Mom died in February because of pneumonia or old age or boredom, maybe. She left Dad with no one but the hamster to look after.
I visited him on a warm, early-Spring Sunday in April. We sat outside to watch some of Mom’s flowers come back to life. On Monday morning he called me and said, “Beryl, I just called an ambulance to take me to the hospital. I’ll let you know what happens when I get there.”
I was on the 80 Bus speeding and swaying up Parkside. “What’s going on?”
There was a pause before Dad said, “I can’t get out of bed.”
“I’ll come out.”
He took a breath, bracing himself. “No need to make a fuss.”
I was too worried to wait for the next bus south, so I walked back down Parkside. I did the first few blocks in my high-heels, but was losing my balance and my patience, so I went the rest of the way in my stocking feet. My manager was irritated when I called to say I wasn’t coming in. I drove out to Mom and Dad’s, but when I got there, Dad had already been taken away.
The house felt warm and smelled lived in, smelled and felt like it was itself a living organism.
I called Dad. He was in the ambulance. “I think we’re going to Credit Valley. Hold on.” He put the phone against his chest and I could hear his heart beating and the rumble of his voice. “Credit Valley,” he said. “Have you called your siblings?”
“I’ll do that.”
The hamster wheel squeaked. I glanced in his cage and he was sitting in the metal contraption and staring off somewhere, motionless despite rocking back and forth slightly. I put some food in his bowl and changed his water while I worked up the nerve to call my brothers and sister.
Martin didn’t pick up.
Laura said, “Shit,” asked which highway exit to take to get to the hospital then said she’d be right there.
Darby was on a run, so he was already out of breath. I told him to find a seat. “Oh no,” he said. Once he was sitting I explained where Dad was and he cried. It started with an ugly, pained whimper squeezing through some place deep inside him. I told Darby that Dad had asked if I would call everybody, Laura and Martin too. “No, no,” Darby said again.
“Look, I really should get going.” He didn’t respond, so I just told him that he should come out as soon as he could.
I tried Martin again, then I texted him, “Dad’s in the hospital.”
I was in the car when Martin texted back, “K.”
At the stoplight at Burnhamthorpe and Erin Mills I wrote Martin. “He asked if I’d contacted everybody.”
I was by Dad’s side when Martin texted back, “He alright?”
Dad was holding my hand then and in the eighteen hours since I’d seen him he had changed. Sunken is the word that comes to mind. That’s the cliché, isn’t it? It was like all the soft bits of him were getting out of the way, starting the process of abandoning his skeleton. “Sorry Dad,” I said. “Give me a sec.” To Martin, I typed, “I don’t think so.” Dad had his eyes closed and was smiling. I deleted my message. “I think you should come to the hospital.” I added “Credit Valley,” when I realized that Martin might not know which hospital.
Laura arrived as they were moving us to Palliative. Darby arrived as Laura and I were waiting outside while the doctor examined Dad so Darby was there when the doctor, an angelically kind woman, explained to us that she didn’t know how long Dad had, but that it wasn’t long. Laura asked what “wasn’t long” meant. “No way to know. Could be today, could be a week from now.” I called Martin while Laura and the palliative care doctor each held one of Darby’s hands and the doctor encouraged Darby to breathe.
When Martin arrived, sometime around two-thirty or three in the afternoon, Dad greeted him the same way he’d greeted all of us, with a whispered, “Hi,” and a smile, his eyes fighting to stay open long enough to find our eyes. Then he added, “All my kids in one room.” In my lifetime, Dad had always asked us not to buy birthday gifts. “I just want my family to be together, that’s gift enough.” His birthday party was the one time every year when we were all in the same place.
At around four-thirty, Martin’s partner, Jack, arrived with their children Barnett and Stuart, to say good-bye to Grampa. Darby, Laura and I waited in a room at the end of the hall. Darby’s daughter, Lisa, was too young, Darby thought, to see her grandfather “like this,” he said. By then, Dad’s body seemed even more changed, like he was a figure you might meet in a dream who you would know was him, but who wasn’t him really. Martin left with Jack, Barnett and Stuart. He said he’d try to be back in the morning.
Laura’s kids, Eric and Astrid, arrived with her partner, Susan, after dinnertime. Darby phoned his wife, Julie, and talked about maybe bringing their daughter Lisa out, but Lisa had already gone to bed. “Tomorrow, then,” Darby said. After Susan, Eric and Astrid left, Darby looked at us and said, “I think I’ve got to go.” Laura asked if Darby was okay to drive and offered to give him a lift to the train station.
