My mom hadn’t had a solid meal in three days so on a Monday I took her to The Little Beaver, a restaurant beside a gas station in the rural town of Komoka, Ont.
I’d read about the forty-year-old diner and bakery in a London magazine while we waited to speak to someone at St. Peter’s cemetery about burying Russ, my mom’s partner of 20 years.
Russ had passed away three days earlier.
My mom called me that morning, right before I left for work. She didn’t want to bother me but a social worker made her make the call. Russ, who has been to University Hospital at least a dozen times this year, had been admitted earlier in the week. He had Addison’s Disease, cancer, and a rare genetic disease called Adrenomyeloneropathy, which destroyed his kidneys and made him a paraplegic four years ago. Visiting him at the hospital had become our new normal. Taking care of Russ over the last two years, with daily help from VONs and PSWs who visited morning to night, had become my mom’s new normal. As had the occasional fight with EMTs over whether Russ was “sick enough” to warrant a drive to emergency (one dared to ask “how do you expect us to get him on the stretcher?” My mom, who is disabled, offered to help but thought to herself Like the 578 EMTs before did, you fucking prick.) As had being admonished by doctors for not bringing him in sooner.
Simon and I immediately drove to London. About five minutes after we arrived, Russ, his face covered in my mom’s tears, died in her arms.
We stayed with him in the hospital room for about three hours. Social workers, doctors, and nurses came in and out, pleading with my mom, who wailed that it was her fault–she’d been sick. Did she pass something along to Russ? And if only she’d known this was Russ’ final trip to the hospital, she would’ve been kinder to him this week. If only she could have a do-over– to not believe that she had anything to do with his death for a second longer. She was the reason he’d lived as long as he had.
* * * * *
For three days my mom drank only water and coffee. She needed to eat. I asked our server if the club sandwich was made with processed turkey slices. “Oh no darling,” she said. “It’s made with turkey breast that was roasted this morning. Everything here is real.”
The Beast and my mom ordered hamburgers. All three of our meals came piled high with French fries. My mom picked away at the burger, but ate all the onion that topped it.
We talked about funeral arrangements like it was the weather. Westview Funeral Chapel, just around the corner from Mom and Russ’ place in Oakridge, had taken care of pretty much everything. We, along with Russ’ brother and his wife, had sat around a table and answered questions and made decisions–like deciding to go with the $200 cardboard box rather than the $600 wooden box, complete with a plush pillow, for his cremation, and spending a little more on the urn, instead–while sharing memories about Russ, a kind man who was content watching hockey and baseball, and never fretted or worried. All he’d ever wanted was a family. My mom gave him one, while he provided her with companionship and a familial home. She did all the worrying for the both of them, and then some.
We still had to pick up a guest book for the funeral mass and some red roses for the burial. Russ had purchased a plot back in ’89 alongside his parents.
Mom is currently the executor of two wills: Russ’, and her sister’s. Sandy passed away at the end of February. We laughed when she told us that these duties would seem like a breeze, now that she didn’t have the added tasks of being a caregiver, of worrying every waking moment that a sweet man in her care might die if he didn’t take a particular pill, if he had an infection.
“I don’t want either of you to ever feel this way,” she told us. “It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt.” She said this without crying. Progress, I thought. She talked of her own death and whether she’d be buried with Sandy in Strathroy alongside her parents, or with Russ and his parents.
We reassured her that we’d be there to help finalize the two wills whenever she needed it. Because the Beast isn’t working, he can drive to London at a moment’s notice to chauffeur my mom, who doesn’t drive, around. Her two brothers will help; my brother and sister in law will help; her friends will help. But we all agreed that she had to get a little better at accepting help.
We had a laugh about one friend–well-meaning, kind-hearted, and extremely efficient–who’d asked my mom the day after Russ died if she’d taken his medications to the pharmacy yet. Had she listed Russ’ medical equipment, like his bed and motorized wheelchair on Kijiji yet. We talked about how touching it was that her neighbours had dropped off coffee cakes, cheese and crackers, vegetables and dip.
When I payed the lunch bill, I picked up some tarts (butter and cherry) to take home to my mom’s, in case more people dropped by.
The next night, the night before Russ’ funeral, we stayed at my dad’s place in Port Stanley in order to get a good night’s sleep. It had been a long five days. My brother, his wife, and my nephew were staying at my mom’s. The night before we’d all been together under one roof. My nephew slept with me and Simon in the family room. We stayed up past midnight watching old Disney movies on VHS. It was beautiful, but we needed to recharge.
