~This story previously appeared in The New Quarterly (2003).
My father has his telephone set to ring twelve times before the answering machine picks up. Tonight he gets it on the eighth—just as I’m deciding whether or not to leave a message.
“Hello,” he says, expectant but not hopeful.
“Hi, Dad, it’s me—”
“Oh, yes.” He fumbles with the phone. “Yes, of course, hello dear.”
He always knows my voice, but I tell him who it is anyway. He’s going blind—I have just recently learned this, and I presume he needs help making the visual connection. I realize this is something like shouting at people who don’t speak English.
“You’re home. I didn’t know if you’d be there. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
“No,” he says, “I’m just resting. I’ve just finished my dinner.”
“Uh huh. What did you have?
“A meal on wheel. A piece of chicken with a vegetable and potato.”
Did the people who invented meals on wheels ever intend for them to be anything but plural? I imagine a chicken drumstick on a unicycle, somehow managing to get up the steps to his apartment door and press the buzzer.
“And was it okay?”
“Yes, it was fine,” he says, “very nourishing.” He says noorish—rhymes with moorish.
I have two pictures of my father. Or rather, I picture him in two ways. In one, he is sitting in a bright, spacious living room. He is nicely dressed in grey flannels—slacks, he calls them, or trousers—and a clean, pressed shirt. He could be expecting a visitor. In this picture he is pleasantly occupied; a fresh breeze blows in through the open window, and there is definitely no gold shag carpeting.
In the other picture, the one I see when I talk to him on the phone, he is hunched over his unwiped kitchen table in the dim light of a single overhead bulb, staring at the blank wall. The sink is stacked with oatmeal-encrusted bowls and glasses rimmed with rinds of old milk. There’s a smell, too—sour food combined with cooking odours from other apartments and the open tube of liniment in the bathroom. I am in this picture because I am the one connected to the other end of the telephone.
And what am I doing? Mostly, I’m trying to keep these images at bay. And on this particular night I’m fumbling with a flashlight and candles, because to the east of Toronto, where I live, a blanket of ice has descended upon us and shut down the power grid. I wonder if he can see me in the dark.
My father lives in Niagara, in a renovated red-brick cannery. This sounds quite grand, and it could be. Everywhere, it seems, old warehouses and factories have been transformed into spectacular living quarters, with cavernous interiors, exposed brick, and walls of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on urban streetscapes full of shops and cafes. On the outside, most of these buildings have retained a period facade, some even sporting signs identifying the original owners and uses—Dempsey’s Candy Factory; Canadian Textiles.
These lofts always seem to be occupied by designers and artists, part of the space being given over to studio, where they work, live, and entertain lavishly. You see them in magazines and on the Home and Garden television channel. Seldom do they have children, but in the rare cases that they do, the family occupies two floors of the building, the parents’ and children’s spaces connected by a system of intercoms, wrought-iron spiral staircases, fire poles, and perhaps even a slide.
My father’s apartment isn’t like this. You would have to be told—and then you still might not believe it—that until the 1950s it was a thriving little cannery, one of a dozen or more in the city that packed soft fruit and shipped it across the country. Peaches, plums, apricots, pears—staple winter fare in most homes before advances in refrigeration and trucking brought oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, and anything, really, from the south, year-round.
Only traces of its former use remain on the outside of the building. The old, tall windows have been replaced with cheap aluminium sliders, smaller than the originals, and brown siding fills in the gaps at the bottom. But the bricks are pleasingly weathered, and the oversize double doors hint at how the structure could have been transformed, if only the developer had had more imagination.
“… but they always give you too much. I can’t work my way through all that.” He’s still talking about his meal on wheel.
“I didn’t know if you’d be home.”
Usually when I call, he isn’t. Nearly every night he has dinner with his woman friend, a widow he met at his bridge club not long after my mother died. She has become his constant companion. She feeds him, phones him, and fills his head with ideas about how offspring should properly behave. For her fussing attention my father returns a kind of blind party loyalty. She is the final word, the source of all opinion, and he acts as a conduit, reporting all the news to us—mostly about her children’s and grandchildren’s (wholesome, practical and infinitely superior) achievements, but other things, too. She persuaded him to rent this dismal apartment a few blocks from her house. “He’s legally blind, you know,” she told my sister, hurling it like an accusation.
