My father believes the world is coming to an end, yet he commits his life to curing the sick
Four years ago my mother died. Weeks later my father informed me that, at seventy-four, he might live another ten years. I was relieved to hear him say that because during her illness they had talked about killing themselves together. I saw him cry for the first time in my life as he kneeled beside her corpse in the bed they had shared for almost fifty years. Months later I returned from Montreal to my hometown of Windsor to check up on him. He cried again when we were having lunch. He said it happened all the time. He said he lived in a state of constant confusion, especially when he was at home, alone, talking to my mother. “What do you say?” “Oh,” he replied, clearing his throat, “I’m terrified she hasn’t gone.” But I remember that he used to say he loathed religious cowards who can’t admit that death and oblivion are biological facts. I pointed out his contradiction and he mumbled, “Nothing is logical about grief.”
My father and I share a commitment to telling it like it is, especially about the symptoms of humanity’s major depression, like anthropogenic environmental collapse, terrorism, war, the rich eating the poor. We discussed the news over lunch, after he had stopped crying. He said the recent eruption of philanthropy among the rich was a public-image campaign: “It’s all about business. They’re all just looking after their money and power. Even David Suzuki. He made a life for himself. So fuck ’em.” He let out a long exhausted breath and whispered, “Fuck ’em.”
In 1956 in the former Yugoslavia, my father was nineteen and had no plan for his life. His mother dreamed of raising a future doctor. None of his siblings wanted to study medicine. So his mother told him he had no choice but to become a doctor. In medical school he was drawn to the acrid smell of formaldehyde, used at the time in its undiluted state to preserve corpses for dissection. With a firm push from his mother, he stumbled into the pit of his calling and became a family physician.
More than fifty years later I asked him what he enjoys so much about his work. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never thought about it.” He says he came out of retirement after my mother died to divert his mind from grief, and I imagine he has liked being a doctor all these years because it keeps him thinking about anyone but himself. Before he retired he worked ten or twelve hours a day and felt restless during vacations. His patients adore his devotion to every minutia of their well-being, his kindness and generosity and self-sacrifice. He welcomes the fact that I haven’t had children because he believes the world is coming to an end, yet he commits his life to curing the sick.
My father rejects the world in favour of his work. He tells me he sees nothing in the present or future but a void. This is a man who shared almost fifty years with a woman who loved him and their children far more than she did herself, a man who dedicated his working years to nurturing and prolonging life. We were talking on the phone recently and, trying to make him laugh, I said, “I haven’t read the news in a few days and can’t imagine what I’ve missed. World peace?” He didn’t miss a beat. “The solution to peace on earth is to kill all the humans.”
In spite of grief he retains his sense of humour, which in fact is less his own than my mother’s, her mind having swollen like a tumour of malignant wit. Days before she died, when I mentioned the box of family photographs in their basement and my interest in keeping some, she said, “There is nothing to be saved. Destroy everything.” To the last thing I said to her, “See you soon,” she replied, “At my funeral.”
It seems she now resides in my father’s mind, her spirit alive in his most cutting lines, as if selected from his conversations with her ghost. I’m terrified she hasn’t gone.
Almost four years have elapsed since he said those words. I was worried he might still feel that way. A month ago I went to visit him and as we were driving to his house from the airport, my heart pounding, I asked, “Do you still talk to Mom?”
He took a deep breath and sighed. “I know she’s dead.” Then, after a brief silence, he added, “And you know what? I’m single.”
I burst out laughing. “What do you mean by ‘single’?”
“I don’t plan to start dating again, I just mean I’m alone and it’s fine.”
“Do you enjoy being alone?”
“Sometimes. I work in the hospital in the morning. I come home in the afternoon and I read or watch television. I’ve learned how to cook. But I don’t know what I want. When I’m busy, I want more free time. When I’m free I want to be at the hospital.”
We got to his house and talked more over lunch. He didn’t cry.