Norah, Robyn, and Bob Sheppard are seen in March 2016. Bob died at home in Cobourg, Ont. on Oct. 2, 2018, survived by his wife and six daughters. Photo submitted

COLUMN: Helping my father keep his dignity as he was dying

Nelson teacher Robyn Sheppard reflects on the life and death of her father

By Robyn Sheppard

Early fall, a month before my father dies, we sit on a bench by Lake Ontario and watch a sailboat disappear below a pink and orange sunset. Dad is in the middle and Mom and I on either side, trying to anchor him to life a little longer. A brain tumor, a weed in his frontal cortex, troubles him deeply and Parkinson’s shadows his days.

“If I were 23 this would be a living hell. At 92 it just sucks,” my father says.

“Sucks,” my mother agrees, and drops the F-bomb, surprising us all.

We laugh a little before taking our cue from Dad who starts the effort to push himself up from the hard bench. The night before I watched him shuffle to the wastebasket to throw away a book of unfinished Sudoku. I retrieved it once he had gone to bed, a keepsake.

My father, a gifted and compassionate doctor, had a wonderful life, rich in every way, and yet here he was like everyone else, about to passage into the horizon, be the disappearing sailboat.

As Mom and I help him to the car, I squeeze his hand, then kiss his bony knuckles. He eyes the driver’s seat with longing. He is our king and we want him back in his throne. “You’re a good driver, Rob Dob.” His voice so soft, I lean in to hear my childhood nickkname.

“Thanks Dad,” I say, smiling at my dear father, who loved driving. He was our captain who called “All aboard” to his six daughters as we piled into the brown and blue Ford station wagon, heading north every summer to the cottage.

The next day I drive Dad and Mom from Cobourg to Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto to see the neurologist. In the doctor’s office, we sit, shoulders low, pulled down by the weight of our fear.

Mom takes a tissue from her purse and discreetly dabs the side of my father’s mouth. My father, one of the first endocrinologists in Canada and head of the endocrine department at this very hospital, rallies to pose one last question to the young doctor. Leaning in a little, he clears his throat and raises his shaky index finger, something he did when a point needed clarification. “No more driving then?”

“No more driving,” she confirms gently. He knows he is now a passenger, but still needs to hear it from the doctor.

We all know this is his last appointment. Once again, Mom and I, on either side, help him move out of the office. In the hallway, I look for the closest exit. “You both wait here while I get the car.” I want to protect him from facing the corridors where he strode, attending to patients’ needs for many years, where he gave so much and saved countless lives, and where he was the expert paged in an emergency.

“No,” Dad says and nods us to move with him towards the main lobby. A passing nurse hesitates. She must be thinking, why don’t they get that poor old man a wheelchair? But he has chosen to say goodbye in his own way, making this last arduous walk, each slow step closing a chapter of his life. We are quiet during this ritual. When we reach the front door, he turns for one last look at the current of strangers rushing past. For a moment, we stand still in a fast moving stream.

The weather is bleak, teeming rain, the type that blurs your vision when you are driving and you wonder if it would be safer to pull to the side of the road. I want my dad to drive, to keep me safe like always, but now it is my turn to lead. “Wait here. I’ll get the car.”

“Thanks dear,” Mom says, trying to stay strong for him. He knew that his many accomplishments were only made possible with the strength of my mother’s love and support. I leave them sitting on a cement bench side-by-side, holding hands in their 66th year of a beautiful marriage.

As I run into the rain, my chest collapsing against my sinking heart, I ache for all of us, for our impending loss. Pulling up to the curb, I get out and help Dad into the car. I lift his legs and then I reach across to buckle him in. I kiss his cheeks, one, then the other. Our eyes lock for a second and he smiles. I am grateful to the rain for hiding my tears.

“What a downpour,” Mom says, slipping into the backseat. “Let’s take our time getting home, along the back roads, not the busy 401.” Mom and I are cheered when Dad, whose appetite is dwindling, says we should stop at Tim Hortons for lunch, a pitstop they often enjoyed on their many excursions. He wants a bowl of chili and a coffee, one cream, as always.

At the counter he struggles to pull out his worn leather wallet from his back pocket. Then, he painstakingly and carefully counts out the exact change. People behind us in the line-up, even the servers pouring coffee, stop to watch. No one speaks. No one rushes him. The singular dignity of this man causes them to pause, to turn away from their conversations and gadgets to witness and share, if only for a moment, this quiet display of courage, and all of us are fleetingly reminded of the preciousness of life.

Robyn Sheppard is a Nelson teacher. This column first appeared in The Globe and Mail and is reprinted with permission.

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