Copyright is held by the author.
Gone to a Better Place
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate my father. My mother tells me she has vague memories of a time in her life when she loved him. She has reoccurring dreams of the two of them when they were just teenagers; he courting her, seducing her with his powerful physique and confident charm. He asks her to marry him but his time she listens to her father and refuses him. She goes on to college, meets a kind man who respects her and they live a happy and peaceful life together. Those dreams are now her refuge, her secret place where my father can’t belittle and brutalize her; where she still feels whole and looks forward to waking up each morning.
You would think that a daughter watching her father openly sobbing and wailing over his niece’s open casket would invoke some sympathy in her but all I feel is resentment and anger. I am sitting next to my aunt who has just lost her only child and all I can think is how my hate for him is percolating in me, rising to a level of intensity that I’m afraid it will vaporize me and I will disappear . . . just like my mother.
Today my father acts like the loving, concerned uncle and brother. A performance finely honed to convince those around him that he is the central character of this tragedy – his loss, his sacrifice and his searing grief over the senseless death of my cousin. He no longer bothers with the charade at home. There is no need. He believes he controls our thoughts. I look over at my mother. Her eyes are vacant and her face expressionless.
“Shirley, get me another whisky,” demands my father. When she doesn’t respond immediately, he repeats her name in that low growl that serves as a warning of what will come later if she doesn’t submit to him instantly, and perhaps even if she does. She scrambles from her seat to the kitchen and quickly returns with his drink.
“Now that’s a good girl.” He proudly dismisses her and she shrinks back inter her seat in the corner of the room while my father explains to anyone who will listen how his sister was doomed to a life of hardship because of her stubborn refusal to return to Toronto after her husband died six years earlier. Without a man looking after her, it was only natural that something terrible would happen.
My cousin was run over by a drunk driver when she walked out of a movie theatre with her friends. But according to my father, she was somehow at fault. It would never have happened under his watch. And, of course, he is right. She wouldn’t be going to the movies and she wouldn’t have friends. She wouldn’t have to worry about losing her life because she wouldn’t have one to risk. She would be an empty vessel, a walking corpse that hoped someone would notice that she was actually dead and finally put her to rest.
I suddenly resurfaced from the depths of the when I sensed my aunt flinch. I could hear her breath quicken and when I turned to look at her saw the burning glare of a cat ready to pounce. Then she did something that made me love her forever. I had not seen her since I was nine years old when she, together with my uncle and cousin — my only real friend — moved to Providence to open a cafe. My father predicted they would starve. They would come crawling back asking for his support. When they didn’t, he stopped talking to them and about them at all. But today the distance that had come between us vanished and in its place a bond was cemented.
When my father looked over at her, trying to impose his authority from his seat in the centre of the room, she met his eyes with a defiant glare. She stood up proudly and walked toward him fearlessly.
“Frank, please remember today is my daughter’s funeral and you are now sitting in my home. If you intend on staying, do not disrespect me or in any way tarnish Laura’s memory. She was a straight A student who just won a full scholarship to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the country, which she would have started this fall. Everyone who actually knew her, loved her.”
He suddenly stood up and lurched toward her, but then stopped abruptly, aware that all eyes were on him. He grits his teeth, clenched his fists, and with eyes smouldering fought to contain his rage. “Catherine,” his voice strained, “I know this is a very difficult time for you so I will overlook your insolent behaviour toward your only brother. You have lived without a man in your home for too long. When you come live with us you will learn how a proper woman behaves.”
Rachel stood back and looked at him incredulously. “You must be overcome with grief over the loss of your niece, so I’ll forgive your rudeness and obvious confusion. My home is here where I am surrounded by good friends and neighbours who appreciate the woman I am.” She then turned to me and grabbed my arm. “Sophie will help me prepare for the cemetery.” She pulled me up the staircase to her bedroom and slammed the door behind us. “I know he is my brother and your father, but how can you stand him,” she whispered.
I felt like she kicked open the door to my soul, releasing so much pent up emotion, I thought if I opened my mouth I would begin to wretch and not be able to stop. But finally, I was able to take a deep breath. “I can’t.”
Rachel sat next to me on the bed and put her arm around me. For the next 20 minutes, I cried while she consoled me on the day of her daughter’s funeral. I told her about the years of humiliation, fear, and isolation. About the burns, bruises, and broken bones. At 15, all I could see was a future filled with pain. She listened without saying a word.
