It is July 1st in Victoria, British Columbia. The air is soft and warm, seagulls and geese are dancing in the blue and cloudless sky, and crowds are down by the waterfront, listening to live music and, in a mostly sedate and Canadian fashion, celebrating the 148th birthday of their country. Only a few blocks away, in white room three floors up in the air, my father-in-law, Robert MacRae, is lying in a bed at Victoria Hospice. Bob will die in precisely one month.
Bob’s room is bright with a diffuse light, the white walls catching the sun that drifts in through the large window and sending it back to us as a gentle glow. On the walls that reflect the sun hang sketches in crayon and paint by Bob’s grandchildren along with a poster that features a photo of Bob’s daughter, Bridget, playing the cello with her orchestra in Munich.
From outside of the room, a man’s voice drifts in. In a holy coincidence, this man – today a volunteer at the hospice – was a child in small-town Saskatchewan at the same time as Bob. The volunteer’s mother, Mrs. MacIsaac, taught Bob piano, and she continued to live in Saskatchewan for the rest of her life, dying only a few years ago at the Biblical age of 112. Bob hears Mrs. MacIssac’s son from the hall outside of his door and he says:
There’s a voice from my past.
Bob drifts in and out of wakefulness. On this day, when he is awake, he is generally alert and lucid. Although he is occasionally baffled by the things and the people in his room, so that he will stare at the blanket that hangs over the chair beside his bed and demand to know why there are a pair of legs sticking up in the air. Or he will listen to the choral CD that plays quietly through the portable speaker beside him and an expression of deep and old wonder will come across his face. Perhaps he cannot decide how such beautiful and gentle might be here right now. Perhaps he cannot decide how such music even might be possible.
In the room is Bob’s wife, Sue. When Bob moved into hospice a little more than a week ago, Sue pretty much moved in with him. Sue returns home for no more than an hour or so once a day to shower and to change clothes and, with the cajoling of her daughters, to eat a little. Outside of that hour, hospice is where she lives. Sue sleeps at hospice night, sits in the chair beside Bob bed during the day. She is there with him on days such as this when he is awake and clear and energetic and ready to talk about what is coming next. And she is there when he is foggy and half-asleep and beset by some ancient fear. Forty-eight years ago, Sue stood before an altar with Bob and said, Til death do us part. She is keeping that vow now. Sue is there. She will not leave his side, right up until the end.
In the room as well is Bob’s dachshund, Cricket. God bless the hospice movement. The hospice movement does its best to make this room – and the many rooms like it – feel like home. Thus, allowing the art on the wall; thus, allowing the music; thus, allowing Sue to be there as much as she wants, as much as she needs. Thus, welcoming pets. Cricket is in a chair, patient, occasionally lying her head down, rarely asleep. Waiting.
Not so far from Cricket is my wife, Phoebe, our three children, Ami, Mimi, and Timo, Phoebe’s three sisters, Julia, Bridget, and Caitlin. And me. It’s a full room.
Together, we tell stories. Together, we say thanks. Together we pray. Together we laugh and weep. Together we begin the work of saying farewell.
Bob speaks often of the journey that is before him, of his preparations for his travels. By and large, he speaks of the coming journey in plain and earthy language, as one might speak of packing and otherwise getting ready to spend a week at the coast. He talks a lot, for instance, about going home. And I am unsure whether, by “home,” he means heaven or the house on Granite Street that he shares with Sue or both: maybe the distinction between the two doesn’t matter to him all that much any more. Or maybe there really is no distinction any more. For Bob boundaries have become blurred, categories have become permeable. Fact and metaphor and history and myth are not so distinct from one another any more. This life and the next are not so distinct from one another any more.
Sometimes, Bob’s breathing will slow and he will gaze into the middle distance and I will wonder what worlds he sees. On one occasion, he returns from his reverie and the look on his face is very nearly mischievous. He speaks of the day, not far off now, when he will ascend up, up, floating through the ceiling: gone. As the old bluegrass song has it: One fine morn, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.
Bob talks with us as well about his visitors. He has a tonne of them. His colleagues from his fifty-six years as a priest come to see him. His neighbours come to see him. His brother and nieces and nephews come to see him.
And people who have died already come to see him. One day, Bob explains to Sue in the most matter of fact way that Dirk has been by to pay a visit. Dirk who died at the end of last summer. Later on, he explains to her that Rolly and Vi are staying nearby. Rolly, who has been gone for some twenty years. Vi who has been gone for perhaps five. When Sue shares this news, I am surprised at how unsurprised I am. Far from being sceptical, far from assuming that Bob is speaking out of delirium, something in me immediately recognises that Bob’s friends are there to ferry him across the river. They are there to let him and us know that there is nothing to be worried about and nothing to fear.
Bob will soon get his wish. He is going home.
In the midst of the soft light in the room there is love. It is a love that is very nearly palpable, a love that I can almost reach out and touch, a love that I can almost hold in my hand. Here beside Bob’s bed, the superficial and the silly have fallen away. Beside his bed, we understand that love is everything, that love always was everything. In this room, we understand that in the end, love is all that really matters.
When I see Bob for the final time, I hold his hand and I say a prayer. Bob’s eyes flicker open and he looks at me and he says not, Goodbye, Martin but, Goodnight, Martin.
And now. Now it is November 1st. Four months since the summer day in the hospice room in Victoria. Three months since Bob died. It is the Sunday of All Souls and All Saints, the Sunday on which, as the old hymn has it, we remember all the Saints, who from their labours rest. Today, we bring to the altar all of our grief at their dying. Today, we bring to the altar all of our loneliness at life without them. Today, perhaps, we bring to the altar our anger and our disappointment at their dying. Today, we bring to the altar our gratitude at having known these souls, at having shared in the adventure of life and love with them.
And today, we bring to the altar our faith that we shall see those whom we love again. The faith that they shall be there to ferry us across the river. The faith that they will be waiting for us on that day when we, too, will be going home.