Carla Funk
"Returning"

Over the white earth at the verge of thaw, over the stands of lodgepole and jack pines rusted with bug wood, over the bush camps smoking with machinery and crews, over the potato flats and leafless poplar scrub, nameless lakes and Blackwater gold, over the cargo train curving west on the rails, over the highway of lost girls that cuts to the valley, over the half-mile grid of roads that make the town, and down, over the river unlocking its ice, down to the early spring field in a hub of clamour and ruckus, the snow geese come.

Their arrival every year signals the shift, winter easing to frost, late March lows hovering near zero. Harbingers of change, they migrate from the coastal marshes of Mexico and the southwestern states, travelling the Pacific Flyway up the continent toward their Arctic breeding grounds. Along the 5,000 kilometres, the colonies return to their ritual pit stops on route farther north.

The geese return to this Nechako Valley farmland year after year, exhausted and near starvation. They descend to rest and dredge up fuel for the journey ahead. Hundreds of them scuffle over the snow skiffs and pools of cracked ice, tawny heads jabbing, jabbing the ground. The white and blue-grey dusk of their bodies blend with the muted season until they each lift a pearly black eye to their surroundings or flap up in a quick flutter. Then, the black fringe and tips of their flexed wings sharpen the palette, and the rose hue of their beaks and legs tints the picture with a brief brightness.

On this road along Martens’ field, in a red sedan still studded with winter tires, my mother and father sit and watch the birds pecking at barley and wheat left scattered by the man who farms these acres. The low sun of late afternoon slants a beam over them. My father cranes for a clearer view from the passenger seat. Behind his metal-rimmed glasses, his bloodshot eyes are magnified. His face is sallow and creased. His mouth droops in a steady frown. His ball cap, crested with a logging truck, bears the name of a company whose owner he used to know. His flannel work jacket and sweat pants bunch in baggy folds around his body. He is a man disappearing, growing smaller as he goes. My mother points past him out the window.

“Do you remember,” she says, “how the field used to flood and freeze? Do you remember skating here as kids?”

After work and on weekends, to break up the routine and change the scenery of his days, she picks him up and takes him out for drives. To the lumber mill. Around the airport loop. Past the house he lived in when his parents first arrived on the train from Swift Current in 1942. Past the dairy farm where he worked when he quit attending school at 13. Past the old Mennonite graveyard. To his brother’s shop to see the new truck, a Kenworth, the only kind my father ever drove. To Martens’ field where they’ve come to watch the snow geese feeding.

“He’s not dying,” she tells me over the phone when I call for an update on his health. “He’s not better, but he’s not worse—at least not today.”

She gives the rundown of his week: his cussing at the nurses, his attempts to round up fellow residents to help him butcher pigs, his refusal to get out of bed, his demands for ice cream and a cigarette.

“He just wants to go home,” my mother says. “They all want to go home.”

A year-and-a-half ago, before my father was moved to the Nechako Manor, he lay in the dying room of the St. John’s Hospital. Across the province, I slept with the telephone beside my pillow, waiting for the final call. For decades, I had dreamed his death, fantasized my mother’s widowhood on her behalf, imagined the simplicity and peace his leaving would bring. The sicker he became, the more his dying seemed like mercy for everyone, especially him. By the time the diabetes shook loose his last vices—the rye whisky, the Export A’s and trips to the Treasure Cove Casino—he was confused, angry, and incontinent. His blood sugars soared to record highs, hitting digits that should have killed him. Then, within hours, they’d plunge to coma lows and starve his brain of fuel. His body took the shock in a series of tiny strokes that dulled the right side of his body. He walked like he talked—slowly, tentatively, looking for something to hang onto as he slurred his way along the walls from room to room.

When he began to have trouble breathing, my mother drove him to the regional hospital in Prince George for a battery of scans and tests. While my father lay on an outpatient gurney behind a drawn curtain, my mother sat across from the internal medicine specialist, letting the new terminology settle. Infarcts. Hemiparesis. Phosphocreatine. Vascular dementia. His brain, the doctor told her, has shrunk significantly. The years of alcohol had corroded the hard wiring to the point of cognitive impairment. His kidneys were failing. His body was shutting down.

“What do I do now?” my mother asked the doctor. For months, she had been waking in the night to change his soiled clothes, draw his blood and check it on the glucose monitor, inject insulin when his sugars shot up, or spoon honey and peanut butter into his mouth when his levels dropped.

“Take him back to your local er and admit him,” he said. “He won’t be going home again.”

