Almost as soon as I said I was back here, I had to leave.
My wife Merle went in the hospital on May 16, where her condition steadily grew worse.
I was going to include a rant here about the current Ontario government’s attempts to erode the Canadian healthcare system, in our case depriving Merle in her last 2 weeks of the palliative care she had been receiving for months (claiming she was a ‘chronic’ patient, not one about to die), so they could force her, as a ‘long-term care’ patient, to contribute $1900 month of her own money to her hospital stay (the ‘chronic care copayment’)). But when this got into a second page, I discarded it, deciding I should just try to show you what Merle meant to me.
On September 12, 1969, my birthday 52 years ago, I walked alone into a crowded bar after work, looking for someone I knew who could offer me a seat. I spotted a friend of mine, an underwriting supervisor from the insurance company next door to the bar, who played second-row with me on a rugby team. He had invited three members of his underwriting team for an after-work drink – three young women, all of them good-looking. There were two or three seats available among them.
Though I was still pretty shy about talking to women, especially beautiful women, I was not shy about sitting down beside one. I had learned that simply doing that, not just in bars, but on the subway, buses, trains, and planes, things sometimes developed without me saying much at all.
So I chose to sit down beside the beautiful Afro-Caribbean woman you see in the above photo. I learned she was from Trinidad and Tobago, a pair of islands off the north-east coast of Venezuela, as far away from Toronto as you can get in the Caribbean.
Now, by chance, about 2 months before this I was in a downtown bookstore searching through two large bins of paperbacks being sold off at bargain prices. That day, for 10 cents each, I bought two books that would change my life – Heinrich Boll’s The Train was On Time, the story of a young German soldier on a train returning to the Russian front after being on leave, convinced that this time he was going to die (a book that has haunted me all my life), and the first novel of Trinidad-born Vidia Naipaul, Miguel Street.
Opening Miguel Street at a random page in the middle of the book, which is still my quick method of assessing novels, I saw that this was an accomplished writer with a remarkable ironic humor. I read it enthusiastically, but this evening it was almost all I knew about Trinidad.
So, I played the only card I had, telling this young woman that I had read Naipaul’s book.
“Oh, we hate him,” she said.
She explained that she was referring to Naipaul’s decision to go to England, live in London, and remain there writing satirical stories about the people of Trinidad. Like James Joyce who resided in Trieste while he wrote about his home town of Dublin, and so became despised by the people of Dublin (until he became so famous that he made Dublin a tourist attraction), Naipaul is another example that “a prophet is not without honour except in his home land.”
But that answer of hers hooked me immediately. There was something delightful in her ability to shoot from the hip like that.
In my own family, probably because of our Yorkshire/Lancashire origin, there has always been an underlying love of absurd contradictions (like those in Alice in Wonderland, for example) and it had blossomed in me.
I had a sense that this dark beautiful woman might be another of this kind. And I was right. That response of hers led us into a conversation that quickly developed into an ongoing relationship, something I had carefully avoided with women until then. Yet, with her, I entered it with abandon.
At this point, I should add something else – many years later, one day when Merle was looking at her old passports, we discovered that she also left Trinidad for Canada on September 12, 1967, my birthday again. Our meeting may have been planned, it seems.
Merle loved travel and adventure. Over the following years I took her hiking, I took her fishing, I took her camping in northern Ontario (we went as far as Moosonee on James Bay, Ontario’s sea coast), and I took her on two trips to Mexico where we rode Mexico City’s new subway and its old buses, and took the magical (though decrepit and very cold at 3am in the mountains) midnight train to Vera Cruz and the Guatemalan border.
Everywhere we went, intoxicated with our love for one another, we laughed and laughed at the absurdities in the world around us and enjoyed its everlasting beauty. I’m convinced that an acute sense of humor and the appreciation of beauty are intimately connected. And in all my life, I’ve never heard a more beautiful laugh than Merle’s.
When we were later joined by two daughters who acquired that same humor and love of the natural world as if it was in their DNA, our personal world grew even crazier and more magical.
In 2002 Merle took one of those daughters with her to New York city, where she worked as a nurse in hospitals for five years while our daughter acquired a degree in media through Hunter College/City University of New York.
I was allowed to visit them, which I did more or less once a month, and so, solely because of Merle, I got to know the New York that I love today, especially Brooklyn, as well as Long Island and its ocean coasts. For us, those five years were a golden age.
