I spent most of the next two days trying to track your mother down, but she might as well have jumped off the face of the earth. I had to conduct most of the search over the phone, seeing as how I wasn’t prepared to take you with me around the streets of Halifax. She hadn’t left a car seat, and I had at least enough sense to know I needed one if I was going to drive you anywhere. But more than that, I wasn’t eager to show off my utter lack of parenting skills to the outside world.
My detective work on the phone was pretty much doomed from the start. I was hard-pressed to think of people to call. I didn’t know anyone in your mother’s life. I resorted to asking for advice from one of my friends who offered sympathy, but not much else. Meanwhile, your easygoing disposition had quickly melted away. You launched into bouts of wailing that I was scared would never end as you realized your mother wasn’t coming back and you’d have to rely on me.
Your face had been beet-red non-stop for what seemed like hours by the time my landlady finally did drop by unannounced to show some prospective tenants the apartment. You drew a curious look from her.
“So, he’s yours?” she asked me after your constant crying had chased away the couple she’d brought with her. I could tell from the sceptical look on her worn shoe of a face that she’d quickly sized me up as someone who didn’t know the first thing about looking after a toddler.
“His mother left him with me out of the blue,” I told her.
“I still expect you out of here by Wednesday,” she warned me.
She looked at me doubtfully. “You know what to feed him?”
“His mother left a few things.”
I think she took pity on you rather than me. She slowly shook her head, as if she knew she’d regret what she was about to say. “Bring him downstairs about 5:30. I’ll fix the two of you supper.” On her way out the door, she turned. “Is he going with you to Ontario?”
To be truthful, until then it hadn’t occurred to me that you might be my permanent responsibility. I was still set on finding your mother and getting her to take you back. An old friend of mine had found me a sales job in London, Ontario, and I’d lined up a job interview for the following week. You just weren’t in my plans.
I hope you realize I’m not telling you all this to give you a complex. I don’t want you to go blaming all your troubles on the fact that you were an unwanted child. Because you weren’t. Unwanted by me, anyway. It just took me a while to adjust to being a father. Most men have time to prepare, to start imagining how their lives will change, while their wives are expecting. I had none of that. I was diving in the deep end with you, without the benefit of swimming lessons. I didn’t even have the example of a competent father of my own to follow.
For a long time, I avoided trying to guess what your mother’s motives were for leaving you with me. I told myself she was a selfish bitch to put her needs ahead of yours. It was an explanation that went a long way to satisfying my need to feel wronged. I suppose I never told you about my finding her crying in the bathroom until now because I didn’t want you to believe that she was capable of any kind of remorse. At least that’s what I guess she was feeling, as she sat there rehashing her plan to abandon you. Not that it stopped her in the end.
I might have considered her selfish, but I also wanted to believe that she wouldn’t have left you with me if she’d hadn’t seen something promising in me as I’d handled you, hidden fatherly qualities that were waiting to be awoken.
Right up until the night before I left town, I was still scrambling to find someone in Halifax to look after you. But there just wasn’t anyone I trusted. The problem was I trusted myself even less. It wasn’t until my landlady brought me a car seat that had once belonged to her grandson and plunked it on my living room floor that I finally admitted I had no other choice.
I don’t know if you can fully appreciate what a challenge it is for someone completely inexperienced with kids to drive twenty-plus hours on his own with a toddler, while hauling his belongings in a rented trailer. Let’s just say that I gained lots of experience changing dirty diapers in grimy gas station washrooms and, when those couldn’t be found, on roadside picnic tables. I quickly came to understand the value of wet-wipes and sippy cups, and learned too that it’s definitely not a good idea to turn your back on a fifteen-month old when he’s grabbed your car keys and a toilet is nearby.
Whenever I told myself I’d never make it as your father, you’d do something unexpected to keep me from throwing in the towel. They were just little things, like reaching out and putting your little hand in mine or nuzzling my neck as I carried you into a motel room. Just the same, they made my heart melt.
Originally, I hadn’t planned to stop in Ottawa, but having you along had forced me to spend more on motels than I’d bargained for. I needed a night’s free accommodation.
I was a bit vague with my mom when I called to tell her to expect me. I wasn’t going to explain over the phone that she was about to meet a grandson she didn’t know existed. Even still, I could tell from her weighty pauses that she suspected I was holding back on her. I hadn’t been back home since I’d left high school a decade before. It was highly unlikely that I was simply dropping by for a social call.
