Paul Cavanagh

I promised myself that I wouldn’t start out by apologizing to you. I know I’ve been prickly the past few months since your grandma died, but there are reasons for that. Reasons beyond my grief over losing her. Maybe you’ve already figured out what some of them are. You’ve always been perceptive, even more so now that you’re seventeen and the world isn’t quite the mystery to you that it once was. Seventeen. It’s hard for me to believe you’re that old. That’s not a sign my memory is failing me, by the way. It’s simply a feeling a father gets when he looks at his son and sees a little boy instead of the young man standing in front of him. Maybe you’ll feel it yourself one day.

This account of events isn’t just for you. At least, that’s what I’m realizing now, as I launch into it. I guess I’m hoping that by trying to explain things to you on paper, they’ll begin to make sense to me. That could just be wishful thinking on my part, and what I’m writing will turn out to be a lot of drivel. In which case, there’s always the delete button on my keyboard. Sometimes I think there should be a delete button we could press during live conversations, so that we could take back things we regretted saying. I can recall several times in my life when something like that would have come in handy. Who knows? Maybe there will be an app for that one day. If so, whoever designs it will make a fortune.

There’s a lot of territory for me to cover. To explain my actions during the last few months, I need to take you back a ways. It starts with my father, your grandfather. There’s a reason I’ve avoided telling you about him all this time, even during your grandma’s funeral when I saw you studying him in the old family photos on display. He may have died forty years ago, but he’s never really left me. Sometimes it feels as if he’s lurking inside my head, a memory who refuses to be erased. Ironic, considering how his own memory deserted him so completely.

You may be surprised to hear that he wasn’t an intimidating man, not in the conventional sense. The Dad I remember was frail, apathetic, and withdrawn. He wasn’t always that way — not until he got sick. I used to feel guilty about not being able to remember the Dad he’d once been, but the best I could do was conjure up tiny fragments. Him charming a waitress at a roadside diner into giving me an extra scoop of ice cream for dessert at no extra charge one time when he took me on a sales call. His whiskers scratching my cheek when he carried me up to bed. Even now, it’s hard for me to sort out what I remember about him and what I’m just imagining. The fact that he was an encyclopedia salesman only makes him seem more made-up, the butt of a joke that no one gets anymore.

Maybe what unsettles me most is the possibility that one day I will remember the man he used to be, and he’ll turn out to be no different than the man I am now. After that, it wouldn’t be hard to resign myself to the belief that I’ll lose my mind just like he did. And so I’ve spent most of my life trying not to think about it.

It was only during these last few months that I finally got it through my thick head that it’s impossible to outrun my own memories. That’s why I’ve decided to come clean with you, even if it means recounting parts of my life I’m not particularly proud of. The last years of my dad’s life fall into that category. I was just a kid at the time.

The changes in him were subtle at first — memory lapses that he managed to laugh off, cribbage games that he increasingly “let” me win. Even after he started having trouble remembering the names of our neighbours, none of us really suspected that anything was wrong. After a while, though, I could tell that Mom was getting impatient with him, especially after he drove a new three-speed 1971 Mustang convertible home unannounced a few days after my tenth birthday. He’d bought it from a buddy of his, another salesman, at what he claimed was a bargain price. Your Uncle Perry and I were ecstatic. We took turns sitting up front as we cruised the Queensway with the top down, but Dad couldn’t persuade Mom to come along. Two weeks later, the cops ticketed Dad for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. By the end of the summer, a man with heavy black eyebrows came to our townhouse in the east end of Ottawa to repossess the car.

Being without a car would have been a real problem for my dad, given his work as a door-to-door salesman, if it weren’t for the fact that he’d lost his job four months before and hadn’t told anyone, not even Mom. Without wheels, Dad spent a lot more time at home, doing fix-it jobs, while Mom was forced to beg neighbours for rides to the grocery store.

“Mom thinks he has a couple of forty-ouncers stashed in the house somewhere,” Perry told me one night as we were lying awake in our shared bedroom, listening to our parents arguing downstairs. Because Perry had already reached the advanced age of thirteen, he was always trying to shock me with information about the adult world that I was too young to understand. Not that he necessarily had a firm grasp on it himself.

I said nothing, not quite understanding the full implications of what he might be hinting at. It seemed to me that if Dad’s wonky behaviour was because of a drinking problem, I’d smell booze on his breath. But then, what did I know about such things? I was only ten. As much as I wanted to defend my father, I decided it was best to keep my mouth shut so as not to risk showing my ignorance. Of course, the other thing bothering me about this news was that it seemed to suggest Mom had chosen to confide in Perry, but not in me.