For a time her mere existence provided me with guilty relief, but this soon made way for smug certainty that my mother wouldn’t have liked her either. “She’s not really my type,” my mother would have said, with a sniff. So now I stand on guard with my siblings, ready—eager, even—to preserve our parents’ marital tensions beyond the grave.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” my father says. “I’ve been in the hospital for a couple of weeks.”
“I know, that’s why I’m calling. I wanted to know how you are.”
“Well, dear, I’m fine.” It isn’t the word that tells me he’s already cranky, but what it contains: don’t worry about me, dear; don’t patronize me, dear; back off, dear. “The doctor just wanted to run some routine tests,” he says. His B12 levels are low, and he has borderline diabetes. These can be treated, he tells me. He’s also nursing a growing list of other ailments: a tremor in his hands, hip surgery he’s never fully recovered from, heart palpitations. And what about the blackouts from which he emerges, vomiting, with no memory of their occurrence?
“I don’t have those anymore,” he says.
We do not discuss Christmas Eve in the emergency room, or the events leading up to it, when he passed out and then threw up all over the dinner table. The stain on the white linen tablecloth, the looks on the children’s faces. No, memorable though the evening was, we don’t reminisce about how he was cowed, cursing and swearing, into the ambulance. Especially, I will not ask him if he remembers calling the young neurologist on duty “that Paki nurse.”
Even if I could venture such a question, he is too quick. Somehow he has learned of our ice storm. “You’ve had a rough go,” he says. “I understand the cattle have suffered.”
Well, yes. I have heard this, too. Farmers in eastern Ontario and western Quebec have been thrust into the centre of an absurd script, at once harkening back to their pioneer roots, hauling water and carcasses, hand-milking, stoking fires, then racing to secure a generator that will make it all go away. I’m struck by his comment, yet living in the urban core of an old city I have no real knowledge of the conditions elsewhere. Our reports have come mostly from my husband’s mother, who calls every night from B.C. and describes the television images: trees through the roofs of houses, transformers prostrated by the weight of the ice.
His concern for the cattle reminds me that we have meat in the freezer downstairs, and now I’m wondering what to do with it. I can wonder about this because, unlike the cattle, we haven’t suffered. I tell him that we’re managing. Our power has been out for four days, but we’ve been spending them at a friend’s, coming home only to sleep. We’re lucky, I tell him. Many streets are still a tangle of trees and wires, and the army is going door-to-door urging people into the shelters. Stores are running out of fuel, batteries and candles, and announcers on the radio are explaining how to drain the water pipes to prevent them from bursting. We are in a place where time seems to have stopped, and driving home to our darkened neighbourhood every night we realize that this new territory exists on no map we know how to read, and does he really care to hear any of these details?
“Well,” my father says, “I’m just fine. I’m lying here under a warm blanket, and I have my space heater turned on.”
I scarcely flinch, registering only that I need to adjust my picture of him—move him from the kitchen to the bedroom, and turn on some lights. As I do this I am looking into the living room of our cold little house, where my husband is lighting all the candles. Soon he’ll fix us both a scotch, and we’ll drink them together as we listen to the ten o’clock news, then go to bed.
I have a videocassette of my family’s home movies taken in the late 50s and early 60s. I’ve watched it twice, alone on a summer afternoon, with heat pouring in the windows and cicadas singing in the tree across the street. There is my young and handsome father, swinging my brother and sister round and round on the front lawn. They’re shrieking with laughter, each clamouring for another turn, and finally he picks them both up, one under each arm, and whirls them around once more before placing them gently on the grass. My mother stands off to the side, smiling at them self-consciously but indulgently, and aware, it seems to me, of this moment’s resonance. Perhaps she is pregnant with me.
