Excerpt from Lost: A Memoir
The waiting begins in the morning. Calgary is seven hours behind the U.K. We expect the call no later than noon. We root ourselves to the kitchen table. The Saturday newspaper is divided into sections: Spain is filing a suit against Canada over the turbot fish war, the Blue Bombers beat the Ticats. My husband Sam makes fresh coffee. Cold toast is replaced with warm buttery slices. The sun moves from behind the evergreens into the open sky and heats the kitchen. The air smells of browning apple peels. My three children graze, then spin off, dancing erratic orbits throughout the house. I am silent while staring at the excess of breakfast.
At ten, I lift the receiver to check for a dial tone, its comforting assurance of possibility. Who can I speak to?
“DON’T TELL ANYONE WHERE we’re going,” my brother entreats during a phone call last spring. “You know how Mom will be.” I remember my own travels. She worried every minute.
“Happiness is no way to live a life,” I answer him jokingly. In a fit of frustration, our mother had once blurted out those words to us. We had laughed.
Over the years David and I learned that it was best not to tell our mother too much. This is how we live. Don’t tell. Don’t give too many details. Write often.
“Stay home,” she told us, “Then I won’t lose any sleep over the two of you.”
A letter in May 1983 began: Dear David, It’s true. The light is different in Greece. I am sailing on the Lady Papillon, a 38-foot sloop. We flew a spinnaker yesterday. It was yellow and thin as silk. It filled up like a heart. The captain is an Englishman named Simon.
The children think there should be a birthday cake even if Uncle David isn’t here. Coloured candles are tossed onto the table like runes. The wax is sticky and covered in crumbs just like the ones my mother keeps in her kitchen drawer. As a child I hated putting the used, unevenly melted candles into fresh soft icing, and yet now, I save the stumps too. After I’ve licked them.
“Don’t we have any new ones that aren’t deformed?” I ask. I roll a blue and white twist between my fingers. The thin black wick appears to go in and out like a tongue.
My mother flicks off the dried chunks of cake with her long, pink-coated thumbnail. “Oh, they’re perfectly good, dear. David doesn’t care about things like this.”
“How old is he, Mommy?” Victoria, who’s eight, is counting the candles.
“Thirty-five,” my father corrects.
“Thirty-six, dear,” my mother states.
“Look, he’s two years younger than Cathy, and she’s thirty-seven,” my father argues.
“Well, if anyone should remember how old he is it would certainly be me. I could never forget that delivery.” It is the end of the dispute. My mother always wins this kind of argument.
“Mommy, we only have twenty-six.”
“You’re thirty-eight?” Sam asks. It is loneliness that steals years, more than fear. “It will have to do, sweetie.” I line the candles up in a row.
At quarter to eleven, the children are back, looking for food like beggars, stretching their hands across the table. They make fingerprint clouds on the glass, casting the map into shadow. Dollops of spilled marmalade and jam catch the sun’s rays and glow. Tegan licks the blue edge of the table and tastes strawberry. She opens her palm and drops small toys onto a plate: a pink doll’s comb with some teeth missing; a Lego star fighter with one yellow arm; broken crayons peeled of their paper wrappers, round and smooth like beads, their wax softened by a child’s warm hand.
Sam stares at his youngest daughter’s assorted collection, and then pushes away from the table. He moves towards the coffee maker but changes his mind and floats into the living room with an empty cup. The north-facing window at the far end is ablaze with colour. Burnt orange leaves from the mountain ash are brushing against the glass. I watch my husband stand before the tree, fingers on the windowpane. Is he remembering or imagining—the small red berries, hanging like miniature grapes—the colour of a wound or the shade of a woman’s lips? Does he taste copper in the soft metal of his tongue? Sam brings his hand to his throat, fingers caressing the thin scar like it’s a necklace. Is there something caught under the skin? Not a tumour? The lump was cut out eight months ago, so that can’t be right. It must be the choking hold of some truth or fear. An overseas call will never come? A sailor his wife once loved? Or his future slipping away by a migrant cancer cell?
Somewhere the slow melting of bones and skin has begun. And love.
Icarus is falling.
DURING THE LAST EIGHT years, my brother has lived life like it’s a bold adventure. Sometimes I forget there was time when he had no ambition at all.
“Gotta get out of here, little brother.”
“No kidding,” he agrees.
Springsteen’s voice calls to the masses from three-foot speakers. I lean against David’s mattress and stare at the posters on the wall—a sketch of the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, a sailboat flying a spinnaker.
“Really, David. It’s time to move out. You’re twenty-four. You are living in your childhood bedroom. And it has orange carpet!”
“Yeah,” he says, nodding slowly while taking Led Zeppelin II out of its sleeve. “Not sure what orange carpet has to do with it….”
“Well, it’s cold to sit on, for one thing, but what I mean is, what are you going to do with your life?”
“What are you going to do?” he fires back, and then softens his tone. “What about this sailor? Are you going back?”
“I don’t think so. I just can’t see that life for me.”
“So what’s next?”
Now it’s my turn to shrug. I flip through a stack of coloured albums, and try to look interested. Running on Empty. Midnight Lightning. We avoid the hard questions with his music.
A week later I return to Toronto and Sam. We book round-the-world airline tickets with eight stops spread out over a year. Traveling quells the confusion about what to do with a life.
You should try it, I write to David from Thailand. Get out of the basement and see the world.
My father leaves the table.
He opens the back door and goes out to the yard. He is wearing blue mechanic’s coveralls, the pair he’s worked in for forty years. There are streaks of paint on the left shoulder where he leaned on a wall. The fingerprints on his thighs are like little comets from the year the colour “Harvest Gold” appeared on the house siding.
My love of sweeping must come from my father. He slams the wide broom against the deck. Each thud is followed by a swish of nylon bristles. The pinecones flutter and bounce away. He attacks until the cones are corralled and then scoops them with his bare hands into the garbage bag. It is a never-ending battle—eighty-year-old fir trees recklessly trying to seed themselves. Over my father’s head, a gust of wind is caught in the trees. Boughs rise and fall discordantly. More cones rattle down on the deck. He stops sweeping and lifts his shoulders, sighing at the futility.
Two years before David is born, my father maps body and airplane parts on a prairie field. He is part of an air force team sent out to investigate why a plane crashed on a clear night. My father thinks the night can fool a navigator. Northern lights twist the sky onto its side, waves of pink and green break like surf. I don’t know where we are, says a voice. (Find the horizon.) The moon is a white marble rolling over the black edge of night. We’re going the wrong way. (Find Orion.) The stars are wet flickers of dust. We’re upside-down. (Find land, son.)
My father loves in muted ways.
“I THINK WE’RE READY for the big pond,” David says to me over the phone on a July evening. He’s calling from Fionnphort on the Scottish Isle of Mull. “We’ll leave here next month. Azores first, then Madeira. That gives us lots of time to get out of the North Atlantic before the autumn equinox storms come.”
“How long will it take you?” I ask.
“Two weeks, I think.” His voice drops. Sounds serious. That’s good, I think. He won’t do anything stupid. The phone line crackles, reminding me of how far away he is. “We’ll see how it all turns out, Cath.”
“Say, bye to Sarah for me,” I tell him.
“We’ll call as soon as we reach land.”
My lungs draw in as I remember this promise.
He knew what he was getting into, I tell myself. He wasn’t too bold, not over-confident. He wasn’t cocky. Just brave.
For years, David has sought freedom from modern North American definitions of a successful life. He made a choice that he thought was available to all of us—to allow the imagination to be bigger than the body.
“You know Cathy, I’m glad your travelling days are over,” my mother says while scraping the chocolate batter into a pan lined with waxed paper. “Now that you’re married and have children, I don’t have to worry about you. If David would just come home, I could relax.”
The children are back in the kitchen asking for more food. I give them beaters and a wooden spoon and then make Kraft dinner. They swallow the rubbery tubes whole. Their tongues are the colour of mashed cheezies.
“If Uncle David died, would I die too?” I look down at the table. Toast bones, apple cores, shriveled bacon. I hold my breath to quiet the rattle under my ribs. I cannot bear to see my mother’s face.
“Why would you die, sweetie?” David, his mouth returned to pink, whispers, “Because we have the same name, Mommy.”
I am holding my brother’s life in the soft flesh of my throat. I dare not tell for fear I’ll drop the ball of thread and lose us. If I speak, will the sky fall in? I am sister, daughter, wife, and mother—there is no myth to guide me with this question. What will ease the weight of all those incarnations?
MOMENTS IN MY LIFE are frozen, permanent photographs.
My parents and siblings wedge inside a red Bombardier crawling over the Columbia Icefield. We look into crevasses and fissures where the glacier has split and yawned to alarming-sized gaps. It’s like staring down the sides of frozen waves, forty feet deep. The ice is the colour of a sapphire and dense as stone.
I imagine myself slipping into that allurement of blue. It is bright under the ice, not the darkness one would expect but a silvery light—trapped ancient sunrays, pressed out of time. I hear the call of the sea, echoing like a shell held close to my ear. If I descend even further there will be caverns large as cathedrals, tunnels and pathways, a hidden labyrinth unknown to the living. Ice as secretive as an ocean.
I can still see them, my mother’s hand grasping David’s collar as he leans over the deep chasm. She holds him, he lets his body fall forward. He is not afraid his mother will let go. His face glows in the light.
At half-past two, the milk in the coffee is floating in white lumps. My mother slips quietly from the table, a crumb-filled napkin slides from her lap to the floor. I can hear the washing machine in the basement filling with water, then the muffled sound of clothes being pushed under the suds. A cotton shirt floats up. The corner of a collar breaking through the spume. A red sail. She pushes the shirt to the bottom and drops the metal lid loudly. Soapsuds circle her elbow. The machine agitates against her belly.
Birthdays always do this to her, remind her of the days when her babies were turned, tugged, pushed, finally spilling out of the river that began in her. She has memories she won’t abandon—the fuming last baby she was presented with, the years of anemia and depression that weighed her down while she scrubbed children and waxed floors. Those were the blue years in the fight for order. My mother once told me, “A good day was when I was the first one on the street to have my laundry on the line.”
SIX MONTHS AFTER THE birth of my third child, David says to me, “You’re not the woman you used to be.” I am on my hands and knees wiping spilled apple juice. Six-month-old Tegan cries in another room. His words descend like a curse.
My brother is flipping through a yachting magazine at the kitchen table. I look up at him and see the wind in his eyes. Is he criticizing, pitying, or challenging me—as well as being insensitive? Is it only Desire he understands?
Yes, Love, Demeter’s soft breast, has changed me. There are rhythms in my life now, and responsibilities that must be met. I rinse the rag in the old porcelain sink and return to my knees, sliding the cloth across the floor with wide strokes. The sea-green linoleum turns dark. My shoulders sink as if I’m falling. I cower under Regret and Duty, those minor goddesses living in the broom closet that David has just set free.
I sailed to Turkey naked once. I wish I had asked him: How are we certain which longings in our bodies are the true ones?
I am the only one left at the table at 4 o’clock. I write the word AND with the birthday candles. My mother passes by me, her arms filled with warm laundry. Panties in halves. Sheets folded like flags. Palm-smoothed t-shirts with arms tucked under like well behaved children. “Maybe he phoned Diane, when he couldn’t reach us at home,” she comments on her way upstairs. My older sister in Winnipeg doesn’t approve of David’s lifestyle but she’ll accept a collect call. She likes to talk to him.
A trail of warm air follows after my mother, caressing my face gently. But it is the sharp scent of detergent that lingers, the sting of lemon.
I hear the washing machine empty its suds in a furious rush. I scratch at the yolk-stained table. Throughout history, women have made an art of waiting for men to return from sea or war or some other adventure. The women silently weave the heroic tales, then unravel their work and begin again, perhaps telling the story a little differently each time, perhaps imagining if it was their own.
LOST: A MEMOIR
Would you like a copy of LOST? Contact Cathy I am pleased to make arrangements for delivery of LOST: A MEMOIR to bookstores and individuals.