Dan didn’t know if he should say yes or no when he got the letter, or what his daughter Sylvie would want. After Sylvie dropped out of university a few months ago and returned home, she hardly left her room. She didn’t call anyone, or receive calls. "You have to love that girl," Dan said to his wife. "She’s so gentle and sweet." And sad, he thought. Lately Sylvie had grown skinny and all she wore was black, mostly ripped jeans and t-shirts. She’d had her tongue pierced when she was away at school and when she did speak he could see the flash of silver sparkle in her mouth, a sad twinkling. Lydia, a family doctor herself, hoped her daughter could avoid medication. Surely there were troubled young people who spent years in a darkened bedroom, and who painted or wrote poems or songs to haul themselves out of depression. Or simply rested and let their spirits slowly heal. Dan too hoped that if the environment were safe and stable, time would take its course. He remembered his mother saying, "May all your worries be money worries." He wished his troubles were only financial, as they had been when he was younger.
Dan looked out the window at trees he loved. He was glad his family lived on a quiet street. He might ask his oldest daughter what her insights were regarding this mess. But Sylvie didn’t seem to want to confide in anyone these days, especially not her half sister Marin. As far as he could tell, Sylvie hadn’t talked to a single soul in months except him and her mother. Sometimes Dan thought his very presence was imprisoning her, that she’d rather be anywhere than where she was, but he didn’t know what to do for her. Her brown eyes had that lacklustre dull glaze, like a lump of coal that would not catch fire. But when he closed his own eyes, he could see the filament glowing within her, one that glimmered and burned in the dark.
He thought for weeks about the letter, but put off his reply. He couldn’t deny that somehow, without him noticing, all the rooms in the house had become engulfed in shadow as if invisible trees had grown huge in front of windows. Sun could no longer penetrate the gnarled, overgrown branches blinding the house, invisible as they were. He imagined that if he opened the right door at the right moment, sun would come rushing in cascading the dust and gloom. But where was that magical door?
They didn’t leave Sylvie alone. He did not head off to Thibalt & Sons until Marin came over in the afternoon. She left only when Lydia was back from the hospital. Lydia’s mother came by in an emergency, but no one was happy with Pearl around and they tried to minimize her on-call visits. At first Pearl was baffled by Sylvie’s refusal to return to school. "She should be around other kids," Pearl said.
"She doesn’t want to be around anyone, obviously," Lydia told her mother. Pearl tried another tactic. She told Sylvie to "buck up" and realize how lucky she was. After a while, Sylvie refused to be in the same room with Pearl when she came over. "Indulged" Pearl said when describing her granddaughter. "She should be taking one course, at least, if she can’t take a full load." Dan would walk out of the room when Pearl was talking.
Lydia didn’t ask her daughter if she had plans to go back to school, or if she had any thoughts about getting a job. When the leaves began to turn, she took her for drives on back roads where maples were red and orange. Sylvie liked these drives. One morning, when she was out with her mother, Dan went into her room. The bright blue paint on the walls (was it Ultramarine, or Cornflower Blue, or Pthalo that she’d picked years ago?) could not disguise how dreary and airless the room was. This quiet frozen sea she surrounded herself with was the main lifeline she had now. On the floor by her bed, on a piece of looseleaf, were lines written in her tight, barely legible scrawl. He picked up the page and read: "Sometimes I feel I am climbing out of a hole so deep and sunk in cold, but I keep losing my grip. Each day I’m getting older and more exhausted." She was nineteen.
When Sylvie started going out for brief walks to the library, Lydia considered this great progress. Dan wanted to think so too, especially when Sylvie brought books back, mostly biographies. When she finished the last page of a biography on Cicero, she started again on page one. She read as if she were trying to flee something and might die trying. Stacks of paperbacks and hardcovers lay by her bed. "A room without books is a body without a soul," she said, quoting Cicero.
"Would you like to apply for a job at the library?" Dan asked. Sylvie shook her head. They were playing chess. She complained that their games had the same opening moves, so the next day she got out a chess book to see if she could learn new strategies. The next time Pearl asked what her plans were, Sylvie said, "He does not seem to me to be a free man who does not sometimes do nothing. Cicero."
One Saturday Sylvie didn’t get out of bed. Dan knocked on the door around noon. Sylvie was still in her pajamas, headphones on.
"What are you listening to?" Dan asked.
"Music," Sylvie said.
"Ookay. Why don’t you come down for something to eat."
She didn’t have breakfast that day until three. He wasn’t sure what time she went to sleep, he heard her in the kitchen around midnight, but Sunday, she didn’t leave her room except for a quick snack in the afternoon. When he called up to tell her supper was ready, and then came upstairs to insist she come to the table, she said she wasn’t hungry. He felt like it was parent versus daughter.