“I’ll be fine,” Darby assured us.
Dad died at eleven twenty-three p.m., Laura and I by his bedside.
It was after two a.m. when I drove to Mom and Dad’s place. The house felt cold. I walked around checking the windows and doors. When I was little, in April we’d open up the house whenever we had an opportunity. The fresh air felt so good after winter’s staleness. I figured Dad had done that, had started to open up the house, but every window and every door was shut. I was standing back by the front door and wondering why I’d come when I heard the hamster nosing around in his food bowl.
I went into the kitchen, picked up his cage with him in it and walked it to my car. I had to take second trip to grab his Tupperware container of food. It was nice to have his company on my drive home. I turned the stereo off so I could hear his little noises. He chirped like a bird with a cold.
I have only street parking and had to park a ways from my house. We were walking from the car and were maybe half a block away when a big breeze blew the hamster’s fur around his tiny body and he squeaked and ran around looking for something to hide behind. “It’s okay,” I told him. I picked up my pace.
We held a service for Dad.
Martin and Laura’s mother, Dad’s first wife Shelly, showed up and offered Darby and I her condolences. Every time I interact with her, I am surprised by her kindness. The only other times that had happened, though, was at Martin’s and Laura’s weddings and, you know, I could explain her kindness away because those were both happy occasions. But at the reception after Dad’s service she was generous and patient and, I don’t know, really in tune to me. Focused on me.
I think she rattled Darby a bit. Darby is still loyal to our family’s vision of her as— As what? Um. As unkind. As missing some essential thing. As someone who hurt Dad because of some unforgivable, unalterable flaw. As the root of the otherness that made Martin and Laura gay, maybe—yes, our family had that quiet homophobia, at least had had it. As being by definition responsible for the otherness that made them half-siblings who were only around occasionally and who were cold to Mom. Or skeptical about her. Or ungenerous towards her. Unforgiving, maybe, that for them, towards them, she was no mother.
“Why’d she come?” Darby whispered across my shoulder, his hand gripping my wrist.
Shelly was hugging Martin, whose eyes, even distorted by tears his lower eyelids refused to let go of, were Dad’s eyes. “It’s okay, Darby,” I told him.
When he said, “It’s not okay,” I wished I’d said, Get over it, instead of something kind. “I mean, who invited her?”
“Obviously Martin or Laura.”
“They were married for, like, fifteen years,” I reasoned.
“Oh, stop being so nice.”
We met at the house on the Sunday a week after my last visit with Dad, my last visit unburdened by the knowledge of Dad’s immanent death.
My nieces and nephews were all coming, so I brought the hamster to honour his purpose. Mom and Dad got him so the grandkids would have something to entertain them. The hamster wasn’t looking good—his fur was matted and his eyes seemed, well, glazed. Glazed like a donut is glazed. Like with an inconsistently translucent white coating.
“What’s wrong with him?” Stuart asked.
Astrid said, “Is he going to die, too?”
“Well, duh,” Barnett said. “We all die.”
Eric started to cry.
“Be nice,” Martin said to his sons.
“Be nice,” Laura told her daughter. “It’s okay, Eric,” she told her son.
The kids just turned down the volume on their conversation. Jack walked over to where they were standing. After looking at Laura, Susan followed Jack.
Darby leaned against the piano holding onto Lisa and staring into some invisible distance. “I’ll take her,” Julie said to Darby. “Darby?”
“I’ll take her.”
Julie took Lisa to where the other kids were. Darby sat down beside me on the couch.
Martin said he’d get us all glasses of water. Did we want tea or coffee? He sounded just like Dad. He probably always had, but I’d never noticed. “Beryl, coffee with a half-teaspoon of sugar, right?”
“Only if you’re making some,” I said.
“I’m making some,” he said.
Through my teary eyes the room seemed flooded.
“I’d take tea,” Laura said.
“I know,” Martin said. “Darby, you like tea too, yeah?”
We were quiet for a while. Barnett and Stuart went into the backyard to play catch. Eric went out to watch them. Twice while we were sitting there, Stuart missed the ball and it streaked past the dining room window and banged into the wooden fence. Both times Eric eagerly raced after and retrieved the ball. Susan and Julie sat on a bench by the garden. Periodically Susan would encourage Astrid to go join her brother and her older cousins, but the girl preferred standing between her mother’s legs or climbing up on the bench and running her hands through Susan’s hair. Julie sat with Lisa on her lap. Lisa watched the ball flying back and forth like some cartoon tennis spectator. Jack walked around Mom’s garden surveying it, and squatting periodically to touch some leaf or petal.
