After exploring death on a grand scale in A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, novelist and journalist Gil Courtemanche turns towards a more intimate demise in A Good Death. A tyrannical father—and gourmand—has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His grown-up children, following doctors’ orders, impose severe limitations upon his choice of food. But shock waves ripple through the family when he chooses another path: death by gluttony. The story begins at the dinner table on Christmas Day.
Translation by Wayne Grady.
My mother is shrinking. My father is getting bigger. Mother pecks at her food and spends more time talking than eating. My father pretends to be listening to her deluge of chatter, but he isn’t really following the conversation. He’s stuffing his face, shovelling down his food like an ogre, not uttering a word. It occurs to me that my mother began shrinking when she had to do all the talking, whereas my father began swelling up when Parkinson’s stopped his tongue with his words still resonating in his head. I don’t find the thought amusing.
The doctor explained it to me. “It’s called rigid Parkinson’s, plus there’s his recent stroke. I’ll spare you the scientific details; let’s just say there’s been a communication breakdown among his neurons. The brain gives the order to walk, but the neurons don’t receive the command in time and so the patient falls down. The patient wants to talk, but his vocal cords and mouth react too late. They don’t receive the electric impulses soon enough. He knows how to walk and talk, he’s conscious, he understands everything. But he falls down, or he babbles like a baby, and you get the feeling he isn’t there and doesn’t understand you. It’s not that complicated...I forgot to mention, it’s a degenerative disease. You do understand what that means?”
Yes. Thank you, doctor. And does it go on for a long time? Years. Can anything be done, I mean in terms of medication? No. We try to control it. Thank you, doctor.
So my father is busily conceiving words, sentences, whole paragraphs, in his head. He has always spoken in complete paragraphs. He hears and understands everything we say, wants to discuss, explain, demolish his children’s arguments, is delighted with the withering riposte he has thought of, the demonstration he is about to make, but then he doesn’t hear his mouth deliver them. He hears all those lovely words in his head, but they remain there, clogged like sewage in a blocked sink. And so he rages, or curses, or sometimes lowers his head and weeps, or, to pass the time while the white noise of my mother’s words stretches o-ff into faraway lands, he eats. Sometimes he comes out with a swear word that strikes the assembled children dumb and halts my mother’s aimless chirping in its tracks, as the shadow of a hawk frightens a bird. Then back he goes to his plate, using his knife, which he can still handle well enough, to make little piles of food and push them onto his fork, and then shoving the whole thing into his mouth. Bits of food ooze from the corners of his lips. As he well knows. He can feel the grease dripping down his chin and onto my mother’s spotless tablecloth. Of course it embarrasses him. He doesn’t enjoy behaving like a boor. He’s always been proud and haughty, like Caesar in the Astérix books. But in the moment between realizing he’s drooling and reaching for his napkin, my mother has already taken hers and wiped the gravy from his glistening chin.
Nothing makes sense to him anymore. He has words, he has thoughts, but no one hears them. He knows how to move his feet and hands, but he falls down or drops his glass. And so I sit to his left at every family meal, trying to anticipate his rages and his defeats. I prefer the rages. They tell me that the man I once knew, the man I do not love, still exists.
All his life, with blows from his hands as well as his mouth, my father drilled good manners into us, taught us to say please and thank you, how to hold a knife and fork, keep our backs straight, our elbows off- the table. To this day his children obey the basic rules of civility and pass them on to their own children, though I hope with a little more human kindness. We were never a wealthy family, but we were proud, not to say arrogant. Proud of what, I don’t know. As for arrogance, it’s a virtue and a fault shared by most men of his generation. He wanted us to be better than everyone else, better even than himself, which is saying a lot.
This obsession of his with polite behaviour and proper table manners always intrigued me. It couldn’t have come from his reading, nor from his own background or my mother’s; in her family, as in the neighbourhood in general, elbows were planted firmly on the table, cutlery clattered noisily and meat was held in the mouth like a soother. Now we wipe his lips for him with little delicate, respectful attempts to make him laugh.
I imagine being my father as he is now, with someone wiping my mouth and laughing and explaining that I’m drooling and that I should go to bed and sleep even though I’m not in the least tired, that I can’t have dessert because it’s too rich and therefore bad for my health. I am my father. I know I’m sick, very sick. I want to kill someone. I’m humiliated. I am not a child. And in any case, even when I was a child I hated it, felt diminished and insulted whenever anyone fluttered a cloth in my face and wiped my chin, cheerily telling me what a filthy little mess I was. What’s an old man supposed to think when being old means being treated like a child?
