The Last Visitor

Carla’s family was prepared for their patriarch’s passing. Guy – short for Giuseppe – had been in the hospital’s palliative care wing for two weeks, and the family had a phone tree in place, so no one person would have to call all seven children. Fred was always last on the tree, because he either never seemed to be home, or rarely answered his phone, always letting calls go into voicemail. And then, maybe in a day or so, he’d call someone back.

Fred, the family knew, wasn’t a bad sort – he wasn’t a selfish person, or a fixture at some bar, though he did enjoy his Jack Daniels after a long shift at the auto body plant. He just wasn’t a great communicator. And forget about trying to reach him on poker nights.

But for some odd reason, Fred, the youngest of the siblings, was Guy’s favourite.

Carla phoned Marty and Sarah, whose jobs was to call Maria and Joe, and so on. As Carla headed out the door, she prayed that whoever’s task was to call Fred was successful. Hang in there, dad, she thought, as she started her car. Let us see you one last time.

Within thirty minutes, Carla and her siblings – minus Fred – were at Guy’s bedside. Guy, once a six-foot muscular dockworker, was now a tiny man decimated by multiple sclerosis. His eyes were open, but they seemed unfocussed. There was a rattle in his breath.

Carla and her siblings put their hands on their father to comfort him. “We’re here, dad,” someone softly said; another added, “It’s okay, dad.” And another, “If you want to let go, we’ll catch you.” With tears in their eyes, Guy’s children talked to him, blessed their father, soothed him with their voices. Guy smiled slightly, closed his eyes, and his breath stilled.

A nurse stepped to the side of the bed and gently held one of Guy’s wrists, feeling for a pulse. A moment of stillness seemed to stretch into forever. Then the familiar putt-putt-putt-putt-putt sound of a motorcycle outside the window.

“Fred’s bike is pulling into the parking lot,” Marty said.

Guy opened his eyes and took a phlegmy breath. She glanced at her brothers’ and sisters’ faces. Everyone was staring at the door, willing Fred to come bounding in. She imagined Sarah, her always impatient sister, gritting her teeth and thinking, When will that man-

Fred burst into the room, rushed to his father’s side and gently placed his meaty hand on his shoulder. “Hey, dad,” he said. “How’s it goin’?”

Guy looked at Fred, raised an eyebrow, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile, as if he wanted to say, Oh, Freddie, what am I gonna do with you? There was pure love in that look, and Freddie returned that love ten-fold with his eyes.

Then Guy closed his eyes and relaxed onto the bed.

I’m remembering Carla’s story as I zip up my winter coat and get ready to make a long but necessary drive out of the city. A dear friend is in the hospital, and I need to see her again. And I’m chiding myself for waiting so long to visit. We contemplate great plans, and then life sends us in another direction. We all have friends and loved ones we need to reconnect with – why wait for a crisis moment to give that person comfort and support? Loving someone on this side of life is so powerful, and making an effort to show it means so much to others. After all, you never know if you might be that person’s last visitor.