Martin took steaming cups to the people outside before he came to the door with a tray with waters and coffees and teas for us. “Shall we?”
Laura stood up. Darby followed her then I followed him. We went downstairs like that, oldest to youngest.
Martin put the tray down on the coffee table. “Grab a seat,” he said.
“You have your key,” Laura asked.
“I’ve got mine, too,” Laura said.
Martin went to a closet under the stairs and returned with a black box. “This is heavier than I thought.”
“Isn’t it fireproof or something?” Laura asked.
“Can you help me put it down?”
Laura and I both stood, but Laura was closer.
Inside there were envelopes for each of us, Darby’s and my names written in Mom’s handwriting, Laura’s and Martin’s names printed by Dad. There were two letters inside each envelope, one from Mom and one from Dad. I knew they were written a long time ago because Mom started hers, “I wish I could be there with you.” As I alluded to earlier, near the end, her end, Mom had given the distinct impression that she had outlived her interest in life. I set both letters aside and read them later that night when I was alone. I looked through the will. There were no surprises. Martin was the executor. Everything was to be split. 17% each for Martin and Laura, 33% each for Darby and me. Dad had a mathematical notion of fairness. I understood, or figured, I guess, that the rationale was that Martin and Laura would also inherit from their mom.
“Dad rounded up for you guys, eh?” Darby said.
“Well, it’s correct,” Martin said. “I mean one sixth of one hundred is sixteen point six six repeater, which goes up.”
Darby shook his head and went back to reading the will.
Martin stared at him long enough to decide not to react.
After 20 minutes, Martin directed us to the other stuff in the box. “You guys know this is where the funeral information was?” he asked, holding up a folder of papers.
“I didn’t,” I said.
“I assumed you had been given it,” Darby said.
“It was here,” Martin said.
Darby glared at him like maybe he was worried Martin had, I don’t know, tampered with the contents of the box. I put my hand on Darby’s back to try and calm him down, but he shrugged my hand off.
“I figured you all had enough to think about,” Martin said.
“It would have been nice to know,” Darby said.
“Well, now you know.” Martin smiled.
There was the deed to the house. Laura reminded us that we should start clearing the place out. Sitting in the basement there, I could imagine the weight of all their stuff, all my old stuff, all Darby’s old stuff pinning me down to the couch, or at least barricading the basement door. Martin mentioned that in their letters, Mom and Dad had said there was no rush, since the house was paid off. I felt relieved.
There was banking information.
There was a list of jewellery that was valuable and jewellery that was sentimental. Mom had put names beside each item, though overwhelmingly she wanted the items to go to me.
Darby was looking up at the flat screen TV. “Anybody else want that?”
Laura and Martin each looked up from a different scrap of paperwork. Martin shook his head, No. Laura shrugged, frowned and shook her head too.
Darby looked at me. “It’s fine,” I said.
He stood up and touched the corners of the TV gently. He looked behind the unit, biting his tongue as his eyes searched for screw heads and wires and whatever else he might need to see. Martin said, “I’ve got a flashlight on my phone. If you need it.”
Laura stood up. “I’ll get the toolbox.”
“Can we just leave it?” I startled myself with how loud I made my request. My siblings were startled, too. We were all quiet. They looked at me. They looked at each other. We heard my nieces and nephews and their parents come back in the house and spread out. Someone turned on the TV upstairs. “Let’s just leave things for now,” I said. “For today.”
“That’s fine with me,” Martin said.
“Absolutely,” Laura said.
“Whatever,” Darby said. “I don’t see the difference, but sure.”
“Will you guys give me a minute?” Martin asked. “I’ll be right back.” He took the stairs two at a time. Darby sat down beside me again, but made a point of not looking my way. I put all my paperwork down on the coffee table, upsetting a little cloud of dust. My coffee was surprisingly cold, cold like it had never been warm.
Darby went to the washroom.
Laura asked, “You okay, Beryl?”
“I mean you lived here more recently than anyone. Other than Dad and your mom, of course.”
I just kept nodding because there was something too touching about Laura thinking of that simple fact and what it meant.
“Was the basement even done when Darby lived here?”
I broke my nodding rhythm and flicked out a quick, No.
The toilet flushed and we heard Darby at the sink. Laura rubbed her eyes. Darby came back and sat down again.
