I will tell you another story about my father, Joachim Lambek, a Jew from Leipzig who escaped from Nazi Germany and ended up as a free young man in Montreal by way of the Kindertransport to England and two years as an “enemy alien” in a prison camp in rural Quebec.
In early 2014, he was 91 and nearing the end of his life.
“Bring me hemlock,” he told me. His frame of reference was the life and death of Socrates, who chose hemlock as the poison by which he accepted the death penalty in Athens in 399 B.C. My father was a professional mathematician and amateur historian of Greek philosophy. He wanted me to bring him hemlock. He would have accepted a substitute.
How serious was my father when he asked me for hemlock? I know he did not want to live in a condition of dependency, physical or mental. If he had had the means to pull the lever for his own death, at what moment in his decline would he have done so? Speculation leaves no clear answer and doesn’t help. Regardless, he lived too long. He lived through periods when his dignity was sorely damaged. We all let this happen.
Here was a man of astonishing intelligence and academic accomplishment. He had lived a life on his own terms and at his own pace — especially since the end of his marriage to my mother in the early ’70s — yet he now faced the loss of his extraordinary faculties. We watched his decline accelerate as my brothers and I arranged for his care. It is the sort of tragedy that affects many families.
He made adjustments: wearing a “Lifeline” pendant, having nurses and doctors and social workers and occupational therapists visit the house and tell him what he needed. Each change began with typical obstinacy, but then he came around and accepted the new limitations in his life. He was invariably courteous with all these people even when he dissented from their advice.
“I’m sorry I’m wasting your time,” he would say to me. But I did not feel he was wasting my time and I always told him that, and that exchange of sentiments was very gratifying. It never got more sentimental than that.
One morning in late February of 2014, my wife Linda and I insisted on bringing my father to the Westmount walk-in clinic to try to get treatment for a painful swelling on his elbow. The visit was unsuccessful and frustrating. Nevertheless, we then drove to the optometrist, where I picked up the glasses that he had had repaired, then to his barber on Sherbrooke west of Claremont.
I parked more than a block away, and we walked to the shop. He used a cane. There was an hour’s wait, so Linda and I went for a walk while he waited, reading, at the barber shop. After his hair was cut, he surprised us by suggesting we go out for lunch. We hadn’t done this for months. It was astonishing that he had the desire and the energy, even after the exhausting clinic experience and the haircut. We went to the Tao on Victoria and he heartily ate a Peking duck, and the two of us finished a half-liter of saké.
My father had always taken his family, friends, and colleagues out to eat. He was generous. Over the years, we enjoyed a hundred or two meals in Montreal’s Chinatown, dozens of family outings to Molivos for fresh fish and Greek lima beans, French and Portuguese restaurants in the Old Town and the area around McGill, bistros in Westmount and NDG, and more recently a Syrian restaurant, Damas, that used to be in the Plateau. But all that was in the permanent past.
The lunch with my dad at the Tao restaurant and the carafe of saké we shared on that remarkable warm winter day — his last meal out if you don’t count hospital food (and who would?) — remain my best memories of 2014. The event stands out as a miracle, an oasis in a desert of decline.