(Note: My father died Valentine's Day 2012 at 88. This is what I wrote about him soon after.)
I almost lost it. Just the one time.
It was when the trumpeter blew "The Last Post", the traditional bugle call that marks the end of the military day and which is now played during Remembrance services. But he wouldn't have approved if I had, and neither would I.
Instead, standing in the silence before "The Rouse" sang out, I stared at the table with his urn draped by the Maple Leaf flag, remembering how once he had opposed its replacing the Union Jack and the Canadian Red Ensign under which he'd grown up and later went to war.
Opposed, that is, until he and Mum were on vacation in Bermuda and saw it flying, for the first time, over a Canadian government building in a foreign country. It suddenly became a non-issue.
Nearby were two other tables filled with mementos: putter, golf cap, photos, including one of him riding his horse along a stream bed during a hunt. He was dressed to the nines in his pinks, black helmet, tan pants and tall riding boots. I think I took it; it certainly looked like my work. But maybe not. I wasn't around much then.
* * *
The end had come surprisingly fast. On the Monday, I'd driven down to see him in the palliative care wing of the veterans' hospital. He was happily inhabiting a room with a wonderful view of the city, surrounded by some items he'd asked for and cheerfully ignoring the growing pain of pancreatic cancer.
In clear line of vision were a portrait of Mum, another of him in uniform prior to heading overseas and a cartoon by a friend of mine commemorating the 50th anniversary of VE Day. I call it a cartoon, but it's really a piece of simple evocative art: Two old soldiers in berets and blazers in Normandy, one saying, "Well, I guess we just did our bit". Underneath is the caption "You Saved The World". Quite so.
The last thing he said to me as we shook hands, was, "Drive safely, Son." I allowed as how I always drive safely -- it's the other morons' driving I worry about. And then I left, saying over my shoulder, "See you soon."
* * *
It wasn't to be.
That evening, he was still in high spirits, calling an old neighbour to wish her happy birthday, then a florist to have a bouquet sent to his latest lady friend for Valentine's Day. A while later, a nurse brought him his favourite nightcap -- a potent mixture of scotch and Drambuie called a "rusty nail". And then he dropped off to sleep.
He went into cardiac arrest early in the morning, with my brother and sister-in-law getting there in time to hold his hand when he crossed the bar at 6:30.
I got the call about 7 a.m., by which time Red and I had uncharacteristically been awake for half an hour. She was lying in bed, restless. I was on the lower level, watching the news and occasionally looking out the window and down the ravine.
It was snowing. Of course it was snowing. How appropriate for hearing about the death of the old north woodsman.
* * *
And it snowed at the cemetery too, a week later. Almost as if he'd planned it that way.
The knot of people around the same grave we buried Mum in 17 years ago mostly huddled under umbrellas provided by the funeral home. I had my own -- I always carry one along with a green garbage bag and other foul weather gear. Another thing the onetime Boy Scout district commissioner always preached -- semper paratus.
Then down into the small hole went the earthly remains of a soldier of the King. It was over.
I headed home to the Redhead, a two-hour trip that felt like eternity.
* * *
That night, we watched the home movies from when they were young -- Dad, his sisters, his brother. The only person still living is the little girl who would become his sister-in-law years later.
Included is footage of him on crutches getting off the troop train that finally brought him home in 1945. He'd been injured in a motorcycle crash late in May, just after the war in Europe ended, and they wanted to stretcher him off.
"Get lost," -- or words to that effect -- he said. No way was he going to greet his family and future wife flat on his back after more than four years overseas.
In fact, that was pretty much his way of going at things. That last day, he sat up on the edge of his bed.
"Give me a hand getting to my chair," he said. I did ... but I had to catch him when he suddenly stumbled and nearly fell. For that breach of hospital protocol -- getting him up without an orderly present -- we were both roundly castigated by the staff.
"Guess we annoyed them," he said a few minutes later, a wicked, unrepentant grin on his face.
"Good," I said.