In the next segment it is Father’s Day in our backyard, where we gathered every year with the same group of families, for a time. The older children are running wild with croquet mallets, the grown-ups are drinking beer under the willow that came down in 1962, and there is a baby in a carriage. This might be me. There are, in fact, two babies in the picture, each dressed in a sun-suit and bonnet. I peer at the grainy images, but I cannot positively identify myself. Surely I must have been there. There’s Mum, smiling at my skinny brother and smoking a cigarette, her long brown legs stretched out on the chaise lounge, ankles crossed. Soon one of the fathers will cook hamburgers and hot dogs over charcoal briquettes, and all the kids will stay out after dark.
In the early morning, when the ice storm had first struck, we thought the power would be out for a couple of hours. At six o’clock my husband got up and went to work, phoning home frequently with reports. Yes, the power is still on here, and no, I won’t stay here all day. At ten o’clock he returned briefly with batteries and a thermos of coffee. At two-thirty he brought chicken soup. Without the hum of appliances and traffic, the house took on a stillness that seemed to seep in under the doors and penetrate the children’s play. We drank wine, ate barbequed hot dogs by candlelight, and put the kids to bed early. The day was unusual but manageable, an adventure, really, if you are the kind of person who can think in those terms.
Cracks appeared the next morning, when I awoke to see my husband again preparing to leave. We argued first over whether he should be going to work at all, and then over whether I should use what might be the last of our propane to make yet another pot of coffee. We don’t know how long this is going to last. We may not be able to buy more fuel. Just think about it, he said, as the door closed behind him.
Long before my mother was first diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill her, she asked my father what he would do if she were to die first and leave him behind. He didn’t hesitate. Sell the house and give the money to the kids, he said, and go and live in a room somewhere. Because she was so much younger and expected to outlive him, she found this uproariously funny. Picture it, she said to me.
The trouble was that I could. And what I saw was a three-storey Victorian house in a declining neighbourhood and badly in need of repair. An oddly incongruous house, because stepping inside it I was transported to a respectable boarding house in Toronto in the late 1930s: a widow at the helm, gentlemen bachelors who followed her rules, clean rooms, regular meals. Here my father would be taken care of in a silent and protected world, impenetrable and invulnerable to any risk or cause for action. I could see him sitting at the dinner table, consuming his meal with earnest concentration and grateful, or at least relieved, to have made it through another day. But outside and down the steps was a contemporary world: shabby convenience stores and rooming houses, kids hanging out—a neighbourhood, I now recognize, much like the one where I live now. How on earth would he survive?
But I could never hold this picture in my head for long, because when I put my father into it, he became a young man. He was probably in his early twenties, perhaps just out of high school, and he had his first job as a bank clerk. He went to work every morning on the streetcar and returned every afternoon at five-thirty because it was expected of him. Who expected it? Well, not his parents, because by now they had been dead for several years. He had come here from Winnipeg, and the job and the boarding house were a groove into which he had installed himself, faithful that they would, like the streetcar he boarded each morning, carry him to an acceptable destination. And it took a monumental event—the Second World War—to dislodge him from this track. I sometimes think that if Hitler hadn’t invaded Poland in 1939 that my father would still be living in a boarding house in Toronto, waiting for his life to begin.
I haven’t exactly made all of this up. It is an invention, but not a construction. It appeared fully formed. I know that there was a boarding house somewhere in his history, a job at a bank, and, of course, there was a war. He joined the navy. I suspect now that this had more to do with three meals a day than with the promise of adventure. He became, of all things, a communications officer, and sailed from Port Arthur, down through the Great Lakes and out to the Atlantic. En route to the coast, his ship navigated the Welland Canal, passing through the region where he now lives. Approaching Lock One from the south and heading into the open water of Lake Ontario, he would have been able to see to his left the orchards that in ten years’ time would be ploughed under to make way for the post-war subdivision where our house still stands.
He would have been able to see this, but I don’t know if he did. If he ever looked back and gave a second thought to the significance of this small coincidence, if his heart leapt or even fluttered at just the idea of having glimpsed the geography of his future, I have no knowledge of it. He would have kept such thoughts hidden from us, fearful, perhaps, that good omens, or signs of any kind, could not be trusted.
