The paradox of a relationship with an ageing or dying parent (especially a father?) is that by the time you dedicate space in your life to it - often because they now require care - the quality moments you'd love to share after a lifetime of safe distance are no longer an option. The dying parent's fear, pain, confusion or loss of dignity modify behaviours on both sides, filling final weeks, months or even years with grief rather than grace.
It's a generalisation, sure, but it's a dynamic I've observed in my own life, and one that author George Ilsley chronicles with sharp insight in his highly readable memoir, The Home Stretch. A middle-aged man living in Vancouver, George travels back and forth to Nova Scotia to assist his brother in caring for their proud and stubborn father, a widower shuffling grudgingly into his nineties. Ilsley's observations focus primarily on the mundane, the bitter ironies and preposterous conflicts that take over the final moments between father and son.
So much needs to be said, as subjective interpretations of the past clash in a bid to retroactively understand a life lived. Instead, precious moments are hijacked by arguments about old drapes, circular conversations about trival things (an obsession with peanuts is a running joke) and efforts to get a recalcitrant nonagenarian to accept the inexorable and debilitating nature of encroaching death.
I wish we'd learned more about the author here. Too often, the father offers up a distorted reflection of the child, an alternative take is not always offered the reader. I would have loved to know more about the writer's youth, another vantage point from which to understand the present. For example, George's homosexuality is hinted at only in passing (in parentheses!) - its relevance to the father-son dynamic never explicitly explored.
The end of ordinary lives is not always a popular subject. It's a time that can bring out the worst in people or pose difficult questions about our own final days. With a light touch and a lot of humour, the author describes the ultra specific in a way that makes it universal and relatable. Many will recognise themselves or a relative, and in doing so may feel seen, heard or acknowledged.
There are generous insights in The Home Stretch - about small town living, family, ageing, death... - and they're often subtle or accidental, rarely drawing attention to themselves. Thankfully, this never becomes a self-help book, nor does it turn the ordinary and the common into something more for the sake of an audience. Ilsley asks more questions than he answers, and that's just as well: the act of finding our own answers are integral to the getting of wisdom.