Over the weeks that followed, my father grew increasingly disoriented. From his cranked-up bed in the St. John’s Hospital, he wanted to know why he was there, how come the dogs wouldn’t come when he called them, where had my mother parked the pickup, the blue Ford with roll bars he’d sold 30 years ago. He wanted to go shopping to buy me and my brother new Christmas clothes, though now we were both grown with families of our own. He wanted to buy my mother an anniversary ring from Diamond Jim’s Jewelry. His mind passed through the seven decades of his life, touching down on memories out of order. In and out of reality and consciousness, he floated. Upon waking, he was somewhere different every time. Down the Kluskus at a logging camp. Back at the old house off Kenney Dam Road, needing to feed the pigs. In a motel on the outskirts of Vancouver, waiting to head into the city and see the sights. Always, he was elsewhere, returning to where he had come from, places he had been.

When the fluid built up in his body and his breathing shallowed to a rasp, my mother called from his bedside to say I should be ready, this was it. They’d moved him to the dying room.

“He won’t last long,” she said. Her voice had a catch, but her words were plain. “There’s no point getting on a plane until it’s over.” The culture of emotion in our family had always been straightforward, a generous inheritance of stoicism passed down through German and Russian blood. Grief, like love, was stark and simple, a terrain moved through but never dwelled on.

“Your father wants to speak to you,” she said. “He’s weak. He might not say too much.”

I stood in my kitchen, leaning against the counter and tried to picture him lying in that room, jaundiced and bloated, wheezing on the edge of death.

“Hello, Daughter.” His voice in my ear was far off, softened. So often through the years, his phone calls had been tinged with rye and Coke, his words too slow, blurred with a distorted sweetness. After he quit logging and sold his last truck, he’d spend the days alone in his empty shop, chain-smoking, pouring another drink, snoozing in a duct-taped recliner beside the woodstove while the local country music station gave updates on the weather. Those days, he’d call in the middle of the afternoon while my mother was at work, wanting to know when I was driving back to see him, why not for Christmas, how come I wouldn’t look for a job in town so I could live there again. He’d slur a list of chores lined up for me: stacking the woodpile, clearing up the brush for a burn, cleaning the interior of his pickup. Now, into the cell phone my mother held to his ear, he was saying he loved me, how sorry he was, saying he hadn’t been the father he should have been, that he was going to a better place. And I was saying yes, I knew that, I forgave him, I did.

For those moments, we were a different father and daughter saying words we had never said to each other, words lifted from another family. He said he’d seen the gates of heaven open and all the roads shining gold. He saw the place where he would live, a big house, a huge one on a hilltop. He knew what was waiting for him. My father, who long had sworn off church and God, spoke of eternity like a boy who’d been to Sunday school and seen the glossy pictures of saints and angels dressed in white and gathered by the river.

“One day I’ll be there, too,” I said. In those minutes of our phone call, his childhood faith, suddenly returned to him from some far outpost, transmitted a contagion. “I’ll see you in your huge new house,” I said. The decades locked like winter in me seemed to shift, as if each syllable between us threw some faint spark against the cold.

I hung up the phone feeling light. My father lay in a room surrounded by his brothers, sisters, his mother, and my mother, all of them attending his death with a kindness I thought I’d never summon. I had always wanted him to die at a distance, for his exit to be clean and swift, so my grief could be the same. When I was a child, I’d watch the gravel dust rising in a cloud as he pulled out of the driveway in his pickup and onto the road toward town, and I’d feel such a wash of relief. But his absence always left behind a quiet shadow, a temporary peace. Now, on the island where I waited for his end, no dark echoes chased his leaving.

That night, I skimmed the surface of sleep, descending into halfdreams of his dying, death, and resurrection: he floated downriver on a melting sheet of ice, he lay at the bottom of a snowy ditch, he stood with a fishing rod and rifle at my door. I woke to the telephone beside me. Checked the dialtone. By morning, still no message flashed to say that he was gone. When I called, my mother said that he was still with us, no change.

After four days in the dying room, my father sat up in his bed and said that he was thirsty. He wanted watermelon.

“This happens to the dying,” said his own 90-year-old mother, sitting in her wheelchair by the bedside of her first-born. “They need a little something to make it to the end.”

His brothers drove to the grocery store and brought back one back. My mother held a red slice to his mouth. Without his false teeth, he could only gum the melon, but he got through it all, the first thing he’d eaten in a week. By evening, the doctors revised their prognosis and moved him to a standard bed, upgrading him to stable. Later, when it became clear he wasn’t dying soon, but needed the kind of round-the-clock care my mother couldn’t provide, they filled out the transfer forms, then rolled him through the side corridor connecting to the Nechako Manor, the long-term care facility.

