(Part 4 of 4)
So far it had been a brutally hot summer in the city, and throughout the rest of southern Ontario. The elderly woman in apartment 307 had had a restless night until the early morning hours when she finally fell into a deep sleep. But she was too soon awakened by the phone ringing on the bedside table. When she answered it someone spoke her name and asked if she was there. It was confusing. She was still half asleep.
“Yes, of course, I live alone.”
The person on the line identified himself as the administrator of the long-term care facility where her very elderly father lived.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“My father’s dead.”
Then there was a long pause at both ends as she waited for clarity in the form of more information, and the administrator wondered how to put it.
“He’s not dead?
“No. I’m sorry to say we’ve lost him.”
“You’ve lost him. What do you mean?”
“I mean just that. We don’t know where he is. He wasn’t in his room this morning. It appears he got up sometime during the night, got dressed and left the building, as incredible as that sounds. So far we haven’t been able to find him. We’re searching everywhere. We assume he’s wandered off. The police have been notified and they’ve put out an alert. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before he’s found. Of course I had to call to let you know. I’m very sorry for waking you this early in the morning about something like this.”
He waited for a response, but there was none for several seconds before he began to think they may have lost the connection.
“Yes, I’m here . . . So you’ve lost my father, my father who yesterday was apparently incapable of doing anything. He got up and walked out the door in the middle of the night.”
She almost felt like laughing. You did it again, she thought to herself. You did it again. You just got up and left without even saying goodbye. You had the chance to say goodbye yesterday. I was right there in front of you and it was like I didn’t exist. And now you’re gone again.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. All the doors were locked. But he must have been watching and slipped out when someone on staff went outside and left the door open for a moment and wasn’t looking. We’re very sorry. Rest assured we’ll find out who’s responsible.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter much now, does it?”
“True enough. It appears your father had us all fooled. He must have been planning this for some time. He didn’t say anything to you, did he?”
“Of course not, otherwise I would have said something.”
She paused, thinking again about how out-of-it her father had seemed to be the day before when she had visited and tried to talk to him, to reach him one way or another for any sign his mind and spirit was still there. But there was nothing, or so it seemed. And yet she didn’t believe he had been faking that degree of dementia; it had been coming on for so long: she knew, she just knew that in some incredible way and for some extraordinary reason he had come to life again. Somehow, it was just like him, to come back like that.
“Do you have any idea where he might have gone? Does he have any other family in the city, or friends?”
“No, I’m his only family. And any friends he had all died years ago. I have no idea where he might have gone.”
For the moment that was true. She hung up the phone after telling the administrator she would come to the nursing home. But as she was getting dressed she began to think she might after all have some idea where her father had gone, or rather, where he was going, as incredible as it seemed. And then her concern was whether or not she should tell the police, or anybody else who might try to stop him.
So, she did not phone back to speak of her thoughts, though she realized her father’s life was at risk. Maybe he was wandering God’s knows where in the city. Maybe he was already dead. But something was telling her to wait, to give him some time – to get away. And then she did something she didn’t do that much anymore: she said a prayer and wished him well on his quest, wherever he was.
She left her apartment and headed to the subway station down a street just starting to come to life with pedestrians and cars.
In her heart she already knew this trip to the nursing home was mostly pointless. He was gone and would never be back there. Increasingly, she was thinking she would soon be heading in another direction to find him, north to a place where she had never been, a place he had rarely talked about over the years. She had a friend she could call who would certainly understand and drive her up. And yes, she would make that call to the police when that time came.
At the nursing home the administrator went with her to her father’s room. He kept shaking his head, saying things she wasn’t really interested in hearing.
There was a book open on a table beside his bed. She recognized it as a local history book, about the area where he lived as a child, “up north,” as he said a few times over the years. Somewhere years ago he had managed to get a copy. She wasn’t sure how. The administrator was still talking, still off in his own world. He hadn’t noticed the book. He didn’t notice when she picked it up and saw the article her father had been reading. She smiled inwardly again, realizing how he must have been careful to make sure nobody saw him with his face in a book; that would have given everything away. She realized too he had left it for her to see, knowing she would be there the next day, to tell her where he was going.
“Oh, Daddy,” she suddenly said out loud, like a child again, as tears came to her eyes.
“The Great Bush Fire of 1908,” said the headline over the history-book article.
* * *
The car wasn’t going that fast, but thick plumes of road-dust billowed up behind. “Slow down, there’s somebody up ahead. They’ll be covered in dust,” the woman in the passenger seat told the man driving the car. They were husband and wife, a middle-aged couple. A much more elderly woman was in the back seat.
The car slowed down and gave the walking figure ahead a lot of room as it passed. The old woman in the back looked as they went by. She saw an old man, a very old man, for just a moment. He turned his head as the car went by. He looked right at her. And in that moment his face and expression were caught in her mind, like a photograph out of a shockingly real dream. It took her a second to gather herself, then she suddenly called out, “stop, stop.”
