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In mid-October, 2008, my 86-year-old father was admitted to hospital in Albany, N.Y., with pneumonia. He was worried: Who would monitor the red bucket below the leak in his kitchen ceiling? And (sensing he wouldn't be discharged any time soon) how could he get an absentee ballot for the U.S. federal election on Nov. 4?
It can be pleasant voting absentee. My husband and I are American citizens and deep-rooted Canadian residents. We have cast our ballots from Toronto for 28 years, always in sarcastic, squabbling opposition, our choices neutralizing each other.
We were at our worst during the Bush dynasty – don't get me started – but thankfully, during the current election finale, we've dialled back our feuding a bit.
In years past, a few weeks before the election, envelopes arrived from the early-voting clerk in Dallas, our last address in the United States. Now, the Lone Star State lets us print our ballots electronically. I choose my own moment to vote the usual suspects in or out. I sit on the deck if the weather's nice. Top up my coffee. Or sip some wine. Sometimes, I'm nostalgic for the physical get-out-and-vote rush that connects good citizens. But more often, our household bickering – ignited by endless media coverage of cringeworthy campaign cabaret – just wears me out.
In 2008, I slogged across upstate New York on the Via Rail/Amtrak Maple Leaf, arriving late at my dad's little house in Albany. The lights were on. An envelope from the New York State Board of Elections was in the mailbox outside the front door. The red bucket was empty. My brother Sam, who lived nearby, had been keeping an eye on things. I phoned him to check in.
Pop still had an IV drip. Solid food? Yes. Bedpan? Yes. But soon they'd be disconnecting the awkward Python, the high-flow oxygen tube fatter than a garden hose that ventilates through a prong stuck up each nostril. Minus the Python, Pop could walk to the bathroom, and this was key for his transfer to a rehab facility.
Our father was a lot better, but he looked rough, Sam warned me. And he did. Ill, frail, slight in the faded hospital gown dipping below his collar bone, his nose and upper lip raw from the Python.
When he'd visited Toronto just three weeks earlier, this same man hopped aboard the TTC and gleefully roamed the aisles of St. Lawrence Market. At dinner one night, wearing his favourite sage-coloured corduroy jacket (circa Neil Armstrong's moon walk) and a bow tie I'd made for him decades ago, Pop had flawlessly recited John Greenleaf Whittier's poem Barbara Frietchie. Google it. I kid you not.
I had phoned my father with the ETA of his absentee ballot. Now, Pop waggled his electric razor, combed his hair wisps and asked to be moved – still shackled by the drip and the Python – to a bedside chair. Citizens vote upright. His roommate, an elderly man fully dressed, was being helped into a wheelchair.
"You almost met Don," Pop said, his voice scratchy. "He listens to Rush Limbaugh. I've had him discharged."
Don called him a card.
Pop's blue eyes retained their wisenheimer glint. The puffiness of the past four years was gone. After my mother died (one floor above, in the Hospice Inn), he'd replaced their congenial evening meal with dinner in his house in front of any and all TV news. Hefty dry Rob Roys and an abundance of red wine washed down his meals of takeout and restaurant odds and ends. His current residence was alcohol-free. He said he didn't miss it.
My father allowed me to open the Board of Elections packet for him. He settled back to examine the paperwork – ballot, security envelope, carrier envelope – like the retired lawyer he was. He steadied his pen and began working his way down the ballot.
"Sarah Palin." Pop looked at me over the rim of his glasses. "Good God."
Once upon a time, my parents had identified as Republicans. But the war in Vietnam, Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon's Watergate pushed them both across the aisle. My mother voted against Ronald Reagan and the Bushes as many times as she could before her death in 2004. For the 2008 election, my dad would vote firmly against the maverick-y Dubya-ite residue on the Republican ticket, and enthusiastically for Barack Obama. There was a post office across from the hospital. I was dispatched to buy a stamp, a good strong one: a breast-cancer theme if they had it. He went back to work.
Lunch arrived: soup, crackers, salad, beef, potatoes, gravy, boiled carrot coins, bun, canned peaches, vanilla pudding, apple juice. Pop touched the gravy with his fork. Chose the pudding. Even if the heap on his tray had been appetizing, he was too distracted to eat.
This election would make history. He was glad to be part of it.
Plagued by pneumonia, a leaky kitchen ceiling and three children who nagged him constantly to consider please some kind of assisted living, my father was vigorous enough to help elect the first African-American Democratic Party President of the United States.
"The country was never this exciting when your mother and I were alive," he said.
"Good news," I reminded him. "You're still alive."
Sara Clayton lives in Toronto.