"God, that was cold. When you get down to that hambone, you feel it. That sucker hurts."
"What was that, Ricky?" I asked.
His eyes focused on me, and with tiny steps, he staggered forward. The nonsense switch in his brain shut off, and with clarity and lucidity, he explained what the doctors were going to do to him the next day. The first shunt in his liver hadn't quite done the trick, he said. The tumour was pressing on a vein and fluid was still collecting in his body. A second shunt might divert the fluid so he could live comfortably for another few months.
He refused my arm to help him to bed. He told me he had to sleep, would take a few more steps, and turn to tell me something else. Rick loved talking, and that was obvious from the first moments I met him.
Suzi took me to Nipawin to meet her parents for the first time in the summer of 2006. Her dad had arranged a motorboat ride on Tobin Lake. It was the first time I had ever been in a real motorboat. My parents had always paddled canoes when I was growing up, and on the one occasion they rented a motorboat, it was old and doddered across the lake with a disappointing chug-chug-chug.
Rick's boat roared forward. I felt pine wind rush past, felt spray on my hands. The sunlight on the lake dazzled me. I tried to play it cool, but I could see Rick watching me. He saw my grin, and knew I was pleased. I had fallen into his trap: he loved arranging vehicular excursions into the woods north of Nipawin, and just watching his victims smile.
He landed on a beach and I stepped from the boat. I found a driftwood pole on the shore and claimed it. Both ends were gnawed by beaver teeth. It was a good pole, the kind that vibrated a musical note when dropped. I explained to Rick that I needed a new walking stick and wanted a souvenir to help me remember such a perfect day.
I brought my 4-year old daughter with me to the hospital after his operation. He beamed, just like he had on the boat, when he saw her. He explained to the nurse who was changing his shirt, "This is my girlfriend, Zoey." The nurse raised an eyebrow at me.
"My name's Kara," corrected my daughter.
The nurse was done in a moment, and I sat near his bedside. "So, ya takin' off, Jerry?" he asked.
"No, I just got here. I'll hang out and keep you company for awhile,"
We held awkward conversation. Mostly, he watched Kara play in the window. She talked about icebergs forming on the roof of the hospital. "That little girl... sure is astute," he said, before drifting away to sleep. It was the last thing I ever heard him say.
"Is he always confused like this?" asked the nurse as I was leaving.
"Yeah, it's the encephalopathy," I replied. "It's been worse lately."
The nurse queried me about his medical history, because Rick had been unable to answer the questions himself before the operation. "Liver cancer of course," I said. "And hepatitis C and the encephalopathy. Type II diabetes. History of alcoholism."
In 2013 I went for a drive to Lost River and Teddington with Rick. I had expressed interest in his family history, and after loaning me a book on Mennonites in Canada, he invited me to view the land where he had spent his childhood.
The land southwest of Nipawin was deep green, and rain threatened to delay the new harvest. A muddy grid road blazed west through low hills, sheltered by patches of aspen, then curved south, away from the Saskatchewan river. Kara twittered to herself in the backseat of the car.
Only a church and cemetery remain standing in Teddington. But as we drove the grids, he pointed to a patch of poplars and said, "That's where the brown church was, the old one. We used to go there until they built the new one. It was kinda scary." He would talk about this or that farmhouse that used to stand, and the names of people who lived there. He talked about slaughtering day, when all the Mennonites from the countryside would converge on somebody's farm and slaughter their animals, then have a great feast.
Rick's mother died of tuberculosis in 1948, when he was two years old. His father needed somebody to help raise his two boys, and he remarried quickly. Rick remembered his new mother chasing him and his brother with a butcher knife. She would beat them if they spoke German in the home. She instilled in him a sense of fear, sadness and anger that would last him the rest of his days.
