(Photo above of my father as a student at MIT in 1942, at the age of 17)
We held my father’s visitation on November 12, a dark, windy afternoon six days after he died. His casket was open for family members to pay their respects and say their goodbyes. I am of the “Irish Wake” school of funerals. Including the body in the festivities feels right. A dead body in the room is surreal, sad, moving, and lends itself to humour and tragedy — all aspects of death and life. However, a lot of people are not comfortable with this so we closed my father’s casket when friends arrived.
Unlike an Irish wake, we did not hold my father’s visitation in our living room, but in a funeral parlour— a tasteful, hushed place in hues of cream, grey and beige with boxes of tissues in the bathrooms. It was the very one that hosted my mother’s funeral back in January. The Beechwood Cemetery sits atop a neighbourhood in Ottawa that most people would call pretty or historic. It is where the poet Archibald Lampman is buried, as well as Sir Sandford Fleming, the man who invented the International Time Zone.
We had mentioned the visitation for my father in the obituary that appeared in several newspapers, and although I had thought no one would come, the place was full. The afternoon passed quickly as we ate and drank and chatted while hard rain lashed the picture windows. Everyone had left by five o’clock except my sisters K and S, their husbands, and myself. Just as we were heading for the door with our coats and umbrellas, an elderly man came in with a walker. His face was dripping wet. The DVDs he had in the pouch of his walker were floating in a shallow pool of water. His shoes and windbreaker were soaked through.
He looked at me and said, “Are you Jasmine’s daughter?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Oh, good,” he said. “I’ve come to the right place.”
My sisters and I exchanged glances. We had no idea who this man was. We ushered him into a warm room while Denise, one of the funeral home workers, made him some tea and fetched towels. My brother-in-law got him to take off his wet t-shirt and wrapped him in his thick tweed jacket. My sister K gave him her wool scarf. Throughout all this, he told us his name was Gerry McGee and he had crossed town in the rain to say goodbye to my father. He had got on the wrong bus and had had to walk up the steep, slippery hill to get to the funeral home. He is 85 years old. As he was speaking, his face came into focus and I started to remember him visiting our house when I was a child. I never understood why, but my parents didn’t see him often. I do recall them talking about him and I have very vague memories of there being some kind of problem but I couldn’t remember what.
Gerry told us how much he loved our father. They were both engineers and in Gerry’s opinion, my dad was a brilliant one. We listened to him talk about his life and the band he played in, and at this point I marvelled not at my father’s accomplishments, but at Gerry’s courage. We all become more fearful as we get older, but here was a man who seemed to have no fear at all. If he had shown up five minutes later, he would have found himself confronted by a locked funeral home in the middle of nowhere on a dark, stormy night. He would have had to walk miles to the nearest bus stop and then sat soaking wet for probably an hour. But he had not allowed himself to think like this. “This is faith,” I kept thinking. The ability to believe that everything will work out fine is an ability that often eludes me as I list a dozen pitfalls and problems with whatever plan I am trying to hatch. Another recurring thought was, “I hope when I am 85 and doddery on my pins, I will get on a bus in the dark and go to see whomever it is I need to see, driving rain or not.” We talked for some time, with Gerry telling us about his life and his relationship to my father. When my brother-in-law said he would drive him home, Gerry replied without missing a beat, “You’re a king!”
I wanted to know more about Gerry McGee, so I Googled him. It turns out he sings in a group that performs for seniors around Ottawa, he was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee medal for his services in engineering, but most significantly he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder forty-five years ago. He has written about it and been interviewed about the difficulties of being diagnosed with a mental illness late in life. When I read about his struggles, my parents’ hushed conversations started to make sense. I remember them liking him very much and entertaining him at our kitchen table, but I also remember he always came on his own and then one day he just stopped coming over. I did some sums and worked out that he disappeared from my parents’ lives at exactly the same time he had been sent to live in a mental health facility. I don’t like to think that my parents could have helped him more. I hope that’s not the case. Maybe Gerry’s perseverance in the face of the driving rain while he hobbled slowly up a steep hill was his way of thanking my father for understanding his condition. I wonder what things were left unsaid as he sat sipping his tea that afternoon.
“As I was walking up that hill, I kept telling myself I was doing it for Phil,” Gerry said. He smiled and then pointed towards the ceiling, “And the big guy up there also kept me going.”
As we were leaving, Gerry asked Denise for her card. “I’m, 85,” he told her. “I need to plan my next trip here,” he said and laughed. “That was another thing that kept me going,” he added. “I’ve heard of this place and thought it might be a good one to end up in.” They exchanged numbers before Gerry got in my brother-in-law’s car and was whisked to his small apartment across town.
For a piece on the struggles of bipolar disorder in the elderly in which Gerry is mentioned, see: http://news.nationalpost.com/health/suicide-risk-much-higher-for-elderly-in-canada-than-adolescents-researchers