Captain Fraser has sailed into his sunset. Early on the morning of Sunday, 3 March 2013, my father breathed his last and departed to rejoin his wife, who left us sometime earlier, in 2002. My brother and I spent the night at his side, holding his vigil and keeping him company, while he ranged ahead to scout his path, until he no longer had need of us. He was 92 years old.
The past year has been a busy one for me, and I fear both writing and research had to take a back seat for a time as my father had more immediate needs for my attention. Last August he suffered a stroke, which necessitated a month in hospital and rehab and then a move to a more advanced long-term care home. Our days of watching Game of Thrones together and discussing his nautical adventures came to an end. Instead our attention had to shift to ensuring he was getting the medical care he required and, sadly, seeing that his affairs were all in order. I still visited him about weekly, but due to the communal nature of his new living arrangement, it was not reasonable to spend hours with him the way I had in his previous assisted living center.
In February his doctor advised him to shift to hospice care, and this was a good call. I think all the exams and tests and needle pricks were probably getting to be a bit much, and now there was no longer any need for all that, replacing it instead with a focus on comfort and quality of life. Indeed, the changed nature of the attention paid upon my father rather brightened his outlook, and his health rebounded somewhat, but the doctor’s prognosis was not in error. His kidneys were failing, he had persistent low-grade pneumonia, and things were just shutting down.
That Saturday evening the staff at his home called me to say he was in rapid decline, and when I fussed about calling my brother my wife said to me, “I’ll take care of that; you go. You don’t want to be late.” The home was only a block from my own, and so I grabbed phone, wallet, and keys and ran over there. When I arrived he was in his bed, unconscious, breathing with difficulty, and a nurse from the hospice was attending to him. My brother arrived not long after that.
The youngest of the caregivers from the home, the one who had found my father slumped, unresponsive, in his chair, looked on, clearly fighting hard to hold back tears. In a halting voice she told us she tried hard not to become too attached to the residents, for obvious reasons, but then the tears came on strong and she admitted, “But I fell in love with your dad.” He always did have that effect on the ladies. Hers were not the only wet eyes.
As the evening wore on most visitors left, the nurse having given the staff instructions to administer a medication regularly. We called our sisters to let them know, and the two in California elected to catch the next flight, departing at 7am. The staff woman staying on duty that night slept on the couch, getting up every two hours, like clockwork, to come down and give him his dose. My brother, Rob, and I stayed on, awake, through the night, dozing but a little in the darkest pre-dawn hours, speaking to my father, reading him poems, and holding his hand.
Shortly before 7 we stepped upstairs for a cup of tea. We were upstairs for perhaps ten minutes.
When we came back down, he was gone. It was just after 7, and Jocelyn and Deborah’s flight had just taken off from San Francisco.
I looked out the window at the sunrise and saw that the forecasters had got it wrong yet again: it was supposed to be cloudy and drizzly on Sunday, but in fact the day dawned clear, bright, and beautiful, if rather chilly. I am not an overly emotional person, but I struggled with it then. It is not at all uncommon for dying people to wait for others to leave the room, and I knew this, even thought of it while drinking that cup of tea, and yet now I could not shake a sense of guilt for having stepped out of the room. Later something my niece would say to me would cause me to realize that, after the years of rather intense invasions of privacy, both physical and financial, associated with assisted living, this would be the one final act that my father could take in complete privacy, on his own terms, and this was a comforting thought. He remained the Master of his fate, the Captain of his soul.
A few hours later the girls arrived, with only one slight detour due to Seattle’s infamous street signage (no, you cannot drive a car down a stairway, though city maps might lead you to believe it is a through route). We had elected not to tell them until they arrived, knowing they were driving a rental car in an unfamiliar city while sleep-deprived, but Deborah took one look at my face and knew.
The hospice sent out another nurse to help us prepare Dad for his last journey. He was a big fellow, no two ways about it, and while the nurse was entirely competent and professional, she was also a younger lady of slighter stature. She did not ask for it, but it was clear she was going to need some help. Rob and I looked at each other, went into the room with her, and shut the door. She was very thankful.
I will not describe the process of washing and dressing my father’s body, but I will say that it was at once difficult for me and also helpful. I cannot say it was at all pleasant, by any means, but it felt ritualistic, and by the time we were done it had helped me come to terms with everything. The nurse helped tremendously with her cool professionalism and calm, respectful manner. My final image of Dad is one of patrician dignity lying in calm, peaceful repose.
The funeral home’s man arrived, and we helped shift Dad’s body into his black van. The fellow apologized that he had another “passenger” that day, so he hoped we would not mind if Dad had to share the ride. We believe Dad’s only objection would be that his companion was a gentleman rather than a lady. I watched as the van drove off and out of sight, then turned and went back inside to rejoin the others.
The next 36 hours are a bit of a blur to me. Sunday afternoon was all about family, and Monday was yet another beautiful day, with the Olympics, Cascades, and Mt Rainier shining in crystal snow-capped clarity. We took a walk along Magnolia Bluff and watched a tug towing a barge into Elliott Bay. It was not a Foss tug, unfortunately. That evening the girls caught their flight back to California, and Tuesday my work dealing with “officialdom” began. Appropriately, Tuesday was more typically Seattle grey.
Captain Robert William Campbell Fraser, Lieutenant Commander, RNZNR, Marine Superintendent, and Master Mariner, veteran of World War II, of Foss Launch & Tug, Dillingham Corporation, the Union Steamship Company, and J&C Harrison’s Shipping, husband of Dorothy and Judith, son of John Fraser and Gladys Annie Dinah Statter, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, uncle, and friend, has departed on his final command, a last cruise, at the far end of which his beloved wife awaits him. So he had always believed, and so it is true. May we all live a life so well.