Laura asked Darby questions about Lisa and it took him awhile to warm up to answering, but he was going on at great length about his and Julie’s impressions of Lisa’s daycare by the time Martin came down clutching a tiny, steaming ceramic jug by the neck and holding, leaning against his chest for balance, a stack of tiny cups like they serve tea in at Chinese restaurants. “Okay,” he said. He set the jug down, took a quick breath and waved his hand to cool it down.
“What’s that?” Darby asked. His tone was unwilling, closed.
“Saki,” Martin answered. He set the four cups out.
“Mmm,” Laura said.
“What’s saki?” Darby asked.
Martin explained that it’s rice wine, that you drink it warm. He poured some for each of us. Darby took his, sniffed it and put the cup to his lips. Martin opened his mouth like he was about to stop Darby from taking a sip, but he didn’t. Darby twisted his face up, way overselling his dislike of Martin’s saki.
“Okay,” Martin began. “I— Let’s drink to Dad.”
We all held our glasses up, but none of us spoke and none of us put any effort into touching anyone else’s glass.
“To Dad,” Martin said and took a sip. We all drank, even Darby. “So. Um.” As Martin thought about how to say what he wanted to say, he pulled his lips up and in. “We don’t see each other enough.” Martin looked at Laura and I knew they had spoken about whatever he was about to say. “Look. I’m, well, I’m not doing anything, I haven’t done anything to fix that. But I— What I want to say is I think— I think we should think about buying a cottage or something. Together. A vacation place that’s, like, got room for all of us.”
“What, like one of those mansion cottages?” Darby asked. “Like one that’s nicer than my house?”
“No,” Laura said. “Well, we can talk about it, but what Martin and I have been talking about is more like one of those old resorts, I think people called them. They’re often, say, a few acres near a river or on a lake—”
“And we could each have a cabin was what we’ve been thinking.”
“With this money?” Darby pointed to the basement floor. “The inheritance?”
“I need this money,” Darby said. There was a fierceness in his voice that made you feel sorry for him. I knew he owed a lot of money on his house, that daycare costs were stressing him out, that he wasn’t sleeping.
“We don’t have to decide now,” Laura said.
“Just think about it,” Martin said.
“Can’t we do something normal, like invite each other over?” Darby was worked up.
“Sure,” Martin said in his quietest voice. “Sure.”
“Plus,” Darby said, “we’re going to see each other a lot dealing with— Clearing this place out, right?”
We all nodded.
“What do you think, Beryl?” Laura asked. “About a place to go, to meet up?”
What I thought was how much Dad loved it when we all got together. What I thought was that if we had a place together, that it is where Dad’s spirit would be. What I thought was that I would like it, sure, especially if I ever decided to start a family of my own. What I thought was, “I like the idea.”
Darby looked at me like I was betraying him. Then his face softened a bit.
Someone upstairs screamed. Eric screamed.
By the time I arrived in the kitchen, my brothers and sister were joining their partners and children around both sides of the counter where the hamster’s cage was. On the far side of the counter were Barrett and Stuart, Jack framed between his son’s shoulders. Lisa was in Julie’s arms. Susan was leaning down in front of her son and Astrid, desperate to get a look at the little hamster carcass in her brother’s hands, was pressing against her mother’s shoulders and trying different angles to get a clear view. Poor Eric was holding the hamster on flat hands inches from his face and trying to blink his tears away. You could see that he felt an urge to look, to hold the little hamster close, but was also repelled, maybe even angry at the beast for dying.
“What happened to him?” Darby asked.
“He was old,” I said.
“Was somebody playing with him?” Darby asked.
“No,” Julie told Darby.
“Why was the cage open?” Darby asked.
“He really wasn’t looking good this morning, Darby,” I said.
“Then why’d you bring him?”
I couldn’t answer.
“Why was the cage open!?” Darby was shouting again.
“Enough, Darby,” Martin said.
Lisa had started crying.
“Why was the cage open?” Darby asked.
“I thought maybe he was asleep,” Eric said.
“I know,” Susan said. “I know sweetheart.”
“Did you open the cage?” Darby asked Eric.
“Stop, Darby,” Julie told her husband.
Darby took a deep breath, glared at his wife then left the room.
I found him in his old bedroom. I sat down beside him on his bed. Just like Dad used to do, I sat down beside him and was quiet. Just like Dad used to do for me and for Darby and Laura and Martin too, I’m sure, I sat down beside Darby and just let him cry.
Toronto, March-April 2016
Emoji Sequence: Emma Sheppard, teacher and sister extraordinaire
Story: Lee Sheppard