I stayed loyal to Dad those first few weeks when he was stuck at home, and played gofer to his handyman. We installed a dimmer switch in the dining room, replaced the kitchen faucet, and repaired the screens on the two bedroom windows. With the exception of the screen repair, all these jobs ended in a call to a tradesman to fix the mess my father had made. After that, Mom put the kibosh on all do-it-yourself repairs in our house because of how much they were costing us. While this cut short my career as a handyman’s apprentice, I’d already established, in all my poking around under the guise of searching for misplaced widgets, that Dad wasn’t stashing booze anywhere in the house.

With his use of tools officially restricted, Dad decided to make me his next project. One evening, he noticed me leafing through the abridged encyclopedia set that he’d used as a sales sample. When my eyes strayed from the page, I saw him staring at me with the curiosity that a biologist might show an exotic bug.

“What’s that you’re reading about?” he asked me.

“Camels,” I said, feeling my cheeks flush. I was glad that it wasn’t an entry for one of those places in Africa where women walked around topless.

He held out his hand, and I gave him the encyclopedia. “Tell me what you remember about them,” he said with a lopsided grin, holding the volume open at the pages I’d just read.

Back then, I had visions of becoming a famous explorer, not appreciating that there weren’t really any blank spaces left on the map to name after myself. Details about exotic places naturally stuck with me. So the fact that I could tell Dad, after one reading, that camels stored fat in their humps, not water, didn’t seem that unusual to me. Or that they could go three weeks between drinks. Or that they generally lived up to fifty years. Or that they could be found in North Africa and Asia, with the exception of a few thousand running wild in Australia that had been brought there in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Dad’s grin slipped ever so slightly with each additional fact I rhymed off. For a moment, I worried that he might think I was trying to show him up, given how unreliable his memory had been lately. In the end, he simply dipped his chin to show how impressed he was. “Not bad,” he said.

I would have stayed out of his encyclopedia after that if he hadn’t suggested I begin reading passages to him before I went to bed each night. Mostly about faraway places. Sometimes, he’d pick the topic for the evening. Other times, he’d leave it up to me. Always, he’d ask me oddball questions about what I’d just read out loud, usually in an effort to get me to imagine what it would have been like to travel to Tahiti with Captain Cook, or to enter the court of Kublai Khan in the company of Marco Polo, or some such thing. As far as I knew, he’d never been further than a two-day drive from Ottawa. A big family vacation for us was a trip to Vermont, pulling a tent trailer and eating hot dogs we boiled on a Coleman stove at roadside picnic tables. As small as Dad’s world had been, it was even smaller now that he didn’t have a job to give him places to go. I never would take another road trip with him, as it turned out. These imaginary living room expeditions were our last journeys anywhere together.

During those first few months when Dad was off work, I would sometimes stumble across Mom crying. There she’d be with tears streaming down her cheeks as she tried to wash the dishes, or fold the laundry, or scrub the toilet. When she realized she wasn’t alone, she’d immediately wipe away her tears with her forearm. She knew that seeing her cry made me nervous, but the real reason I think she stopped was because she felt that letting me catch her blubbering was just plain careless, like having a stack of unwashed dishes sitting in the sink when company calls. I knew that she was at the end of her rope with Dad; I guess I didn’t want to know just how bad things were for her. Maybe that was selfish of me. Then again, I was only ten. The idea that my parents didn’t have things under control, that they couldn’t somehow make everything right in the end, was just too scary to contemplate.

Mom did her best to put up a brave front. She explained that Dad was having a nervous breakdown. It wouldn’t last forever. We just needed to be patient a little while longer. He’d shake himself out of it soon enough.

Despite Mom’s reassurances, it wasn’t long before Dad began to lose interest in our encyclopedia excursions. I noticed that he was starting to get things that I was reading to him mixed up. Sometimes, he’d pick a topic, forgetting that we’d covered it only the night before. Other times, he’d repeat stories he’d already told me as if they were brand-new, but he’d have trouble finding words that he’d had no trouble finding the last time he’d told the story. When I tried to set him straight, he’d get cranky. He began avoiding me, retreating to the rec room to watch Andy Williams or Dean Martin. From then on, the TV became his preferred companion. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d wander downstairs and find my father sitting by himself in front of the snow-filled screen, quietly singing a tune that he’d likely heard one of his favourite crooners perform that night, as if to ward off the darkness.

