We could still play pool, my father and I. Even after he lost the ability to remember passwords, to navigate his email, to take his pills; even after he started to have outbursts, to see plots forming around him like shadows, to muse aloud about murdering those who were after him; after he attacked his sister and his sister again and then two men in the middle of the night, confused and angry and lost. He was losing his mind in drips, in jumps, and you could see it leaving. Occasionally he could, too.
But pool was simple, quiet, serene. There was a table in his retirement home in Victoria, B.C., and my father was the only one who played. When he got there other residents tried, but it wasn’t fun for them. My dad used to hustle a little in university, among other places — “my misspent youth,” he would say with a grin. You could hobble over with a walker and hold a cue in your shaking hands, and my dad would place his reading glasses on an end table and he would quietly, pleasantly beat your ass.
And when I visited, more than anything, we would play pool. He would, most of the time, beat my ass. That was before it really got bad.
I think I remember the day my father left us when I was 5. He was packing up his things in the bathroom and I asked, why do you have to go? Before that I remember sitting at the top of the stairs in the slanted light from downstairs, listening to him and my mother argue. My brother Brian, two years younger, remembers hearing them yell angrily in another room. There was more stony silence than anything, apparently, and maybe that’s why those are among our earliest surviving memories. We were the first kids we knew whose parents got divorced. We weren’t special, but it could feel that way.
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So we visited his Burnaby basement suite every second weekend. Henry Arthur was a professor at BCIT, a technical institute, then a dean, and eventually the head of their international education program. He worked a lot, travelled a lot. He would bring back fake Rolexes for us from places like Indonesia. On weekend visits he would take us to the park and we’d dive to catch Nerf footballs, or go to McDonald’s. Or we would spend a few hours on a Saturday finding ways to entertain ourselves in the empty university offices while he worked away.
He helped teach us to drive; he tried to teach us about budgets. He bought a Commodore 64, so we could learn computers. But our best shared language was sports. My father would research the NHL and NBA drafts and watch with us with a sheaf of papers with handwritten notes. He taught us tennis and par-3 golf; the rest we learned ourselves. He almost never came to our high school basketball games, and as we got older, and golf was the only sport we still played, our language became fantasy pools and the odd Canucks game, or driving to Sonics games in Seattle, or sharing a 14-pack of two tickets to the Vancouver Grizzlies.
I still remember the first time I beat him in tennis. I remember running to the net to shake his hand.
One day, in the late spring or early summer of 1999, my father felt like crap. He threw up in a parking lot before driving to a work banquet, and afterwards he went home and slept. He thought it was the flu. His second ex-wife told him to go to a hospital, and he spent several weeks in a darkened room.
It was a self-correcting subarachnoid cerebral hemorrhage, technically. I had to whisper when I visited. Once he had recovered and returned home, my brother and I went over to watch an NBA finals game, and we drank ginger ale. He said, his voice a little shaky, “I was there when you boys were born.” He clasped each of us on the shoulder. “And they were the greatest days of my life.”
Years later he retired from the university, and bought a print shop because he couldn’t imagine not working. I saw him at the 2014 Grey Cup and he said, I forgot how to get home. I just left the shop and followed a car until I saw my apartment. I said, Dad, you need to get that checked out. He was diagnosed with dementia the next month, and didn’t tell anybody for a good long time. He moved to Panama with a woman from Chile who left when the diagnosis was revealed. He hung around Panama for a while, getting into occasional car accidents and other slow-motion disasters.
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In 2016 his heroic sister Margaret finally convinced him to come home, to a seniors home in Victoria. In the first few days he was given written walking directions to a nearby local curling club and got lost for nine hours. He never tried to go anywhere alone again.
But we could always play pool. Along with the walks, that was the best part.
My father’s father, Robert Bruce, a mill worker, died of pancreatic cancer when my father was 4. My grandmother Peggy remarried: Alexander Arthur then bought a hotel sight unseen without asking her, and moved the family to the Yukon. My father was bookish and bright, and was beating grown men at chess when he was 12 or 13. He was the skip of the Yukon junior curling team when he was a teenager; he still had straw brooms in his basement suite closet 30 years later. And my grandmother, tough and unsentimental as a hickory tabletop, dropped him off at the UBC gates when he was 16.
He didn’t last. After a few years he joined a surveying crew for the Alaska Highway, and would figure out problems using geometry that the older men couldn’t manage. He talked about those memories longest, about towns like Destruction Bay and Haines Junction, until he stopped talking about the past at all.
And when he came back to UBC he got his degree and his master’s, and played pool on the side, and met my mother on a trip to Mexico with friends in a Volkswagen van. They were married for reasons she couldn’t fully fathom and had two boys, Bruce then Brian. They had been fostering a troubled 11-year-old boy named Patrick, too. We didn’t buy a house in Kitsilano in 1976 for $ 59,000 because my father was opposed to the idea of private property. We all make mistakes.
None of that lasted, either. Patrick couldn’t stay; he is in a lot of our baby pictures, tall and curly-haired. And my dad made a choice, too. My mother tells me that after he left and Patrick vanished I asked her who will take care of Brian and me if you die?
