The Other Side of a Light Story

A few weeks ago, in a light-hearted piece about bucket lists, I mentioned a trip to England with my father 20 years ago this month.

I’m a little hesitant about writing a sequel some readers may find a bit too personal, or even disturbing, but you know what they say about rushing in where angels fear to tread.

Our four-week visit had given my 89-year-old Dad and his two sisters time to revel in a last round of nostalgia, singing old music hall favourites and reciting poetry remembered verbatim from the Great War era.

It also gave us days of father-son bonding during lightning side-trips through England, Scotland and Wales. It was, in short, an idyllic adventure.

On our last day there, we visited Madam Tussaud’s wax museum before taking in a West End production of Les Misérables that evening. I dozed off part-way through, but not the old man. He was the Energizer bunny personified.

The next afternoon, as our British Airways flight lifted off from Heathrow, I mentioned that he seemed a little down.

“Yes,” he admitted. “It’s sad saying goodbye. But I’ve seen everything I wanted to see and done everything I wanted to do.”

Two hours later, he quietly died in my arms.

When he had first shown signs of distress, the airline graciously moved us to First Class and the steward asked if there were a doctor on board.

We were soon joined by a charming young Viennese psychiatrist, en route to a conference in Vancouver. She administered some sort of injection, but it was clear to us both he wasn’t going to make it.

The pilot offered to divert the flight to Edmonton, but I declined. “Dad would be appalled to inconvenience so many people,” I told the steward.

After Dad passed, the doctor remained, discreetly sitting on the aisle-side armrest to shield his body from the view of other passengers. We talked quietly about the kind of person he had been, as we sipped the complimentary brandy the steward had brought us.

As we neared our Vancouver destination, the steward asked for Dad’s passport and mine, to get the inevitable paperwork started. A moment later, he was back.

“I see it’s your birthday, sir,” he said. “Wait right here.”

When he returned, he presented me with a chilled bottle of champagne.

“Have a drink to the old man tonight, sir. And to yourself. Compliments of British Airways.”

Much of what happened afterwards remains a blur. When we landed, the plane was swarmed by what seemed like a legion of strangers – RCMP, airport officials, a representative of the airline.

In-flight deaths are not uncommon, especially with elderly people returning from vacation. But when it happens in international airspace, it involves a lot of administrative details.

From a personal standpoint, this particular death was sad, of course. But it was also peaceful, and quite beautiful in its way.

And I know Dad would have approved the gracious way that British Airways steward handled matters.

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