Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Story of the "Black Arrow"

Allan John Craig meets his son, Steven Allan Craig
May 17, 1961

Throughout the 55 years that my father and I co-existed on this planet, the condition of our relationship at virtually any given moment could have been described as "It's Complicated". We struggled to understand each other – at those times when we even bothered to try to understand each other – and we each went through long stretches of passive non-contact with, if not aggressive avoidance of, the other. There were myriad reasons for this – or, at least, explanations – but they are not important to the theme of this story. For although our mutual compulsion to stick with a problem long past the point of diminishing returns, refusing stubbornly to "let it go" or to move on to (perhaps) more pressing issues until the conundrum had been beaten into submission, caused great frustration for those who loved us (including each other, much of the time), when the Circle of Life had nearly become complete for my Dad this single-mindedness that only an Engineer and his son can truly understand to be implicit in each other created a positively miraculous final exchange between us at the precise moment it mattered more than anything else in the world.

This is the story of the "Black Arrow" and how one of the tiniest details of Allan John Craig's final days on Earth cauterized any and all wounds we – each of us – might have otherwise carried still bleeding into the Great Unknown.

In the late afternoon of Wednesday, November 9, 2016 I received a phone call from my father's wife, June. It was an unusual time of day and week for her to be phoning me, so it was with not a small amount of trepidation that I answered the call. As I had suspected, she was phoning to deliver news about my father, who was living in a nursing home in Bowmanville after suffering several strokes more than two-and-a-half years earlier. As I also suspected, it wasn't good news she was bringing to me: earlier that day Dad had eaten his lunch but slipped into unconsciousness soon after that and was still in that state when she phoned. The prognosis was not very good at all, but then again there had been more than a handful of these calls over the past 30 or so months and somehow Dad always managed to find a way back. This time, however, something just felt different. June told me she was too tired to stay with Dad any longer that day, and that she was heading home. She suggested there was really no reason for me to make the trip to Bowmanville until or unless I heard from her again. I promised to keep my phone beside me from that point on until I next spoke to her, and we said our goodbyes.

Very early the next morning – a little before 6 a.m. – I happened to be looking at my phone when June called. I answered on the first ring and she began with, "Steven, you won't believe this...." I laughed and asked her if Dad had made yet another comeback? She replied that he had woken up that morning, asked for water, and was talking to the staff. She suggested I meet her there a bit later in the morning and I did exactly that, heading to Strathaven immediately after making a quick stop at the Zoo. June had mentioned that they had moved my father to a different room – a private one – but it had not yet sunk in that this was a Palliative Care room which would represent the last stop on his life's journey. When I arrived at the hospital and inquired after my Dad, I was directed to the end of the hall and it began to dawn on me exactly what his new location – right next to the Nurse's Station – actually meant. I swallowed hard and stepped into the room.

June was there already, but my Dad was not exactly in the condition I had been expecting. He was unconscious again and his breathing was very shallow, ragged, and troubled. It seems likely he'd have been in a coma at this point (if not actually already deceased) had he not possessed two functioning pacemakers within his vascular structure. I watched him struggle for a while as I talked quietly with June. After some time had passed, I was absently gazing out the window when June suddenly said, with some urgency, "Steven! He's trying to get your attention!" I quickly looked over at my father and noticed that not only was he awake, his eyes were peering at me very intently, as if his next words were of the greatest importance and I could not be allowed to miss them. I smiled at him.

"Hi!" I said, with some glee. "How are you doing?? I'm so happy to see you awake, Dad! So happy!"

I'd seen that look before. His own mother – my grandmother who had been my favourite person ever to walk amongst us – had shown that stoic determination when she willed herself to sit up in a wheelchair for several hours as my ex, my Dad, and I showed her her new great-grandson, barely four weeks old at that point. When the day was done, she returned to bed and never left it again until her death nearly seven months later. She was determined to be sitting up when we arrived if it took everything she had, which it very nearly did.

This look on Dad's countenance and in his eyes was almost precisely the same. I knew whatever followed was the single most important thing in the world to him at that moment. I was absolutely not going to miss it. He began to gesture with his right (functioning) arm in the general direction of his closet and uttered several words, the only one of which I was able to even slightly decipher was the final one, "....arrow". For quite some time I had been virtually the only person who could understand his verbiage to any degree, and I managed to work out what he wanted far more often than I could not. This, though, was different. There was some urgency to his words; they flowed from his lips in much greater abundance than they had in months, and he kept turning away to look to his right – which made it very difficult for me to read his lips or pick up any nuance. On top of that, it is extremely likely that he had suffered yet one more stroke the day before which made it even more difficult for him to form the sounds he wanted to. It was obvious to me, however, that I desperately needed to work out what he was trying to tell me; it was also immediately obvious to me that he understood that I was the one person who could understand what he wanted to have done and that he had been waiting single-mindedly for me to arrive just so he could summon his energy and deliver the message – whatever it was.

"I'm sorry, Dad," I said. "I think I heard you say....arrow? What was the rest of it?" I glanced over at June but she was still looking at him. He began to wave off to his right again.

" arrow." I managed to work out the penultimate word this time. " arrow, Dad? Is that what you are saying?" I looked again to June for help. "Is that what you heard? Do you know what he wants?" June shrugged and told me he really wasn't making much sense at all since she had arrived that morning. It was certainly possible that what he was trying to tell me was equally nonsensical, but the intensity of his eyes when he first saw me convinced me otherwise. I turned back to my Dad.

