It was an extraordinary moment. I was driving home to Toronto along the 401, into the setting sun, on a bright November day. I had just seen the clouds blow by, the leaves rustle and heard a horse neigh in the neighbouring field as we buried my father-in-law in a little country churchyard outside of Bethany, Ontario.
It had all happened quite suddenly. On October 1, Johnnie had attended his daughter’s (my sister-in-law’s) second wedding. He didn’t exactly dance, being 89, but he had a couple of scotches and enjoyed himself. Two weeks later, he hosted us for Thanksgiving brunch at his golf club. A little smaller, a little more tentative than he used to be, he had a couple of scotches and enjoyed himself.
That week, he caught a nasty chest cold. It laid him low, and he took his meals in his apartment, not down in the dining room. He complained of bitter weariness and pain.
He had had esophageal cancer for a year, but localized, and controlled with radiation. A stent had been placed. It was thought he might die with it, rather than of it. But it appeared as though the cancer, although contained, was slowly sapping his strength.
Antibiotics were ordered and he briefly rallied. My wife was out there at his assisted living facility every day. There was some talk of moving him to the second floor, where those who need bed care are accommodated. But he seemed to be tired, just needing sleep.
Then we got a call. He had fallen getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. He had lain on the floor for hours, unable to get to his panic button. The staff were apologetic, but it wasn’t their fault. They put him back to bed, and he assured his daughter by phone he would stay in bed. Now we were worried. Definitely time to go to the second floor. My wife called the staff an arranged the transfer, then called her father and got him to agree.
They called again. When they arrived to transfer him, he was bleeding from the nose. An ambulance was called. He was going to hospital. I had a bad feeling. How had a cold turned into this? When you go to hospital in an ambulance at 89, you rarely come home.
My wife was there first thing in the morning. He was comfortable, but he was on a stretcher in a corridor. Thirty people were ahead of him waiting for a bed. Nevertheless, the helpful and efficient staff had stabilized him, he was eating and had slept a little. There was little to say about his condition. He was very weak, and his blood pressure was very low. He was on a saline drip for dehydration, and had been cathetered to pee. Through this, John, the veteran, the flyboy, the war hero and centre of his daughter’s world, smiled bravely and said “I’m just fine. I’m warm and this blanket is so comfortable. Don’t worry about me”.
The next day, he had been moved into a side room, there were positive signs with his blood pressure and there was talk of releasing him back to the second floor at his assisted living facility. My wife sat with him and talked. They talked about death, although not at her choosing. She watched as he slept, seeming comfortable. She bid him goodnight that evening and came home.
Late that night, I was awakened by my wife shouting “He’s having trouble breathing. We’ve got to go now”. She and her sister drove like a bat out of hell while I stayed home to mind the phones. I got a call 20 minutes later. “His condition has changed” “Worsened?” “”Worsened”. “Is he dead?” “Yes”.
They were too late. My wife had been too late when her mother died five years earlier. I only hoped this wouldn’t haunt her.
There was much to do. Society creates busy work for the survivors to keep them occupied and not thinking of their loss. Dealing with the funeral home took a full day. A day at his apartment searching for bank books, car keys, a suit to be buried in. He had left his affairs in very good order, but no one had expected him to die as suddenly as he had.
Which brings us to the point of this tale. Johnnie lived a long, interesting life, flew bombers through the flak-filled skies of Germany and lived to tell the tale, raised two wonderful strong daughters, got briefly sick, died quickly and went on his own terms. No one could ask more.
The funeral at the funeral home in Toronto was very well-attended (poppies and medals abounded), and we sang Abide With Me and This Is My Father’s World. We had tea and crustless sandwiches in the parlour. There was laughter, memories and tears. Then we all bundled into our cars for the hour and a half drive out to the country.
The ceremony at the graveside was spectacular, A warm breeze, scudding clouds, orange and gold leaves on the trees and on the ground. The aforementioned horse adding his comments to the consecration.
Everyone placed a rose on the plain wooden box. Some of us put small stones on the headstone. A few threw clumps of earth. We all drifted off. I was driving by myself, because my wife was sharing a car with her sister and cousins.
I hit the 401, headed westbound into Toronto, into the setting sun. The first overpass I came to, there was a knot of people, a Canadian flag, a big hand-drawn picture of a poppy. The next overpass, a few more people, a few more flags, a sign or two. The next overpass, the same thing. On and on, a parade of patriotism.
I remembered. We had a soldier coming home that night on the Highway of Heroes, killed in the massive truck blast in Kabul the week before. These people were there to honour him. They might not have known it, but they were honouring my father-in-law, a proud veteran, who served his country too.
Fly on flyboy, and touch the sky.