Have you ever kissed a dead body? Neither had I. I did on March 17th, 2002.
I had just seen my father the night before. I had hugged him good-bye then, a warm and real embrace, not knowing it was to be our last hug. The drive back to Montreal was a good one. Visiting my parents in the Laurentian mountains was almost always that way. My girls received lots of grandparental attention, and my parents had both been sympathetic to some of the crises I was experiencing in my life, and were loving and reassuring to me. They told me everything was going to be alright. Just what I needed. We were happy. I was safe.
I always loved St. Patrick’s day in Montreal. We always went to the parade which was usually a display of what was great about the city. No tensions, no politics, just joie de vivre and some silly public drunkenness. People letting off some steam after the brutal winter. Some floats were very creatively done, some were just lame. The usual “celebrities” (local newscasters and the odd sports figure). The marching bands were always fun to watch. Pub bands on floats with green beer, etc.
We usually stood near the start of the parade on Fort St. and the fingers of the musicians were not yet numbed by the March weather. Some years the sun shone and you knew Spring was not far away. Some years were less accommodating, and the revellers drank more.
The parade does not usually fall exactly on the 17th. It did this year, and it did in 2002. If I had savant skills I could tell you which other ones did, but I don’t have that particular gift. The weather in 2002 was cold. Hovering around the zero mark. Today is a bit colder, but not by much. In contrast with last Friday which saw major melting and breaking up of ice, today is very cold.
I remember returning from the parade with the girls and going down in the basement to play the guitar when my former wife called down with a note of urgency in her voice and told me I had to drive up north immediately. My dad was en route to the hospital in Ste. Agathe. I shot out to the car and drove like a maniac out of the city praying and hoping that my father was holding on. I still believed in prayer then. I still believed that hoping was good enough. Everything was going to be all right. My parents always were able to convince me that “this too shall pass”.
My gas light came on about 15 km out of the city, and I realized that I needed to fill up if I was going to make it. I cursed myself for not being what I had promised to do so many times in Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs. I was not living up to the “Be Prepared” motto. It is not that I am a slow learner (or maybe I am, as I have run out of gas at very inopportune moments), I have been known to procrastinate.
The time to fill up was excruciatingly slow. The pump seemed to be coughing up spurts of gas rather than a steady stream. I know how fluid time can be.The minute it took seemed like an hour. The drive after that seemed like a second.
I parked next to the hospital and scaled a snowbank as a shortcut to get to the emergency and immediately looked around and inquired where my father “David Hanchet” might be? The nurse gestured without speaking, and I knew that the door she pointed toward held the news of a day I never wanted to face. I opened the door and my mum immediately lit up and rushed to hug me with tears in her eyes and said that “Dad never regained consciousness and they stopped trying to revive him an hour earlier.”
I looked over to the gurney where my father was supposed to be, and there was a dead body there. It sort of resembled my dad, but it was clear from first glance that my dad was not there. I went over to the body and planted a kiss on his forehead. I am not in the habit of being comfortable in hospitals and around illness or suffering. I am most definitely not in the habit of kissing dead bodies. This was the exception. The love pouring out of my heart at this moment for a man who I now knew was a mortal being was like protective armour and even though the inanimate matter that had been home to my father could not feel it, it gave me a form of closure. It was time to grow up.
I was 46. My dad was a month shy of 82. I had some papers to sign and to find a way to coax my mother to come with me back to their condo. She was so disoriented. We drove back to Morin Heights and I started the task of informing my relatives. I first contacted my own nuclear family. Told them that “Panda” was gone. “What do you mean, gone?” He was dead.
I tried to call my older brother first, as he was teasingly called “heartbeat” by my dad, obliquely meaning that Guy was a heartbeat away from being the head of the family. Guy was not home, and a message was not appropriate. I felt very alone. The burden of carrying the news of my father’s death was too much for one person. Next in line was my sister, who miraculously picked up (because she was entertaining guests at the time). I told her the news and the bond of our mutual grief is the closest I have ever felt to anybody. I knew exactly what she was feeling and she, I. I don’t remember if I called my younger brother, or if I asked Elaine to do the rest of the calling while I attended to my mother.
My dad had started the day like any other Sunday. He went to church and sang in the “choir” and attended to the duties of one of the offices he held at the church. He was sometimes an alderman, sometimes treasurer, sometimes server. My mum did not often attend that church, as her choice of worship was more evangelical than my father. He came home and made lunch for himself and my mum. He broiled two hot dogs split down the centre and covered in barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese just on the verge of turning darker orange. They then sat out on the terrace on their “chaises longue” and soak up some rays of the mid day sun surrounded by chickadees and Blue Jays. My mum asked him if he might “consider going to Stratford this year?” My dad did not respond. He just stopped. Everything stopped.
I don’t like to think of the efforts to revive him when the Urgences Santé paramedics arrived. My mum thought there was still a chance. She called my home (Of her four children, I lived closest). I am glad I was there for her. I stayed the night, and then commuted as my siblings arrived on the scene over the next few days.
I have not attended the parade since then. It has now been 17 years. I am not sure if I would have stopped anyways as my girls got older. I have mixed feelings about the day.
I remember my brother saying at the time how funny and ironic it was that dad died on St. Paddy’s Day. One story that my dad used to tell was when an inebriated reveller came up to him on a St. Paddy’s Day and asked him what he “thought of the Irish?”. My dad, without skipping a beat and highly unlikely to give spare change to someone drunk said: “why, I think they are the scum of the earth!” I am pretty sure my dad was joking (although I come from a long line of British superiorists). The man retorted “I hope yaz findz yer razor!” Best put down retort. My dad’s “beard” at the time was best described as pathetic.
“Everything will be alright” is a lie.
This passage by Bob Dylan:
Just do what you think you should do
And someday maybe
Who knows, baby
I’ll come and be cryin’ to you” is not.