With these pictures, I explore the perspective of witnessing a parent’s unstoppable decline to the end. While there are no pictures of my father in this set, I give voice to growing distress at his final journey as my gaze drifted externally to the hospital itself and immediate surroundings. Northern summers, specifically August, now mean something entirely different.
On 19 July 2014, Dad was taken to Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital after he had a minor fall down the stairs at home. No bones were broken, which was remarkable considering his worsening health in the final stages of cancer. He would never return to the house in which he and Mum had bought and lived since 1976.
Over the next few days, I explore through a dozen pictures what it’s like to witness a parent’s unstoppable decline from a son’s perspective in orbit around a downward spiral. There are no pictures of Dad in this set; instead, I give voice to my growing internal distress by casting my lens externally, including the hospital itself and immediate surroundings.
By the 2nd week, he had been moved to the Palliative Care Unit (PCU) on the 10th floor. The wonderful hospital staff took great care of him and other patients in the unit. Dad charmed the PCU staff by chatting with them in broken English; it was his way of exerting some measure of control.
Into week 3, his mind and spirit had departed, and he had become completely unresponsive. Over the next five days, his body remained, breathing steady, though often shallow and laboured. He was calm and at peace, and thanks to the meds, with diminished pain. I was with Dad a part of every day for the following 21 days until his death on 9 August; he had celebrated his 82nd birthday only a few weeks earlier.
I looked out the windows to summer skies, to tell him the city he’d known for over 40 years was still out there. I was also in a hot rage because the rest of the world continued on, unworried and uncaring, leaving Dad and the suffering and the dying behind. Entropy is all fine a concept until it reaches out and fucks with your reason for being.
In the Palliative Care Unit (PCU) on the 10th floor of Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital, there’s a lounge area for family and friends, down the hallway at some distance from patients’ beds. In the lounge are couches, chairs, a piano, books, and a small kitchenette with a fridge, microwave, and a small area to make coffee or tea. There’s also a small balcony with additional deck chairs for people to sit outside in the shade. The balcony is where I made picture numbers 6 above and 12 below. With the lounge at the building’s southwest corner, there’s an outstanding west-facing view to the rest of downtown, the West End, and English Bay. Instead, I look down to the streets and actively seek spatial serendipity, to counter the nagging unspoken question of what the hell am I doing here.
This corridor in the PCU connects the lounge area with staff offices, examination rooms, and patients’ rooms. By day or night, it’s generally quiet: it’s not an eerie atmosphere, but it’s more like a respectful state of mind.
Next to the PCU on the 10th floor, there’s a section where the windows next to the elevators face west to English Bay. We watch the annual summer fireworks through the glass. There are subdued voices, interrupted by the sounds of mobile phones as people attempt to take pictures. There’s no shouting, whooping, or clapping. Patients, family and friends, and on- and off-shift staff all gaze equally and quietly, beyond the glass, beyond the lights, and into the Salish Sea. I wrote more about this remarkable experience here.
By this point, Dad had become a living shell. His spirit had departed days earlier, and his body was hanging on. His eyes, open and unseeing; his mouth, open and sunken; his skin, smooth yet cool to the touch. He looked like a breathing ghost, but a part of him still remained. And so, I stroked his cheek with the back of my fingers, and I gently held onto his arm, knowing fully he could no longer acknowledge me. Did I tell him all the things I wanted to say? Probably not, but I hoped my presence provided some comfort. In previous days, he recognized me for who I was: his son, the little boy of five who once eagerly climbed onto his dad’s knee.
What I feared most was not his rapid deterioration or that the end was coming quick, but that somewhere inside he was trapped and unable to communicate. I leaned close into his ear, and I said: “it’s okay, Dad. You can go.” I repeated this in both English and Toisan for days until I received the phone call. After that, I no longer had to repeat or remind him of the message.
From the lounge balcony, I made the picture of his final sunset. While he could no longer “see”, I hoped he could sense the shift between day and night, but perhaps it was the knowing that the shift was now racing from life over to death.
Hours later at 610am on the 9th of August 2014, Dad breathed his last and slipped quietly into the eternal sea. When I got the phone call, I felt some relief for him: his ordeal was finally over. That respite was quickly replaced by the empty vacuum that comes with losing a parent. Even now with the passing of years, I clearly relive moments with Dad and his final three weeks of life in the hospital.
This post appears on fotoeins DOT com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-akW. I made all of the pictures between 31 July and 8 August 2014. All pictures were at St. Paul’s Hospital except number 5 at the corner of Bute St. and Davie St. and number 10 at the Law Courts building.