They should have had another child, Dan thought. Marin was eight when Sylvie was born, but Marin lived with her mother then, visiting only on holidays. She was more like an aunt than a sister. She thought he infantilized Sylvie. "The more you expect from her, the better she’ll do," she said. Dan didn’t think Marin understood the bigger picture. If Sylvie had a sister or brother she could confide in, maybe she wouldn’t feel so isolated. Maybe she wouldn’t spend hours in the bathroom. Was she trying to throw up?
Both he and Lydia, only children, wanted another child. But Lydia only conceived once, and they never bothered with medical intervention. They should have tried harder, Dan castigated himself. He remembered Sylvie begging her mother to have another baby. She was the only one in third grade without a brother or sister. "I’ll be a good big sister," she’d said. She was seven. She said she’d teach a little brother to use a scooter. If she had a sister, she’d give her all her dolls.
Her grandmother was in the room at the time. "It costs a lot of money to have a baby," Pearl said. "Ma," Lydia scolded , "why are you telling her that?" But Sylvie had already gone into her room and came back with her piggy bank.
"You can have the money I have," she’d told her mother. "All of it."
Even thinking about this made Dan feel helpless. He’d vowed never to send Sylvie to day care. But he wasn’t able to keep that promise either. Monday through Friday he’d walk Sylvie the eight blocks to WEE Care at eight and pick her up when he got back from work at half past five. When Sylvie started going to primary, a girl from grade six waited for her after school and walked Sylvie, and the other young children, three blocks to day care. One day Sylvie got out late from class and the older child had already gone with the others. Sylvie waited. Should she go to WEE Care on her own? Should she run home and cross the busy street alone? In the end, she ran back to her house. A truck stopped abruptly, horn blasting, as she dashed across the road. It was just luck that Dan happened to be home that time of day. He was in the kitchen making tea and trying to shake the cold he had when he saw Sylvie race up the hill. "They left without me," she blurted as she ran in. "Can I stay home?"
"They left without you? How could that be?" he said, staring at his daughter who was still catching her breath.
"I don’t know," she said and started crying. "Do I have to go to day care?" He could imagine how scary it had been for her, coming home all by herself, poor little thing; she was only five. "Of course you can stay home," he said, and hugged her while she cried.
"What good does it to do to torment yourself?" Lydia asked only the other night. "We can’t only have faith when things are going well. We have to believe things will be okay, even when they’re difficult." But lately, when Dan was alone with Sylvie, the silence would tighten around everything in the house, and Dan would feel chilled. Conversations were difficult too.
"Numbers have personalities too, don’t you think?" Sylvie said out of the blue, when they were eating lunch. "Ah Sylvie," he thought. Her name meant "Of the forest," he would remind himself and repeat the name. Trees were of the forest and lived a long time. What were more magnificent than trees? He sighed. It was hard for him to simply watch and wait and not have any plan. When the letter arrived it felt, if not like divine intervention, certainly like a gentle nudge from some invisible source.
At first he couldn’t figure out who it was from. Did he know a Britt Hakala? But of course, she was the daughter of Nils, the friend he made in Sweden decades ago. Nils made his time in Sweden bearable. Now his daughter was graduating high school and wanted to visit in the summer.
When he finally brought up the possibility of her staying for a couple of weeks, Marin thought the plan ridiculous. Later she added, "Mom thinks it’s incredible too, that you’d invite a stranger into the house when Sylvie is so sick." It used to annoy him that his ex-wife had such a keen interest in his family. But now he just laughed at the unsolicited comments from a woman who had once made his life so difficult. When Dan finally asked Sylvie what she thought, she said she didn’t mind as long as Britt stayed in the guestroom. "That’s good enough for me," Dan told Lydia, who’d thought the idea a good one all along. He wrote back welcoming his friend’s daughter.
At the end of August Marin went with Lydia, Dan and Sylvie to the airport to pick up Britt from her twenty-hour flight, the four of them silent in the whoosh of traffic as dusk turned to evening. But on the way back, Britt did all the talking. "Most people don’t talk when they’re tired," Britt said, "but that’s when I can’t seem to stop. Forgive me!" she said and everyone laughed.
It surprised Dan that Sylvie didn’t mind going to the malls and watching as Britt tried on dresses and skirts that were especially unsuited to the Swedish climate, asking Sylvie’s opinion each time she came out of the dressing room. When she said she couldn’t get clothes like this in Sweden, Lydia mumbled, "Thank goodness," as she and Dan watched her purchase low cut jeans and shirts that ended above her waist. She was much taller than Sylvie, but she walked next to her new friend at a comfortable gait, even in the new heels she purchased, a tall blonde teenager with long hair, striding beside a petite girl with dark hair shorter than a boy’s. The fact that Sylvie hardly said a word didn’t faze Britt, who was used to her quiet Stockholm friends. She said she loved being in Canada and whenever she spoke, her brown eyes sparkled. She had a scar over the bridge of her nose and onto her forehead, a thin silver line of scar tissue which looked like a premature worry line. It made her appear burdened beyond her years and though Dan knew this wasn’t true, he felt protective toward her. Often he and Lydia would hear music drifting from Sylvie’s room as she shared CD’s she liked with Britt. They lied, you CAN get blood from a stone, Dan heard a CD blare late one evening. His daughter was simply listening to music with a friend, something perfectly ordinary. For the first time in months Dan felt like he could stop holding his breath.