“I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t be burdening you with my problems, today of all days.”
Rachel hugged me, tears swelling in her eyes. “No, you shouldn’t apologize to me. I need to apologize to you. We all felt so guilty leaving you and your mother, not knowing how to help. When we lived in Toronto, we saw what was happening. Your mother finally begged us to help her and when we tried to speak to your father, he exploded and threw us out of your house. That night your mother ended up in the hospital. He said she fell down the stairs but we knew the truth. We went to the hospital when your father was at work and tried to persuade your mother to leave him but she was convinced that he would kill both of you if she even attempted it. We thought of calling the police but knew your mother would deny his abuse. A month later we left to the US. We couldn’t help then, but I can now.”
“It will be Laura’s legacy,” she told me. Rachel gently cradled my face in her hands and kissed my forehead. “You look so much like her.”
“I don’t understand. What will we do?”
“You’ve got to trust me. When your father told me that you were all coming for the funeral, I began to prepare everything.” Rachel reached under the bed and retrieved a large brown envelope. “This is Laura’s gift to you. It will give some meaning to her death. Now go hide it in your suitcase and when you are alone at home, open it and go over everything carefully.”
My parents and I left immediately after the funeral. My aunt’s reassuring smile as we drove away gave me the courage and patience to hide away the package she had given me until I believed it would be safe to open it. It was a rainy Monday morning in March when school was closed for a PD day that I finally decided to open the envelope. Although my father was at work and my mother was busy doing laundry, I decided it would be better to make myself comfortable inside my closet where no one could walk in on me unannounced. I closed the door to my bedroom, gathered up my comforter and flashlight, and crawled into the back corner of the closet. A long letter from my aunt detailed her plan and a file folder inside the brown envelope was filled with documents. In a smaller envelope, I found a stack of twenty-dollar bills. And there, cramped in the corner of my poorly lit closet, frightened that someone might walk in any moment and discover me, I found hope.
It was April 25th and my teacher was escorting our class down to the awards assembly. I held back, quietly slipping away to my locker. It was just after 9 a.m. For the past few days, I let it slip that things were not going well for me at home. Without giving details, fellow students sympathized and, of course, offered all sorts of advice that I pretended to listen to intently. To a few girls who showed special interest in my circumstances, I gave them items that I told them were very important to me. I gave Farhia a book that I told her was my favourite. When Lydia admired my bracelet, I dramatically took it off my wrist and gave it to her, saying it would mean a lot to me knowing that someone was enjoying it. Rumours began to fly and eventually came to the attention of my guidance counsellor. She sent a note asking me to see her this afternoon.
I packed up everything I would need before I early that morning. I left an envelope with my suicide note on my father’s dresser after he left for work and a note in my mother’s purse that I knew she would see when she went for groceries in the afternoon. I went on to my Facebook page and changed my status: Died happily ever after. I then snuck out the side entrance of the school where there were no cameras. I walked about a mile to a bus stop that was safely away from my neighbourhood. I pulled my hood over my head as I got onto the nearly empty bus. Two elderly women were sitting near the front and chatting with the driver. I sat at the back until my stop and then quickly walked to my destination. It was just after 10 a.m. when I made my way to the water’s edge and took off my shoes and my jacket. After throwing them into the water, I removed the trench coat and boots I had bought with cash at a garage sale a few days earlier. Then securing my backpack onto the park bench near the water, I retrieved a small plastic bag that contained my new life. My school books, binder, wallet with all my ID, and a pamphlet about teen depression would be found there the next day.
By 1 p.m., I arrived by train in Montreal as Laura Chelmsford and then took a flight to Providence. In the fall, Laura would begin at The Trinity School in New York City.
Frank returned from work at 5:30 to learn that Sophie had not come home from school. Shirley told him she was very worried, especially since the school had called and said she had only gone to her first period class.
“When I find that girl, I am going to make her life hell!”
Not any more thought Shirley as she calmly went to the kitchen to get Frank his drink as she always did. But today it somehow felt different.
Frank went to the phone and began to call the neighbours, asking them if they had seen his daughter. He raged to each one that when he found her, he would kill her for making him worry. Only a selfish, inconsiderate daughter like his would be so insensitive and disrespectful.