I do know that in the navy my father learned to darn his own socks, sew on buttons, track German U-boats and signal other ships in Morse code. On Sundays, when they were in port, he would go with other officers to church and then to the homes of eager, hospitable parishioners, for dinner. Later, when asked, he would tell us that they didn’t really know the extent of the slaughter in Europe—the reports they heard were bad, he said, but did not come close to expressing the horror it took years to reveal. And I don’t know if we could have believed it if we had known the truth then, he said. How could we have begun to imagine it?
When my mother began chemotherapy, it was late in March and unusually warm, even for Niagara. The forsythia was out and the tulips were in full bloom. I arrived home and flung open the windows, vacuumed, shopped and cooked—as if in preparation for a grand party. Surely death does not come stalking at a house so full of happy industry.
After her first treatment, I waited with my mother in the hospital foyer while my father went to get the car. When he hadn’t returned after fifteen minutes, we stepped outside. Finally he appeared, and as we got into the car he said, by way of an explanation, “I think I’ve lost five dollars.”
When she died only a few weeks later, I would remember this day on the hospital steps. In the intensive care unit, when the monitor had stopped beeping and the wet, sucking breath of the respirator was silenced, my father went to her bedside and kissed her forehead. He removed her wedding rings and put them into his pocket. Then he said, “I didn’t think it would turn out this way.”
By Friday, our second day without power, it has been two days since I’ve been outside. My shrinking world consists of what I can see from the front and back doors: hydro lines and ice-glazed branches in the street; curious pedestrians stepping gingerly amidst the debris, stooping to see what lies beneath it, as if there is anything they can do. The house is getting colder. The children are scrapping. My husband agrees to come home from work and drive us to a friend’s, where the power is, inexplicably, still on. We zigzag across town, doubling back on impassable, eerily empty streets, wishing we had bought new tires in the fall. And then we are delivered to a warmly lit house.
My husband returns to work. My friend and I have coffee; the children, hers and mine, eat perfect crisp bacon and enormous Belgian waffles with real maple syrup, and they play exuberantly. The coffee, pot after pot, is intoxicating. We sit at the kitchen table and cling to the radio. We are manic, festive. Except that the CBC is letting us down. It is not reporting on our local situation. The sugar bush has been devastated; basements are flooding throughout the Ottawa Valley, and dairy farmers are in a perilous state. We decide to change radio stations, fully believing that we risk losing contact with the CBC forever.
Our mayor is holding a news conference. It’s bad, he says. He can’t believe it. Over eighty percent of area homes are without hydro. Stay inside and wait. Hospitals and shelters are open, but don’t go out unless you have to. He is hopeful that power will be restored in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. He said the same thing yesterday, and will say the same thing again tomorrow.
My husband returns to drink coffee with us at the kitchen table. The power has gone out in the industrial area where he works, and he has sent everyone home. On his way here he stopped at our house to find our neighbours packing their station wagon. They had thought they would stay and try to manage, but when their camp stove ran out of fuel, they snapped. This news conjures up for me a full array of panic-inducing images from TV newscasts, of families in flight from military insurrections and natural disasters of every kind, and makes me think of dark-eyed Bosnian children, inadequately dressed and waiting at a border crossing on a cold, rainy night.
Of course comparisons such as this have been tossed about in the news. The chaos created by the storm is akin to a war zone, one radio commentator says. A foreign correspondent, home on holidays, goes further to say that what he has seen in the streets of Montreal and Ottawa is every bit as devastating as what he witnessed last year in Yugoslavia. Can this possibly be true?
The Globe and Mail knows better. A cheeky columnist, safe and warm from her perch in Toronto, insists that this event is little more than an inconvenience. She implies that we have all become soft, foolishly reliant on things like central heating and electric lights. Why, millions of people around the world do without these things every day. It is their way of life. What are you complaining about?
My husband tells us a story. On his way to work this morning, he says, he saw a dishevelled old man with a cane wandering at the edge of a residential neighbourhood. This was early; it was dark and slippery, and he stopped to offer the man a ride home. But the man said no, and it soon became clear that he had no home. He was wearing several layers of ragged clothing and carrying a knapsack. I could take you to a hostel, my husband told the man. You could have a hot meal and warm up. No, the man insisted. But I wouldn’t mind a ride downtown. So he got into the car.
