A Psalm of Life Ended

Walter Deonandan
July 21, 1932 – July 21, 2021


My sister came into my room and whispered loudly, “Ray, are you awake?”

“Hmm?” I said.

“The hospital just called.” I sat up right away. “Daddy just passed away,” she said.

I looked at the clock. It read 2:48 AM. “How long ago?” I asked.

“Maybe five minutes.”

My father had been dead for five minutes. But he would be dead for the rest of my life.

This was not unexpected news, but still felt suffocating. My father had been showing signs of Lewy Body Dementia for 7 months now. This is a rapidly intensifying, cruel and incurable disease that takes our loved ones from us one piece at a time. When it was just the memory and mild hallucination issues, we felt we could care for him at home for as long as it took. But in recent weeks, delusions, paranoia, depression, and extreme anxiety had taken hold, and it had become abundantly clear that we would need more help.

In the same timeframe, as part of his many ongoing hallucinations, he had seen figures in the tree on his front lawn beckoning to him, saying, “Walter, it’s time.” My father had even announced that he wanted to die, and that his time was coming.

Despite a fairly active day of atypical social interaction, a few hours earlier today he had become paralytic and unresponsive. An ambulance was called. And in the hospital, he was placed in palliative care. We were told that he had hours or days to live.

Frankly, this was a blessing. I know my father wished to go quickly and with dignity, rather than to lose his mind, his physical control over his body, and to be a financial weight on his children. When the word “palliative” was shared with me, I felt a wave of guilty relief. His suffering would soon come to an end. And I felt extraordinary anxiety for feeling gratitude for the impending death of my beloved father.

This all happened in Toronto, where fortunately my mother and all my siblings could be present. I, however, was in Ottawa with my spouse and infant. Should I leave immediately? Wait until morning? What accommodation could I make for my childcare duties? I was stressed, without sleep, and was struggling to make cogent decisions. My father would be the first to tell me that my responsibility rested with the care for my own family and not for him.

But I recall that he himself had not been present for the death of his own father. And he had regretted that oversight ever since, as the two of them had rifts in their relationship that were left unrepaired. My father and I had no such schisms, as I have always loved him openly and unabashedly. Still, I had to be there. Right away.

After much scurrying, I managed to find one of the last rental cars in Ottawa and was barely able to pick it up before closing. I then drove non-stop to Toronto, whereupon my family had returned from the hospital and told me that my father was sedated and finally peaceful, and that I could go see him first thing in the morning.

So I took the opportunity to finally get some sleep. But I was awakened by my sister a couple of hours later. My father was dead. My father was dead. I would not get the chance to spend that final waking moment with him.

He died on his 89th birthday. With a breaking voice halted by sobs and through a mask and face visor, I sang “happy birthday” to his dead body, somewhat still expecting him to open his eyes and recognize me.

And now I’m going to tell you a little something about him.

My father was born Deonandan Deonarine in 1932. For reasons that are both complicated and inconsistently related to me, he would eventually make his first name his surname and would adopt “Walter” as his given name.

He was the second eldest of ten children, with a stern taskmaster father and a petite mother whom he adored. He regaled us constantly with tales of his harsh upbringing in the cane fields of our village in Guyana. As an example, he told me of being a small child and asking his mother for more food, which she gave him, then seeing his grandmother beat his mother for daring to give any child more than his allotment of food. He was fond of characterizing his childhood as brutish and hard, scarred with scarcity and toil.

There is a J-shaped scar on the side of his handsome face that often got his doctors talking decades later. He got it when a bull charged into the rice fields and threatened to destroy the paddies; so my father wrestled it to the ground and was gored in the face as a result. That’s who my mighty father was: a man who subdued angry bulls with his bare hands and who paid the physical price for such actions.

After another youthful accident, he found himself once more in the city hospital in Guyana. He had read that legendary aviator Art Williams had flown into the Guyanese interior and had discovered a “wild boy” who had been raised by animals. He told me of seeing that “wild boy” in the hospital, red-faced and wide-grinned. His impression still makes me chuckle as I recall it.

Many of the folksy tales of his youth I massaged and retold in my short story collection, “Sweet Like Saltwater.” That book was my attempt to enshrine the insights of my father’s early life in the permanent record of literary history. There are so many more rich stories that I hope do not fade from my own memory before I can create a second volume. But now I won’t have the chance to clarify some of them, or to add to that rich repository.