"One more time, Dad? I think you're saying something about a black arrow? Is that right? What about a black arrow?" He didn't indicate that I had heard him correctly, but I knew my Dad very well: the fact that he didn't angrily indicate that I had not heard him correctly was good enough for me. He repeated the words – complete with the same gesturing – and looked back at me for a moment, before once again slipping into unconsciousness.

Frustrated – but filled with a determination I had not felt in a very long time – I sat back in my chair and began to chew on the problem. June was able to shed no light on it whatsoever, but I think she had the opinion that it might have come from a place of delirium or perhaps sudden senility. I continued to work through possible ideas in my head. Could it have been a shirt – an Arrow brand shirt? Maybe a black one? Did he want me to have it? I went over to the closet but, as this was a new room for him, it was virtually bare. Still, I studied it for any sign of an "arrow" no matter how seemingly insignificant. I knew that my Dad could be troubled by the smallest of details being "off" and once he was troubled there was little else to be done for him than to fix the issue. I went back to my seat and wracked my brain.

At some point June began to tell me about the new laptop they had purchased for my Dad just the week before. His old clunker had become absolutely irreparable and she wanted to improve his quality of life in any way she could, even though he could barely use the keyboard (his dominant hand was useless) and a mouse was difficult for him to aim accurately. Still, he needed to feel some connection to technology, as he had been the "guru" for many of his neighbours in their previous home in Bobcaygeon's "Port 32" retirement community. June mentioned that there had been some frustrating issue concerning forgotten passwords when she and Brad, her middle son, had delivered the laptop to Dad and tried to help him get online. (I found out much later that the password had been for the internet "stick" access; at this point I had thought it was for the computer itself.)

As she told me these things I smiled at the sleek, slim, blue-coloured laptop. I wondered if Dad had reacted to its light-blue skin, or the thinness of it. I wondered if the keyboard was equally tiny and whether this would pose a problem for his big, meaty hands. I then frowned a bit as I considered the very real possibility that he would not ever use this laptop again. This was unpleasant and counter-productive, so I pushed it away and went back to attacking the problem he had posed for me.

As I continued to look around the room for any clue, my eyes once again fell on the laptop, sitting on the bedside table to his right. To his right. Exactly between his arm and the closet beyond it. When he was awake and gesturing, I had not yet noticed the low-profile computer located just beyond his hand. Could there be any connection between the laptop and a black......

Oh. My. Goodness. I took in my breath sharply and my pulse quickened. Could that really be it? I asked June if I could open Dad's computer for a moment and take a look at it. She told me to go ahead, so I walked unsteadily over to the table and lifted the lid of the laptop. The screen sprung to life and a log-in screen was displayed. Was this the log-in screen they had been unable to get past last week? I shrugged and forged ahead, simply hitting the "enter" key. The desktop appeared and Windows 10 began to run. I took a deep breath, reached for the mousepad, wiggled it a tiny bit, and watched as a cursor appeared on the screen.

An arrow. A white arrow. The cursor on the screen was a tiny white arrow. One thing in particular had been different about all of my Dad's computers and my own: he had always had a black cursor. Always. 

I opened up "Settings", found my way to those for the mouse pointer, switched its colour to black, enlarged it one or two sizes, and gently closed the lid again. I turned to June and said, "I think I figured out what he wanted. Let's see if I'm right when he wakes up."

It took a while for that to happen, but I kept my eyes glued to my Dad's face during the entire wait. When his eyes flickered open eventually, I stood up in front of him. "Dad! Hi! I need to tell you something," His gaze moved to me and recognition came to his eyes. So I quickly gave him my news,

"Dad, I want you to know that I figured out what you wanted me to do. You wanted your cursor to be switched from white to black, didn't you?" There came a slight nod, almost imperceptible. "That's what I thought! So I fixed it for you, Dad. I made your cursor a black arrow and I enlarged it a bit so you can see it better. Ok? It's fixed." I was probably grinning at him like a lunatic at this point, but the only reaction he was able to muster was the faintest of smiles curling up from the right side of his face. His eyes, though. All I needed to know was in those eyes. Those eyes made it the biggest, brightest, most spectacularly glorious smile I have ever beheld in my life.

Then those eyes closed and he was unconscious once more.

In the next couple of hours on that gloomy Thursday, he occasionally uttered the single word "water"; sometimes it was "more"; once or twice he said "tired" or "hurts". He had been silent and unconscious for quite some time when I finally went home late that afternoon. Sarah and I returned very early the next morning, Friday, November 11th. Most of his immediate family was there with him. He passed away at 11:21 that day, not once regaining consciousness while we all were there at his bedside.

But he passed away knowing that the very last exchange of words he and I shared had resulted in my solving one last puzzle for him – and this solution would never be undone. Nobody else could have worked that out, in all likelihood; he knew this and that was precisely why he waited for my arrival with dogged determination and put every ounce of strength he had left into delivering the request to me. He had faith in this Engineer's son to be able to work out what he needed and fix it for him. And I didn't let him down, not this time: no way was that going to happen.

I fixed his problem. And then he died. And in the complicated, frustrating, inconsistent, selfless, glorious, aggravating, worrisome, ultimately loving relationship that threaded itself between us all through my life, it would have been absolutely and inarguably impossible to have reached a more perfect conclusion.

I will treasure that memory for the rest of my life. It sums up both my father and myself in a way no other story could.

Thank you for this legacy, Dad.

And thanks to all of you for sharing this story with me.

My Dad, my Grandmother, my son, and me - 4/29/89


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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