The bread basket on the table is empty, has been for several seconds. I took the last slice myself. I look to my right and see my father glowering at the absence of bread as though he were the victim of an intolerable injustice. A family without bread on the table. A father without bread. The entire history of human misery in that one accusation: no bread. I sense that he is about to erupt. My mother, however, still worried about his health, mentally tallies the number of slices of bread he has already eaten. She shrinks. She looks to her right and gets an approving nod from one of my sisters, the calorie counter. Would you like some more bread, Dad? He looks at me and makes a noise that could be yes but sounds more like the blissful sigh of a baby who has just felt his mother’s nipple moisten with milk. My mother looks down at the table. My sister shoots daggers at me with her eyes. When he sees the refilled bread basket he coos. I’m not kidding. He takes a thick slice, slathers it with butter and pâté, to which he has pointed with his knife and which I have passed to him, and he swallows the whole thing in three mouthfuls, almost without chewing. Rigid Parkinson’s, it seems, hasn’t affected his taste for bread—the neurons still respond to a whi-ff of pâté. My sister mutters something inaudible. Grumbling at me, in other words. My mother eyes his gluttonous contentment, shrugs her shoulders and lets them drop closer to the table, so that her nose is almost touching her empty plate, as though she were trying to shrink even further.
My father chews more bread, this time a slice he has soaked in salad dressing, having finished off- the pâté. He cuts himself a wedge of Camembert and stu-ffs it into his mouth with the bread. He doesn’t look up. He stares down at the table, his eyelids half-closed like the shutters of an old, dilapidated house. Good God, he’s feeling guilty! At least that is what it looks like. Unless he’s merely resting, gathering forces for a fresh assault on the food. But since his stroke and the Parkinson’s, since his legs stopped taking orders from his brain, since whatever it is that issues from his mouth is no longer speech, since he has had to be taken care of, a man who has never cared for anyone in his life, since he stopped being a man, a real man, a man who stomps around and orders people about, he has been making little guilty-child faces every time he sneaks a slice of bread, and his eyes gleam like those of a thief when he finishes off- more cheese in two mouthfuls than everyone else at the table combined. My mother shrinks a little more whenever she sees him ignoring his doctor’s warnings. By eating so much, my sick father is killing my healthy mother.
I find myself thinking, and it’s not an appropriate thought, this being Christmas Eve, but as I watch my mother transform into a fragile butterfly and my father into a wild, gurgitating boar, I cannot stop myself from thinking about their deaths. The way they comport themselves at the table, their attitude to food, forces the thought of their deaths upon me. There’s my mother, who takes little nibbles from the end of her fork and chews them methodically, taking no pleasure from them. And then there’s my father, shovelling the food down in gargantuan mouthfuls and then, on the off- chance that his mouth will feel neglected for even a second, cramming in huge chunks of bread as soon as the first half-chewed mass begins its descent into his stomach. Of course I have to accept his death, since it is so obviously imminent; I’m not being morbid thinking about it. But when I see how my mother frowns as she talks while my father, majestically silent, picks up his plate in his trembling hands, causing such anxiety among the children that they all look down at the table so as not to have to witness the impending crash, I imagine both their deaths.
My mother will slip away with such a self-e-ffacing expiration of breath not even her sheets will be disturbed. She hates to be a bother to anyone and would be surprised to see so many tearful faces beside her coffin. My father will go with a roar, a kind of explosion, in a burst of anger and terror. My mother will die quietly, decently, like a lady, having always known that her voyage was written in her file long ago and that the only uncertainty has been the date of departure. My father will rage against life, which he will have failed to conquer only because it betrayed him. With his dying breath he’ll say he’s hungry, if only to put death off- for a few more seconds. And in those final seconds he’ll mentally go through every book he’s ever read and every conversation he’s ever had having to do with eternal life. He’ll hedge every bet, beginning with that of Pascal. He’ll beg God and Allah to forgive him, look around for any other gods to whom he can appeal, and just before seeing that famous di-ffuse light supposed by many to illuminate the end of death’s tunnel, he’ll suddenly remember Julie, his youngest daughter, who at the moment is talking about her mortgage but who, twenty years ago, at a Christmas Eve dinner much like this one, tried to convince him of the reality of reincarnation. In the last split second before dying, he’ll decide to believe in reincarnation. With luck Julie won’t be there to tell him that those who have lived sinful lives are likely to come back as lizards, or beggars. My mother will die of exhaustion, happy to have finished her work, to have raised her children, in all probability to be meeting with her God, in whom she still seems sincerely to believe. Death for my father will be a humiliating defeat. Men do not die. Which is why he’ll cling so desperately to what he called Julie’s “idiocies,” although Julie herself hasn’t believed in reincarnation since she stopped being eighteen and had two children.