Mom was obliged to get a job selling ladies’ wear at Eaton’s shortly after Dad stopped working so that there’d be some money coming into the house. “You can’t feed two growing boys on promises and pixie dust,” she said. She expected Perry and me to start making our own lunches for school. After listening to our griping for several months, she told us, “It’s time you boys took a little more responsibility for yourselves.” Her gaze lingered on Dad across the dining room table as she said this. He just kept on eating his dinner. By then, he’d pretty much lost the knack of reading when my mother was frustrated with him, even when it was pretty obvious to me.

I couldn’t understand what was wrong with him. I’d already ruled out booze. I was beginning to doubt Mom’s conviction that it was a nervous breakdown. It felt like he was getting worse, not better. I consulted the encyclopedia for an explanation, but nothing really seemed to fit. I came across “dementia” but ruled it out almost immediately. Dad was in his mid-fifties. He wasn’t old enough to be senile. I lost my appetite for digging further when I came across a grotesque illustration of a lunatic shackled in an eighteenth-century asylum.

The following year I entered sixth grade, and I began to dread coming home to my father after school. Perry had been smart enough to realize early on that if he joined enough clubs and sports teams at school, his time alone with Dad would be kept to a minimum. So, when Mom had to work late, that left me to be the one to find the bathroom flooded (more than once) because Dad had walked away from the tub with the water running and never come back. When he wasn’t flooding us out, he was turning the house upside down looking for things — his watch, his shoes, his keys — that he insisted someone had taken. One time, he even went so far as to call the police to report that his 1971 Mustang had been stolen from our driveway, and I was forced to explain the truth when a cop arrived at our house to take a statement.

The only thing I dreaded more than coming home to find out what fresh disaster my father had visited on us was coming home to discover he was gone. I’d frantically search every room in the house, then the backyard, then the neighbours’ backyards. Then I’d call Mom at work. She’d have to cut her shift short, hurry home, and once again beg Mr. Williamson next door to take us out in his car to search for Dad. After an hour or two, we’d usually find him trudging along some roadway, sometimes in the rain, occasionally in the snow. He’d mutter something about Plantagenet, the little place in the countryside east of town where he’d grown up. Often, the only way we could convince him to get into the car was to pretend to offer him a lift to his parents’ farmhouse. He didn’t seem to remember that Grandmama had died five years before or that Grandpapa had been living in a nursing home for the last three years.

“He needs help, your husband,” Mr. Williamson would tell my mother as we ushered Dad up to the front door. Help. Meaning Dad was crazy. Meaning we should take him to the loony bin and save ourselves a lot of grief.

Mom would thank Mr. Williamson and promise not to bother him again, just like she had the last time she’d asked for his help.

It was hard for Mom to hold onto a job, given how many times she had to cut out early to deal with yet another crisis at home. But each time she got fired, she always picked herself up, dusted herself off, and found a new job some place else, even if it was scut work. She didn’t have a choice. No paycheque, no groceries. By the time I finished sixth grade, she was cleaning other people’s houses.

I suppose I was still hoping for a miracle: one day I’d come home to find my old dad, bright-eyed and irrepressible, just as Mom had promised. The last two years would be forgotten, become nothing more than an ugly little footnote in our family history. I wanted to believe I’d somehow imagined it all. For all I knew, a fairy-tale goblin had taken over Dad’s body, and it was up to me to figure out the magical phrase that would cast it out once and for all.

I never did stumble upon the special incantation. And things went from bad to worse.

Dad’s word-finding troubles got so severe that there were times he reverted to speaking French, his mother tongue, out of sheer frustration. Too bad I’d never learned French, except for a few rudimentary lessons in school from a teacher with a British accent. Dad had never seen the need to teach it to Perry or me. Ours was a completely English-speaking household. But that didn’t stop him from getting irritated when I didn’t understand him.

Soon, trousers became a mind-bending puzzle to him. He’d spend ten minutes every morning trying to guess which leg went in which hole, and even then he’d get it wrong. When he went to shave himself, his reversed image in the mirror seemed to confuse him, which meant he came away looking like a balding porcupine — a man who had always prided himself on looking sharp for his customers.

The strain of continually keeping Dad out of trouble eventually caught up with Mom. One week in the winter when I was halfway through grade seven, she stopped eating. The thought of food seemed to turn her stomach. All she could tolerate was ginger ale. For several days she was too weak to get out of bed, except to go to the bathroom or make an occasional wobbly trip down to the kitchen. When Perry and I went to school each morning, only my father was left behind to look after her.

My math teacher was in the habit of throwing sticks of chalk at me when I wasn’t paying attention in his class, and I don’t think there was a day that week when a piece didn’t go whizzing by my head or bouncing off my arm. “Would you care to let us in on your little daydream, Mr. Lajeunesse?” he said one time, his hands on his hips. My homeroom teacher was a little more sensitive. “Is everything all right at home, Dean?” she asked me once. “Sure,” I said. I’m not certain she believed me, but she didn’t press any further. I doubt she knew anything. Our family did a good job of keeping quiet about Dad.

One day late that week, I came home to find the front door yawning open. The house was freezing. An upside-down cereal bowl sat on the carpet at the foot of the stairs. The milk stains were dry and flaky. I raced upstairs to my parents’ bedroom with my boots still on. My mother’s housecoat lay abandoned in a little heap at the end of the unmade bed. The water was running in the bathroom sink across the hall. There was no one home.

In a panic, I ran next door to the Williamsons, but no one answered their doorbell. There was nothing left for me to do but return home, close the front door, curl up in a ball on the living room sofa, imagining one horrific explanation after another for the clues I’d discovered, and wait for the aftermath to find me.

I must have drifted off from sheer exhaustion at some point. The next thing I remember was being roused by a shake of my shoulder. The room had grown uncomfortably warm. I realized I’d fallen asleep in my ski jacket. My neck had a huge kink in it. Someone had switched on the lamp near my head. I shielded my eyes and rolled over to see Dad crouched beside me with a concerned look on his face. His overcoat smelled of chimney smoke from the cold winter air outside. In my semi-conscious state, I couldn’t be sure he was real. He seemed like a ghost of his former self.

“Hey there, slugger” he said.

“Where’s Mom?” I was still uncertain he was anything more than a figment of my imagination.

“She’s at the hospital,” he said, squeezing my shoulder gently. “She passed out at the bottom of the stairs this morning. I got Mr. Williamson to drive us to the doctor’s.” His eyes were clearer than I’d seen them in a good long time. His speech was fluent again, as if the fog inside his head had lifted. Then he did something he hadn’t done since he’d last taken me on one of his sales trips. He tousled my hair. “Come on. I got some pizza on the way home.”

“Is she going to be all right?” I don’t know why I asked him the question. I didn’t expect him to know what to say. But whether he knew the answer or not, he seemed to realize that what I needed at that moment was some reassurance.

“She’s going to be fine,” he said.

As he led me to the dining room table with his arm around my shoulder, I allowed myself to hope that maybe, just maybe, he’d finally returned from the wilderness. That Mom’s collapse had shocked him back into the real world, and he was ready to be my father again.

“I waited for you a long time,” I heard myself say, a tear trickling down my cheek.

“You should have known I’d be back, tiger,” he said, jostling me affectionately.

Everything would be all right now. He was back and in charge. I could tell that he understood it hadn’t been easy to wait for him. He appreciated me for being so patient.

But then I saw Mr. Williamson standing at the table with Perry, serving fried chicken, not pizza, onto three plates. Perry must have seen the glow of optimism on my face because he quickly gave me one of his patented big-brother looks that meant I was being hopelessly naïve.

Dad sat me down at the dining room table and told me to dig in. He took his customary place at the head of the table, rubbed his hands together, and remarked how good supper smelled. He took a bite from a drumstick, still wearing his overcoat. I watched a trail of grease run along his wrist and disappear under his shirt cuff.

Mr. Williamson eyed my dad warily. “Maybe you boys would like to sleep at our place tonight,” he said to Perry and me. His offer stunned me. I honestly believed that he didn’t much care for kids. He was always grumbling at Perry and me for leaving our bikes in the road or cutting across his lawn.

“Why would they want to do that?” Dad asked, surprised and more than a little offended.

It wasn’t good to get in an argument with our father. He used to be a fairly easygoing guy, but in the past couple of years he’d developed an irritable streak. Trying to reason with him just made things worse. Perry could see where this was headed.

“We’ll be fine here,” Perry told Mr. Williamson, trying to sound like the new Man of the House. I could tell he was just as scared as I was about the prospect of us being left to cope with Dad on our own, without Mom’s protection, maybe for longer than we wanted to imagine. We had no way of knowing how sick she was, how soon she’d be coming home, what kind of shape she’d be in when she did return. But as unstable as our home had become, surrendering ourselves to the care of our crabby next-door neighbour, even for just one night, would have made us feel like orphans. That wasn’t a future we wanted to consider.

Dad seemed pleased that Perry was taking his side. He patted my brother on the back with his greasy hand.

Mr. Williamson slowly shook his head. He’d tried his best. If we didn’t want his help, then there wasn’t that much he could do. Still, the thought of leaving us behind wasn’t sitting well with him. He looked right at me, offering me one last chance. “What about you, Dean?”

“We’ll be okay,” I told Mr. Williamson, following my big brother’s lead by putting on a brave, if somewhat less convincing, face. “Mom taught us how to take care of ourselves.”

