by Bill Gaston
Buddhism says there’s no beginning nor end to suffering, so in that sense there’s no beginning nor end to this story—which is also about how humour lives in the very heart of suffering, and pops up like a neon clown from its big black box.
The background to the story involves my brother Ron, who a year ago at age fifty had a stroke. He survived with huge holes in his memory, dragging a foot, slurring, and utterly pissed off. Apparently strokes at his age aren’t so rare. But, though he’s ten years older than I am, in the ugly stew of emotions his illness brewed for me, one of the worst was a sense of my own mortality. And then my guilt at that. Watching him limp around in terminal despair, how could I possibly think about myself? But he looks like me. At the root of myself I could trade places.
A month ago it got worse. Ron had a series of heavier strokes, was now truly demolished, dying—could die at any time from a next stroke—and was placed in extended care with elderly people who are similarly bedridden and waiting for death. Ron can no longer walk, talk, control his bowels, eat on his own. I can see he recognizes me, but my arrivals
lift his spirits not one bit. Waiting for the final oblivion, he stares at game shows with the other, older residents, unable to ask someone to please turn off this pap and stick in a decent movie. Or whatever. I don’t know if he could follow a movie, or if he wants one, but from his eyes I know that he hates what he’s watching, the canned laughter blasting the room and its dying, demented, warehoused bodies.
With Ron in Vancouver, and me on the Island, my monthly planning involves working out when next I can steal two days to ferry over and visit. Kyle’s soccer tournaments, our baby daughter Lily, my wife Leslie’s work schedule, not to mention my own; plus dentists, doctors, barbeques. All fight my attempts to get over and see Ron, who I don’t really want to see, and who maybe doesn’t want to see me either. Add to this mix my car—an ‘89 minivan—which lately had been stalling at intersections. My wife Leslie has demanded a tune-up for some time now, using the words “dangerous” and “Lily” in the same sentence. In my list of things to do, double underlined was the note, Fix van, visit Ron.
Bill Gaston’s most recent books are the collections Mount Appetite and Gargoyles, and the novels Sointula and The Order of Good Cheer. His work has been nominated for Giller, Governor Generals and Ethel Wilson Prizes, and he was awarded the inaugural Timothy Findley Award for a body of work.