With enough time, perpetual stubble can be classified as a beard. I have a beard because I think shaving is a waste of time. My Dad has a mustache because he won a bet in the 1960s—or else he is still trying to win the bet. Moustaches and beards serve us well on this trip. We make friends easily with other bearded and moustachioed men. Kurdish men, Cretan men, Cypriot men in small villages and Iraqi men in Nicosia; they are all curious about these two Canadian men with facial hair.
+ will you get a dog?
- you’re allergic to dogs.
+ i think they make allergy free dogs now.
We have travelled far. Probably we have come all this way through Greece and Cyprus and Istanbul merely to say what we could not that starry white night before Christmas when we were relegated to the non-smoking fish bowl section at Hooters restaurant in the industrial end of town just after my Mom/his Wife died following eight months inside what they called “Yellow Wheat Room” on the second floor of The Salvation Army’s Hospice. Which is a mouthful, I know. My memory of the time is clogged with these oddly mixed mouthfuls. My hope is that this account will keep the flavours straight when I am his age, and thrown for such a loop.
It was simpler in the beginning, like your own memory, maybe too hell bent on deciding which of them would have to go first. Which has nothing to do with whom you love more—only who has to die first. If you had to pick. My mind had trouble with the selection. It could not allow itself to picture them apart. Over and over it would say fuck it, they will die together at exactly the same moment of premature old age—perhaps with your parents (all our parents)—just as the bomb goes off between the tusks of Salvador Dalí elephants jostling for position in the locked trunk of a Trans-Am that is skidding through the icy cargo hold of a 747 with broken wings, piloted to the bottom of a hurricane, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench by ninjas whom I—whom we —would spend the rest of eternity tracking down.
Always they returned, though.
And always I thanked God when they did. But always I was baffled that they would. That the universe kept misfiring gave me hope that the path of life had not already been pre-carved by He and his filthy head ninja.
The mind thus unhinged began exploring the which-one-first question in more specific terms. Terribly specific terms. Boyishly specific terms. Dad was a better provider. Mom would be capable of soldiering on. He hit sharp ground balls at me, she stuck my hands in raw ground beef and said my little chef. He would X, but she might Y, him and her, on and on, and never could one actually separate in my mind from the other. Only once. As we drove home from school in her orange Chevette in one of those full blown Mom/son moments, before the son is too self-conscious and ironic. We’re laughing so hard about something, and I love her so much, turning off 24th onto Crowchild Trail, with McMahon Stadium in the rear view mirror, a Friday afternoon in spring, a tumour growing in the frontal temporal lobe of her brain that had not being growing before we turned. Slowly. Slowly—
For years, slowly. Biding its time, gaining pace until twenty years from the turn, it created such immense pressure in her brain that the normal electricity which allows cells to communicate became too erratic and her body seized violently, convulsing, breaking, a neurosurgeon drilling through her dark hair, then the olive flesh beneath, the skull, into the left lobe, my Dad’s mind bartering with God’s, trading away the proverbial farm, just to get her through this one craniotomy. And the next. And the next after. And all the treatments and experiments, what-nows and what-ifs that followed. He stopped drinking (even though he never really drank more than a beer in the first place), he sponsored starving kids in Mali, he stopped caring about his sports teams, he pretended to like vegetables—just give us this, his mind said. Neither he nor I would hope for anythingbut this.
He was careful and conscientious, and the three-month prognosis was pushed back and back. But at some point in those extra years he finagled, it became impossible to keep the promises straight, and with one innocent misstep on some unseen crack, the miracle of her survival—
Cancer does work this way. Don’t believe differently.
So in the glow of tinsel and Nina Simone, three years after the bargaining began, I rubbered her left arm, whispering Frost and the psalms and Italo Calvino in her ear, while he held her right. She drew a good breath after some hours of crooked ones, turned her head slightly towards him, opened her eyes, smiled, and never drew another.
The look, frozen for an instant and then branded in our psyches, said my sweet dear, you have done more for me than any other man would be capable. I have put you through—
Go live now.
We were even with God. Or maybe it was that God now wanted us to get even.
+ you like olives now.
+ and red onions.
+ and cucumber.
+ you didn’t like these things last year.
+ she liked these things, you ATE them, but didn’t like them.
+ I wonder what that means.
