||A Few Days with Don the Bookman
by Daniel Bell
Montreal, Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Just arrived from Hong Kong. My father, Don Bell, had fallen gravely ill. He was too short of breath to talk on the phone. I had sent an email that was read to my father, begging him not to leave me. He seemed fine about two weeks ago (during my last visit to Montreal), but my sister Valerie told me that this latest lung infection will most likely prove to be fatal. He had been released from the hospital because the doctor said "we can't do anything more for him." The CLSC¨a publicly-funded home health care system¨was providing around the clock care for my father at my sister's home. My father's sister Doreen was also helping.
To everyone's surprise, my father asks to sit up (for the first time in a week) when I arrive. He has a few sips of Guiness beer (his favorite), we do cheers with Valerie and Doreen, and my spirits are lifted. I leave to sleep at my mother's home, not far from my sister's home.
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
My father asks me to send an email to Olga Stein, thanking her for the Founde Bookes column and letting her know that the eighth one will most likely be the last. I try to send an email from my sister's home, but the computer doesn't work. Returning to my father's room, I ask him to let me see the ninth unfinished column on "The Blue Notebook." I read it, say it's wonderful, and that all it needs is a bit more analysis of the book itself and that it should not be difficult for me to add a couple of paragraphs since the book deals with Lenin's life and ideas (I teach political theory in Hong Kong). My father agrees to hold off the email to Olga.
I tell my father I will get some Marx Brothers' videos. He used to tell me a story about how terminally ill patients would improve by laughing at Groucho Marx jokes. Unfortunately, the local video store has run out of Marx Brothers films. Instead, I borrow videos of Fawlty Towers and the comedian George Carlin. My father is pleased. I put the Fawlty Towers video on, but my father finds it hard to open his eyes and doesn't seem to be enjoying the video (he does ask, however, "is it the one about Nazis?", which it isn't). Later, I ask him if he wants to "watch" more Fawlty Towers videos, but he says "no, I'm not in the mood." I thought he meant he wasn't in the mood to watch anything funny, but he says he wants to watch the George Carlin video instead. The video opens with Carlin walking on stage at Carnegie Hall and saying "Have you noticed that most of the women who are against abortion are women that you wouldn't want to fuck in the first place?" I laugh, though I feel guilty about laughing at such an offensive joke. My father smiles and says "I love that."
Thursday, February 27, 2003
I read "The Blue Notebook", add a couple of paragraphs to my father's column, read it to him and he is very happy. He provides a few helpful suggestions for change, though it is hard for him to talk (due to breathing difficulties), much less engage in pedantic disputes over wording.
My father also asks for morphine to end the pain. I tell him that he should fight on, there's still a lot to live for and he has an outside chance for a recovery. He says that's wishful thinking. He asks about the Montreal Canadiens. I tell him they still have an outside chance to make the playoffs, but he says that's also wishful thinking.
Friday, February 28, 2003
My sister shows me something the social worker had written in the logbook. To my shock, he wrote that my father, a life-long Jew wants to convert to Catholicism and be baptized. My father was not particularly religious, and he had never previously shown any interest in Christianity. Valerie says he must feel guilty about not having been a "good Jew" and that we should let him know he did just fine. I say, "if he wants to convert, let him convert" (it sounds better with a Jewish accent). I contact Father Ernest Schibli, who I had known in the early 1980s during the course of human rights work I did with the Social Justice Committee of Montreal. We had not previously discussed religious issues (our discussions tend to be about US foreign policy in Central America), but I have great admiration and respect for "Ernie". Father Schibli kindly agrees to come on moment's notice to baptize my father. He recites the relevant prayer, and asks me to fetch some water for the baptism. I ask, "is tap water OK?" He says "fine" (I want to ask more questions, e.g., should it be hot or cold? but I do as told). Father Schibli puts some Holy water on my father's forehead. His eyes are closed and he seems to be in deep thought. Later that evening, doing dishes, I inadvertently dump out the remaining Holy water that had been used for the baptism. I feel guilty, somehow.
Saturday, March 1, 2003
The social worker returns to our home. To my surprise, he takes off his hat and I notice the yarmulke on his head. "Oh no," I'm thinking, "he will engage in an intense religious debate with my enfeebled father." After a short discussion, the social worker walks out of my father's room, but is called back in by my father. I'm getting really worried. The social worker returns and tells me that my father feared he would be regarded as a "traitor" (my father must have just noticed the yarmulke). The social worker, to my relief, says "it's fine, as I see it it's the same God, it doesn't matter how you get there." I'm wondering why he would bother to convert if it's all the same God, but my sister subsequently provides a plausible explanation¨he must be marrying a Jew. I tell the kind-hearted social worker about my own ethical dilemma¨that I have to return to Hong Kong next Friday for work reasons, and that I'm afraid my departure will sap my father's will to live.
Olga sends an email saying "Just read the column [on The Blue Notebook] and I think it's superb¨perhaps the best yet." Later, she sends another email naming a publisher who would like to bring together all the Founde Bookes columns in a special book, but that there would need to be more columns. My father is deeply appreciative, and he asks me to send an email to Olga letting her know that this news encourages him to go on.
The Montreal Gazette has an unusual editorial comparing the fate of the Montreal Canadiens's fans to that of a terminally ill patient (even invoking Elizabeth Kubler Ross's work), and that it is time to resign ourselves to the fact that the Canadiens won't make the play-offs. I watch that night's game with my father, against the vastly superior Vancouver Canucks. The Canadians nearly pull it off in overtime, they miss very close chances with a power play at the end. The game ends as a tie, JosT Theodore seems to have recovered his magical powers, and I keep on hoping beyond hope that the Canadiens still have an outside chance to make the play-offs.