I was in a deep sleep when I heard the Beast putting on a pair of pants. Why was he up in the middle of the night? I heard noises upstairs. Was it Gillian, my stepmom? Was she shouting? Had there been a fight? We’d had a fair amount of wine. Was I dreaming? I heard the Beast running up the stairs. I bolted up them now. There, in the hallway between the master bedroom and the washroom, was my dad. He was on the floor. Gillian was on the phone explaining to 911 that he’d fainted after using the washroom. He’d raised his left arm and was talking gibberish. I ran to him and put his head on my lap. I rubbed his shoulders. I told him to stay still. The ambulance arrived, gave him oxygen, took his blood pressure, and prepared to take him to the hospital in St. Thomas–the hospital where I was born.
I went to the front window so I could watch him being loaded into the ambulance. Simon grabbed me and told me not to. I went downstairs to get dressed. I looked in a mirror and screamed but nothing came out. I managed to say, “No, no, no” over and over.
I had to search for the driving instructions to the hospital. I couldn’t remember how to get there.
He was admitted right away into what looked like an operation room from a 1960s movie set. It was huge, with pale blue walls and an imposing metallic light hanging over his gurney. Dad was fine now, speaking clearly in his beautiful, deep, lucid, voice. His voice is perfect. I can’t think of not ever hearing it again. Not now.
A doctor who looked like a movie star came in and explained that Dad was going to be fine. He hadn’t had a stroke. He had Post Defecation Syncope. It’s very common, although none of us had heard of it. In the middle of the night when Dad stood up, after a rather aggressive bout of diarrhoea, his blood pressure had dropped and he’d fainted. It’s an evolutionary measure that renders a person unconscious when faced with circumstances beyond their control, like fear and pain.
An hour before, I had thought that my dad was going to die while I cradled his head in my lap. Turns out he’d just had a very violent shit.
Gillian and my dad insisted the Beast and I go home and try to sleep for an hour or two before driving to London to attend Russ’ funeral. Outside, the sky was dark, inky blue. I knew the way home.
I don’t know if I slept or not but I got out of bed when I heard more noise upstairs. The three of them sat around the dining room table drinking coffee and eating donuts. My dad, a little stiff from his fall, had reasoned that we’d be hungry. I ate an apple fritter, got dressed, and drove to London to bury Russ.
At the church, there was Russ’ family, my mom’s family, friends–both old and new–and even Simon’s parents. It was a beautiful mass. My mom was so strong. When the choir sang Ave Maria–a song Russ in his last months would sing in Latin, remembering every word, despite not remembering, on account of his illnesses, what he’d done five minutes before–my mom wept. And when she wept, we did.
We ate sandwiches–tuna, egg salad, ham, turkey–in the church parish. The egg salad went first.
I remember being inconsolable one night when I was six, maybe seven. It had occurred to me, right before bed, that my parents would die. My dad came in and said yes, they would. We all would. Even our closest star, the Sun, would die. That pushed me over the edge! But that’s not for another five or so billion years, he told me. By then, everyone you’ll ever know will be long gone.
Death is our common denominator. But depending on when and where we are born, who we are raised by, and a million other factors, we are divided on what comes next. But it’s been the topic of conversation since we’ve been capable of asking the question.
In those moments after I watched Russ die, I held my mom, and sobbed. I rubbed her arm, like she did for me on countless nights to put me to sleep. I told her that he was at peace now, in no pain, and he was looking down on her and would want her to be happy, to take care of herself. She hasn’t thought of herself, her own pain on account of having Lupus, for too long now. I told her that Russ was with his mother, whom he loved so very dearly. I told her that he could use his legs again, that he was happy.
I chose to tell the narrative she needed to hear, although I didn’t believe it then, or now. The last time I remember believing it was in my bed, all those years ago, when the idea of my parents dying, of the sun dying, was too much to bear. But I would do it again. In those moments I understood the necessity of believing in something happening after the Big Sleep, of choosing comfort. In those moments, how else can you fathom going on without it?
The afternoon before the funeral, Ben and Simon were downstairs at my mom’s playing. Ben asked Simon “What is died? What is died? What is died?”
“Well, it means someone isn’t with us anymore,” Simon said, which might be a perfect narrative.
“It’s so weird,” Ben said. He paused, looking up at the photo of Sandy on the book shelf. “Can we play Lego?”