When my father was a teenager, the defining moment of his life occurred. His beloved mother fell ill and died. But she had two parting requests of her eldest son: that he marry that girl down the street (my mother), and that he take care of his younger siblings. Those tasks would prove challenging, but he would eventually succeed at both. He would then become the parental figure not only for his own children, but for dozens of people in the wider family and community who had lost a father or mother. To me, this role seemed effortless for him. But I suspect now that it weighed on him heavily.

I don’t think he ever stopped yearning to see his mother again. He would never again receive the love and approval from a parental figure. Yet so many others would seek that approval from him for the entirety of his life.

Despite being a brilliant young man with a thirst for knowledge and self development, he was pulled from school to work the fields and help feed the family. All his subsequent life, he would work to overcome his educational deficit, becoming an accomplished autodidact, and learning more about history, geography, literature, economics, and political science than some of my friends who specialize in those actual professions. But he would support his family mostly as a salt-of-the-Earth labourer or factory worker.

It takes otherworldly courage to have engineered the transplantation of his young family from rural Guyana first to New York and then to Canada, at a time (the late 1960s) when there were so many unknowns associated with such migrations. Canada gave his children the opportunity to flourish in ways in which he was unable; so he sang of the glories of this generous nation till his final days. He and my mother often remarked how fortunate they were to have landed in Canada when their original target was the USA, as if the hand of Fate had guided them to the best harbour.

I had the chance to publish a story about my father’s migration in India Currents Magazine eleven years ago in an article titled, “Man On The Moon.” In it, I compared my father’s emigration to North America to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface, as the Moon landing took place the day before my father’s birthday. I wrote:

“Both men had found themselves in an alien land with backbreaking responsibilities. Both had a plan for success, with a high probability of catastrophic failure. And both were, in their own particular ways, profoundly alone in their travails.

“But both also shared a particular strength: they had each eschewed cynicism and had chosen optimism. They would both work to maximize their chances of success, maintaining the discipline and sacrifice necessary to attain their goals. They had both recognized that the price of failure was far too dear.”

My father was a great man with a wry sense of humour and untapped intellect, who I do not think ever fully recovered from the trauma of his mother’s early death. While I confess to feeling a dull ache that I did not arrive in time to give him a true farewell, I am nonetheless immensely relieved that I was able to give him his only biological grandchild a year before his passing, and that he had had a few chances to hold that grandchild.

My own paternal grandfather had held me. But I do not remember him. And now the same fate has befallen my son. That saddens me.

However, I am much warmed by the fact that in his later years, both he and my mother were the elder members of a multicultural village right in the heart of downtown Toronto. They helped raise two Korean neighbours from birth; and those kids, now young adults, see my parents rightly as their own grandparents, and as a result even speak better Guyanese patois than me.

Other neighbours include Filipinos, Italians, Malaysians, Peruvians, and Sri Lankans, all of whom feel kinship with my parents who possess the precious gift of seeing the commonality of the working class immigrant experience in all those households. It was touching to have them all come around to the house today, masked and teary-eyed, expressing memories in a thick diversity of accents.

My father’s appreciation for the higher education that was denied him is now enshrined in a scholarship that bears his and my mother’s names, given to undergraduate students of financial need at the University of Toronto. He felt strongly that poverty should never be a barrier to achievement, not when you’re willing to work hard and study.

Here are some lessons that my father taught me, well paraphrased:

  • Things don’t matter. Do not be too sentimental about things.
  • There is no situation that does not warrant a joke. (Though you have to be careful to whom you tell it.)
  • Blustery big talk is fine, but in the end a proper man does the right thing.
  • Education and self-development are everything and should never end.
  • All religions worship the same god: a prayer is a prayer.
  • The woman you marry is your family. You must never leave your family or dishonour your relationship.
  • A father is expected to sacrifice everything for his children.
  • The only places a man can truly have privacy are in the bathroom or in his car.
  • “I will judge you by the company that you keep.”


Today is understandably emotional for me, and I will continue to randomly burst into tears at inopportune moments. But it’s also a joyous time. I know my father had a very long life, in almost perfect health up until the last 7 months or so. I know that he wanted to die, to be freed of the mental torment to which this awful disease was subjecting him. I know that he had accomplished everything he needed to: raised his kids to adulthood, received a grandchild, fought his way out of poverty to financial comfort, and was never untrue or faithless to his core religious beliefs.

It is my hope and belief that he is finally reunited with his own mother, whom he has missed for 70 years, and that he is basking in the kind of approval and love that he gave everyone else, but that no one in life was ever qualified to give him.

I leave you with my father’s favourite poem, “A Psalm of Life” by Longfellow, which he quoted endlessly throughout his magnificent life:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
I love you, Daddy. And I’ll see you one day again.

Walter Deonandan