Layton Reid was a globe-trotting photographer—then came a melanoma diagnosis. He returned home to Halifax to work as a wedding photographer. After remission, he got married and had a son. But, the melanoma returned and it was now at Stage IV. This Is Not the End of Me is Dakshana Bascaramurty’s tale of her friend’s three-year journey as he tried desperately to stay alive for his young son, Finn, and then found purpose in preparing Finn for a world without him.
Excerpted from This Is Not the End of Me: Lessons on Living from a Dying Man by Dakshana Bascaramurty. Copyright © 2020 Dakshana Bascaramurty. Published by McClelland & Stewart®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
As her return to work and Finn’s transition to daycare loomed, it was difficult for Candace to come to terms with the fact that Finn was no longer a baby, no longer an appendage whose survival was dependent on her. And that, more than anything, made her long for another baby. But Layton had now made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t something she could wear him down on like she had with so many things before. What bothered her was that Layton couldn’t cut her any slack, couldn’t bring himself to see her perspective, or even sympathize with what was a natural hormonal, emotional response to this point of transition. Why did he see her motivations as selfish?
Candace brought up the possibility of marriage counselling, but with so much on both their plates, it seemed like an inaccessible luxury—to even find the time to go to an appointment or coordinate a house call with a therapist was out of reach. The solution was what it had been since Layton began Gerson: Candace gave in and told her husband that their marriage was more important than having another child. As soon as she let it go, she could feel things thaw between them.
Finn had now gotten used to life without his dad, who had been relegated to a sort of supporting character in his world. At Finn’s daycare, there was a corner where they posted pictures of the children’s parents and siblings, and if a child ever felt particularly homesick or upset, one of the staff would walk him or her up to the wall to stare at their family snapshot. The idea of that was so heartbreaking to Layton: that these children might be traumatized by being separated from their families for only a few hours. What would happen if it wasn’t only one day? What if it was forever? Surely a photo on the wall wouldn’t cut it.
The sadder thought: would Finn even take comfort from seeing his father’s photo on the wall? Now Layton, in recovery from lung surgery, could see Finn for only about an hour a day after Candace brought him home from daycare. Before, when she carried Finn through the door, he’d screech in excitement at seeing his daddy again, but now he was more subdued. Layton couldn’t hold him or play with him or do much more than watch him while they were in the same room together. He’d become a stranger to his son. Still, it was thrilling to see Finn’s independent personality developing. He had his own language he spoke now, a highly articulate baby babble, and he’d mimic his parents and dance and give high fives to anyone who asked for one. This was the motivation to get better that outweighed all the rest. Layton believed that Finn needed him to some small degree, but he needed Finn more.
In a house with a loud, obnoxious dog, a wild toddler, and the frequent presence of two extroverted women, Callie the cat was in many ways the member of the household most like Layton. And so when she died in the new year, Layton took it harder than Candace did. He and Callie could be in each other’s company, silent, not needy, but a mutually comforting presence. In Ottawa, in those difficult months following Layton’s first diagnosis, Callie would sit on his chest: a warm, furry mound lightly breathing as he watched TV or worked on his laptop. She always found a way to lighten the mood. But as new members moved into the household, the attention she received steadily decreased.
Their veterinarian thought Callie had leukemia and had advised they put her down. At the appointment, Layton found it chilling to see a warm body inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide suddenly go cold and still.
When Layton returned home, it was as if Finn knew his father had experienced loss: he reached out to him more to play, to snuggle. Even though Layton knew intellectually that his son was too young to understand death or mourning, he took comfort in explaining this extra affection this way. It was a wonder that this child, who so recently had been a clump of cells, was now showing early signs of empathy. Layton’s favourite framed photo in the house was the one of Finn on the day he was born: freshly pulled out of Candace, a wrinkled mass, eyes wide and adjusting to the light and, more broadly, to the world outside his mother’s body.
In April, Layton went in for a CT scan and he was feeling optimistic. If things came back clear, he’d wind down Gerson and return to something of a normal life again. He’d been figuring out how to re-enter the photography scene—a full-day wedding would be too much for him to dive right into, but maybe he could set up some kind of portrait business, an interesting way of capturing all the guests who attended a wedding.
On the day of the appointment, Candace and Layton took a bottle of champagne with them. Layton had previously joked with his parents, “If it’s clean, I’m gonna pop it open. If it’s not, I’m going to get on the bridge and jump.”
The scan was clean. No cancer. Layton and Candace walked out of the office beaming, playfully shoving each other and saying, “You were scared!” “No, YOU were scared!”
They strolled down the bridge, the one Layton now didn’t have to jump off, popped the cork on the champagne, and both glugged some down. Layton was aware that he’d feel terrible the next day, but wouldn’t it be nice to feel terrible from a good, old-fashioned hangover than from cancer for a change?
They headed to Willie and Phil’s. Layton raced up the stairs to the den, the same place where he’d told his parents about the stomach and lung tumours two years earlier, and shared the news with them.
“That’s great, that’s great,” Willie said, smiling, and then she and Phil started talking about other things. Layton’s face fell.
“Well, fuck, this is the best news!” he said, annoyed that they weren’t understanding the significance of what he’d told them.
Willie reminded him gently that he’d always asked that they not get too high on the highs or too low on the lows. Willie knew she couldn’t be too happy about this because things could change at any moment.
Layton had asked the surgeon for a digital copy of his CT scan and received a stark greyscale image of his abdomen: his lungs asymmetrical black masses; his stomach a little blob nestled into his liver; his ribs a string of small rounds, like slices of calamari. Everything looked a little skewed and to the wrong scale, but what was important was that there were no tumours—what had been cut out with surgical instruments had stayed out. He thought about blowing up the scan at Kinko’s, sticking it in a big frame and mounting it in the bathroom or living room—visitors might take it to be a macabre art piece, but to him it would be a source of inspiration. Maybe seeing that scan would help his parents understand how huge this news was.
But Willie and Phil had been right to hold back from celebrating with their son. A week later, Layton, Candace, and Finn were playing in the yard when the colour suddenly drained from Layton’s face. He told Candace he was tired and needed to sit down, and she followed him inside. As he stood in the kitchen, he suddenly looked up to the ceiling, his neck tracing a circular path as though there was a bird or wasp flying overhead. Then his legs buckled under him and his whole towering frame fell to the kitchen floor and he began convulsing.
will i be in pain? will i feel alone? will i be brave? will i find peace? will candace be with me? will she be ok? will she know how much i’ll miss her? will she remember to pay the power bill? will she sell the house? will she find another partner? will he be good enough for her? will he be good enough for my son? will she get remarried? will she still want to be buried next to me if she remarries? will finn miss me? will he be happy? will he look like me when he’s older? will he be bullied? will he be the bully? will he be kind to others? will he find love? will he find a career he’s passionate about? will he be sensitive in the same ways his dad was? will he be good to his mom? will he play pickup basketball at oxford once in a while? will he stay close with his grandparents? will he still remember me in a few years? will he know how much i loved him? will he love me in return? will he be in pain? will he feel alone? will he be brave? will he find peace?