“He’ll never leave that place,” the doctor told my mother, “but he can’t last more than a couple of months there. His body just won’t make it.”

When I travelled back home for a summer visit, he had been living in the Manor’s D Pod for nearly a year. There, in the final wing of the Manor, the most severe dementia cases stayed. Everything was in lockdown. My mother punched a code in a key pad and buzzed us in through heavy double doors. A woman in a sweater and pajama pants shuffled toward us.

“Hi Vera,” said my mother. “This is my daughter.” Vera crooned a few watery syllables and then moved in to kiss me on the cheek. “She’s harmless,” said my mom. “Just watch out for Alec. Last week, he tried to punch me in the face.”

Down the hall, a care aide wearing a jangling lanyard of keys unlocked my father’s room. In the small, spare room, my father lay sleeping with the blanket pulled up to his chin. He looked like a child, his face thinner, his olive skin ashen and drawn.

“Wakey, wakey,” said my mom, opening the blinds. “Look who’s come to see you.” She took his folded glasses from the nightstand and slipped them on his face. His eyes grew wide as he tried to focus. In the seconds before he spoke, I could see his mind at work, connecting the words to images, my face to my name.

“How were the roads?” he asked. He turned his ear toward me, trying to catch my voice.

“Fine,” I said. “The drive was good.”

“What about the trail through the bush?” He waited for my answer. I looked at my mother. She shrugged. I leaned down to his ear.

“Not bad.” I said slowly, loudly. “A little rough, but we made it.”

As soon as my mother lifted him into his wheelchair, he wanted to go somewhere. For a drive. For a soft ice-cream cone. To the fall fair to see the draft horse pull.

“We’ll take him to the cemetery for a walk,” said my mom. “That’s where they take the residents for fresh air.”

Beyond my father’s window, the narrow road curved behind the hospital grounds and through a gate in the chain-link fence to the town cemetery. While my mother walked beside, I pushed my father along the asphalt. The sun, pitched high, threw a heat shimmer over the farthest gravesites. Beneath us rested bones of our relatives gone before: a cousin thrown from his motorcycle, a young aunt with a brain tumour, my father’s father in his plain black suit. We passed a double headstone with only one side engraved, the occasional bouquet sprawled and browning, a marble cross draped with a rosary. Two unopened beer bottles rested on a tombstone ledge.

“Willie,” said my father, nodding at the grave. He still knew where all of the family lay buried, could point out which site belonged to this great uncle or that third cousin once removed.

“I think I’ll buy a double-decker plot for us,” joked my mother. “It’s fifty dollars cheaper than the side by sides.” My father looked up and scowled.

“No way,” he huffed. “Not yet.”

In the years of my father’s dying, of his mind withdrawing to far-off places and his body wearing away, he keeps returning. One day my mother phones to say he’s back on oxygen, his system’s shutting down, and he’s not even strong enough to sip from a straw. The next day she calls back to tell me he’s sitting beside her in his wheelchair and wants to say hello.

Around him, the weather and seasons turn and return. Summer forest fires hang a veil of smoke over the sky outside his window. Windstorms strip the yellow birch and poplar leaves. In the morning, hoar frost slicks the road. The ditches shift to snow banks, the river’s dark current to ice. The low sun climbs a little higher. The earth begins to warm again.

On a stool beside his bed, I watch my father rise in and out of sleep. I’ve come home for another visit, ferrying to the mainland and catching a flight that takes me over the Fraser Canyon, the Cariboo plains, mountains, hidden lakes, and toward the centre of the province where the last weeks of winter are releasing their hold. Every few minutes, my father opens his eyes to see if I’m still near him, revives enough to ask for a drink of water. He turns on his side to face me and I hold the straw to his lips. I sit in the room’s quietness and feel the strangeness of affection for a man whose death I’ve always practiced without grief or love. But the more he returns to me, the more I return to him.

One early evening in the spring, when my mother drives my father to the field, they will find it changed. Where geese for weeks have rooted in the scattered grain, the ground will soften in thaw. The stubble of last year’s crop will glint up through mud and shallow puddles. My mother will roll down the windows and let the breeze blow through the car with the first green sweetness of April. The raucous reedy honks of the flock will give way to the clear notes of blackcapped chickadees flickering in the field. Over farther rivers winding north, the snow geese will fly, going back to where they came from, their shadows disappearing as they climb into the high clouds of a cold sky, everything letting go as they rise.

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