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Diary of a Restaurant: Ch. 26 – Ivan’s Journey

Feb 25, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

By late spring, Ivan was bedridden. Like many of his friends, Donna and I were sure that he had only a matter of weeks left. Ted on the other hand, was determined that Ivan would live until a vaccine was found to cure him, and focused on making that happen, doing everything he could to keep opportunistic infections at bay. 

Ted continued to work for a while, engaging nursing staff to care for Ivan during the day.  But as he became more involved in researching the latest and most effective treatments and lobbying their insurance company to make them available for Ivan, he no longer had the time. He kept the full-time nursing staff on and cajoled friends to sit with Ivan in the evening and throughout the night, going so far as to set up a schedule. So we would sit talking softly across the bed, often to someone who might have been a stranger, exchanging Ivan stories about his wild imagination and creativity, his roots and his loves. It was as if we were passing photos of his life across the bed. 

From time to time, someone might laugh and ask Ivan about an incident from his past, perhaps garnering a flicker of recognition from him, but mostly there was no response. Ivan did seem to recognize his long time work partner, Judi Cooper-Sealy, who would chatter away to him while gently washing his hair. He also seemed to brighten a little when Donna was around, so she began to go more often and stay longer. Sometimes, she and Judi would spend most of the night seated by his bed.

Ted had reorganized the room to accommodate Ivan’s sight lines. He raised the television so it could be viewed from a reclining position and covered one wall with Polaroid photos with messages of support and encouragement from his friends and co-workers. All day long, birds fluttered around three feeders hung outside in front of the window.

Donna and I were not giving the restaurant the attention we should have but thanks to our strong and sympathetic staff, things ran smoothly during our frequent absences, absolving us of our guilt. Anne, Vera and the kitchen staff sent broths and light meals for Ivan and for Ted, who hardly seemed to think of eating, he was so focused on Ivan.

And Ivan held on – all that hot summer, naked and catheterised under a light sheet, with an oversized fan circulating at the window. It pained him to be touched, so the delicate task of gently moisturizing his skin and turning him to prevent bedsores could only be done by Ted and a nurse.

Against the odds, Ivan remained stable throughout the fall and when Christmas came, Ted proposed that we have dinner with them, assuring us that Ivan would join us at the table. 

In the end, Ivan couldn’t get out of bed, so there were nine of us who sat down to dinner at a table that was a masterpiece of set dressing. The top was a piece of Lucite, eight feet long, thirty inches wide and about two inches thick. One end was curved to exactly match the arc of a circular table which supported it at one end. The other end, square, was inserted through a six foot replica of the Empire State Building, complete with little lighted windows. The table itself was set with a dozen gold tapered candles in a garland of dried fruit and evergreens running down the centre. Each place was set with gold cutlery, a gold charger and an antique Villeroy and Boch plate.

Donna had promised to help with dinner but Ted had everything ready; oysters and Pol Roger champagne to start with fizzy grape juice for Rory and Maeve,  – followed by a full Christmas dinner –  roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing. Donna had made chocolate pecan pie for dessert, a favourite of Ivan’s. 

We pulled our Christmas crackers, wore our paper crowns and tried to keep the mood light and festive. But we found ourselves speaking softly for fear of disturbing Ivan, and even the children were subdued, eating quietly. Ted took a little of each course up to Ivan, but he ate little. We each went up in turn to wish him a merry Christmas. Ted had decorated the room with tinsel and streamers with a lighted tree outside the window, and two of the ninja angels in white and gold hovering behind.

It wasn’t a late night. I promised to come back the following day to help Ted put things back in order since all the china and glassware would have to be hand washed.

Rory came with me the next day.  We arrived to find that Ted had finished all the chores and there was nothing for us to do. Since there were some oysters left, Ted insisted that we have them along with a glass of champagne with Ivan. Rory had not gone up to visit Ivan the day before and in fact had not seen him for months. I was concerned about how he would react to seeing him so diminished, but he quietly took a chair and sat solemnly by the bed, his nervousness betrayed only by his eyes. Like his mother’s, they seemed to become more intensely blue.

I started to object when Ted offered Rory a glass of champagne.

“Oh, surely he can have half a glass. It’s an occasion – it’s Christmas!” said Ted.

“Why not?” I thought, although it wasn’t the celebration of Christmas I was conscious of but what felt like a last visit with Ivan. 

And so we sat quietly sipping our wine and slurping our oysters while Ted dropped little pieces of oyster into Ivan’s mouth followed by spoonfuls of champagne. Ivan chewed and swallowed reflexively, looking as if the sensation stirred a memory he couldn’t quite identify. 

Ivan died the next week. His mother had flown in from Nova Scotia and was with him at the end as was Donna, and a few of his close friends. Ted seemed to take it all in stride. Not that he didn’t weep, but had all the details of confirmation of death arranged. There was no service; just Ted, Ivan’s mother Anita, Donna and a couple of other friends were present as Ivan’s remains were cremated in a simple cardboard casket, bereft of his finery.

Ted immediately began to plan a celebration of life. He scoured video files and film archives for cameo appearances by Ivan and had them edited together with photos into a tape that could be run on a loop. A playlist of Ivan’s favourite music was created.  He conferred at length with Donna and Anne over the menu and insisted that whatever we served from the bar, there would be plenty of Pol Roger champagne.

So one bright afternoon in March, we celebrated Ivan. Mildred Pierce was full of his colleagues and friends and there were many emotional tributes. Some of those who came had never been to the restaurant before and smiled with delight to see Ivan’s creativity so vividly expressed in the decor.

Most of the guests had gone by the time we opened for dinner service, but Ted, Ivan’s mother and a few others stayed on to eat, laugh, mourn and drink . Ivan’s ashes sat in an antique ice bucket at the centre of the table. By the time we closed for the evening, the mourners were fairly inebriated. Donna and I joined them for a drink, with the idea of getting them organized to go safely home, but Ted was not ready to stop. He wanted more champagne. He wanted Ivan to have champagne and prying open the box of ashes poured some in. Then nothing would do but to have some of the ashes sprinkled on the Pearly Gates and climbing onto a chair, he flung several spoonfuls up on top of the arch.

“There, Ivey, now you’re in heaven” he said.

After a while and a few more glasses of champagne, we managed to get Ted and the others into cabs and on their way and Donna and I went home ourselves.

I was barely awake in the morning when Donna turned to me and asked, “What did we do with Ivan’s ashes?”

I had no idea.

The restaurant was already open for brunch when Donna called to follow up with our manager, Judi.

“Did we leave Ivan’s ashes on the bar?” she asked, doing her best to keep a frantic edge out of her voice.

“Oh, is that what they are,” said Judi, “and here I’ve been rimming Caesars with them.”

A pause, then…

“Don’t worry, Hon. Ivan’s packed up in his ice bucket and sitting on the corner of the bar.

And there he stayed for weeks after, presiding over the dining room, a comforting memory of style and confidence.