“Where should I take you?”
“My regular spot is in front of Zeller’s,” the man said. “I’ll just go there.”
“But you could have something to eat at the hostel. You won’t have to pay for it.”
“No,” said the man. “I don’t want a hostel. I’d just as soon try my luck at Zeller’s.” So that’s where they went. And as he was getting out of the car, he said, “You couldn’t spare some extra change, could you?”
“How much did you give him?” I ask.
“What was in my pocket—about five dollars, I guess.”
A few years after my mother died but before he sold the house, my father had a serious heart attack. His companion, the widow, phoned at six in the morning with news that he was in intensive care and could someone come down. I made the four-hour drive, arriving late in the day to find him in a ward, hooked up to a web of monitors and tubes. For a week he railed at the nursing staff, complaining about the service, insisting he was well enough to go home. Finally they let him, although his doctor told me his condition was precarious, that he had only agreed because my father told him that his family would take care of him. He shouldn’t be drinking or driving his car; he should not be living alone, the doctor said.
My father was celebratory. On his first evening at home he had a drink of scotch, asked for soup and a sandwich. He phoned an old friend in Vancouver and told her he’d been in the hospital for tests. “Irregular heartbeat,” he said, “but I’m fine.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked him.
“I think I’ll go to bed,” he said.
The next morning, over tea and toast, he told me about a restaurant he often went to. “It’s very nice,” he said. “Maybe we’ll go there sometime.”
On a weekend more recently, he comes to visit us on the train, probably for the last time. He is now almost totally blind and has to drag himself up the stairs with both hands on the banister to use the bathroom. I fix him a sandwich and a beer, and I notice that his jacket is threadbare and his clothes need laundering. He’s coming unravelled. We manage small talk for nearly half an hour. His friend, the widow, has an affliction, he tells me. It is a form of lymphoma, but she is receiving treatment and will be fine. He will say no more on this subject. I’m called away by the telephone, and when I return we lapse into a familiar, not uncomfortable silence. Then he says, “I believe in the Loch Ness Monster.” He pauses. “They think it may be a living relic from the last ice age.”
Has he really said this or have I imagined it? I check the level in his beer glass, already pondering what to do with this disclosure. It is a secret, I think, a kind of unwieldy gift that I accept with a familiar sting of shame. I will want to hoard it to protect us both, but I know that eventually I will puncture it, like a balloon slowly inflating inside my mouth.
Many reports of the ice storm suggested it was a single, sweeping event, like a hurricane or tidal wave. Actually, the freezing rain began days before the hydro lines began to give way. No one thought anything of it. But the rain persisted, and its gradual build-up was eventually too much for the wires to sustain. The rain was largely finished by the time the power went out. Later, when we talked about the ice storm, we were really referring to its aftermath, that interregnum in which the thousands of individual dramas were played out. Then life slowly trickled back to normal. Lights came on across the city; tree crews cleaned up the debris.
It did not occur to me then that I would retain a visceral memory of this experience for months to come, perhaps forever. A summer thunderstorm knocks out the power for a couple of hours, the barbeque runs out of propane—these formerly trivial events now send us all scurrying for candles and they fuel hours of anxious chatter. Should we buy a generator? Install a gas fireplace? We are determined to be prepared, should this happen again.
Outside, the neighbourhood has a stench of foreboding. The many old trees have lost their gracious canopies, and the shade they cast, if any, is patchy and inadequate. They don’t look like real trees anymore, don’t act like trees are supposed to: they are impotent, stick-figure drawings. I see such strangeness around me—things that strike me as freshly strange, although they have always inhabited this part of the city. In the past month there have been two grisly sexual assaults within blocks of our house. Last night two police cruisers and the K-9 unit arrived at the house across the street because a one-armed man in a red Camaro was threatening a woman and her children. This morning he was back. He saw me watching him as I placed my garbage at the curb, and as he squealed past in a cloud of oily smoke he raised his stub of an arm, as if to give me the finger.