Despite promising her that I’d be there later that afternoon, I was tempted to skip the turnoff for Ottawa just west of Montreal and continue on a straight line through to London. But I resisted the impulse, knowing that I didn’t have much of a choice, with you crying in the back seat.
Trying to find parking for a car and a trailer in the lot of Mom’s apartment building was a pain. It was the same dingy building in the shadow of the Queensway that she and I had moved to after Dad’s funeral. With Perry at university, the old townhouse had been too big and expensive for just the two of us. Plus, it had contained too many uncomfortable memories.
When your grandma answered her door, she just stood there staring at us. She would have been in her mid-sixties then. She was a little thinner and greyer than I remembered, but it seemed that a decade of living on her own hadn’t been entirely unkind to her. She appeared to be standing taller, as if gravity had taken pity on her for all that she’d been through, first with Dad, then with me. But once I introduced you, her characteristic stoop began to reappear.
“Your son?” she said in a thin voice.
“That’s right,” I said, as if daring her to tell me what was so unnatural about that.
“And he’s how old?”
I hadn’t mentioned your age, but I understood that she was really asking me why she was only learning about you for the first time.
“Are you going to invite us in?” I asked, taking a page out of your mother’s playbook.
The apartment hadn’t changed much in ten-plus years. The same old sticks of furniture that had moved with Mom and me from the townhouse were still there, including the sagging living room couch with its inkblot pattern of gold-and-brown flowers — the very couch I’d woken up on the night Mom was hospitalized, to find Dad smiling down at me as if the fog had magically lifted from his brain. But most of all, I recognized the smell of years of fried onions and boiled potatoes. And behind all that, the unmistakable scent of teenage desperation.
What I didn’t see were any pictures of Dad. She’d never unearthed them after we’d moved to the place.
She watched as I set you down in the living room and unpacked your diaper bag. “Where’s his mother?” she asked.
“Back in Nova Scotia,” I said. “As far as I know.”
“You’re not used to looking after him on your own,” she observed.
I didn’t take kindly to her stating the obvious. “What was your first clue?”
“The fact that his shirt’s on backwards.”
I let out a disheartened grunt and proceeded to put you back together correctly. I must have been pretty tired not to have noticed. Mom watched cautiously as I struggled with you. To her credit, she held her tongue, seeing that I was in no mood to have any more of my screw-ups pointed out to me. Not that it had ever stopped her in the past. For the time being, she had enough sense to count her blessings that I’d bothered to introduce her grandson to her at all.
When I was done putting your shirt back on, she crouched down and made goo-goo eyes at you. Within a minute, she’d hoisted you on her hip, gotten you a drink from the kitchen, and taken you on a sing-song tour of the living room. She wasn’t about to let you feel unwelcome. It wasn’t your fault that your father had no manners.
“How long are you here for?” she asked me.
“Not long. I’ve got to be in London for a job interview on Tuesday.”
She nodded quietly, even though I could tell my answer only raised more troubling questions in her mind. “You hungry? I’ll fix the two of you something.”
“That would be nice,” I said, allowing my teeth to unclench just a little.
She heated up a can of spaghetti for you, half of which ended up on your sleeves, your face, and the floor underneath the dining room table. Fortunately, the mess bothered you and your grandmother a lot less than it did me. You seemed to enjoy being waited on by someone who wasn’t afraid of kids for a change.
“Eat your sandwich,” Mom told me, after I retrieved a wet cloth from the kitchen to mop up the carnage. “We’ll get that later.”
“You sure?” I asked doubtfully. I didn’t want to give her any more excuses to think of me as a washout as a son and a father.
She flapped her hand impatiently to tell me to sit back down. I shrugged and returned to my sandwich. I had to admit, it was nice being looked after. Of course, I knew it would come at a price.
“Your brother’s back in town,” she said, once she was certain my mouth was full.
I tried not to choke. As I struggled to work the wad of white bread stuck to the roof of my mouth free, Mom elaborated.
“He just accepted a position with one of the teaching hospitals here,” she said.
She was clearly pleased by this development — which meant she’d be seeing him much more regularly — although she was careful to mute her enthusiasm for my benefit. I’d never understood why she thought the sun rose and set on him when he’d always been so critical of her.