As we walked through the Teddington cemetery and he groused about his stepmother, I saw his life anew. He started his life as a wounded little farmboy, and could have stayed a wounded little farmboy in this dying little community. But somehow he broke free and started thinking for himself, despite his pain. Yes, he used and abused substances, including alcohol, to dull that pain. Yes, he got into fights and got in trouble with the law. And he could not help inflicting some of that anger and pain onto his own children. But as we walked in the graveyard, I saw him in his new equilibrium, conscious of his own pain and his failings, but somehow having found a twisted little bit of contentedness. He had found a woman to love him. He had made peace with his children. He had seen rough times, but they were over, and now life was quiet and happy.
A day after the operation, Rick was kept in the hospital. An infection had developed in the fluid in his abdomen. In the following days, he drifted in and out of wakefulness, speaking less and less, mumbling and putting his hands to his face, battling internal demons.
The doctors soon ceased the antibiotics. His liver and kidneys had failed, his immune system was destroyed. All that could be done was watch him drift away.
A lifetime of intemperance had given Rick hepatitis C and diabetes, but by the time I got to know him, his greatest sin was liking hockey too much. He would often alarm me by quietly watching the game on his computer with a set of headphones, then bark "YEAH!" when his team scored.
He ate mounds of sweets, oil and salt, damn his internal organs. He managed his blood sugar with injected insulin, and the various other complaints of his body with a bag full of drugs and vitamins.
Rick mislabelled his uncommon problem-solving talent as “common-sense”. He clearly saw solutions and mentally worked his way backwards, not stopping until his vision was satisfied. Most stubborn people build a cocoon of ignorance around themselves, but Rick's curiosity would always coax him out.
His office was filled with old electronics that he had taken apart or upgraded. He bought game consoles to hijack them and get free games. All his computers had their protective cases open, exposing wires and components.
In 2013, he created a little still out of a pot and a large plastic bucket, brewing and drinking his own alcohol. He was so proud as he showed me the various flavour packets he added to make amaretto, rum or rye. When I visited, he offered me alcohol from his still, and for some reason, I refused him most of the time. I promised him that I would get drunk with him some day.
That day will never come now. As he drank from his little still, the alcohol assaulted his scarred liver, accelerating the growth of the tumour inside it. The tumour squeezed his hepatic arteries, causing him pain, depression, lack of energy, fluid retention, and eventually, starvation.
By Christmas of 2014, his skin hung loose on his crooked form. He cradled a bloated bellyful of fluid. It was obvious that he was dying. And then he smiled. In his mouth gleamed a new set of dentures. It was so absurd that I felt sick.
It was a years-long fading, crowned with disconcerting indignities. In his confusion, he accidentally crushed our canoe, backing into it with a trailer. He gave up on the “piss stain” he wanted to leave on the world, his straw-bale house. As he lost control of his life, he got overly worried about international terrorism and immigration. He began spending hours in the bathroom. He couldn't work anymore, forgetting what he as doing mid-chore. He spent more time in bed, then was bedridden. Reality abandoned him.
On February 18, 2015, he breathed his last breath in his hospital bed. By his order, he was not resuscitated. His last words were either, “Hey buddy,” or “Oh, fuck.” With his earthly remains chilling in the hospital morgue, all I had left of him were questions.
The night of his death, I tried to understand where he went. I tried to figure out why he was. I tried to distil some essence of him, some lesson to be learned from his life and death. I talked to my wife about it.
"I don't even fucking care about that," she chided, lost in greater grief. "What's the point? Why do you want to make it simple? It was his life!"
She's right, of course. I am a writer, and a dealer in stories. Stories comfort me, because they make the world simpler. By trying to make his life conform into a simple "life story", I was robbing it of some of its meaning. It is messy and contradictory. It needs an epic, not 1800 words.
He was by turns a clever thinker and a bigot. He was a loving father and a cruel father. He could be a stubborn asshole, but he never stopped learning. He got under my skin, he pushed me, he made me think. I pitied him and I admired him. I resent him for not preserving his life, yet I feel that his death was good, that a restless soul found peace.
I love him and I scorn him and I love him.