Over the following years, Merle developed rheumatoid arthritis, lung disease, diabetes, and, worst of all, Alzheimer’s, but she lasted much longer than her doctors predicted. Increasingly aware of her own vulnerability, she acquired a different beauty, while her spirit remained undaunted, as you can see in this 2012 photo of her in Brooklyn.
But she’s gone now. I don’t want to talk anymore about the suffering of her last days, which was sometimes extreme, but I do want to tell of a couple of things.
That humor I talk about is often connected with an innate combativeness. This was true of Merle all her life. When I discovered that, on her good days in the hospital, she was giving the doctors and nurses, PSW’s, etc a hard time, I asked her one day if this was right – “Of course!” she replied.
For example, when they shipped her off to the ‘Reactivation Care Centre’, where the hospital intended to park her as ‘chronic’, I went in the first day not knowing what room she was in. As the nurse put on my head shield (required as well as the mask) I heard shouting from a room down the hall – “Water! Water!” – and I told the nurse that she didn’t have to show me, I knew what room Merle was in.
When I walked in the room Merle was sitting up looking quite spritely, though she was only a week away from her death. Beside her on the table attached to her bed was a full glass of water.
“Merle,” I said, “you have water.”
“I know,” she replied, “but I just want to irritate them.”
Another day I watched her hit a nurse who was injecting her with something. I didn’t ask her why she did that – she would have told me it was self-defence. Welcome to the world of Alzheimer’s.
Because of such events, a couple of months earlier I had warned my two daughters that Merle was going to fight to the end. Sometimes she fought with healthcare workers, sometimes with us. She was like a boxer who, though about to go down, knowing they are doomed to lose, keeps swinging anyway.
But when I told of that water incident at the family memorial we just had, I forgot to mention this – although you might think Merle would have been unpopular in the hospital, in fact many of the nurses, and maybe a doctor or two, loved her. This was especially true with the Afro-Caribbean nurses (or African, since we have many Africans now in Toronto and I have trouble distinguishing the accents – the people of Ghana, for example, have a particularly beautiful speech that I always want to attribute to the West-Indies). Merle had somehow endeared herself to them, and this didn’t surprise me at all.
Around the world the belief in an after-life is common, and this usually includes the idea that previously deceased family members come to meet those who are dying. That’s almost universally accepted in Trinidad.
So, visiting Merle day by day, seeing that the end was getting closer, I asked myself who would come for her, and the answer came to me immediately – her oldest sister Ethel, a bold-outspoken woman, and her husband Richard, a soft-spoken repairer of oil-rigs, including those out in the ocean. Those two had been close to Merle, had both had that same sense of humor, and same love of adventure as us. Like Merle and I had, they had remained together all the way despite everything life threw at them to drive them apart. When they visited Toronto a couple of times, I drove the four of us around day after day while we all talked, and laughed and laughed at this crazy world. Both of them died years ago.
So I asked Merle one day when the Alzheimer’s had withdrawn enough that she could talk, if she ever thought of Ethel and Richard. She look at me startled, and said, “They came to see me you know!”.
Soon after that, on the afternoon of June 21st, I was in Merle’s room. The nurse who was in charge, an Afro/West-Indian nurse who seemed to care a lot about Merle, must have sensed that Merle was close to the end, for she told me that, although I was supposed to be restricted to 2 hours, I could stay as long as I wanted.
Merle was 90% unconscious, unable to talk to me, but I talked and talked to her then about what was coming. I told her Ethel and Richard were waiting for her, and I told her how much we all loved her.
On my way home, I stopped in a wild park where I often hike, to check on one of my many plantings. Coming back to my car (the vehicle that had carried Merle faithfully to all her medical appointments for several years), I met it surrounded by this stunning sunset.
Merle’s room was on the hospital’s top floor, facing directly west, and the window blinds were open, so I know the light of that sunset was entering her room.
She died the next day before I could get back in to see her. Here she is, as she was when I arrived two hours after she died, as beautiful as ever.
Should you want to learn more about Merle, and see more photos, here is the memorial I’ve started online. Don’t be fooled by the absence of the name Conrad. I had to take a new name to keep a low profile in the insurance claims industry. Although I’m retired now, like George Orwell (Eric Blair), I’ve become fond of my literary name, and like him I’m happy being two people who are really one: