BY SHEILA HORNE
A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
I was sitting in my car, taking swigs from a wine bottle and dragging on a stale cigarette. I had a good reason: two hours earlier, my daughter, Danielle, had showed up and insisted I tell her about her father.
“Why?” I’d said.
She had a good reason too — her boyfriend had asked her to marry him. I’d looked at her finger. She wasn’t wearing a ring. I always thought when she and Matthew Braddock announced their engagement he’d be with her. They’d be excited and she’d wave her hand in front of my face to show off her ring.
“You don’t seem that happy about it,” I said.
To her, a proposal wasn’t a big deal. I’d never been engaged, but I always thought it was an important event. I made the mistake of telling her it was something to remember for the rest of her life, something to tell her children.
“Something to tell my children?” she’d said. “You’re telling me that? When you’ve never told me much about anything?”
“Yes I have, I’ve told you about my childhood and growing up on Arundel Avenue.”
“But you’ve never told me about my father. You don’t mention his name or talk about him, at least not to me.”
I grabbed for a spatula, but it slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor. I bent to pick it up. The world spun and I leaned against one of the cabinets to steady myself. I straightened up, turned on the tap and held the spatula under the water. I looked at the cupcakes I’d just baked and stalled for time. As a little girl Danielle had asked me many times why her father didn’t live with us. I’d made up stories about him being an adventurer and on a quest for the City Of Gold. Once she became a teenager my answer soon turned to “We’ll talk about it when you’re older,” which turned to “We’ll talk about it one day,” which turned to never. Eventually she stopped asking, until now. Finally I said, “Where is this coming from?”
“Where is this coming from!” My normally sweet-tempered daughter was practically yelling. “I’m about to get married, have a family. Don’t I have a right to know where the other half of my genes came from?”
I looked at her wide brown eyes — mine are blue — and I knew she had a point. My Aunt Ruby’s words were echoing in my brain. Ruby believes that every seven years our karma changes. “At the beginning of the cycle,” she’d told me, “we’re faced with past actions and we get the chance to make amends. If we resolve our issues, tah-dah! Negative karma is cleared and we become different beings at the end of the cycle.” On New Year’s Day she’d reminded me that 2001 was the beginning of a new cycle for me. I’d brushed it off as nonsense. But, maybe she was right. Maybe my past decisions were now taking centre stage and demanding some kind of resolution.
“I want my father’s name and I want to meet him now, not when you decide.”
“You may want to know about him, but I don’t have to tell you,” I said.
She grunted, then took a deep breath and blew it out. She began to talk about Matt’s parents, while I mixed up some vanilla icing.
“They’ve been married for 41 years,” she said. She sounded impressed. Mr. Braddock was a minister and they were fundamentalists. He believed a united family was a strong family.
I kept heaping icing on the cupcakes, smearing it around, making swirls, while she spoke. Matt’s father also believed women were too liberated and becoming too aggressive. He felt they needed to learn the values taught to their great-grandmothers and grandmothers. Finally I realized the room had gone quiet. Danielle had stopped talking and was staring at the blobs of white. I’d made a mess of the cupcakes. They didn’t look anything like the ones in the cookbook.
I put down the spatula and said the only thing I could think of. “Sounds like you have a problem with Mr. Braddock and his beliefs or you wouldn’t bring it up.”
No. I had it wrong. She didn’t have a problem with him. At some point I would have to meet Matt’s parents. She wanted me to know they weren’t like our family. She listed the differences: An absentee father in her life. Aunt Ruby’s unconventional ideas; they wouldn’t be acceptable to the Braddocks. And my mother could come across as being too take-charge and too strong for a woman.
Danielle frowned. “You need to understand how important traditional family values are to Mr. and Mrs. Braddock.” She went on to warn me they would ask about her father. Mr. Braddock felt her father should be part of her life. I had to give Danielle his name so she could contact him, because Mr. Braddock expected him to be at her and Matt’s wedding. “In fact,” she added, “he thinks my father should walk me down the aisle. Because that’s what fathers do.”
The whole time she went on about Mr. Braddock I was asking myself, how did my daughter, who comes from a family of women and after everything I taught her, end up in a situation where the man’s word is final? “You’d better not be ashamed of us,” I said, “particularly Aunt Ruby. She may have some different ideas, but she loves you and she was a second mother to you while I went to school and worked.”
“Forget about Mr. and Mrs. Braddock. What about me?” she’d said. “Don’t you think I’d like to know who he is? Haven’t you ever wondered if I think about him or want to know what he’s like, what colour hair he has? Who I got my dimples from? I don’t even know if I have brothers and sisters.”
“Your grandmother has dimples, that’s where you got them,” I said, “and your grandfather died from cancer. That’s all you need to know.”