“Did you know he’s getting married?” she asked.
Of course I didn’t. There was no reason for me to, and she probably understood that. It was hard for me to miss the unspoken editorial that came with this piece of news. My older brother had carefully taken the time to find the right woman. Clearly, the same could not be said about me.
“He offered to take us to dinner while you’re here,” she said.
“He knows I’m here?”
“I phoned him after I got your call. He and I talk,” she said pointedly. She could see I was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing him again. Her lips tightened into a thin line. “It will be the first time in years we’ve all been together in the same city,” she said. “Since your father’s funeral, practically. I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to expect you to accept Perry’s invitation.”
This was one argument I was not going to win. As a teenager, my response would have been to sullenly get up and leave the apartment without another word, but with you there, it wasn’t an option that was open to me anymore.
“If you say so,” I mumbled.
Mom called Perry back. She told him that I thought getting together for supper was a wonderful idea. The only thing was that the fancy restaurant he’d suggested wouldn’t work anymore. He’d have to pick something more toddler-friendly. This clearly drew a puzzled reaction from my brother, because Mom was obliged to explain, “Dean brought his son with him.” She couldn’t help hanging extra weight on the word “son.” Although I didn’t hear Perry’s response, it wasn’t hard to guess what it must have been when Mom went on to say, “I didn’t either, dear. He simply showed up with him this afternoon.”
Before Perry arrived to pick us up, Mom got us fresh towels and went to dig an old air mattress out of the storage locker downstairs so you and I could sleep in my old room together. I was disturbed to find that she’d kept the room pretty much the way I’d left it more than ten years before. It was creepy to see my single bed with the afghan-covered bedspread still pushed against the wall like a bunk in an inmate’s cell, the posters of long-forgotten baseball players still tacked above it, and the battered little desk where I’d stashed my weed and girly magazines still occupying its spot under my old window with its excellent view of the dumpster in the parking lot. But the weirdest thing of all was to see the burgundy spines of Dad’s old encyclopedias staring out at me from the makeshift bookshelf near the door. When we’d first moved from the townhouse, Mom hadn’t wanted to let me keep them. But eventually I’d made enough of a stink that she’d relented.
“You could have thrown a lot of this stuff out,” I told her when she got back with the air mattress.
“Really.” She tucked a pillow under her chin and slipped a fresh case over it. “So you wouldn’t have minded if I’d given away those old encyclopedias then.” She didn’t even bother to look up. She knew she had me.
I’d always considered her heartless for trying to get me to give up the one thing I had left of Dad. I suppose it would have been perfectly natural for her to get rid of the encyclopedias after I’d skipped out on her, out of spite if nothing else. But I was glad she hadn’t. Even though I’d filed away so much of what was between their covers inside my brain, it was good to see that they existed as more than just a set of memories.
“You can always take them with you,” she said. “Pack them in your trailer.”
“Sorry. It’s already full.”
“Well. I guess we’re no further ahead then …”
Her voice trailed off. That’s when I noticed her gaze resting uneasily on my left forearm. While I’d been helping her inflate the air mattress, my shirtsleeve had slid up to reveal my fresh scars. Her face turned almost as grey as it had so many years before in the emergency department waiting room. The apartment intercom buzzed. She drew a deep breath, then went to answer.
It was Perry. Mom let him up. Your Aunt Lily — his fiancée at the time — was with him. In an effort to impress her, he tried to show what a prince he could be by giving me a big cheesecake grin and wiggling his eyebrows at you. You took shelter behind my leg. You’d quickly concluded that while I didn’t know the first thing about kids, I’d at least proved my willingness to learn from my mistakes. Your uncle, on the other hand, acted suspiciously like someone who only pretended to like kids. I was tickled pink.
“You’re quite a mystery, little brother,” Perry said, as we stood there waiting for Mom to get her purse. “We don’t hear from you for years and then, bang, here you are with a little boy of your own.”
“Fancy that,” I said. “His name’s Aidan by the way.”
Lily crouched down in her form-fitting dress and smiled at you, the kind of smile that makes men and little boys melt. “Hello, Aidan,” she said. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
I looked down at you, still clinging to my leg. Despite your bout of bashfulness, a big grin overtook your face. Lily quite clearly had you in her spell. For the rest of the night, you flirted with her shamelessly.