Later that night, I regretted not taking Mr. Williamson up on his offer. Dad started demanding to know where Mom was. He couldn’t find her anywhere in the house, he said frantically. She was always in bed by ten-thirty. It wasn’t like her to be out this late. Maybe something had happened to her! It took Perry and me the better part of an hour to calm him down, and, even then, we heard him roaming through the house in the middle of the night like a caged animal. He was used to having Mom in the bed beside him. Without her, he was even more lost than usual.

The next morning, Dad was gone. I told Perry we should get Mr. Williamson to help us look for him. Perry just kept brushing his teeth. “Let him find his own way home this time,” he said between spits into the bathroom sink. I couldn’t believe he was ready to write Dad off. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going to be late for school.”

Around about suppertime, the police brought Dad home. Fortunately, he’d had his wallet with him, and they’d been able to get our home address from his expired driver’s licence. Perry didn’t seem too thrilled about having him back, though. Not that I was exactly thrilled either, but at least I was relieved that he hadn’t gotten himself run over by a bus.

Mom was discharged from hospital a week later. For all Dad’s acting out over her “disappearance,” within an hour of her being back, he’d forgotten she was ever gone. He went back to being withdrawn, tongue-tied, and easily upset. The flash of my old dad that I’d seen the night Mom was hospitalized became a dwindling memory to me. Perhaps I had just seen a ghost.

The doctors had told Mom she had diabetes. She had to follow a strict diet. She had to inject herself with insulin every morning and every night. In other words, she needed to devote far more energy to taking care of herself than she ever had before, a tall order considering the general turmoil our family lived in from day to day. What’s more, when her blood sugar was off, she was prone to mood swings. And it was off a lot during those first few months she was back at home. While once she’d been able to face up to Dad’s antics with practised patience, now she was more likely to shoot back at him with both barrels, then melt into a blubbering heap. Of course, this would just perplex Dad no end, winding him up even more.

I finally got tired of waiting for Dad. Our family was crumbling around him, but even after more than two years he didn’t seem to care enough to snap out of whatever had a hold of him. At least, that’s what I was beginning to believe. He was ignoring me more and more. He wasn’t actually thankful that I’d stuck by him as long as I had. That had just been my wishful thinking. He was making a fool out of me and a genius out of Perry.

One evening, I rooted through Perry’s school knapsack and found the penknife that Dad had given him years before. Perry carried it with him almost everywhere. I knew it wasn’t just for practical purposes. As much as my brother would have been reluctant to admit it, it was the one thing he had of Dad from before, when we’d had a father in more than just name. If the truth be known, I was jealous of Perry for remembering what Dad had been like when he was still whole. I had nothing like that to hold on to. I slipped the penknife into my pocket.

I found a quiet corner in the basement, beside the washing machine. I’d gotten pretty good at numbing myself to the craziness around me, so good that I imagined my skin becoming impenetrable, like the superheroes in my comic books. I opened the penknife and pressed the biggest blade against the inside of my forearm, just to test how impervious to pain I’d become. I remember being surprised at how sharp Perry kept the blade. Even so, the sight of my own blood had a strangely calming effect on me.

Of course, later that night when Perry realized that his knife was missing, he immediately suspected me. But no matter how hard he twisted my arm or pressed my face to the ground, I didn’t admit to taking it. He never found it, despite rifling through all my things and dumping them out our window onto the lawn below. I had his precious memento well hidden.

I made many visits to my secret spot in the basement over the course of the next several months. Eventually, Perry’s blade started losing its edge, and I had to re-sharpen it. It wasn’t until June that Mom finally twigged there might be something wrong, when I continued wearing long-sleeved shirts. “Aren’t you hot?” she said to me, astonished, as we sat sweating over supper one evening. Even Dad had sense enough to be in short sleeves that muggy night.

I gave a little shake of my head, aware that the sweat stains around my armpits and down my back were making a liar out of me. Perry could have squealed on me, but he didn’t. After all, we still shared a room, and he’d seen the crisscross network of scars forming up and down my forearms. It hadn’t taken much imagination for him to figure out how I’d come by them. But by then, he’d given up on torturing me to get his knife back. I simply wouldn’t break. He pretended that he’d lost interest, that the knife didn’t mean that much to him anyway. I knew better. The real reason he’d started keeping his distance from me was that I’d begun to scare him. I was even crazier than Dad.

