He is sitting where I expect him to be, in the chair that sits in front of his bed but that also faces the television. His eyes are closed but there’s a very good chance that he’s awake. I’ve come to visit my father: Room 315, Westmount One nursing home. For residents living on floors 4 through 11, Westmount One is a senior’s residence with many of the amenities that come along with one: an activities specialist to keep the residents busy, a swanky dining room in the basement, tea time every day at 3 p.m. But for those living on floor two and three, for thousands of dollars extra per month, nursing care is added to the mix. A member of the special care staff will come to your room to bathe you, change your diaper and clean up after you should you soil yourself or the bathroom floor. My father has lived at Westmount One for about five years, at least four of them on the third floor.
Is it any wonder that he has no zest for life? Like many men at 90, life must be lived on their terms or not at all. There’s no place for adapting to a life that doesn’t have its share of pleasures, which for my dad has meant owning his own condo and doing his thing. Among his passions were playing on his electric piano or playing tennis, watching classics on TV late at night. He liked going to Florida for a month or so in the winter. He enjoyed cycling along the Lachine Canal and going to garage sales with his girlfriend, Shirley.
This all changed when the nightmare that is mental illness took over his life. He had kept it at bay since the early 1990’s when, following a deep depression and a suicidal attempt, my dad’s boat was righted with a lithium prescription.
No one told him that 16 years later, constant use of lithium could be lethal to his kidneys. My dad started falling, internal bleeding in his brain might have resulted, and all hell broke loose in the winter of 2006-07. By February, he was in the psychiatric ward of the Jewish General Hospital, not a happy place to be, and my father couldn’t stop talking about being there “for life”, as if he had been sentenced by a judge and jury to spend the rest of his days there, at times in the regular ward but often in the high surveillance area which is reserved for high risk patients and where my father was sent by the doctors when his constant talk of killing himself made him a serious risk. That particular ward did resemble a jail; one had to be buzzed in and patients had little if no privacy.
He was finally let go only to return again. One day he tried to do himself in with a mouthful of pills and was saved in time when he admitted it to a nurse. The last straw for the family was when he tried to jump off the 11th floor of his Cavendish Street condo. We found Westmount One and following the final release from the hospital, signed him up.
My father later admitted that he didn’t have the guts to jump. He was just measuring the distance, he told me, that afternoon I caught him standing on a little chair on the balcony looking over the edge. “I wouldn’t have jumped, Ronnie,” he said much later, “I was too frightened to do it, falling all that way.”
Failing to go through with a suicide attempt didn’t make my father’s misery any less. It’s not that he became happy that he wasn’t successful. On the contrary. Many times during a visit to Room 315 he has implored me to be his accomplice in ending his life. He has now given up that route but when I ask him now how he is he just shakes his head. I know what he’s thinking, what he’s trying to communicate: I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be alive. I’m sure that if his communication skills were better (it seems that he says only a few words a day) he might express his bitterness at God for still being alive. I know that he loves me and wouldn’t hold a grudge against me for doing something as unthinkable as helping him end his life.
It’s not as if he is living with a painful disease that torments his every waking moment. However, the psychological pain that my father goes through every day is probably as real as physical pain. The idea of aiding his demise has tempted me from time to time; he has been seriously unhappy for long stretches, but I’m a coward too, I suppose, and am not ready to do anything so radical when it comes to taking the life of another human being. It’s also a crime.
My dad is well taken care of. Besides the nursing and day staff that handle his basic physical needs like showering and going to the bathroom and getting dressed and getting shaved, we have hired some caregivers who come in for four hours a day. He loves these Filipino women, especially Lucy. They are very good with him, know how to handle his black moods and stubbornness and can get him to smile. My sister, who lives in New Hampshire, comes regularly to visit and my other sister, who lives in British Columbia, stays for weeks at a time, contentedly painting or meditating while my father sleeps. I see him about once a week, although these visits are short. While he might greet me with a smile when he sees me saying, “Hello, Ronnie,” (my family likes calling me by a name no one else ever uses) in no short time he will be asking me to leave. With his self-esteem in the toilet, he can’t see how anyone in the family would want to spend time with him. “You must have a busy life”, he seems to be thinking, “don’t waste it coming to see me.”
It’s sad to think of my father ending up like this, to see the last six or seven years of his life so miserable. He was once a very happy man. I don’t buy the psychiatrist’s line that he is bipolar. I never saw my father depressed, at least since the attack of serious depression in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He never had “highs” followed by “lows”.He was generally always in a good humour, if not a little gruff or impatient sometimes. He had a girlfriend, his condo, his activities; a small world admittedly, but his. Unfortunately, the mental illness wasn’t cured, just put off until the day he stopped taking his lithium.
Today, he is on two antidepressants which I feel are a complete waste. Antidepressants cannot touch the despair my father is feeling. If antidepressants worked as they’re supposed to, my father would be cheerful by now; he’s been taking them for so long. An incontinent man is not much of a man in his estimation. A man who must use a walker to get to the bathroom or dining room, his only two destinations these days besides his bed, whose legs are almost useless, what kind of legs are that? My father enjoyed a certain pride and that pride has been crushed by circumstance.
When the moment comes to reminisce on my father’s life, if it hasn’t already, I will try to remember times when he was much younger, younger than I am now. My dad was a whiz on the piano, able to play popular tunes with a perfect ear for music. He recently told me self-deprecatingly that his talent was diminished because of the fact that all the songs he played were in the key of F. I still think, and the many other residents at Westmount One who had the good fortune of seeing him play the grand piano in the lobby would agree, that this is a minor drawback, if at all. From Sinatra to Bacharach to Gershwin, to innumerable show tunes, my father could play any melody that he could hum or whistle to with sophisticated chord sequences and toe-tapping aplomb. He was confident there, my father was, and I loved to sit by his side on the piano bench as a kid and watch him play. He might be waiting for my mother as they were preparing to go out to a party, his scotch on the rocks sitting on the Chickering. Such contentment!
I will go back there, to moments like these, or perhaps to him and me fishing on “Steve’s Retreat”, our little cabin cruiser which we kept at the Lord Reading Yacht Club in Beaconsfield.
In the meantime, his heart keeps beating, the daily grind of doing nothing interesting continues unabated.