Home Safe is about how at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, journalist Mitchell Consky and his family of healthcare workers grapple with their frontline obligations while providing end-of-life care for his father with terminal cancer. Read an excerpt from his memoir below!
April 17, 2020
The showerhead spat warm water over my face, and steam filled the bathroom. Three short sentences cycled through my mind: Dad has cancer. Steph can’t come home. The world has shut down.
Lathering liquid soap over my body, I reminded myself that I wasn’t dying. Whatever happened, my life would somehow continue. But that was hard to believe when everything had completely stopped.
The timing of this was almost comical: normally, when someone receives such a grave diagnosis, they ignorantly — almost selfishly — expect the world to halt in its tracks, for a quiet stillness to fill the air, underscoring the fact that nothing will ever be the same. And, typically, the world keeps orbiting exactly as it did before. Life continues as it always does — a fast-tracked routine of honking cars and revolving doors that stops for no one. With my dad’s diagnosis, however, the world did stop. For everyone. His illness may not have been the cause, but it felt as if it was.
The looming uncertainty, the fear that the “normal” lives we had led were now beyond reach, and the horror of a dire future hurtling our way — like a train on tracks we’d been tied to — now seemed the shared state of everyone. It made it difficult to breathe. How long until impact? I imagined my father tied to those tracks, alone, and me standing far away, wanting desperately to move him. But not being able to. I was paralyzed, immobile, helpless. The tracks were vibrating, pistons screaming, engine steaming … Pst-Pst-Pst-Pst!
As water sprayed against my back, I wondered how many sons were feeling the same fear right now. How many daughters, or wives, or grandchildren had to face losing a loved one? How many of them had to stand helplessly separated?
Well … I might’ve been helpless, but I wasn’t looking from afar. In a way, my father was fortunate — he had a different disease. He wasn’t heaving on a ventilator. He wasn’t isolated in a hospital wing with no one around him but masked nurses attending his every breath. We didn’t know how long he had — in fact, we didn’t know much at all — but we knew we could hold his hand. And knowing that somehow made it all a little less of a nightmare. I wondered if he felt that, too.
I rubbed shampoo on my scalp, trying to calm my buzzing brain. But my mind swerved through lanes of memory, roaring like a speeding motorcycle, driving me to another night, a distant time, five years before a deadly virus brought the world to its knees. It was December 2, 2015, shortly before midnight, when I was first confronted with the fragility of life. Similarly, I was standing in the shower.
The pressure on that showerhead was weak, and the water splattered more than sprayed. It was my third year of university, when I was twenty and invincible. Rinsing foam off my arms, I heard a knock on my bathroom door.
“Where’s your phone?” called my roommate.
“Dead.” I had been working late at the student newspaper office, a crowded space where computers shut down spontaneously and electrical outlets were notoriously unreliable.
He walked in, and I opened the shower’s flimsy plastic door. His face was ghost-pale in the rising steam. His eyes were wide and bloodshot.
“Gaby Barsky,” he said, struggling to summon the next words, “got into a motorcycle accident and … passed away.”
It was a phrase you’d use for an old man — for a grandparent who had lived a full life. Not someone my age. Not a kid. Not Gaby.
Gaby was my fraternity brother. We grew up in the same town, went to the same high school, were counsellors at the same summer camp — we lived similar lives. He was good with computer code. I was good with words. He liked vodka. I liked rum. He was living in California for a co-op term, working for a sports-tech company. I took on a job as opinion editor of the student paper. His recent pay cheques afforded him a motorbike. My recent honorarium covered a couple of pizzas. Discrepancies aside, a thirst for adventure was the common denominator in our friendship.
We once cliff-jumped together across the lake from our summer camp — literally linked arms — and our bodies hit the water at different times thanks to an untimed surrender to gravity; an elbow hit my jaw, a head hit my head, a leg hit my groin; hitting the water felt like slamming into concrete. Needless to say, it hurt like a bitch.
We laughed about it as we treaded water, gasping in pain and humour. It was another fun adventure, another cool moment that celebrated our invincibility. We had our fair share of those.
In those college days, we’d streak any time, any place — our clothes would be flying behind us as we’d take off into the winter night, or at venues where alcohol was served a little too cheap. Gaby once tried teaching me to do a backflip. (I hurt my head then, too.) He once yanked a snapping turtle out of the water by the tail, that summer we painted ourselves yellow, pretending to be “Golden Snitches” for our campers who would try to tackle us with hockey sticks between their legs. Together, we talked about the rush of going skydiving, of feeling the still world beneath us as if we’re floating, flying like superheroes. We carried youthful ignorance with heads held high, believing that nothing could stop us. Believing that mistakes could be made, lessons learned, and that time was as bottomless as the beer that we poured endlessly into our red Solo cups.
But as I stepped out of the shower that December night, with all my week’s problems washing down the drain, it seemed like all time had been cut off, like we’d missed the last call of invincibility. From then on, it no longer mattered if you were young and wild. It no longer mattered if you had nothing but open roads before you. All it took was the vroom of a bike and a car changing lanes to end it all.
A bunch of us cried into each other’s shoulders at the frat house that night. We hugged the shit out of each other. Patted backs and kissed heads. We sat there in that dingy, beer reeking living room, crying an endless mantra of I love you, man. It was as if we were trying to remind each other that we were not alone in our confusion. That we were still there, and life would somehow continue forward. I didn’t know how.
I went on a walk a little later, alone, wandering through empty streets around four in the morning. The stillness was overwhelming, taunting. The only sound was the drum of my feet on concrete, the silence-cutting crunch of dried leaves under my boots. Red Solo cups littered the sidewalk. Shattered beer bottles were scattered over the lawns. Lost in what was once an oasis of celebration, the quietness of the party coming to an end had never felt so final.
My biggest fear had always been that I would leave this world misunderstood, that when I die all my thoughts and memories would die with me. But the strongest reassurance I always had was that words don’t die. Words are the only anchor we have; they secure our existence, preventing us from drifting away. They ensure that the party never ends.
I went back to my dorm and wrote Gaby’s obituary that night. As the early morning sunlight ignited the new day, I pounded letters on my keyboard at the pace of my pumping heart. I articulated my confusion, my anger, my heartbreak, and I tried to capture his essence, knowing I’d fall short.
I knew that news of Gaby’s death was going to break soon, and I needed everyone to know that his life was more than the road accident that ended it. More than a tragic headline. I wrote about his big-tooth smile, his compassionate soul, his computer-nerd demeanour enhanced by a party-boy lovability. I wrote about his love of dancing.
I searched for some takeaway from this loss, some lesson to suggest meaning in the meaningless. “We must not be afraid,” I wrote. “But we must not live completely fearless. We must know we are not invincible.” The piece was published on the student newspaper site the next day. A storm of heart emojis, like buttons, and “RIP Gaby Barsky” posts later, life moved on — that stream of normality pulled everyone forward — but I didn’t. Gaby had a twin sister, Sabrina. At the funeral, standing before her brother’s grave on a cold winter’s day, she read out a poem Gaby had written in elementary school on yin and yang, the ancient Chinese philosophy about how the dualism of opposite forces create harmony in the world. The poem said his sister was yin, like the moon in darkness, and he was yang, the sun shining brightly. He wrote that the two forces balanced each other. That they needed one another to illuminate their way.
Seeing her tear-filled eyes, which so closely resembled those of my good friend, I knew I needed to find some sunshine. Some trace of his warmth and presence. In any small way, I needed to bring him back.
Words were my tools of resurrection. Every night I wrote Sabrina a different memory of growing up with Gaby and sent it to her at 3:00 a.m. (I don’t think sleeping was a recognized concept back then.) They were stupid little stories, wildly insignificant, chronicling moments like getting into our first bar with fake IDs and getting kicked out immediately after because Gaby asked for a Molson Canadian in the most nervous voice possible, prompting the bartender to take another look at our cards. Or that time we danced on stage at a sorority fundraiser to “Hakuna Matata,” which abruptly escalated to a Magic Mike striptease to “It’s Raining Men.” (We were kicked out of there, too.) For each story, I crafted funny titles, included photos, interviewed witnesses.
Sabrina woke up each morning and laughed about some dumb thing her brother did, and I went to sleep each night exhausted by the battle of immortalization.
Months passed, and eventually my own stories were running low. I reached out to Gaby’s friends and asked if they had any anecdotes they’d be willing to share. I scheduled different stories for different nights. I made a Gmail account and hustled people I didn’t even know to submit something, anything, that could keep Sabrina’s twin alive.
The stories kept rolling. Gaby at a music festival. Gaby’s first kiss. Gaby making snow angels under a streetlight on a white-powdered road. I was an intrepid reporter, the editor of a publication that catered content to a one-person audience, content that was also about one person. Sabrina got used to receiving the recounts, and I got used to scavenging for them. She told me often how much she appreciated them, how the stories — if only momentarily — illuminated some of the darkness. It was the most important job of my life, but I wasn’t only doing it for her.
Sometimes distant friends had a good Gaby moment lingering in the crannies of their memory, but they didn’t trust their ability to adequately put it into words. I threw on my journalist hat — a hat I wasn’t sure fitted yet — and wrote it for them. I interviewed people outside of clubs, and in the smoking pit outside of bars, holding my iPhone to their face with coils of tobacco smoke wafting around me, sometimes with rain splattering against gutters. I pressed for any detail that could enrich the tale, turn the foggy recollection into a memory, a memory into an anecdote, an anecdote into a story. Because the stories were all he left behind. And I made it my mission to collect every last one of them. I did this because I was afraid of him being forgotten. Forgotten by others. Forgotten by me.
Eight months passed, and I had sent Sabrina more than 240 stories. It felt good to have them all written, accessible whenever I needed to remind myself of those younger days when anything seemed possible. But there was so much I never asked him, so much I wish I knew about him before his life was so suddenly wasted. What would Gaby have told the world if he knew he was going to die? What message, what lesson, would’ve come from the kid taken too soon?
I had dreams about interviewing him, the same way I interviewed his many friends to get the details of a funny story. I dreamed of going back in time, slowing everything down, and asking him any question I could think of. I fantasized about recording them and having not only his words, but also his voice, saved and captured forever. I knew that these fantasies could never have materialized unless Gaby knew he was going to die, or at least considered the imminent possibility. Such considerations do not surface in the minds of the invincible.
As death literature often suggests, denial of our mortality can prevent us from saying what’s really on our mind, what we’re really feeling, what we really fear, what we really hope for, what keeps us going in times of darkness. Gaby didn’t have the chance to express his deepest vulnerabilities.
But my father would.
There was so much Dad kept buried. The pain of losing his mother a year after moving to a big city. Then losing his father seven years later. What it felt like to live parentless in his twenties, supported by the devotion of his brother and sister. The moments of sadness and love that helped shape who he was.
With warm water streaming over my goosebumped skin, I realized I couldn’t cure his cancer, but I could learn his story. I can interview him every day and capture his voice and words forever.
I got out of the shower, dried off, and looked over at my iPhone on the counter next to the sink. My family of healthcare workers had been bombarding us with information about his prognosis, about clinical trials, about the potential success of certain treatments, recommended medications, even sent reviews of his oncology specialist at Sunnybrook. I knew they’d do whatever it took to prolong his life, to give him a fighting chance.
But my role, besides helping in any way I could, would be different, more symbolic, maybe. Because no matter what happened, I’d keep my father alive.
Mitchell Consky is a journalist with works published in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Walrus, and BNN Bloomberg. He specializes in long-form feature writing and essays about loss, travel, and adventure. When not working, his ideal escape is drifting on a canoe in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. He lives in Toronto. Learn more here.