When does parental responsibility cease?
He was a self-employed architect and when making a phone call, he gave his name as “P. Roy Wilson.” The P stood for Percy. His friends called him Roy, but for some reason he always included his first initial over the phone. I called him Dad. When I was about 10, I can recall the moment I first realized he was man of small stature – 5’ 7”. When I’d been little, he’d seemed tall but he really wasn’t.
His architecture office was in a separate wing of our house in Beaconsfield, a suburb of Montreal. An avid sailor and skier, he’d often draft plans in the evening to free up his day to enjoy his favourite sports. Mum thought he had an overdeveloped sense of humour and would say, “Don’t look, Roy” as tears of laughter rolled down his cheeks whenever they watched a comedy starring Bob Hope.
Roy was esteemed by many people of all ages.He enjoyed the rare ability to vary the telling of an anecdote just enough that a listener who’d heard it before wasn’t bored. He kept a long list of potential
sailing crew in his office whom he’d phone to invite “for a little sail” on his 29-foot boat. He had no trouble finding takers.
Having been born in England in 1900, he emigrated to Canada at the age of 13 and kept his English accent all his life. To Dad daily exercise was the key to longevity and he would never drive anywhere if he had the time to walk or bicycle instead.
He was a very strict father, expecting his three kids to exhibit the same high level of self-discipline that he did. As I was his much younger child and only daughter, he forbade my listening to rock’n’roll music or displaying photos of movie stars in my room.
He didn’t smoke, drink, swear, tell dirty jokes, or break any laws or codes of conduct, as far as I knew. I always felt that if I’d slept with a boyfriend before marriage – never mind getting pregnant– he would have disowned me. This father/daughter level of formality and judgment endured even into my
Mum was six years his junior and she began developing dementia at 74. Therefore this man, whose meal preparation had always been her responsibility, learned to cook at 80. Nothing gourmet, but his simple meals were nutritious and nobody got food poisoning. He was her only caregiver until she had to be institutionalized at 80; she died at 86.
I lived over 500 kilometers away from Dad, in Toronto. During my periodic visits I would repeatedly
encourage him to please hire some help: occasional cleaner, housekeeper, part-time companion, or live-in personal care worker. But my entreaties fell on deaf ears. Once I did manage to hire someone from an agency to come in twice a week, and by the time I got back to Toronto he’d already cancelled her services.
Because he was still completely lucid and managed to dress presentably, eat healthily, entertain friends for afternoon tea, and paint a new watercolour every day, I had no clout. He was fiercely independent and my two brothers who lived across the country, thought I was too fussy. They would tell me to lighten up whenever I expressed concern about his welfare.
At his funeral, I learned that at the age of 98 he would invite 65-year-old George to go cross-country skiing with him on Lake St. Louis. After picturing the old man having a mishap George invented an excuse as he didn’t want to be responsible. It turned out that Dad went skiing alone anyway.
At 99 a health issue forced him to hire a live-in caregiver, and I could finally relax about his being well cared for. Retired nurse Yvonne took amazing care of Dad and the two of them stayed up until midnight on Dec 31st, 1999 to welcome the new century. She positioned herself at his elbow during the 100thbirthday party we threw for him. He was so vital and full of life that he even sang a few songs for his guests while being accompanied on the piano.
In March 2001, I planned to pay him a visit. Just prior to leaving Toronto, I lunched with a friend who knew about my ancient father. At a funeral she’d recently attended, the program contained a particularly eloquent quote about death, attributed to Stewart Alsop, an American writer. I tucked it into my bag before flying to Montreal.
The caregiver who replaced Yvonne on Friday nights engaged me in a private conversation about his deteriorating health due to congestive heart failure. He still had all his marbles.
She asked me, “Have you given him permission to die yet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Mr. Wilson probably still sees you as the little girl he has to take care of, even though you are 55. If you had a gentle talk with him and explained that you are doing well and he can relax about your happiness, he might just let go.”
I contemplated this dialogue overnight. As soon as he was awake and eating breakfast in his bedroom I went in to see him. Taking a diuretic with his breakfast had made him feel “like an old dish rag” to quote him precisely and he relaxed in an upholstered chair with his eyes closed.
After some ordinary morning chit-chat, I said to him, “Dad, you’ve always done a wonderful job of taking care of me. Now that I’m a grown married woman, with a super career and a married son, your job is finished. Somewhere I recently read this quote: A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.”
He sat there with his eyes closed and a sense of peace enveloped us both.
“Aren’t you clever to have memorized that saying!” He was always one to dish out compliments to ladies. After a few moments of silence, I asked, “How do you want to be remembered?”
“As an architect and artist,” he replied.
“Well, your beautiful houses and churches are dotted all over Montreal. You’ve sold nearly 1000 paintings, so you’re luckier than most of us. You have masses of permanent accomplishments to leave behind.”
I flew back home the next day, and our only subsequent communication was by telephone – in the form of brief chats. Whenever I asked Yvonne if I should return again, she said not to. He had stated that he was completely ready to die and join his beloved wife in heaven.
“He doesn’t want you to see him the way he is now,” she said.
His final outing happened in early May 2001, when he was taken by Wheel-Trans to McGill University. The School of Architecture had mounted an exhibition of his paintings entitled "101 Water Colours by P. Roy Wilson" – a clever title given he would be turning 101 on May 19th. Holidaying in Bermuda, I called him the next day to find out how the opening reception had gone.
“It was the most marvelous night of my life!” he declared.
He died at home three weeks later. Below his name and dates, his tombstone reads “Architect and Artist.”