valleys carved out by glaciers. The tree line is lower than the American Rockies; beyond that it’s too cold and the snow pack too heavy for trees to live.
We seldom out to Banff as kids. The Old Man thought it was too touristy. He preferred Kananaskis, which was almost empty then. We’d head out to the mountains on dirt and gravel roads, stopping by the side of them to pick Saskatoon berries and gooseberries, the berries covered in the road dust from the occasional passing car, and forage for wild mushrooms and just play along the cuts of seismic lines.
Lunch would be bread, cheese and salami spread on the hood of the car. While we played, the Old Man would survey the area for firewood. There were always trees cut down for the seismic lines, and the wood was often sufficiently dry. Maybe he’d have his chainsaw with him and he’d fill the trunk of the 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 that was our family car. He could pile a lot of firewood in the giant trunks cars had in those days.
Canmore was an old mining town, thriving in the 1960s but with dismal prospects by the mid ’70s as the mines all closed. When we went there as kids, it was a place transitioning to down-and-out. The Nordic skiing events took place in Canmore when Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics, and this transformed it into a winter resort town. The Montane Traverse trail runs along the side of the Bow River Valley, Mt. Lady McDonald and Squaw’s Tit above it. The deep snow had been packed hard on the singletrack by all the fat-tire mountain bikes so popular in the snow. We wound through the forest, with spectacular views of mountains above us or across the river valley. It was a much needed day.
New Year’s Eve, 1948
Brandon, Manitoba, 1948. Catherine was working at Eaton’s Department Store. The old man was a young man then, working at a men’s wear shop. Their first date was New Year’s Eve. He was cocky, good looking, and one of the smartest boys she’d ever met. They went to school together. Barton – that’s the old man’s name, and it’s not really right to call him the old man when talking about him at age 18 – loved poetry. This is something I almost ever-so-slightly remember. On one hand it seems so oddly inconsistent with the hard, rough prairie boy scientist who was (and still is) so profoundly uncomfortable around people, cared not one bit for music or for film, and seemed generally disinterested in any kind of high culture. But there was a soft, sentimental, very romantic side to him. I’m not so sure my mother let him show it much. She liked her men rough, rougher than he was, maybe.
Catherine drifted in and out of the old man’s life for the next 65 years. They’d lost touch, finally, in the 1990s, when my mother, the old man’s wife, died. Catherine had no idea he was back in Calgary until she went to visit another friend at Rocky Ridge Retirement Community and saw him there, in the corner with the quiet bunch.
A few weeks ago she called him to tell him another one of their old friends had died. The phone rang and rang and rang, and finally she called the front desk. After some prodding (she’s not family) they told her the old man no longer lived at Rocky Ridge. His new home was Peter Lougheed Hospital, ward 42.
We get back from Canmore around 5pm. The old man is asleep. Catherine has left a note asking me to call her.
She recites a Robert Browning poem:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
“we had to recite this poem in school, standing by the teacher’s desk,” she says. “Your father loved poetry. He joined me on the second verse.”
Not that, amassing flowers,
Youth sighed “Which rose make ours,
Which lily leave and then as best recall?”
Not that, admiring stars,
It yearned “Nor Jove, nor Mars;
Mine be some figured flame which blends, transcends them all!”
“We laughed and agreed that no 85-year-old wrote that poem,” she said.
Catherine has more stories, and suddenly in his waning days I learn about an old man I never knew. Her husband passed away not so long ago, as have many of the old Manitoba crew. She doesn’t much like the thought of being the last one standing, and as the old man fades she’s coming one person closer to that.
New Year’s Eve 1948 was 68 years ago. Her love for him doesn’t seem to have diminished much at all.
“If there’s anything at all I can do,” she says.
“Visit him,” I reply.
3:40 pm. The old man is sleeping. He’s not been very communicative today.
In an hour we’ll be headed back to the airport, back to LA and all the talk about celebrities and showbiz and latex fashion and slumping sex toy sales and everything else that’s in the background and foreground of my day-to-day life, occupied much too much with work, being asked to hold folk’s hands and guide them through new technology because they’re frightened and helpless and don’t know how to use the new UI.
I’ve spent a week dealing with real helplessness, with a once proud, ornery, stubborn man, very intelligent, impatient, and difficult, who can’t stand, can’t eat on his own, can’t even communicate when he’s shit himself. I’m not sure I have much patience for the kinds of bullshit I deal with (and participate in) every day down in LA.
You’re afraid of a new computer program? I really don’t care anymore. I just had an old man clinging to me as hard as he could just to stand while we tried to help him to the bathroom. The fear in his eyes is about something real.
Without intending to, the old man taught me all kinds of lessons this week. I wish I’d’ve learned them all years ago, but now will have to do.
Last run this morning along the Bow River, icy air thick going down into my lungs, cold in the snow. Tomorrow, when we’re home in the El Nino rain another few inches of fresh white snow should coat the city here.
Thanks, Dad. I love you. You taught me almost all that I know, and I’m finally confident the good far outweighs the bad. Sorry I haven’t been the greatest son. I’m gonna miss you.
3 thoughts on “The Old Man’s Last Winter”
You were the fast guy that always blew by me at track practice – if that’s what we call it – in grade 6 at elbow valley. I thought I was the fastest kid around and would be way out in front of you but then the stomp, stomp, stomp of geoff cordner and it was over. You won’t remember me but a few of us still remember you. Your name came up in conversation and we looked you up to see if you would show up. You did. You’re in Los Angeles and another Springbanker ( who I was chatting with about you is living in San Clemente). He may reach out to you too.
Your dad story could be exactly my dad story as he reached the end of his life. A well written piece that I suspect most anyone involved with elder parent care can relate to regardless of how much time they have with their parent.
Good writing; thanks, Geoff. I can relate to going back to snow-covered Ohio after living on the west coast for eight years in LA, and now going on 34 years in the Bay Area. 2015 was my worst year because of funerals for two brothers, an uncle, and my mother. Dad died years ago at age 57 and he had so much more to live for. I’m hoping to make it to 81. Your stepdad reached 90, right?
He was 85. Born on the 4th of July, 1930, in Glenavon, Saskatchewan, current population 182. Of that 182, they are 100% white, all of British, German, or Slavic descent. No First Nations people, no people from anywhere other than that little corner of northern Europe. I don’t think the town has changed much, or at all, since the old man was a boy. He used to joke that it said “You are entering Glenavon” and “You are leaving Glenavon” on opposite sides of the same sign. Brandon Manitoba, where he went to University and as a boy considered the Big City on par with NYC, had a population back then of 24,000.