Doorbells are pretty straightforward. They ring. You answer the door. But what if no one is there?
One Sunday, as my parents were walking home from a church luncheon, my father began talking gibberish. My mother, naturally, was alarmed. They went to the Emergency. A cat scan was performed and nothing was found. My father was told that he’d likely had a mini stroke. My mother believed the stroke had been caused by a hot dog. My father, she later explained to me on the phone, usually stuck to one hot dog at the luncheons, but this time, he’d had two. Her explanation made no sense (imagine the legal woes of Oscar Meyer if it had) but I think people generally turn to these sorts of rationalizations when faced with things they don’t want to understand.
My father was told that his language would eventually return and began seeing a speech therapist. But his speech didn’t get better. Not long after, he began having problems with his vision, specifically his right eye. Then he lost use of his right arm. When his right leg buckled underneath him, causing him to fall on the back steps, my mother called the ambulance.
An MRI revealed that my father hadn’t had a stroke; he had a brain tumour. The CT scan had missed it. This was what had been affecting his speech, his vision and his mobility. The doctor took my mother and me into her office and told us that the rate the tumour was growing suggested a malignancy. Its location inside my father’s brain made it inoperable. It was estimated that he’d live for another few months.
I was the one who delivered this news to him as he lay in his hospital bed. In spite of my best efforts, I broke down and buried my face between his shoulder and neck, sobbing. He made a humming noise while he stroked my hair, a reassuring sound that said, in its wordless way, that it was all right. Later, I was embarrassed by the way I’d handled things. Not that I’d cried in front of him, but that I’d crumbled, selfishly putting myself in a position where he had been the one comforting me. My father wasn’t an emotional person, but I always knew that he loved me. He was a man who spoke through his actions. Even when I came out to him at 23, he said few words. Instead, he hugged me for the first time in years. While he was alive in this world, I would always feel safe. Cared for. Protected.
He was a quiet man. Friendly, but with few friends. He had a prairie boy shyness about him that people found endearing. I don’t remember him ever complaining or seeming unhappy, in spite of a lifetime of shift work. He was, for the most part, easy to please. Practical. Content with the way his life had turned out. I think he was smarter than I gave him credit for. I wonder what else he could’ve done with his life, had other opportunities presented themselves. But I’m not sure this would’ve crossed his mind. I don’t think he would’ve even thought to ask for anything. And this, for me, made his illness particularly cruel. We like to think good people, the people who don’t ask for much, the people who deserve better, will be spared at the end. And while none of us escapes death, we hope that when it does come, we hold onto our dignity. I'm sure that for my father, a man who was self-sufficient to a fault, losing himself, one piece at a time, was an unimaginable horror.
Eventually, he was released from the hospital and returned home, now with a walker and a black patch over his blind eye. I took the train home to help out and was getting ready to go back to Toronto when he collapsed in the hallway. I refused to call the ambulance. He’d only been home a short time. There were things I was willing to do for the sake of his care, but sending him back to that hospital wasn’t one of them.
My mother, sister and I were in the kitchen discussing whether I should stay the night or take the morning train back when the front doorbell rang. We looked at one another, surprised, and my mother went to the door. No one was there. Adding to the strangeness was the fact that the doorbell hadn’t worked for years. My father had taped over it some time ago. Grasping for some sense of guidance, I took it as a sign to stay the night.
The doorbell would continue to ring in the days ahead. Not constantly, but enough. Neighbours came by to hear it. No one could get over it. I’ve never been one to readily jump into the spiritual realm, but it’s hard to deny a ringing doorbell. For me, it meant that someone was coming for my father. I didn’t want to say this to him, because I didn’t know if he was ready to answer the door. He’d sit in his armchair, hands in his lap, staring out the living room window while the chimes bounced off the walls. It was impossible to know what was going through his mind, the effect the tumour was having on his interior world. I would’ve asked him what he thought about the doorbell, but he wouldn’t have been able to answer.
Two weeks later, he died. In the days following his death, the doorbell continued to ring.
“If it stops after his funeral,” my mother said, “Then we’ll know for sure.”
The bell rang continuously the day of my father’s funeral. It rang a couple of times the following day. Then it never rang again.
It’s been almost 13 years since I heard that doorbell. I forget about it sometimes. This happens in day-to-day life when you get caught up in your routines. When your world focuses too much on what’s tangible, on the things you can see, rather than the things you can feel.
The doorbell gave my family something at a time when it seemed there was very little left. It was a comfort, a form of communication that went beyond the constraints of language. It reminded us that someone was there, on the other side of the door, beyond our frame of vision; that we were being cared for and would continue to be cared for in the days ahead, even when our small, physical world left us in doubt.
I think this is what my father would’ve said.
This piece originally aired on CBC's Sunday Edition on June 15, 2014.