He’d told Lydia all about Koping, how he’d spent one semester as an exchange student in that small town, about an hour and a half south of Stockholm, when he was in high school. Now he told her again what a cold, dark place Koping was. Most of the people were chilly as well, aloof and silent. He met Nils, a student who lived on a farm down the road, a few weeks after he arrived. Nils knew the old couple Dan was staying with, who didn’t speak English and rarely smiled. Having Dan in their house seemed to irritate them. Why had they signed up to host a teenager? The first time Nils came by, having heard about this student from Canada, he gave Dan a bear hug. "You’re going to help me with my English, yes?" he said but as it turned out, Nils was the one who helped Dan. He lent Dan skis, took him on easy trails, invited him to play ice hockey with his friends. When the old woman said Dan wasn’t to go out at night, Nils explained that they had to attend a meeting at school that evening. Then he drove Dan to a party, the only party he was to go to during his time in Sweden. Of course they returned late but Nils walked into the house with Dan and gave an account to the woman of car trouble he’d had. What a look she gave Nils. After Dan returned to Canada, it was Nils who kept up the correspondence year after year.
"To Britt, Sylvie is a typical nineteen-year-old who’s just a bit on the quiet side," Lydia said as she was going to sleep. "Aren’t we lucky you went to Sweden thirty years ago," she said yawning, her hand on Dan’s arm, the front of her body brushing against the back of his.
Dan wouldn’t call it luck, exactly, that made him go into the kitchen later that week to make tea when Britt and his daughter were playing chess in the living room and didn’t know anyone could overhear them. "This girl in my class is a beauty," Britt said. "All the boys like her. But she’s only interested in math. Oh, she is a brilliant girl."
"Your move" he heard his daughter say. But Britt continued, "There was a math conference in Germany when we were in grade nine and a professor wanted her to go. Her parents weren’t able to come, so she went on her own with the professors. She was only 14."
Sylvie spoke so softly he could barely hear. But he did hear. "When you’re ugly you have to stay close to home," Sylvie said. "Though when you’re very ugly, maybe it would be better if you didn’t have a hole to crawl into."
"But what do you mean?" Britt said.
"Your move," Sylvie said. "You’re losing."
"No really, what do you mean?"
He couldn’t see Sylvie but he could sense her glare. "It’s your move," she said, her voice icy. Dan unplugged the kettle and walked upstairs without making a sound. What a cold dark place coping was.
When Marin came by later, she found him sitting in his office in the dark. "Can I come in?" she asked. But when she began to talk, he didn’t respond. "What’s up?" she finally asked.
"What do you know about Cicero?"
"Sylvie’s the expert on Cicero."
"Did you know he went into a deep depression when things were difficult for him," Dan said.
"And? Your point?"
"I wonder if that’s why Sylvie is interested in reading about him."
"Dad, I don’t think Cicero was renowned for his depression."
"I read that when his daughter died he felt such anguish, he wrote to his friend, ‘I have lost the one thing that bound me to life.’ He read everything in his friend’s library about overcoming grief."
"So? Is there a paragraph I’m missing here? Whose dying?" Marin asked.
Dan looked down at the rug. Then he started to cry. Marin froze, staring at him.
"Sylvie is very unhappy," he said. "We can’t be too careful. I mean, if she were to ..."
"Oh Dad," Marin said, and went over to hug him.
"I’m sorry," Dan said, but he kept crying. He thought of what Sylvie said once, quoting Cicero: A man of courage is also full of faith. He wanted to have faith. At least he was getting a fuller idea of the problem. Things were coming to the surface, and wasn’t this visibility the first step in recovery?
"Have you told Sylvie that you’re worried about her, that you think she needs help?" Marin asked.
"I can’t force her to see a doctor."
"Yes you can. You can find a doctor she wants to talk with."
Dan didn’t say anything. But when he sighed he felt as if the pain were leaking out of his chest and expanding to fill the room. If he were to open one of the windows it would keep expanding, saturating the damp night air.
Carole Glasser Langille's fourth book of poetry, Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems, will be published in the fall of 2012. Her last book was a collection of short stories, When I Always Wanted Something. She teaches Creative Writing:Poetry at Dalhousie University.
Photo credit: Karen Runge