“Was my father a criminal? Is that it?”
“Okay, so he was married,” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Then tell me.”
“It’s not that simple,” I’d said and explained that when she was born her father wasn’t in my life. I thought I’d mentioned it to her years ago. I had made the choice to raise her on my own. The way my grandmother had raised my mother, who raised me alone after my father died.
“If Matt believes his father’s nonsense,” I said, “then he’s not the right person for you.”
She ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs, her dark hair bouncing on her shoulders, yelling that I’d rather ruin her life than tell her about her father. I followed her into the hall. “Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic and childish? I’m not ruining your life — you’re the only one who can do that.”
“I knew you would do this. Why are you so . . . so —”she shouted from the landing and slammed her bedroom door.
That’s when I took the bottle of wine out of the kitchen cupboard, went outside and got into my car parked on the street. I found the package of cigarettes I kept hidden in the glove compartment and lit one.
Ella would say that every time I put on a hospital gown I behave like a five year old. She’d tell me to stop pacing back and forth like a caged animal waiting for a euthanasia verdict.
Earlier, a nurse mentioned that Dr. Litchenfeld had been called into emergency surgery. He was running behind in his schedule. “How behind?” I asked. “I have errands to do and a dress to buy.”
The nurse shrugged. She didn’t care. Why would she? She had to be here whether he was late or early. The minute she left I stuck my slightly tanned legs out in front of me and checked them. After all, no woman in her right mind would go to a doctor’s appointment with stubble and her toenails a mess. Once I confirmed that my legs were waxed clean of hair and my pedicure intact, I fiddled with the hospital gown, trying to make it look like something other than what it was: a blue paper cover-up with a slit down the front and a plastic tie for a belt.
I wished Ella had come with me. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d made up the excuse about being busy at work. Sometimes chemotherapy can muddle your mind and make it play tricks on you. Chemo brain, we call it.
On my last visit with Dr. Litchenfeld, I’d somehow gotten it into my head that since Ella came to all my appointments Dr. Litchenfeld might think we were partners. I’d told her to make sure she wore a pair of her sexy shoes and mention a guy.
“What guy?” Ella had said. “I can’t just start a conversation about men during your examination.”
“Okay,” I’d said. “Even though I don’t want to, I guess I can talk about Gus.”
It all backfired when Dr. Litchenfeld mentioned the rash on my back and I blurted, “Ella rubs cream on it.”
On the way back to the car Ella laughed and said, “Well, if your intention was to show him I wasn’t your partner, you blew it.”
If she was here now, she’d find out how much longer before Dr. Litchenfeld saw me. Since she wasn’t, I went dressed in my paper gown to the receptionist’s desk. Without looking up she ran a perfect manicured fingernail down the names in her appointment book.
“Lorraine Doyle, here you are. Three ahead,” she said and carried on with her work.
Forty-five minutes later Dr. Litchenfeld hurried into the room. Damn, he was one heck of a sexy man in his hospital white coat thrown over scrubs. Too bad he was young and married with children. Not that married or children had stopped me before, but the age difference? We weren’t even in the same music era. I swung my legs back and forth while he checked my blood-work results.
“You’ve lost weight,” he said. “For anyone else weight loss wouldn’t be an issue, but for you, not a good sign.”
He pulled two latex gloves out of a box and stretched them over his hands. I lay down on the table, put my feet in the stirrups and stared at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. I know the drill. It happens every two months. He comes in and gives me what I consider bad news. Puts on gloves. Does an internal while he presses on my abdomen. Tells me to sit up and runs his hands over my neck and down my back. Five minutes later he slides the curtain out of the way, removes the gloves and takes his pen out of his pocket. If Ella was here, she would have the notebook I’d bought when I was first diagnosed. I’d written “Ovarian Cancer — Stage 3” on a label and stuck it on the front. It’s Ella’s job to keep notes of everything doctors and nurses tell me. Not that I need to have it written down. I can remember every word like a stuck record.
“Everything seems fine,” Dr. Litchenfeld said. “But your C125 levels are higher than last time. Then again, they’ve been high for the past year. But that seems to be the norm for you.” He stopped writing for a minute and asked, “Any pain during intercourse?” He didn’t wait for my answer. “As I’ve told you before, it’s not if it’ll re-occur, it’s when, and at some point we’ll have to talk about options.”
He rolled his chair over to his desk. I sat up and adjusted my gown while he flipped through a stack of pages in my file folder.
“If you lose more weight,” he said, “or don’t gain back what you’ve lost by your next visit, we’ll have to do another CAT scan.”
He gave me a momentary glance. The first since he came into the room. “I’m going to be blunt. If the scan shows cancer, I’m not sure I would recommend more chemotherapy. I don’t think it’ll be effective.” He stuck his pen back into his coat pocket. “I’ll see you in the usual two months.”
