With these pictures, I explored the perspective of witnessing a parent’s unstoppable decline to the end. I didn’t include pictures of my father in this set, but I gave voice to growing distress at his final journey in orbit around a downward spiral. My gaze drifted externally to the space and form of the hospital and to the surroundings outside.
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.
By the 2nd week, he had been moved from 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. I also witnessed the inevitable “shuffle”. One day, a patient slept quietly in one of the other beds, surrounded by members of his family. The following day, the bed was cleared, cleaned, and prepared for a new patient.
Into week 3, his mind and spirit departed, and he became completely unresponsive to external prompts. Over the following days, his body remained, accompanied by sounds of breathing, often shallow and laboured. He was at peace, and thanks to the meds, in diminished pain. I’d been with Dad a part of every day for 21 consecutive days. Friday came and went, and so did the passing of the sun. As I’d done every evening, I leaned down and whispered: “good night, I’ll see you tomorrow.” The following morning, I awoke to a phone call. The nurse’s voice was calm and gentle. Somewhere in the universe, I heard faint echoes of the death rattle. I said to the nurse: “thank you for your phone call. We’ll be at the hospital in a few hours.”
I ended the call and looked down at my watch: 613am. The date was August 9. He had celebrated his 82nd birthday only a few weeks earlier.
Northern summers, especially July and August, mean something entirely different.
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. I look down to the streets below 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 atmosphere and state of mind.
Next to the PCU on the 10th floor, there’s a section where the windows facing the elevators look out west towards 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, over the lights, and into the Salish Sea. I wrote about this poignant 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 hung on. 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.
When I visited Dad in the hospital, I began watching sunsets from the lounge balcony. I made this 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 knowing that the shift had become a race from life over to death.
Hours later at 610am on the 9th of August, Dad breathed his last and slipped quietly into the eternal sea. I felt some relief, because his ordeal was finally complete. That respite was quickly replaced by the empty vacuum that comes with losing a parent. Even now with years gone, I clearly relive moments with Dad and his final three weeks of life in the hospital.
I made all images above between 31 July and 8 August 2014. All pictures were at St. Paul’s Hospital, except image number 5 at the corner of Bute St. and Davie St., and image number 10 at the Law Courts building. For Dad’s time at St. Paul’s Hospital, I’m tremendously grateful to the staff in the Emergency Department and especially to the fine staff in the Palliative Care Unit. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-akW. Edited: 9 Aug 2019.