Despite my attempt to keep the truth from Mom, I was disappointed when she didn’t cross-examine me, especially when she found bloodstains inside my sleeves when she was doing the laundry. I knew she was sick and still had her hands full with Dad, but I wanted her to be concerned enough to get to the bottom of things. It seemed to me she was far more interested in catering to Perry, who was only too happy to complain when things weren’t going his way. My trips to the basement became more frequent after that.

Mom still hadn’t figured out what I was hiding from her by the time Perry’s seventeenth birthday rolled around on July 5th. Perry had convinced her that she owed him at least one decent birthday party after years of going without. He’d worked the guilt angle skilfully enough that she’d agreed to let him hold it at a lakeside picnic site in the Gatineau Hills. A whole bunch of his friends from school were coming, swimming suits at the ready. One of them was a girl I knew my brother was sweet on. As the day grew closer, Mom shopped for food, filled hampers with party supplies, and baked special treats, including a cake with the birthday boy’s name piped onto it. Perry primped and preened in front of the bathroom mirror more than usual. No one seemed to notice when I quietly disappeared for half an hour now and then.

The plan was that Mom would borrow a neighbour’s car and drive Perry and all the party stuff up to the Gatineaus the morning of the fifth. Dad and I would stay at home, with the Williamsons on call in case of an emergency. Mom wasn’t keen on leaving me alone with Dad, but I lied and told her I didn’t mind. Besides, I didn’t want to hang around with Perry and his friends. She promised to throw me a shindig at least as big for my birthday in September. I wasn’t about to hold my breath. Chances were some family crisis would divert Mom’s attention and keep it from happening. It was just as well, I told myself. Unlike Perry, I didn’t have any friends to invite to a party. The kids at school gave me a wide berth. Even if they didn’t understand like Perry did that I had an unhealthy obsession with sharp blades, they could smell that something wasn’t right with me.

We woke up the morning of Perry’s birthday to find out that Dad had gotten up in the middle of the night and rooted through everything Mom had packed for the party, leaving things scattered all over the place. He’d also helped himself to a hunk of Perry’s birthday cake. I couldn’t help but feel that my brother had had it coming. Perry was livid. I thought he was actually going to throttle Dad. He topped Dad by a few inches then, even more when you factored in the perpetual stoop that Dad had taken on. Plus, Perry was filling out, whereas Dad had been withering away for some time. “You did that on purpose,” my brother said, grabbing Dad by the arm. Dad looked up at him quizzically, clearly having no recollection of what he’d supposedly done, much less his bizarre reasons for doing it. Perry turned away in disgust and started helping Mom, who was frantically trying to put things back together before they had to leave.

As I stood out on the front porch to watch them hurriedly pack the neighbour’s car, Dad shuffled out of the house, still in his pyjamas and dressing gown, to see what was going on. It was a beautiful warm day, perfect for the lake. “Where are they going?” he asked me.

“It’s Perry’s birthday, Dad,” I said, still not happy about being stuck babysitting him. “He gets to pretend we don’t exist for a day.”

Dad nodded reflexively, then frowned. “Birthday?”

“We’re not invited.”

He shoved past me and started down the front steps.

“Hey!” I said, reaching out to grab him. Any normal person would have barely lost a step, but my father’s balance wasn’t what it used to be. He tripped and before I could catch him, he toppled down the steps, his arms uselessly at his sides, as if he’d forgotten how to use them. There was a smack as he hit the pavement.

He lay there on his chest, motionless, his head turned so that his right eye stared blankly at me, as if he were a dead goldfish.

I knew at that moment that I’d killed him. A wave of nausea surged through me. I stood there, afraid to go near him.

I looked up and saw Mom and Perry standing by the car, frozen in horror. Perry’s eyes found mine. I could tell what he was thinking. I’d pushed Dad down the stairs on purpose, just to spoil his birthday. I’d gone completely mental.

I tried to tell myself it was better this way. For Dad. For me. For all of us. I pictured myself being interrogated by the police.

Then, as I stared back down at Dad, dazed, his dead goldfish eye blinked.

Mom rushed in now, on the verge of hysteria. She wrapped herself around him, stroked his head, and told him everything would be okay. She had to yell at me twice to call an ambulance. By the time I got off the phone, Dad was miraculously getting to his feet, a slain monster resurrected. The fall should have cracked him like an egg. But apparently he’d developed an indestructible shell just like mine, only less imaginary.

Dad was groggy enough that, when the ambulance arrived, Mom was able to coax him to lie down on the stretcher and let himself be loaded inside with one of the attendants. We followed the ambulance to the hospital in our neighbour’s car. I sat in the back seat next to the beach gear, decorations, and coolers packed for the party. Perry turned and looked back at me from the front passenger seat as if I were some kind of fourteen-year-old psychopath. I tried to look defiant, but I felt my chin wobble. He turned away and didn’t look back again. Mom was too concerned about keeping up with the ambulance to notice any of this.

