End of an Era

by Robert J. Sawyer

Prologue: Divergence

My father is dying. He’s in the oncology ward at Toronto’s Wellesley Hospital, cancer eating away at his colon, his rectum—parts of the body people think it’s funny to talk about.

It’s unfair having to see him like this. How am I going to remember him when he’s gone? As I knew him from childhood—a temperamental giant who used to carry me on his shoulders, who used to play catch with me even though I couldn’t throw for beans, who used to tuck me in and kiss me good night, his face like sandpaper against my cheek? I don’t want to remember him like this, shrunken and old, an anorexic mummy with rheumy eyes and varicose face, tubes in his arms, tubes up his nose, drool staining his pillow.


“Brandon.” He coughs twice. Sometimes he coughs more, but it is always an even number. They rack his body in pairs, these coughs, like one-two punches from a wily heavyweight. “Brandon,” he says again, as if the coughs have erased the earlier uttering of my name. I wait for the words that always come next. “Long time no see.”

It’s a little play we put on. My line is always the same, too. “I’m sorry.” But I’m like an actor who’s been in the same part too long. I say it without feeling, without meaning. “I’ve been busy.”

He’s been watching TV again. That forty-centimeter Sony mounted high on the hospital wall is a kind of time machine for him. Thanks to Channel Twenty-nine from Buffalo, which specializes in golden oldies, he gets to peek into the past. Sometimes he reaches back a full six decades for an I Love Lucy episode, flawlessly colorized and reprocessed in stereo. This afternoon he is casting back a mere twenty years for a rerun of Roseanne.

Rosie and Dan are standing in the kitchen talking about the latest trouble their daughter Darlene has gotten into. I’m used to the crispness of my flat-panel wall TV; this ancient set has ghosting and blurry edges. I pick up the remote from the table beside the bed. Click, and the Corners and their little neat world collapse into a singularity in the center of the screen. The dot lingers—a faint reminder of the former life, hanging on longer than it should. I turn to my father.

“How are you feeling?” I ask.

“The same.” It’s always the same. I put the remote down next to the crystal vase. The flowers I’d brought last time have withered. The once-bright petals have turned the color of dried blood and the water looks like weak tea. I take hold of the stems and, dripping on the stippled tile, carry the dead things over to the garbage pail and drop them in. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring fresh ones.”

I come back and sit beside him. The chair has a chrome-plated frame and vinyl cushions that smell like warm vomit. He looks old, older than anyone I’ve ever seen. He used to have a full head of hair, even in his early seventies. But he’s completely bald now. Chemotherapy has taken its toll.

“Why don’t you ever bring Tess with you?” he asks.

I look out the window. Toronto in February is a gray city, like a photograph printed in half-tones. The last of the snow, old and dirty, has been eroded by the first spring rains, forming hoodoos at the sides of the roads. Wellesley Street is streaked with white salt stains. It’s three in the afternoon and hookers are already at the intersections, wearing heavy fur coats and fishnet stockings. “Tess and I aren’t married anymore,” I remind him.

“I always liked Tess.”

Me, too. “Dad, I’m going away for a few days.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

“Where are you going?”

“Alberta. The Red Deer River valley.”

“That’s a long way away.”

“Yes. A long way.”

“Another dig?”

“Not so much a dig this time, Dad. But it is a dinosaur hunt. It may take a couple of weeks.”

After a long, long time he says softly, “I see.”

“I’m sorry to have to leave you.”

Silence again.

“If you don’t want me to go, I won’t.”

He rolls his crab-apple head to look at me. He knows I have just lied to him. He knows I am going anyway. What kind of son am I, leaving behind a dying father?

“I’ve got to be on my way now,” I say at last. I touch his shoulder, a bony thing covered by thin pajamas. Once the color of summer sky, they’ve been washed and dried to the pale blue-gray of an old woman’s hair rinse.

“Will you write? Send a postcard?”

“I can’t, Dad. I’ll be cut off from the rest of the world out there. I’m sorry.”

I pick up my trench coat and head for the door, resisting the urge to look back, to say something—anything —else.


I turn. He adds nothing more, but, after a few eternal seconds, he beckons me closer, closer still, until I am leaning over him, his ragged breath pungent in my nostrils. Then, at last, he speaks, faintly but clearly. “Bring me something to put an end to all this pain. That stuff you’ve got in the lab. Bring me some.”

In the comparative-anatomy lab at the museum we’ve got chemicals for killing wild animals: painless clear death for the rodents; amber death for the larger mammals; an incongruous peach-colored death for the lizards and snakes. I stare at my father.

“Please, Brandon,” he says. He never calls me Brandy. Brandon was the name of his favorite uncle—some guy from England that I’d never met—and nobody had ever called him Brandy. “Please help me.”

I stumble out of the ward, somehow find my car. By the time I realize what I am doing, I have driven almost all the way to the house where Tess and I used to live, where Tess still lives. I turn around, go home, and get very drunk, feeling no pain.

Countdown: 19

Professor Cope’s errors will continue to invite correction, but these, like his blunders, are hydra-headed, and life is really too short to spend valuable time in such an ungracious task.

—Othniel Charles Marsh, paleontologist (1831–1899)

I will correct [Marsh’s] errors, and I expect the same treatment. This should not excite any personal feelings in any person normally or properly constituted; which unfortunately Marsh is not. He makes so many errors, and is so deficient that he will always be liable to excitement and tribulation. I suspect a Hospital will yet receive him.

Edward Drinker Cope, paleontologist (1840–1897)
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