At 8 p.m., Shirley suggested that they call the police.
“And let the whole world know that our daughter is a whore, walking the streets with who knows who! Are you trying to humiliate me in front of the whole neighbourhood?”
By 10 o’clock, and half a bottle of whiskey later, Frank went to the bedroom to get an aspirin. His head was pounding from frustration. There on his dresser was a bright pink envelope. He cautiously approached it. His anger began to transform to trepidation as he recognized his daughter’s handwriting on the envelope. The ungrateful bitch ran away.
The letter was short.
My death has occurred on your watch. Not by accident but after careful consideration. I am not as strong as mom. My pain, fear and loneliness exhaust me. You have robbed me of my life. Death is my only escape. See you in hell.
Your stupid, disrespectful daughter,
When Shirley heard the excruciating howl of a man caught in his own trap, she knew it was time to call the police. They had to pry the letter from Frank’s hand, not because he wanted to hold on to the last remnants of his daughter’s life, but because he did not want the world to know that she had the last say. And what she said would destroy what he believed to be his carefully shined reputation. He hit a police officer and was arrested but later released by a sympathetic judge who believed he was in shock. But soon the police spoke to the neighbours and learned of his constant drinking and the unrelenting abuse that could be heard through the thin walls. They spoke to her classmates who as if primed for their role in this drama, exaggerated their knowledge of and friendship to Sophie. Her father was vilified and came under close scrutiny. Investigators reviewed Shirley and Sophie’s medical records only to find a long history of accidents. When the police arrived one evening for a follow-up conversation with Frank, they found him drunk and Shirley locked in the bathroom. This time when she was asked if she would like to make a statement, she thought of her brave daughter and detailed every hateful act Frank was responsible for since the day they were married.
Sophie’s Facebook page with her final declaration was hurled around the world, becoming a rallying symbol for the forgotten and abused. After a dog walker discovered Sophie’s backpack, her picture remained in the news for weeks. Concerned citizens demanded more be done in schools for children suffering from depression, and that teachers receive better training to spot the signs of abuse.
A news reporter called one day to ask Shirley if she had anything to say after months of silence and reflection. She smiled to herself and responded, “Sophie has gone to a better place.” She hung up the phone, packed her bag and went to visit her sister-in-law in Providence. Together they would go to New York to visit her niece.
Sixteen of 24
I sat in the green vinyl chair pretending to read the same magazine day after day. It had become part of the ritual. My mother would disappear behind the unadorned steel door with the bright red danger sign plastered in the middle and for the next 15 minutes I would stare at the same page in the same magazine while listening to the women waiting for treatment exchange tips for skin irritations, nausea, and fatigue as if they were old family recipes.
Bringing my mother to the hospital every day for the last 16 days forced me to rearrange my life and spend more time with her than I had since I was a child living at home. We were told that the prescribed 24 sessions would take their toll, draining her energy and, at times, her spirit. She was still as opinionated and creative as always, but now her body could no longer keep up with the furious pace of her mind.
As she was now using a walker, we were forced to take the elevator to the second floor. At the best of times, riding an elevator was a challenge for me. I convinced myself each time that it was only one floor. My mother needed me, and I needed to demonstrate to her that we should not succumb to our fears. But aside from my usual anxieties, riding the elevator surrounded by women smelling of steroid creams, adjusting their uncomfortable wigs or head covers, and constantly complaining about the long waiting times pushed my discomfort level right off the charts. Even the very brief containment in that metal box made my heart pound and my eyes throb.
When my mother re-entered the waiting room, I went to the change room with her to help her dress. If felt unnatural, even embarrassing, to have to help her with her bra and undies. She would always joke that she started off dressing me and now it was my turn to dress her. We would then discuss where we would go for dinner, always ending up at the same small bagel place near her apartment. She would always order the soup of the day with a toasted bagel. Only managing to eat half the bagel, she would tell me how her appetite wasn’t what it used to be. We would then chat about nothing, carefully avoiding any topic related to her condition or plans for the future.
Today we comfortably settled into our established ritual. Walking toward the elevator I noticed there were more women than usual. My mother smiled and nodded to the five o’clock ladies she had come to know in an intimate way their friends and family could never understand.
The doors opened and I helped my mother into the elevator. Within seconds there was a violent lurch that threw all of us off balance, almost forcing a few of the passengers to the floor. The elevator came to a full stop and the alarm began to wail. After a few moments, an elderly man standing near the emergency phone took out his glasses to read the instructions. Carefully picking up the receiver, he gave the elevator number and our location. He then apologetically informed us that we should get comfortable because it would take at least 30 minutes before the elevator could be fixed.
“Don’t they know we have no time to waist,” said one of the women. The other ladies quietly laughed.
I tried to remain calm, deliberately turning my focus to my mother. I suggested she take a seat on her walker. Feeling the hot breath of the woman behind me, my heart began to quicken. After a few minutes, I could feel droplets of perspiration cross my forehead. I put my hand on my mother’s shoulder to reassure her. She gently took my hand and I looked down to see her smiling at me, her hazel eyes twinkling with encouragement. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be alright.”
I realized in that moment that she was no longer talking about our elevator ride. All this time I thought she was dependent on me, fearful of her future, but it was me who was depending on her, for her strength, for her quiet determination, and for her unquestioning support. I could not stop my mouth from quivering or the tears that had been pent up for months from now flooding down my face. I bent over to embrace her, whispering in her ear, “thank you.”
Moments later the elevator doors opened. “I hope they have barley soup today,” she said cheerfully.
Two months later my mother passed away and till this day I remember 16 of 24 as the day I overcame my fear of elevators.
My grandfather, Julius, had always told me that luck happened when preparation met opportunity. Whenever he said this, all I could think was where do you find opportunity. Not the kind of opportunity they talked about in college brochures or magazine articles about how to make your business grow. The kind of opportunity that allowed you to be extraordinary, to throw out your alarm clock and your grey suit, ditch those mind-numbing meetings that made you wish you had been run over by a car on the way to work, and discard friends that were happy to play penny poker the second Saturday of every month and think the wildest thing they could do was get so drunk at the local pub where they would momentarily forget the kind of lives they had settled for.
I wanted the kind of opportunity that would allow me to join that exclusive club of men who dared to live the adventure, welcomed risk, and felt the exhilaration of not knowing what tomorrow would bring. I dreamed of buying a motorcycle, growing a beard, and getting a tattoo comemmorating my escape from the clutches of golden handcuffs and diamond rings that choked the life and lust out of relationships. And I was prepared. I read all the magazines and websites outlining how a person could disappear off the government’s radar screen, going underground and never having to pay taxes or account to anyone. The idea of disappearing and reinventing myself to suit my mood and my circumstances became my obsession. I just needed the courage, I told myself, to break free, to liberate myself when the right moment arrived. To step through the doorway, when opportunity knocked . . . and slam it tight behind me.
And then it happened. The door flew open in plain sight in the middle of the afternoon on one of the busiest intersections in town. I was running late to a client meeting because I had to pick up the trophy for the annual company bowling tournament and they hadn’t finished engraving our logo on the cup. I was holding the large metal trophy under my arm as I was rushing back to my car, when I tripped over a briefcase lying on the sidewalk. The sharp metal edge of the cup sliced into my hand and blood was everywhere. I grabbed my white monogrammed handkerchief out of my pocket and bound my hand, thinking I might have to now cancel my meeting all together and head to the closest clinic for stitches. But then I looked more closely and realized that this was no ordinary briefcase.
It was a handmade Alligator portfolio that was worth close to $20,000! I thought maybe this was my lucky day. The owner was certainly someone worth knowing. I carefully opened it hoping to find some ID. There amongst a platinum lighter, a few files, a Sigma 300-800mm zoom camera lens, a pile of passports from various countries in different names, a role of 50 South African Kruggerand one-ounce gold coins, and ten thousand Euros was the opportunity I had been waiting for all my life. The passport photos and descriptions were all the same. He was only two years older than me and one inch taller, but had dark brown hair. An easy fix I told myself.
I took a deep breath, closed the briefcase, dumped the trophy into the nearest trashcan and hailed a cab to the airport, making a quick stop on the way at a drug store for some hair dye.
The loud noise of a heavy door slamming behind me reverberated in my mind . . . and if I had been listening more closely I would have heard the faint voice of my grandfather repeating his other favorite expression . . . be careful what you wish for.