Sunday, March 2, 2003
I go out to buy the New York Times, thinking I will read parts to my father. I become sentimental thinking that it might be the last time I read the New York Times to my father, but it occurs to me it will also be the first time I read the New York Times to my father. I begin to read a book review of a biography of Irving Howe, but my father is too tired to listen. He does say, however, that he has interviewed Irving Howe during the course of an article on Henry Roth.
Father Schibli comes to give communion to my father. My father has stopped talking about euthanasia. I phone some of his dear friends and family members (not all, unfortunately; his address book is a real mess), tell them the bad news about my father's condition, but my father usually finds the strength to say a few words, and that he "hopes there's hope."
For several years my father has been working on a 500-page manuscript about "The Man Who Killed Houdini". Houdini was supposedly killed "accidentally"" in Montreal, but my father has uncovered evidence that Houdini may have been murdered by former McGill student Gordon Whitehead. My father is worried about the length of the manuscript, however, and I offer to read it and make suggestions as to how to cut it down. I begin to read.
Monday, March 3, 2003
I ask my father, "you don't need to answer this question, but I wonder if you can tell me why you converted to Catholicism?" He waives me off, saying "oh, I don't know." Later, he wakes up, asking "you must have lost respect for me, converting like that." I say, "no, not at all, I don't know which religion is correct, and if Catholicism is what you want it's fine with me." Then my father tells me that he has been inspired by the Life of Pi. I presume he means the early part where the young Pi experiments with different religions, and seems attracted to all of them.
I phone my father's friend Simson, who used to run the English-language service for Radio France in Paris. Simson was raised as a Jew but professes a militant form of atheism. My father and Simson had had humorous times in the past. To my surprise, my father tells Simson about the conversion. My father smiles as he is doing so, for the second time in a week. I realize that the conversion is partly serious, partly playful. He knows that the conversion from Judaism to Christianity, aided by the social worker who is doing the opposite, will make the rounds among his friends for many years to come.
Tuesday, March 4, 2003
Spend most of the day reading the Houdini manuscript. I tell my father how much I'm enjoying it¨so full of suspense, and so humorous! I also say I have ideas as to how to cut the manuscript. He says fine, but talk about it with me before you do anything.
My father's friend Dermy visits. My father asks Dermy, who seems to have special insight into spiritual matters, "tell me what you're thinking?" I leave them alone. Dermy comes out, and tells me a story about how the two of them had run into two teenage girls during an outing in a hidden swimming alcove in Vermont. My father said, "I'll be the guru, you be the follower," and Dermy begins praying at my father's feet. The girls were terrified, apparently (was everybody naked?), and we have a good laugh.
Wednesday, March 5, 2003
A bottle of white wine is opened at dinner time. My father objected, saying he prefers red. I find some red wine, and we do "cheers" with Valerie, her son Oliver, and the wonderful home-care worker Tim. Later, my sister goes to work for her midnight shift. My father had asked earlier when I was returning to Hong Kong and I told him, but I feel obliged to remind him, to soften the blow. I said I'm leaving on Friday but note that I will be replaced by family members and could return in a few weeks. Around 10 pm, I leave for my mother's home, and for some strange reason I can't remember kissing him and saying "see you tomorrow", as I would normally have done.
Thursday, March 6, 2003
Cannot sleep. Wake up at 2:30 am, continue to read the Houdini manuscript, rushing to finish it so that I can talk about it with my father before my departure. At 3 am, I receive a phone call by health-care worker Pearl, saying "your father has passed away." I rush over, it's slippery and snowing. Should I burn the red lights? I burn one, but wait out the other (is there really a hurry?). I arrive at sister's home, and my father is still warm. I ask Pearl, are you sure he's dead? She says yes, she's been doing this for twenty years. We phone 911, to get somebody to come and confirm the death. I'm panicking. They tell me to slow down, they must run through the standard list of questions. First question¨"is he conscious?" I scream into the phone, "He's dead, I said!", and Pearl takes the phone from me to deal with the remaining questions.
I ask Pearl how long "they" stay warm. She says she doesn't know that part. I go outside to move the car, parked in a dangerous place. I return from the cold, touch my father's hand, and he warms me up. One hour later he is cold. Can't get through to my sister. She has my father's hand-phone, and all I get is a message saying "This is Don Bell speaking, please leave a message." Later I get through, and my sister rushes home. The next health care worker, the beautiful Yvette who would gently stroke my father's hand as she was feeding him, arrives at 7 am, looks at our faces and bursts into tears. My father, always a lady-killer, had broken another heart.
I speak to my wife Bing, in Hong Kong. She tells our eight-year old son Julien about my father's death. Julien asks, "What will happen to the bookstore?" and "What about his assistants [young men who helped my father carry boxes of books], will they lose their jobs?"
My father is carried away by funeral home workers. He is wearing T-shirt that says, "I'm not a morning person."
Later that morning, I glance at the newspaper. The Canadians lost 3-1 to the Mighty Ducks, dealing an apparent end to their playoff hopes.
Wake up at 1:00 am, and finish my father's book. Fall back asleep, and wake up shortly thereafter. Had an interesting dream. My father and I are watching an exciting Canadiens-Red Wings game. The game is tied, and in the dying seconds, the Canadiens miss an open net. The Red Wings come right back, and hit not one but two goal posts. Even the referee, strangely enough, sprawls in front of the Canadiens net to stop the Detroit shots. I had planned on leaving because I was so busy, but I tell my father I will definitely stay to watch the overtime. I wake up at that point. Try to force myself back to sleep to watch the overtime, but without success.
Saturday, March 8, 2003
Father Schibli comes to my mother's home to discuss the funeral arrangements. He asks me to sign the official documentation regarding my father's baptism. As the only witness, I am asked to become my father's godfather. I agree.