When we caught up with Dad at the emergency department, he was yelling and struggling to get out of the stretcher. His pyjama bottoms had slid down his hips with all his thrashing, and he was in danger of exposing himself. Mom rushed in to try to calm him down, but she didn’t have much success. The emergency room staff quickly wheeled him back to the examination area, with her in tow. Perry and I were left behind in the waiting room to cope with the stares of all the waiting patients. Perry plunked himself down in one of the few vacant chairs and crossed his arms tightly.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” I told him haltingly.

He looked away, as if he didn’t know me anymore.

“They’ll calm him down,” I said, not really believing it. “Maybe you can still get to your party.”

His mouth was clamped shut. I could see his jaw muscles working.

Down the hall, I heard several women pleading with Dad to settle down, but this only made him yell louder. It wasn’t long before a page went out on the overhead speaker, urging some doctor to come to Emergency stat. A few minutes later, I heard a new booming voice enter the mix. Dad started swearing a blue streak. Over the next half hour, his voice slowly thickened, until it finally faded out.

While all this was going on, people in the waiting room whispered to each other and made disapproving faces. I felt their gazes flit over me.

After almost two hours, Mom wandered out into the waiting room in a daze. I could tell from the puffiness of her eyes that she’d been crying, even though she’d apparently stopped by the washroom to fix her makeup.

She smiled weakly and quietly sat down beside me.

“Will he be okay?” I asked, hesitantly.

“He’ll be fine,” she said in a thin, subdued voice. “They just want to keep him overnight for observation. He should be coming home tomorrow.”

“Great,” Perry said sarcastically.

I’m sure he was thinking about all his friends driving up to the Gatineaus, only to find that the birthday boy had stood them up. They’d be mighty pissed at him, especially since he still had all the food and drinks.

“Maybe you should have pushed him harder, little brother.”

Mom’s face blanched. She was acutely aware of the roomful of strangers listening in. “Don’t say such things about your brother, Perry!” she hissed.

Perry was unfazed. “Don’t believe he’d do that? Ask him yourself, Mother.”

Mom looked at me uncertainly, waiting for me to reassure her. I stared at my lap.

Perry wasn’t finished. “You think he’s just shy and moody,” he said. “Well, get him to show you his arms. And maybe then you’ll realize what a nutcase he is.”

I glanced up and saw an ugly grin on Perry’s face. I felt all the eyes in the room turn on me, most especially my mother’s. I buried my hands in my armpits, drawing my arms into my chest. After a long pause, I felt Mom reach across and grip my leg, as if to squeeze an answer out of me. I refused to look at her. Her hand moved hesitantly to my left arm and slowly pulled it away from my body. I was on the verge of yanking it back, but didn’t. A part of me felt I deserved public humiliation for putting Dad in the hospital, intentionally or not. Another part wanted Mom to feel ashamed for neglecting me in favour of Perry. I felt her roll back my sleeve. Only then did I look at her. Her eyes didn’t leave my scars. Her face turned grey and sweaty, just like when she was having one of her diabetic attacks.

“What have you done to yourself?” she said, in a tiny, strangled voice that sounded so defeated it made me want to cry on the spot.

I immediately felt guilty for letting her see my arm. I wanted to tell her it was okay, it didn’t hurt. It suddenly occurred to me that she might be thinking I’d tried to slash my wrists. I wanted to point out that I’d stuck to the fleshier parts of my forearms but knew that quibbling over the fact would only make me sound crazier. I noticed a boy about my age sitting across from us, staring. He broke off his gaze when the man sitting next to him, likely his father, whispered sternly in his ear.

Mom slowly slid my sleeve back down. She held me at arm’s length and looked deep into my eyes, waiting for an explanation that I wasn’t capable of giving her. What made the moment even more excruciating was that I could tell she held herself responsible for what I’d done to myself.

“I didn’t mean to make him lose his balance,” I told her.

Her grip on my shoulders tightened. She turned away, her eyes suddenly welling with tears.

“But he’s going to be all right,” I insisted. “That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”

She drew her lips tightly together to keep herself from crying outright. No matter how devastated she was, she wasn’t about to make a spectacle of herself, not in front of all those rubbernecking strangers. It was time for her to get a hold of herself and keep a bad situation from getting worse.