Before he left he smiled and said, “Don’t forget blood work a week before.”
I stepped on the low stool beside the table, ripped off the gown and threw it on his chair. I hated when he tried to smile. I liked it better when he didn’t since it wasn’t his nature, at least not with me. Nor did he have to remind me about the blood work. He should know I’ve been having it done religiously every two months for the past three years.
The lobby of Princess Margaret Hospital reminds me of an overpopulated ant colony. The hustle and bustle doesn’t end until the clinics close at the end of the day. Then, I imagine it turns dim and quiet. Hauntingly quiet with the only sound coming from the floor polishing machines.
At first, unless someone wore a scarf or had a bandana wrapped around their head, or they were bald, I couldn’t tell the patients from their friends or family. Everyone looked the same to me. Now, as I made my way to the coffee shop, it was easy to recognize the cancer patients. They were the terrified ones with “help me” written on their faces, the ones who looked at me as if I could save them.
“Nice to see you,” a man in his mid-40s said. He held onto the wall and tables while he slowly came towards me. At first I didn’t recognize him, though as he got closer I remembered him from two years ago. He was the only person who’d chatted with Ella and me. Everyone else looked at us disgustedly because we were having fun. But chemo is serious business. No one is supposed to enjoy themselves in the treatment room.
Ella had a routine: The night before my chemotherapy she made sandwiches and packed a lunch for us. She also bought two tabloid newspapers and put them in the bag. The insane sanity package, I called it. We spent the time reading and laughing at the articles. He’d join us. I couldn’t remember his name. I’m not sure I ever knew it. But I do remember he was quite good looking and on his third round of chemo. He’d used a mixed bag of treatment, from alternative to traditional. He told us that he’d spent a total of $60,000 trying everything.
When he finally made it to where I stood in line I asked, “How are you?”
He raised his shoulders and let them drop. “Oh, you know,” he said.
I didn’t know, but by the look of him he didn’t have much time left. I wondered if he knew it.
“I wish I could stick around and gab but someone’s waiting for me,” I said.
No way did I want him to follow me to a table. And no way did I want to talk about cancer or to a dying person, not today.
“Hey, what are you doing?” someone yelled and knocked on the car window. I rolled it down and smoke escaped through it.
“You’re smoking,” Raynie said. “I don’t believe it, Ella Shaw, you’re smoking.”
“Geez, you scared me. I thought you were Dani or, worse, Ruby.”
“Open the door, it’s starting to pour rain out here.”
I unlocked the passenger side; she threw a bag on the back seat and got in the front. I passed her the cigarette. She took a drag and handed it back to me.
“It’s stale,” she said.
“I know, but isn’t it wonderful.”
We watched raindrops roll down the windshield and shared the cigarette and wine like high school kids hiding from our parents.
“Hope no one comes by and sees us,” I said.
Raynie took a swig from the bottle. “Much as I love the place, serves you right for living in an old house with nothing but street parking.”
“Well,” I said, shrugging, “that goes for half of Toronto, doesn’t it?”
After a few minutes Raynie said, “I lost my job two weeks ago. Thirty years with the same company and they packaged me off.”
“Nice,” I said.
“I haven’t told Gus.”
“I left Gus.”
“Great,” I said.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
I put the cigarette in my mouth, sucked hard on it and blew out smoke. “You know, all along I thought I had my life under control. But it turns out I don’t, and it’s no different from being in my 20s. Why is that?”
“Ella, I hate to say it, but social workers are more fucked up than their clients. That’s why you all become counsellors.”
I scowled at her and lit another cigarette.
“Come on,” Raynie said. “Aren’t you the one who told me everyone’s life has a crack? No one has it totally together, as you say. Why would you be any different from the rest of us?” She grabbed the bottle from me and took a gulp. “I mean, you gotta admit sitting in a locked car with a bottle of wine and an old pack of cigarettes is as cracked as it ever gets.”
“Danielle was pushing me tonight to tell her about her father,” I said. “Matt’s parents, who by the way are the most perfect family in the world according to Danielle, want to know about him.”
“And, I’m ruining her life because I said that if Matt thinks the way his father does, then he’s not the right person for her.”
“You said that?”
I nodded. “Yes, because it’s true.”
“So what are you going to do?”
I didn’t have an answer. “All I know,” I said, “is that no matter how much you try to redeem yourself or make up for stuff, the past is still the past. You can’t rewrite it into something other than what it really was. And then one day when you least expect it, it’ll pop up, and when it does there’s no point trying to hide from it.”
Raynie took the last of the cigarette from me. “Payback,” she said and exhaled. “Life is all about fucking payback.”