Once back to Canada, the decline was steady. On early visits my dad and I would walk in Beacon Hill Park and look at the totem pole and the peacocks and the ocean, and he was still partly there. Once I warned him not to bump his head on a cupboard door and said, “Watch your head,” and he grinned and said, “That’s what I’m trying to do.” Once he said, “It’s what you do with what you didn’t mean to do that matters.” I don’t remember why he said that, but it’s true.
And we would play pool for hours, because it was the last thing he could do at a high level, and that we could share. He was delighted when I made a good shot, or won a game; he was satisfied when he did. He would have about one moment of clarity per visit, but never more than one. Once he remembered we had walked there before. Another time we were driving back from the ocean and he said, “I made my way in the world with my mind, and it’s very hard to lose it.”
His trauma sometimes manifested as anger, and violence. His sister had to stop visiting, after the second attack. One night he heard a noise outside his fifth-floor window and stalked downstairs and he found two old men talking loudly in the empty common room, and he grabbed one’s cane and punched him, and hit the other with the cane. The next place was a private bed, expensive, in an old manor with high ceilings and locks everywhere. No pool table. His anger flashed at male staff more than anyone else: “F— OFF!” he would yell, if they tried to help. He was never angry at us as kids, that I can remember.
He lived in smaller and smaller moments. On one visit I showed him pictures of my kids, and his eyes glistened; the next day he spent hours telling me the same story over and over about how he had made investments in Africa, and the grandchildren he had met twice would be set for life. Every three minutes, for hours. There was a pulp fiction novel about Africa on his night table.
Vascular dementia cuts your brain off from itself. The blood flow diminishes; memories slide down a hole. I could see his personal time window shrink, to the point where it was a surprise for him to find I was in the room. Dementia affects the body more than I had realized: people stiffen and often fall. I used to think that he was lost in a maze in his mind, and there were dark places and light places in there. But he couldn’t really decide which he would wander into, or find a way out. When my brother and I were there, he was mostly happy.
The final place was Kiwanis Pavilion, a good place. The walks shrank, with everything else. Mostly, we would sit in relative silence and watch sports. Once I showed him pictures of my kids, and the next day, somehow, he remembered them. Our last visit was three weeks ago, and he looked a lot into the middle distance. He slept a lot, and barely spoke. I could still make him laugh, though, and on the second day he moved to rise from the wheelchair. What do you want, Dad? Walk, he said.
So we took his walker and slowly went up and down the halls and then out into the inner courtyard, and he sat in the sun, breathing fresh air for the first time after the winter. He just smiled at me for a while, sly and unshaven. I smiled back. I could hear the distant quiet rattling of the city. Neither of us spoke.
Later that day I had to try to open his diaper so he could pee, and a nurse came to help, and later I asked him, how are you doing, Dad? And he had his final moment of clarity with me, and maybe with anybody, for all I know.
“Sad,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. He was quiet for 10 seconds, 15, 20.
“Getting old,” he said.
I left him that afternoon. Two weeks later he stopped eating and died on a Friday morning, peacefully. He was 77. He didn’t want a funeral.
We inherit from our parents. Not necessarily money; not when they pass on a Kitsilano house and are twice divorced, surely. I got my dad’s nose and his rosacea, good hand-eye co-ordination and some of my brains, and a love of sports. My oldest friend lost his father recently. His dad loved the outdoors, and my friend told me he sees his father in the most surprising places: in the wind, in the mountain snow as it falls. My friend told me, you see your dad in sports. It’s a huge part of my life.
And I inherited the trauma that he carried and created, like we all do. Maybe his own mother was tough and unsentimental because her parents drove her out of the house when she was a teenager. Once on a drive with my brother to my grandfather’s grave in the dry hills of Midway, B.C., my father said he had written letters to his own father about his feelings over being abandoned: about anger and forgiveness. He buried one letter at the grave.
Trauma repeats, and sometimes it multiplies. Even after his dad died he could have stayed at the farm in the Kettle Valley with his mom and his father’s brothers, but the new family was whisked to the Yukon, where my father’s stepfather beat him with a strap. My father never told his sons that, but it was one of his longest surviving memories. He wrote his sister after he attacked her saying he must associate her with the treatment he received from Alexander Arthur, her father but not his, before she was born and Alexander Arthur changed. I understand why my father was angry. I am not sure he ever got all the way to forgiveness.
Maybe I did. From my father, I inherited a distrust of love and a fear of abandonment and a lifelong need for approval that never fully came. Everyone inherits something; I’m not special, it can just feel that way. I think he just didn’t know how to show he loved us, like so many fathers, and so he rarely tried. I tell my children to go for it, the way he told me and Bri. I give them thumbs up the way he did, too. I will one day tell them, as he told me when he was teaching me to drive, that cars have body language. And I will always love sports, and that shared language for people who can’t or won’t access their own emotions.
My father is gone. He was mostly absent, and that absence probably shaped me as much as his presence would have. I loved him, and he loved me, however imperfectly. We all inherit from our parents, in what Mary Oliver called this broken world. All we can do, with every generation, is try to do better. To try our best.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur