“Daddy, what are you doing?” Jennifer lightly crawled over her father’s lap and then sat down.
“Counting out your inheritance, sweet pea.”
Jennifer looked down at the dirty coins that cluttered her father’s mahogany-stained desk ”Gimme a break. I hope that you can do better than that.”
“Of course I can. This will be one of many things I hope you to remember me by.”
David leaned over his desk and began to organize his coins into tiny piles, by value, size and year. Piles of commemorative coins were scattered around the perimeter. He slowly, rhythmically tapped his foot, and bounced his slender daughter on his knee as he sorted the old coins, their clinking sounds resonating merrily together. He buried himself more deeply into his idle work, transported for a moment from his tiring life by a feeling of simple whimsy. There was a song in his head.
“Dad!” Jessica shouted angrily “Andrew is stealing my doll.” The happy feeling passed in a moment as the duties of parenthood returned.
“I am not. I had it first.”
“Calm down”, Dad interjected, trying perhaps too hard to project a voice of reason. “You must learn to share your …”
“Give it back”
“No its …”
“Who wants to jump on the couch? “
“I do”, the children chimed in chorus, their fight ending abruptly.
Reason never wins, he thought, his irritation passing as quickly as their anger. “Come along dear children”. He stooped ever so slightly to grab their hands and together they walked downstairs to the TV room.
“Andrew, help me put the cushions on the floor” shouted excited Jennifer, breaking away from her father and rushing forward in excitement.
“We must be careful not to put them too far away from the couch so we don’t hurt ourselves.”
Dad stood back to watch their model behaviour, amused by how his rules were embraced when they corresponded with his children’s wants and needs.
“That’s my half and that’s your half.”
“I’m climbing up the back of the couch.”
“Daddy, look at me! Me!” Jennifer jumped up and down, giggling raucously.
“Do you think you can jump up to my hands?” Dad put his hands 1 metre above his daughters’ heads.
The two children bounced against their father’s outstretched hand, causing his arms to rise and fall.
“I can land on my bum”, Jennifer shouted suddenly and pulled her legs out from under herself and bounced several times.
“Watch out”, her startled father nearly shouted. “You know your mother wouldn’t want you to do that. You could hurt yourself.”
Meanwhile upstairs Daniel raced through this week’s sci-fi favourite, for once not disturbed by his riotous sisters. Page 48: the witch was testing Paul. If he flinched he would die.
“What was that noise?”, Daniel looked up from his book.
Page 49: Paul is on the verge of death! He must not flinch: the witch is pitiless…
“What was that wheezing noise?” Sigh. “Better go check.”
He found his mother lying flat on her back, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. Her breath was shallow and constrained as if she were breathing solely out of her throat with no support from stomach, lungs or diaphragm. Her chest rose shallowly and fell. Otherwise, she did not move.
Daniel stood stunned for a moment while he made the transition from a fictional death to his dying mother.
He walked quickly to the top of the stairs. Before he could utter a word the bouncing game stopped.
Dad looked up. “Is something wrong?”
Daniel nodded and looked toward the kitchen. His father raced up the stairs. The daughters followed closely behind. They rushed in to the kitchen and then slowly encircled Mom’s prostrate body.
Eleanor stood for a moment trying to work out her next moves. Her girl scout training took over: she kneeled beside Mom and began a futile attempt to revive her. Mom’s body was very limp, and inflated not one millimetre more than Eleanor’s exhales allowed.
Daniel said to no one in particular, “I’ll call an ambulance.”
Dad protectively attempted to shepherd the little girls. ‘Come along, children. Let us leave Eleanor with mother. Let’s go in to the den to pray.”
They all moved to the adjoining room, cleared away a teak coffee table, then kneeled in a circle. Dad began to pray. The girls wriggled distractedly and kept glancing over their shoulders to where Eleanor was trying to help Mom.
Daniel returned from the kitchen and stood mute in the doorway between the living room and den, looking alternatively at the inaction of his father and the futile action of his sister. Eventually he squatted beside his sister, waiting for her to ask for assistance, unable to think of anything that he could do to help.
Unexpectedly, firemen arrived instead of ambulance workers, their truck with a light on but no siren. Three years ago the scene would have been the definition of excitement, now it was a very disconcerting reminder of a reality that he had only just begun to know.
The family backed away from the medical workers and regrouped in the den. No work was spoken but they acted in concert, the little ones avidly – but mutely – following their elders for clues.
“Daddy, is Mom going to be alright?”
“Certainly, pumpkin. You can count on it.”
‘Mr. McKinnon. Could you come here please.’ Dad joined a fireman in the kitchen.
After their father got out of earshot Daniel turned to his sisters and said, “That’s bullshit. Did you see the gear those guys used on her? Did you see how waxy she looked? I love mom. I’m going to miss her.”
Daniel and the girls sat down together on the couch, the children wriggling slightly as they tried to get further under the protective arms of their elder brother. He held them tightly, trying to calm his own fear. Reactions varied among the children. Anna, the youngest, looked blankly at her two siblings and then across the hall towards her father trying to assess the situation from reactions. Daniel stood mute and slightly stunned wavering between his fears and a desire to retain control. For Grace, amorphous child hood fears of loss and rejection, reinforced by dozens of nightmares, suddenly crystallized in one focused feeling of panic. She was so upset that she trembled.
Eleanor stood with her back to the group, watching the firemen raise Mom onto a stretcher then bring her outside to where she was bathed in red light then the blue light of the approaching ambulance.
“Everyone hold hands and get down on your knees and pray.” The three youngest looked at each other blankly while Eleanor moved to her knees so quickly that she brought Dad down with her.
Eleanor looked out the window onto the patio. The black sky was tinted blue by the pre-glow of the sun. She glanced at the clock. 6 am. “Dad, its almost morning. Shouldn’t you call the office?”
Dad didn’t notice. He was still on his knees continuing to pray. Everyone else slowly got up. Eleanor rose last, crossed herself devotedly and went to the kitchen. The children could hear her pick up the phone and dial.
“Hi, this is David McKinnon’s daughter, Eleanor. Our Mom just had a stroke. Dad won’t be coming into work for a few days.”
“Daddy’s working at home this week!” Grace’s face lit up.
Grace fell silent in an instant then began to cry.
“C’mon Jenn. Be nice to Grace. She’s young. She doesn’t understand.”
“I don’t understand.”
Eleanor finished the call, Daniel moved into Den and placed his hands on the heads of Jennifer and Grace. They all stood silently, having run out of ideas as to what their next moves should be.
Dad finally broke the impasse. “Get your coats children, we’re going to the hospital.”
“I don’t want to go!”
“I know that you’re really tired, sweet pea, but we have to join Mom at the hospital. She wants it this way.”
“How do you know? Did she talk to you?”
“I know pumpkin. Run along. Get your coat.”
The family piled into the family’s country-squire station wagon. The usual fights over windows ensued. When the dust settled Eleanor was in Mom’s spot in the front seat, Daniel was alone in the back and Jennifer and Grace had enacted an uneasy truce in the middle seat.
“I think that I should drive, Dad.”
“No. Let me drive Eleanor.”
“No, I really think…”
“Eleanor please. I need this. To take my mind off…”
Eleanor retreated into large folds of the front seat and was silent.
Dad thankfully choose to take the longer, slower route to the hospital. Which was fortunate because he ran right through a stop sign at the intersection of McNichol and Clansman, and slammed on the breaks half way through running the red light at Leslie St.
“Just turn left Dad. Take it easy. Turn left then drive straight for 2 miles. Please watch the traffic lights.”
As the family drove down Leslie Street Eleanor fingered her onyx rosary, while the rest of them looked out of the car window, blankly staring at the dawn.
When a hospital is described to you in the story of your birth it seems like a magical place. It’s where you first happened, ground zero. The first actual visit was doubly bleak for occurring during a time of dying. They went to Toronto General. It was as if they were visiting one of the more benign levels of hell: a clean but poorly lit maze with random corridors branching off in unlikely directions. The light was deathly blue.
For the first two hours all they did was wait in a cheerless room with thin gray carpeting and an odd assortment of romance and action books. Bleak, boring.
Then a nurse appeared out of nowhere. “Mr. McKinnon, you can come in now. Will your children be coming in with you?”
Dad didn’t have the energy to enforce a decision on his children so he simply rose and followed the nurse and they walked in with him. Grace started to talk once but Eleanor severely cut her off and after that she was silent though her brown eyes were big.
Mom was attached to intravenous devices and strange plastic machines that helped her breathe and digest. Her face was blue and her breathing was thin.
“Let’s say a rosary together.” Hands clasped, heads down we mumbled through a dozen Hail Mary’s. Mom made a rattling sound with her throat. We all stopped at once to look, except for Dad, who took a moment to notice. Then her wheezing stopped. The nurse closed her eyes with a gentle latex touch then turned Mom’s palms to face upward.
Silence. “How old is Mom?”
“She was 47”.
The family stood mutely around her dead body. Minutes passed in silence and then we each left. Once everyone was in the hallway. Dad silently returned to the hospital room to say his final farewell. Eleanor marshalled the rest of us towards the waiting room.
Grace suddenly fell down “My shoe doesn’t work.”
“That’s stupid. Shoes don’t break.”
“I can’t stand up. My right shoe DOESN’T WORK!”
“Let me look at it.” Eleanor approached Grace, as the eldest woman preparing to take on some of Mom’s roles. Grace recoiled and reached both arms towards Daniel who lifted her up and carried over to the couch. Everyone sat down again and was silent while Daniel comforted Grace and retied her shoe laces.
“Dad, when are you going to be 47?”
“Not now, Gracie. I’m busy.”
“He’s 46 now! You know that idiot.”
“Is 46 less than 47?”
“Yes. Can’t you count?”
“Give her a break! She’s just little.”
“Dad, when you die can I go with you?”
“Not now, Grace. I’m busy.”
Grace crawled on to his lap. “Dad, what are you doing?”
“I’m sorting coins, sweat pea.”
“Why are you sorting coins?”
“I’m picking up where I left off. The last thing that I did before Mom left us was organize the family coin collection. Now I’m finishing my job. That’s what we’ve all got to do now, pumpkin. Pick up where we left off and finish our jobs”. He returned to his work.
Clink, clink. Dirty pennies were quietly counted, stacked, then put away. Dad put the last penny down and stared blankly at the table in front of him. Once there was a song in his head. Over the past week it had turned into a rhythm and now it had flattened into a repetitive beat. Blood flowing through the heart in pulses. Day preceding then following night. You could count the days.
Draft March 2005