We are between Rhodes and Damascus, four months later, it is spring, we have purged guilt in a way that eases it deeper into our bones. He has treated our journey with reverence, and I with bemusement because I am too ironic to believe in sacred journeys; just as I am too ironic to talk sacredly with my Dad. Irony is the great overlooked filial affliction. It is maybe at the heart of all a young man’s misdealings with the modern world. It is the ADD of 2020.
Going to Hooters, that was ironic. All the smokers whose Moms and Wives hadn’t just died, dudes who don’t dick up and get wasted at a real peeler bar, or even a bikini bar, glared at us, alone in the fish bowl. We oozed something wounded, tentative, we appeared to have vital matters to discuss. Nobody who has something important to discuss goes to Hooters.
My inheritance—ironic. One half of one fifth of three quarters of one other fifth of her father’s ancestral land in a small village on a remote island located between the Ionian and Aegean seas. She always dreamed of visiting, but had never laid eyes upon it. This crumbling stone peasant hovel being appropriated by a distant cousin named Demetrius, at the same time squatted in by an Albanian deserter. On a January afternoon that was—it was the afternoon equivalent of cud—an old friend’s name materialized in my Yahoo Mail inbox. I had been aimlessly clicking “check mail,” several times an hour for several days in a row then, trying to gnaw the cud back into flavour. I knew this name. This was my best friend from age four until about 13, in fact he could very well have been in the orange Chevette the day—
My friend’s message—also ironic. We had not spoken in a decade. He was sorry to hear the news. He was sorry we had lost touch.
¨If you happen to be in Cyprus in June,¨ he PSed, ¨you should come to my wedding.¨
As it so happens, I wrote back to my friend, I will be in Cyprus in June. I took a deep breath, then bit down hard on the irony and carefully proposed a journey to my Dad. We would visit her ancestral island, we would go to my old friend’s wedding. For good measure, we would knock off Istanbul too. We would do it with backpacks. We would smoke water pipe. Climb remote gorges. Sleep on buses and not shave. Move backwards and forwards through time. Just like the vague civilizations that send their Dads and sons away, and don’t let them back until they’ve figured out how to proceed without their women.
Of course, this plan concerned my Dad, a meticulous planner, who had grown more conservative in middle age, as men do. To my surprise, however—and own deep trepidation—Istanbul clinched it for him. He vetoed nothing. I overheard him talking excitedly with a friend on the phone.
- No, I don’t know where we’ll stay.
- No, I bought a BACKPACK.
- No, I don’t know how to “work it.”
- No—YES there ARE 15 million people in Istanbul.
- That’s right, NO plan.
- I KNOW I always have a plan.
She would have scrunched her brow, trying to read one of us (me) for signs of a put on. She would have said, “what do you mean you went to Hooters to talk about my funeral?” And if I didn’t crack up giggling, I would have scrunched my face up like hers and replied, “actually we talked about the Flames new backup goalie,” Miikka-something-or-rather—even then we had near-biblical trust in the team’s new general manager. Actually, she would have loved going to Hooters. It would have been—
She craved experiences.
Before she got sick, he’d been abruptly pushed out of his job at the university by some second rate figurehead. He had not known what to do with the rest of his life; her illness gave him the proverbial grand and noble mission, it gave him a million details to take care of, it put his midlife decision of what now on hold. I am over conscious to the point of blissful detachment—nothing, as you already know, is not an ironic gag served up by the universe for our amusement—but his over consciousness works inwards. They’d had their retirement all plotted, a complex set of road trips, long walks in the hills, hours in the garden. Once, he confided to my sister that there would be nothing left to live for once she was—
I wanted to know if he would remarry—or rather, would he consider another lady. Would he give her nighties to Interfaith? Would he get involved in local politics now? Had we found Jesus in all this?
+ you cried when Pal died.
+ i laughed at you.
+ i didn’t know Dads cried then.
I got drunk alone in a lounge off 6th Street, drawing matrices with his strengths and weaknesses. He was in his fifties. I believed he could actuallyblossom from this. With enough spin, this could be an opportunity. He’d been given a chance at life as an individual rather than part of a couple. I’d pitch him these opportunities, awkwardly, at Knossos, at Ephesus, in the Blue Mosque. We need to establish some new protocols. I bought a blue notebook called “notes for the conversation,” but never put anything in it other than “need to have a conversation.” We had two months to have the conversation, there was no hurry. I saved the final version of the matrix on my PowerBook, but never printed it.