It is a sweltering day in July; the air is thick with humidity and nothing moves except the wasps hovering around the honeysuckle and the mirage-like ribbons of heat quivering on the pavement. When I set out to mail a letter I encounter no one except two young men and a baby. The men are in their twenties, heavily tattooed and wearing cut-offs and unlaced high-top running shoes. One of them is pushing a baby in a stroller. The other is pushing a Hoover Upright. He holds the handle casually, like he is walking a well-trained dog. They’re so engrossed in conversation that they don’t even notice me as I step off the sidewalk, out of their way. The sun is blazing down on us through the sad, branchless trees, and I have a sense that we—the four of us—are like a segment of colour film spliced into a black-and-white streetscape, and charged with a significance that only the filmmaker understands.
A few days earlier at the corner store I saw a man riding an old ten-speed bike with a baby seat attached to its rear fender. Strapped into the baby seat was a microwave oven, precariously perched and off-centre, so that the man wobbled and nearly lost his balance as he made his way through the intersection.
And how is it that in these encounters I am reminded of my father? He has spoiled my ice storm. Like the disturbing fragments in an unmoored, sweaty dream, he is the man walking a vacuum cleaner and pedalling a small appliance around in a baby seat. It is as though he has harboured all these years a hidden birth defect, a lack of some organ or receptor or sense, which cannot be identified but which has something to do with navigation. And to call attention to this condition now carries the risk of acknowledging that this trait can be inherited.
On a soft, moist day late in August, perhaps Labour Day weekend, we will be sitting on beach chairs with our feet in the sand, looking out over Lake Ontario. The children are playing in the waves or building sand castles, the adults—maybe—are contemplating the end of another summer. Exactly half way around the lake, in his stifling apartment, my father will just be rising. He won’t have eaten since yesterday, and now it is almost noon. As he reaches for the edge of the dresser to steady himself, his legs give way and he falls to the floor. It could be a day or more until someone checks on him, and this time it will be too late.
In the days that follow we will make the necessary arrangements and perform the usual rituals. There will be clothing to select and papers to sort through. Someone will have to empty his apartment, and thankfully I won’t have to do this alone. For after the grim anticipation of this act is behind us, we will become like drunken archaeologists, sifting, pitching and hoarding with indiscriminate glee. It is evidence I’m after as I search out any consequential artifacts: a bundle of letters, perhaps; a snapshot of my mother at sixteen; a yellowed newspaper clipping. In a box in the top drawer of his dresser I will come upon a small white envelope. In faded blue ink, in his handwriting, my name is written on the front, and inside it I will find all of my baby teeth.
Then I will want to tell someone about that day at the beach, and how I was thinking about my father and the antipodes. Effortlessly, I can assemble a memory of him explaining this term to me, though I am certain this conversation never took place. It would have been the kind of information he could so readily have conveyed, this simple point of geography. I can see the movements of his hands as he charts an imaginary line across an invisible map.
I didn’t think it would turn out this way.
Maybe we’ll go there sometime.
I believe in the Loch Ness Monster.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Any disruption—an unexpected event, a natural disaster, an accident—can act as a lens, magnifying everything in its field of view. And so when two or more things happen coincidentally they become connected, illuminating and casting meaning on each other when, truthfully, this connection might be tenuous. In 1998 there was an ice storm, and during it, I had news that my father had been hospitalized for a constellation of symptoms that would never be given a firm diagnosis. And he did die, eventually, but not while this story was being written. Yet I had a feeling that the ice storm marked the beginning of the end of his life, and that belief remained long after he died. The story tries to capture that strange sense of disconnection—many of us experience this feeling of unreality in the time between the death of a loved one and the funeral—and the residue it leaves afterwards, rendering all that happened in that time fraught with meaning. The story is also about how we create memories.
ABOUT CARLA DOUGLAS
Carla Douglas is a writer, editor, and instructional designer. Past publications include stories in The Fiddlehead and The New Quarterly, as well as numerous instructional guides for students and editors. She was a contributing writer at The Book Designer blog and currently writes for Publishing Perspectives. She lives in Kingston, Ontario. More at BeyondPaperEditing.com and CarlaDouglas.ca.