Author's Note: I am sometimes asked which of my columns has garnered the most mail. Here it is. I'd love to hear your response once you've read it. God bless you and keep you faithful...

The slow goodbye

They call me a comedian. But comedy was not my first choice. I wanted to be strong and good-looking. I wanted to have girls talk about me in front of my back. But I discovered early in life that the gals weren’t looking for a sense of humor. They wanted solid chiseled features. And money for snacks. I had neither. So my dad tried to console me: “Poverty is hereditary,” he said, “you get it from your children.”

    A sense of humor is, too. I got it from my dad. 

    For the most part, comedians come from either of two backgrounds: severely depressed or extremely happy. There is seldom middle ground. I grew up in a family where laughter was a staple. Where my parents loved each other and loved their children. My earliest memories are of Mom reading me Winnie the Pooh and Dad hiding in darkened rooms waiting to scare the living daylights out of me. Each of our three children has at some point experienced me pulling back their collars and sneezing down their necks. I got the idea from my dad.

    The older I get, the more this sense of humor is coming in handy.

    Mom and Dad (at right during Phil and Ramona's wedding reception, 1982) lie in separate beds in the same hospital now, not quite knowing where they are. Each time I visit they ask me about it, so I explain it to them like it’s the first time and the lights come on, then quickly fade. I once asked my dad the secret to their lengthy marriage and his eyes twinkled. “Senility,” he said. It was funny back then. But now the two old lovers are saying a slow goodbye to this earth, surrounded by children who love them and nurses whose sweetness surprises me at times.

    Looking for Dad the other night, I found him slumped in a chair, tears streaming down his cheeks. “It’s alright, Victor,” said a slender young nurse, placing a gentle arm about his shoulder. “Hey,” I joked to her, “he’s already taken.” Dad crossed his eyes and pushed his false teeth out at me.

    The phone woke me one morning. It was Dad. “Someone stole my pants,” he said. “Where’s my billfold? Can you bring me some money?” I told him I was loaded, I’d be right over. “Hurry,” he said, “I’m going to see a movie.” My father, who hasn’t stepped inside a movie theater since becoming a Christian sixty years ago. By the time I arrived he had been out riding the range with Roy Rogers and the two were planning on roping cattle together. Seeing me, he said, “What are you doing here? Don’t you work?”

    Some doctors call it Dementia. Others Alzheimer’s. None of us dreamed it would come to this.

    Yesterday, my mother—a woman I have seen share her faith with leather-clad bikers, the girl who led me to Christ when I was a lad—was convinced that God had abandoned her. I was stroking her white hair and singing: “Jesus led me all the way,” when this spiritual giant of a woman, who stands less than five feet now, interrupted. “No he didn’t,” she said indignantly.

    “You mean Jesus?” I asked, “When did he stop?"

    “Last Wednesday.” And she was serious. Doubts come and go.

    But tonight she is listening to beautiful hymns on a CD player she can’t operate and smiling with her eyes closed. “Tell me about the kids,” she says. 

    Dad is concerned that he has misplaced the keys to the car—a car that no longer runs. I tell him they’re around here somewhere. I’ll find them, don’t worry. I can’t believe I’m lying to my dad. Surely they have manuals for this kind of thing, but I’m learning as I go. 

    I’ve brought along a book and I read it to my mother out loud. It is the same tattered copy of Winnie The Pooh that she read to me when I was four. “How cold my toes…tiddly-pom,” I sing using a tune she taught me. 

    I’m tough. I don’t cry easily. But as I leave tonight, I take part again in this grand role reversal, whispering goodnight to the woman who tucked me in with a thousand goodnight kisses. “God bless you,” I say. “He does,” she smiles, “He gave me you.” Then she motions my daughter Rachael to her bedside. “Bernice loves you,” she says. “Say it after me so you’ll never forget. Bernice loves me.” Rachael smiles and wipes a tear.

    Dad is seated in a nearby chair, getting ready for a trip, he says. Going back to Ontario where he spent his boyhood. Gonna see the tall oak trees and swim in the Elora Gorge. He smiles as he tells me this and I wonder if it’s not the most profound thing he’s uttered in years. We’re all getting ready for a trip, aren’t we? Packing light. Going Home.

    Outside, Rachael wants to drive. I can’t believe she’s already sixteen. “Will you visit me when I’m old?” I ask, wiping tears and fumbling for the car keys. She smiles her agreement. “I need a hug,” I say. She leans close. Ah yes, I can feel a sneeze coming on.

 

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