She took me firmly by the hand and led me back to the examination rooms. Perry followed a few steps behind, no doubt eager to witness my comeuppance. I wouldn’t have blamed Mom if she’d decided to turn me in, to present me to one of the doctors walking by and wash her hands of me.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, she took us up to a curtain drawn around one of eight hospital beds. She faced me, her hands clamped on both of my shoulders as if to root me to the spot, desperately searching my eyes for a reason not to make the choice she realized then she must make. If I’d known what to tell her, I would have. But as many times as I’ve replayed the moment in my mind, I’m still not sure what I could have said. She stepped back from me, then pulled aside the curtain. I saw Dad lying in the bed, groggy and bleary-eyed. Mom took his hand and held it to her cheek. He reached out for her with his other hand, like he couldn’t quite figure out, in his stupor, where she was. She swallowed hard and drew his other hand to her breast, closing her eyes. Then she planted a tender kiss on his forehead and tore herself away, leaving him pawing the empty air.

That was the last day I saw my father.

No one spoke during the drive home. Mom’s eyes stayed fixed on the road, unblinking. Perry stared out at the passing suburban landscape from the passenger seat without really seeing it. The baseball glove he’d packed to take up to the lake sat on his knee. I rode in the backseat with all the rest of the baggage, trying to make sense of what had happened.

By ratting me out, Perry had once again gotten what he wanted. Dad wouldn’t bother him anymore. And he had solidified his place as the one loyal and honest son at my expense.

I briefly considered repaying my brother for his outspokenness. I fantasized about the damage I could do to him with his penknife as he slept, but fortunately I wasn’t crazy enough to act on it.

Mom kept a close eye on me after that. She knew she’d been shirking her motherly duties and she was determined to make up for it. She stashed my long-sleeved shirts in a trunk for the remainder of the summer so that she’d be able to inspect my arms every morning. Of course, that only meant that I began cutting other parts of my body that weren’t so obvious to her.

I often caught her fixing me with a look that left me feeling that I couldn’t be trusted anymore. As guilt-ridden as she might be, I was the one who had forced her to turn her back on the love of her life. She wouldn’t let me forget that.

Perry didn’t bother tattling on me again. I wasn’t worth the trouble. He spent even less time at home than he had before. His life was outside the family. He’d grown tired of having to share a room with his messed-up little brother, and he began sleeping over with friends. At first, Mom insisted on speaking with the parents of these friends to make sure everything was on the up and up. But after a while, she gave Perry carte blanche. When he staggered home drunk from weekend parties, she barely gave him a hard time. Perry wasn’t the one she was concerned about. It was me. After all, despite his rowdy behaviour, Perry was still pulling down top marks at school. I was barely scraping by. She was beginning to lose track of the number of times she’d been called in for conferences with my teachers.

Mom visited Dad every day to begin with. All I knew was that he was being kept in a “special hospital.” She never offered to take me to see him. She always came home looking depressed and guilty, but she never talked about it. After a while, it must have become too much for her, because she cut her visits back to every few days. She kept it up for the better part of two years.

Dad often visited me in my dreams — not the Dad I’d known since I was ten, but the man he must have been before that. He materialized to tell me that he was better now, or that everyone had only imagined that he was sick. I shouldn’t have given up on him so easily. He’d be home soon.

These dreams would jerk me awake in a cold sweat. In the middle of the night, I’d creep down to the basement. I didn’t always take Perry’s penknife. Occasionally, I’d leaf through the old encyclopedia that Mom had stuffed in a box of odds and ends behind the furnace. I tried to imagine the exotic trips Dad and I might still take together.

One Saturday morning early in September, a phone call came from the hospital. I remember Mom struggling to set the phone down in its cradle, then telling me in a trembling voice that my father was gone. At first, I wasn’t sure what she really meant, seeing as how he’d been gone from our house for a good long time by that point. But then, as I watched Mom turn away and rush to her room so I wouldn’t have to witness her torrent of tears, I realized what must have happened. I stood there, stunned. I’d come to think of Dad as sick in the head, but I’d never imagined that the thing responsible for scrambling his brain would one day kill him. He was only fifty-seven. And as old as that seemed to a boy just about to turn seventeen, I still knew enough to understand that people weren’t supposed to die that young.

I suppose I should have broken down like my mother, but I didn’t. All I could think of was that he’d broken his promise to me. He hadn’t come home. We never would take any more trips together, imaginary or otherwise. My only consolation was that by dying the week that Perry was moving away to begin university, Dad had managed to put a wrench in my brother’s plans one last time.

The funeral was small, just the three of us, the minister, and the man from the funeral home. So few people to remember him. It seemed that while my father had been forgetting everything he’d known about the world, the world had done its best to forget it had ever known him.


Missing Steps Copyright © 2015 by Paul Cavanagh. All Rights Reserved.


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