“What’s the matter, Gramma? What is it?”
“Go back. Go back. We need to help that man.”
The car backed up slowly until it was right beside him. The elderly woman in the back wanted to get out, but it was difficult for her. She pulled back a button to roll her window down. His face was very old indeed, and yet it was familiar. “I know you. It was a long, long time ago, but I know you,” she said.
“There’s going to be a fire,” he said. “I have to go home. I have to stop it. I have to help my father. Jeannie’s there. I don’t want her to burn. Can you take me there? I’ve been walking a long time, and I’m getting tired.”
The man and woman in the front seats, both born-and-raised local residents of that part of the Bruce Peninsula, known as Hope Ness, looked at each other. The man pulled ahead a bit, put the car in park and got out to help the old man into it. It was mid-afternoon, a hot, dry, sunny day.
Somewhere along the way he had lost his hat. Who knows how long the sun had been beating down on his bare head. He was hungry and thirsty, and did indeed look very tired. In fact, he looked like someone who should be taken to a hospital.
“Here, why don’t we take you home with us for a bit. We can have a nice cup of tea and a piece of homemade pie,” said the younger woman. And then you can tell us how we can help you.”
The old man stood silently for a while, trying to collect his thoughts, trying to remember. The younger man stood by him patiently, holding his arm to give him some support because he looked like he might collapse, right then and there.
“Oh, now I remember,” the old man said, looking carefully at each of them as if to say, I’m all right now. The old woman in the back seat was especially regarding him with much concern.
“You’re Bruce, aren’t you?” she said. “I went to school with you. I was much younger. But I remember you. My name is Jean, like your sister. I remember her too. We were neighbours way back then. And now you’ve come home, and isn’t that wonderful. How nice to see you after all this time. How can we help you?”
“Can you take me to my sister’s grave? Can you take me there now, please?”
She understood his urgency.
“Yes, of course we can, can’t we? We can certainly do that.” Her granddaughter and her husband both nodded in agreement.
The man helped him into the car beside his wife’s grandmother. They knew the way. It was even possible still to drive back on the remains of the old driveway to where the house had been. From there the couple helped the old man and woman back to the area where the little girl had been buried so many years before.
The butternut tree was no longer there. It had been burned in the fire that rose up that terrible, but miraculous August day in the drought-stricken summer of 1908.
The endless piles of slash left from logging, land clearing, and especially the draining and clearing of the vast cedar swamp in the center of the peninsula had turned to tinder in the dry heat. It needed only a spark in the right place to set it ablaze. Either that or fires smouldering in the ground flared up; the actual cause was never determined.
By noon that day a huge wall of fire and smoke was bearing down on Hope Ness and Hope Bay, threatening to destroy everything in its path. But at the last, critical moment a wind suddenly came from the east off Georgian Bay and, like a mighty hand, held the flames back. And then when they started to return after a while, the flames “crowned,” or leaped, over the farms and homes where little children had been told by their parents to lie down flat on the ground as wet blankets were put over them.
The farm still here now, my farm at the end of Cathedral Drive, is one such place.
That day Georgian Bay saved the lives of many people young and old. For that reason the great affection local people felt for the bay long afterwards was about more than its beauty. It was, it still is, a living thing, part of the community.
But still, the damage was severe: countless wild and domestic animals perished, and what was left of the forests burned off to the extent that it was said you could stand on the cliffs of the Georgian Bay side of the peninsula and see clearly all the way to Lake Huron on the other side. Even the soil was burned off in places, leaving the underlying bedrock exposed, like “pavement.” It took several years for pastures and fields to recover, with the first indication of their renewed life being a bumper crop of wild raspberries.
That August day, many years later, the old man who had lived through the fire, and had finally come home, knew exactly where to find his sister’s grave. “It’s here,” he said, falling on his hands and knees, putting his forehead to the ground.
The very old woman named Jean, who had known him as a child, got down beside him. She had found energy she could hardly imagine ever having again. She wrapped him in her arms as he turned to her and looked into her eyes.
“Is it you?”
“Yes, it is. It’s me.
“It’s all right. Everything is all right. We’re together again. I love you, Bruce,” she said, as she rocked him gently.
“Oh, thank God,” he said. And then she felt him pass away. But still she held him.
Out on the road dust clouds billowed behind several approaching vehicles, including one with flashing red and blue lights. In a car not far behind the cruiser a woman passenger felt strangely at peace and comforted, as if by the presence of a great expression of love that had begun to surround her with its warmth.
“I love you too, Dad,” she said.
(Author’s note: The original version of the four Hope Ness, 1908 posts originally appeared as one of a number of copyrighted short stories in a self-published book titled Previous Lives. Much of Hope Ness, 1908 is based on actual events, for example, The Great Bush Fire of that year; it is also a work of creative fiction. Where names are used they are fictitious.