by Suzanne Ahearne

The Globe and Mail, Facts & Arguments. Dec. 2004

A piano light becomes a lonely beacon.   A 'Facts & Arguments' essay in The Globe and Mail, 2004.

A piano light becomes a lonely beacon. 

A 'Facts & Arguments' essay in The Globe and Mail, 2004.

All the lights in the living room had been turned off for the night, all except for the piano light. The head of this brass lamp had been rotated backwards, throwing soft light on the wall behind. The piano was now nothing more than a dark mass in a darkened room. I was lying on the couch, under a blanket, staring at the light, as one would a campfire after dark. My father, lying beside me in the hospital bed that we had set up for him a week before, was staring at it too.

It was a ritual I had come to enjoy at the end of days shared with my mother, my sister and an ever-changing guard of homecare workers, doctors and palliative care nurses. Each night I phoned to say good-night to my husband and my young sons before they tucked into their beds at our home in another city. Then I tucked into my makeshift one here. There was a calm about ending the day this way that my father and I shared quietly and closely.

Almost a year before, when we knew my Dad’s cancer was terminal, I worried about what this time of waning strength would be like for him. I anticipated that this strong, independent man would become increasingly angry as his body weakened. Instead, the cancer gave him a generosity of spirit, kindness and acceptance that had not been present in him so fully until this point in his life. Or perhaps it was that his cancer merely gave me the gift of seeing it so fully in him.

And so it was from the shared perspective of our beds that night that he pointed to the piano light and said, “I’m sailing home on the cold, dark Atlantic.”

I looked again at the light cast on the wall, with the cylindrical head of the brass piano light silhouetted in front of it. I went cold. Scared. It looked like a solitary ship, casting its light into a dark, clear night around it.

My father had been a Merchant Seaman based out of his home port of Liverpool, England, for fourteen of the most formative years of his life. I had read how the dying sometimes describe their leaving with symbols created from their life experience. I took the ship to be his symbol. I couldn’t bear for him to leave in the cold and dark, symbolically, or otherwise. “Couldn’t it be the warm, bright South Pacific?” I suggested eventually. He laughed and said, “Maybe that would be nice.” Then his voice became serious again. “But no. It’s the cold, dark Atlantic.”

Neither of us knowing really where to take the conversation, we said our good nights, love ya’s and were quiet once more. Most of the night I listened to his breathing and counted the seconds between breaths, bolting upright when more than ten seconds passed, reaching for his hand through the bed-rail, dreading and expecting his Ship of Death to deliver him home that night. When finally another breath gurgled through his lungs I would flop down with a racing heart.

From that night on, imagery of the sea informed my understanding of his dying. I saw him lose his sea legs when he couldn’t balance without our help. His pain came in waves, the troughs gradually narrowing as the crests grew steeper. On his last day, almost five days later, when our family watched his limbs slowly drain of colour, I saw a tide line of white and cold moving from feet to knees to thighs, from fingers to elbows, up his still-muscular arms, past the morphine tracks to his shoulders. When he was no longer able to speak, I wondered if he was willing the cold to enter him. Was he drawing it, inch-by-inch toward his heart, replacing blood with seawater? Such courage was unfathomable to me.

That image of a ghost-ship manned by one, sailing into the cold and dark, continues to haunt me, despite the fact that the image seemed to comfort him.

As a photographer, I understand things by photographing them. Perhaps for this reason, I am unable to shirk the idea that if I were to cross the Atlantic on a merchant vessel bound for Liverpool, chronicling the passage with my camera, the image of the ghost-ship would no longer be so fearful and lonely. So this week, to mark the second anniversary of my father’s death, I have promised myself to do this–as soon as the long, cold nights have shortened and warmed and winter’s wild seas have calmed. Though I am my father’s daughter, that’s as much courage as I can muster.

NOTE: A year or so after mustering the courage to do the trip, a follow-up essay was published in Homemakers–”Final Voyage“–and made into a radio documentary–”Sailing Home“– for CBC Radio.