Our Final Conversation
P. Roy Wilson, Architect and Artist, 1900- 2001
Watercolour by P. Roy Wilson
Dad was a self-employed architect, and when making a phone call, he gave his name as “P. Roy Wilson.” The P stood for Percy. His friends called him Roy, but he always included his first initial over the phone.
Born in England, he emigrated to Canada at thirteen and retained his English accent. To Dad, daily exercise was the key to longevity, and he would never drive anywhere if he had time to walk or bicycle. An avid sailor and skier, he’d often work in the evening to free up his day for his favourite sports. Roy was esteemed by people of all ages, frequently taking them sailing on his 29-foot boat.
He was a strict father, expecting his three kids to exhibit the same high level of self-discipline that he possessed. As his youngest child and only daughter, he forbade listening to rock’n’roll music or displaying photos of movie stars in my room. He didn’t smoke, drink, swear, tell dirty jokes, or break any laws or codes of conduct, as far as I knew. I always felt that he would have disowned me if I’d slept with a boyfriend before marriage. This father/daughter level of formality endured my entire life.
When Mum, six years his junior, began developing dementia, Roy learned to cook at eighty. Nothing gourmet, but his simple meals were nutritious, and nobody got food poisoning. He was her only caregiver until she had to be institutionalized, dying at eighty-six.
I lived over five hundred kilometres away in Toronto. I repeatedly encouraged him to hire some help: an occasional cleaner, housekeeper, part-time companion, or live-in personal care worker. But my entreaties fell on deaf ears. Once I did manage to hire someone from an agency to come in twice a week, and by the time I got back to Toronto, he’d already cancelled her services.
Because he was still completely lucid and managed to dress presentably, eat healthily, entertain friends for afternoon tea, and paint a new watercolour every day, I had no clout. He was fiercely independent, and my two brothers, who lived across the country, thought I was too fussy. Whenever I expressed concern, they would tell me to lighten up.
At ninety-nine, a health issue forced him to hire a live-in caregiver, and I could finally relax about his welfare. Retired nurse Yvonne took amazing care of Dad, and the two of them stayed up until midnight on Dec 31, 1999, to welcome the new century.
In March 2001, I planned a visit. Just prior to leaving Toronto, I lunched with a friend who knew about my ancient father. At a funeral she’d recently attended, the program contained a particularly eloquent quote about death attributed to Stewart Alsop, an American writer. I tucked it into my bag before flying to Montreal.
The caregiver who replaced Yvonne on Friday nights engaged me in a private conversation about his deteriorating health due to congestive heart failure. He still had all his marbles.
She asked, “Have you given him permission to die yet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Mr. Wilson probably still sees you as the little girl he needs to take care of, even though you are an adult. If you had a gentle talk with him and explained that you are doing well and he can relax about your happiness, he might just let go.”
I contemplated our exchange overnight. As soon as he was awake and eating breakfast in his bedroom, I went in to see him. Morning meds made him feel dreadful, so he sat in a chair with closed eyes.
After ordinary morning chit-chat, I said, “Dad, you’ve always done a wonderful job of taking care of me. Now that I’m a grown married woman with a career and grown sons, your job is finished. Somewhere I recently read this quote: A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.”
He sat there with his eyes closed, and a sense of peace enveloped us.
“Aren’t you clever to have memorized that saying!” He was always one to dish out compliments. After a few moments of silence, I asked, “How do you want to be remembered?”
“As an architect and artist,” he replied.
“Well, your beautiful houses and churches are dotted all over Montreal. You’ve sold nearly a thousand paintings, so you’re luckier than most of us. You have masses of permanent accomplishments to leave behind.”
I flew back home the next day, and our only subsequent communication was by telephone — in the form of brief chats. Whenever I asked Yvonne if I should return, she said not to. He’d said he was ready to die and join his beloved wife in heaven.
“He doesn’t want you to see him the way he is now,” she said.
His final outing happened in early May when he was driven to McGill University. The School of Architecture had mounted an exhibition entitled 101 Watercolours by P. Roy Wilson — a clever title given he would be turning 101. Holidaying in Bermuda, I called him the next day to hear about the opening reception.
“It was the most marvellous night of my life!” he declared.
He died at home three weeks later. Below his name and dates, his tombstone reads “Architect and Artist.”