+ take courses at the university
+ run for council
+ co-write dark, but lyrical pilot about hospices for HBO
There are some things about this matrix. It bites, yes. And technically, no it is maybe not a real matrix. And also the term “Dad” is used instead of “father.” In my presence Mom only referred to him as Dad. Never Barry*, never father. The difference between the words is the difference between died and passed away. Passing away is accidentally letting out flatulence until you’ve deflated to nothing. She died. He was my Dad.
*You didn’t expect a Barry, did you?
WE ARRIVED IN ATHENS, hoping to track down a film director I had to interview for a documentary about the Cyprus problem, a project I’d undertaken at the last minute in order to take pressure off the conversation. The director was a wild spirit. After our first rounds of zivania, he infused in us the sense that we had come to the right place. We stumbled between tavernas, feasting and drinking from tin ewers. In her terminal years, there was a constant buzz. Our hearts stopped in the moments before each MRI result, our minds never stopped spinning at the gravity. We made big complicated last meals of Cassoulet and Timpano, we went to the mountains, we listened to Miles Davis. We put her through all the final requests and experiences one should check off before they go. The intensity of flavour spilled out of our mouths, down our chins. And with that urgency gone, our own then evaporated. But now feral street dogs were howling at the foot of the Acropolis, and the director was howling, and my Dad was beaming, we hadn’t slept in a couple of days of flights and trains and buses, and in a couple of hours we’d be hurtling down the peninsula, then onto a rickety boat towards the island. Her island. Life was suddenly so distracting, there was so much to taste, that you couldn’t stand to miss even one moment with anything so insignificant as sleep.
+ she would have loved this place.
- oh god.
Where she would come out and demand to know what was up, he sparred. He spoke through fungos and jump shots; half-nelsons on the rumpus room floor. Always we tried to elude each other to make our points. In these moves, pure acts stripped of language, we communicated what was necessary. He monitored how I was growing based on the distance I could hit a ball. He gauged my mental progress by my capacity to find open ice and analyze football drives. He made sure I wasn’t a drug addict by how capably I could return his special spin ping pong serve. We still fake jab at one another when there is an important point to make, and even now, my tendency is to karate chop the neck of a girl I love when I really mean to whisper the words in her ear. Because the words are too banal. Our language of elusion, on the other hand, is perfect, nothing could suit the irony better.
+ we did all we could.
- i want to feel guilty about this.
+ so do i.
- you don’t show it.
- i’m forgetting that i am guilty.
- i am distracting myself with work, with wandering, with women, with wine, with withs until I die.
The Albanian is adrift, alone and sad in my great grandfather’s house, his woman living in poverty outside Tiranë. Demetrius is too sick to see us. The land is suddenly not so important. Finding small, remote unlocked stone churches teetering at the edge of cliffs is important. We light candles for whoever might need a candle lit for them that day, we light candles for her. We sit beside each other. Silently. Imagining what the other is thinking. Wherever we go, people are adrift. The whole world has been cut loose from itself. She had to die first, I decided in the orange Chevette, because he would need to realize that the world was adrift. She had already understood it.
+ do you want to do some spanish classes with me?
- i don’t have the capacity for that sort of thing.
+ there are equivalent things.
At service, the reverend addressed each of us—Dad, sister, me—separately from the pulpit. At my turn, he used Hemingway. The world breaks everyone, he quoted, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. It is a perfect reference. Even though I am far too ironic for Hemingway. On the island we hang out with a composer named Panayotis, a thoughtful man, a wise man, perhaps a bonafide wise man, midway between my Dad and I in age. We drink mountain tea one crisp afternoon in a white and blue cube-shaped stone house, which he has converted to a studio on the barren plane outside a derelict village, the wind howling outside, pounding through the sound proofed walls. Panayotis has been thinking about my Dad for a while. He is sad. “Live a long time,” he eventually says, his sadness turning to a smile. “So you can remember.” My Dad tilts his neck. The way he does when he is accepting a new idea.
WITH ENOUGH TIME, perpetual stubble can be classified as a beard. I have a beard because I think shaving is a waste of time. My Dad has a mustache because he won a bet in the 1960s—or else he is still trying to win the bet (I think he has forgotten which). Our faces look the way they look by such defaults. Moustaches and beards serve us well on this trip, however. We make friends easily with other bearded and moustachioed men. Kurdish men, Cretan men, Cypriot men in small villages and Iraqi men in Nicosia; they are all curious about these two Canadian men with facial hair. Are we friends? Are we something more sinister? Business associates? We must be business associates—business associated masquerading as American spies? (We could be American spies.) Nobody believes he is my Dad. They think that would be too far out, a Dad and son out in the world. When I agree that it is very far out, and also insist it is true, they still do not believe. Where are your women? They are gone. The men become sad. They understand our trip. I ask: do you have something similar in your culture—going away in order to talk about it—maybe in ancient times? They don’t answer, not exactly.