I have to admit, I had a pretty big crush on her myself. All through supper, my eyes kept wandering over to her. Whereas Perry looked conspicuously overdressed to be ordering chicken and ribs at Swiss Chalet in his tailored jacket and silk tie, Lily fitted right in, even with her sleeveless taffeta dress and earrings. She wasn’t what I’d call skinny by any stretch of the imagination — not like your mother. She wasn’t especially overweight either. She simply had soft edges. The sort of woman you knew gave first-class hugs. The other thing that struck me about her was the sturdiness of her hands, like you’d expect to see on someone who enjoyed camping and chopping her own wood. Before our meals arrived, I learned she was a critical care nurse. That’s how she and Perry had met, over a comatose patient filled with tubes. It hadn’t taken Perry long to find out first-hand that she wasn’t afraid of putting doctors in their place when a patient’s welfare was at stake. It had taken him the better part of two months to work up the courage to invite her for a cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria.
“Sounds like you’ve seen a lot of the country,” she said to me. If the words had come from Mom’s or Perry’s mouth, they would have been dripping with irony. But she sounded like she genuinely wanted to hear more about the adventures I’d experienced.
I found myself making excuses to her for never lasting very long in one place. Perhaps it was because I knew Mom or Perry would have been only too quick to point out my shortcomings if I hadn’t beaten them to it.
As it was, Mom couldn’t help adding her two cents. “I’m still waiting for him to fess up that the real reason for his visit is that he wants to leave Aidan behind with me.”
All right, so maybe I was considering it, but it honestly hadn’t been my plan when I’d arrived. It had only occurred to me once I’d seen how you and your grandma were getting along so well. But even if Mom could read my mind, she didn’t have to embarrass me in front of Lily. I put down my knife and fork and looked around the restaurant, waiting for the sound of blood pounding inside my head to subside.
Perry looked at me sideways, watching for any ticks on my face that might tell him that Mom’s hunch was correct. I suspected that he was enjoying himself, as if my car crash of a life had become a guilty pleasure for him, like some soap opera.
“It would just be for a little while,” I insisted. “Until I got established in London. Found an apartment.”
Perry laughed, as if I’d told the same joke one too many times. I was still playing to type, as far as he was concerned, running away from my problems.
“This trip has been hard enough on Aidan,” I said impatiently. “I’ll probably be sleeping on friends’ couches for the next couple of weeks. He needs a proper place to stay in the meantime.”
Perry shook his head, as if he could always count on me for a good sob story. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a chequebook and a fountain pen. “How much do you need?” he asked with a sigh.
“I don’t need your money,” I said.
“Oh, come on. You said it yourself. You have your son to think of. How about a thousand? Would that get you started?”
“I don’t need your lousy cheque, Perry.”
He signed it, tore it out, and slid it across the table until it came to rest against my dipping sauce bowl. “Don’t be so pissy. Consider it a loan, if it would make you feel any better. Not that I expect you to repay it.”
I was about to tell him in no uncertain terms where he could stuff his goddamned cheque when Lily laid her hand on his arm. She gave it a little squeeze, just tight enough to make him wince ever so slightly.
“I think it’s a very brave thing that you’re doing, Dean,” she said. “Raising a child on your own isn’t easy. I’m sure your mother could tell us a thing or two about that. She did it with two boys, after all.”
My mother gave a little wince of her own. I could see that Lily’s generous words were making her feel bad about putting me on the spot.
“I suppose Aidan could stay with me for a few weeks,” she said reluctantly.
Lily gave her an appreciative nod.
“But only a few weeks,” Mom insisted. “I’m too old to chase after toddlers any longer than that.”
Lily turned to me bright-eyed, cueing me to show suitable appreciation for my mother’s more than generous offer. For her, I would do it.
“Thanks,” I mumbled. “That’s terrific.”
Lily gave me a favourable but muted response. Clearly, my delivery could use more work. Then she picked the cheque off the table and closed my hand around it. “You don’t have to cash it right away, Dean. If you find you don’t need it, put it in an education fund for Aidan.”
While Perry flagged our server down to complain about the limited choice of wine on the menu, I quietly slipped the cheque into the pocket of my jeans. The money didn’t feel like such an insult coming from her.