The unspoken terms of our language is different from these hairy men. We like to skip rocks across the Bosphorus, or if there is no water we kick the rocks down the road, or throw them at trees or traffic signs, or off cliffs (a large part of our travel experience is about throwing rocks). Our subtext is more subtle even than the evolved spikes and dips in the inflection of these men. The women are more direct, they ask for every little detail about how we took care of her until the end, they say oyee oyee oyee—
+ what now?
- I’m not sure.
+ you need a plan.
+ you need to do something with your life.
+ WHY? listen, who’s the fucking father here.
- i’ll clean her stuff out of the house.
+ that’s a good step—then what?
- i haven’t decided.
+ will you find another woman?
+ i’d be ok with that…unless you bring home some skank.
- i wouldn’t—
+ not this soon.
Ari is telling me about the referendum. He is a rare Greek Cypriot “yes” on Kofi Anan’s reunification plan. I ask him how he could be a yes when the plan is fucking Greek Cypriots. He tells me in delicate English that he has decided to stop saying no to the universe. He will only say yes now. Is it working? It is working better than you would think. Nicosia is littered with characters like Ari—schemers and oddballs swathed in subtext, caught between worlds—we belong here right now. By day, working on the documentary, I interview terrorists, soldiers, refugees, unrecognized presidents of unrecognized territories. At night, my Dad and I meet up in our room at Tony’s B+B (which also rents by the hour). He tells me about his own interviews with local characters. I arrive dusty and thirsty. “I hope that your business goes well today,” Assad, who runs Tony’s always says to me on the way up the stairs. I ask Assad about his new Russian girlfriend, we practice Iraqi salutes, and then Assad, who was once shot in the head and spent years on the run after Saddam killed his brother, says “Your friend is a very good man.”
I’m suddenly struck by a conversation, which I relate to Assad. It’s one of those hypothetical what-the-wedding-will-look-like-conversations that increase in frequency right before you break up with your girlfriend when your Mom is dying. The girl asks who my best man will be. I think for a long time and say that it will be my Dad. I look at my watch. I tell Assad: “In a month, she is marrying a different man.”
- can i ask you something?
- what happened with x?
+ we wanted different things.
- and y?
+ what we expected out of life — it was just different.
- and the new one?
+ she’s kind of fucked up actually, she wants some of the same things.
- which is nothing?
+ also everything.
- how will it last?
+ maybe lasting isn’t the point.
- what is the point for you?
+ i don’t know if there has to be a point.
- i have to stop falling for them.
+ my girlfriends?
+ no you don’t.
She was curious about my life, and I was private. I had become something different to both of them. Like all sons, I had a secret second life beyond that of being their child. I wrote for a living, I wandered, I knew some ways of the world that they did not. Where did that come from? When she was in the hospice, the tumour pressed into a place that took away her speech, I taunted her. I said: “You think you will find the truth about me, but you will not. Right now I am getting all the wickedness out of my system. When you come back to spy on me with your new omniscient seraphic view, you will only see me reading a bible and drinking tea and arranging tulips.” I had been feeding her some mango, and she spat it out her mouth in a gust of laughter. “Your spirit will not be able to follow me into the Congo.” Oh yes it will, her eyes glowed. And I pretended to go damn. But in truth, I liked the idea. I wouldn’t have to hide any more.
+ you’re canceling your tickets? you and her had those tickets for years.
- the new owners have ruined this franchise, there are bleak years ahead.
+ i think love is the most pure as hope of future dwindles.
- how can you say that?
+ i never loved life more than those moments before that last breath.
We are talking some good shit with a civil engineering student, who would actually prefer to be a hospitality student. His English is good, he knows a lot of good things to do in Istanbul. You’d be good at hospitality, we say. But a swarthy man is whispering to my Dad, and soon we are dragged into the Blue Mosque. The man keeps insisting that he is a good friend of ours. Why are you insisting? “I am telling you about the mosque…I want to have apple tea with you and your friend.”
+who is this dude?
-i don’t know.
+ are we done talking to the student?
But we are in the Blue Mosque. I whisper to the man: you’re going to some crazy lengths to sell us a carpet. “You are offending me,” he replies. We do not find carpets interesting. “This is no way to talk to a friend!” But you’re not our friend—the civil engineering student is our friend. The man glares. For five minutes, he glares. Maybe he is giving me a brain tumour with this glare. We are quiet for ten more minutes, absorbing the magnificence, calming down, getting into the silence. But the man is staring at his watch in an obvious manner. He blurts: “How do you know your friend doesn’t want to buy a carpet?” Carpet dude! You are ruining our Blue Mosque experience — we only want to spend the morning sitting beside each other in silence. “Do not talk for him!”
I pause. Then I hiss at the wretched man: he doesn’t want to buy a carpet! And now I feel his breath, “STOP ANSWERING, he has a mind, he wants a carpet!”
The accusation is packed with such absolute certainty that I question what my Dad does want. And I suddenly wonder if this carpet man is not actually a wise man who can see things that we have become too close to see in the last two months. Maybe there is a mistake in the way we have recalibrated the authority between Dad and son. I question in that moment everything that my Dad might want and need in his new life. Maybe he needs a carpet.
- it will be my last car.
+ shut up.
- what do i have to live for?
+ what does anybody have to live for?
- YOU have work. YOU have the new girl. i don’t know if i have enough withs to distract myself for a long life.
We are in Istanbul walking around in the middle of the night, lost on an eerie back street, thinking that, well, it’s not that big a place. The world’s not that big, really. It’s a shame she didn’t get to—
We are actually in the wretched man’s shop. Looking at carpets. Do we agree that his carpets are the nicest in town? “To tell you the truth,” my Dad says to the man, “they are a little bit boring for me.” Apple tea rushes up my nose as I try to contain my glee. My Dad does not want a carpet after all. In these last weeks, we have collected pebbles from her father’s land, shells from ancient sites; we’ve plucked old tiles out of crusty streets, plain dirt from beneath olive trees. We are discussing a memorial. The sleeves of the shirts we are wearing today, all this stuff will become material of the memorial. Wherever we go from now on we will bring such material back. We will stack it in her garden like an inuksuk.
- how will i tell people about this trip?
+ what do you mean?
- there’s so much, i don’t know how to begin.
+ you will need a good listener.
It is our last morning in Istanbul. It is just after dawn. Time is wasting! We need to be all over the city right now, all over Byzantium and Constantinople, all over existence itself. We need to plant her everywhere. I throw rocks at a wall impatiently. I storm up to the room to say Istanbul is waiting. But he is looking out the window, at Asia on the other side of the Bosphorus. My heart rushes into my throat. Ronald Reagan’s son is on CNN, on Larry King. This is the first TV we’ve watched in more than two months. He tells me that Ronald Reagan’s son has been describing the way his Dad slipped away, the final breaths, the calm. It was exactly like-
And then he shows me something he has been carrying in his wallet for a few months, and tells me a long story. And for the rest of the morning we chat about what we have wanted to chat about. Dadguiding son through his uncertainty.
+ i want you to have an action plan, a path to being ok.
- why do I need a plan?
+ i guess you don’t.
+ the one-day-at-a-time thing.
+ i think that becomes a rut after a while.
- our plans aren’t that different.
+ no, not really.
The new girl is from Hamburg. Her past is dotty, and already my Dad has fallen for her. Not only did she actually once run away with a circus, she can do a headstand on a galloping horse. She has trained with Michelin Star chefs. She is writing her thesis on Endogenous Theory in Economics. She almost has the same name as the Flames’ new goalie. She blushes when I karate chop her neck—
It is early in the morning, and I am going to Berlin to see her. The next day he will start his journey back to Calgary. He has stayed up all night to make sure I don’t sleep through the alarm and miss my flight. There is a flourish of packing, there is a reluctant moment, there is the inevitably, we hug, and I am walking.
+will you be ok?
- why do i have to be ok?
+ i guess you don’t have to be ok.
- maybe i won’t be ok.
+ i just want you to be ok.
- Eat. Sleep. Walk. Smile. Die.
- The Life Hacks of Grandmothers
- The Barber of Istanbul
- Pay Whatever You Want In Jordan
- Doing a Jesus Year
- Smokey Arabic Eyes For Japanese Girls
- The Tijuana Electric Shock Machine
- Extreme Acts Of Pain & Physical Penance In Kuala Lumpur
- The Improbable Campaign of North America’s First Muslim Mayor
- A red wagon. A big hill. A hookah. A flat of hefeweizen. A misplanted Father’s Day.