How It Went Down
Last night in the bar, after he'd had one beer and then another, Alec started rehearsing a line to introduce his story. He tested it out in his head first, then mumbled it into his Molson Canadian, shifting the emphasis back and forth across the words until he felt he had it right. He was aiming for something that would make him sound like he was keeping it all together, like he was above or set apart from any pieces of the story that might make him seem broken or reeling. Alec had found he could deliver the line with a somber nonchalance, followed by an outward puff of air from his nostrils and a little shrug of his shoulders.
"This is how it went down."
He used that opener on Matthew when he finally joined Alec at the bar, and on both of their sisters when he telephoned them the next day. He'd use it later on Maureen when he felt up to calling home and telling her. He'd have to call her eventually. Now, in the bright light of midmorning, he was trying it out on Jonathan.
"What do you mean, 'went down?' " Jonathan frowned. "What happened?"
Jonathan was a doctor and the eldest child; it was killing him that he hadn't been there when she'd died, because he'd been there so much over the past few months. He'd bustle into Mom's hospital room in his white coat whenever he could step away from his caseload, then come back in the evening having changed out of his shirt and tie, but into something clean and pressed, with a collar and buttons. Just in case he bumped into a senior colleague. Alec, by contrast, had worn the same old Depeche Mode T-shirt and track pants for the past five days.
Jonathan, it was clear, wanted to hear about all her signs and symptoms, the clinical details: time of death, 10:42 PM.
"This is how it went down," Alec said again, stubbornly. This was his launching pad, and his story.
"Stacey had been there most of the afternoon, then Lynn came at around 4 or so. You stopped in -- when? -- between 4:30 and 5? Around the same time as Matthew. Then you left to get home and the rest of us were all there, just watching her sleep and holding her hand. It was very peaceful."
Jonathan flinched at the role he was playing in the story so far. The sibling who left. "I had to pick up the girls from gymnastics," he said, resenting that he sounded defensive.
"I went back to the hotel for a bit and had a nap," Alec recalled, "and Matthew went somewhere, I don't know where, and Stace and Lynn stayed, or I think they stayed, then I came back at around 8 and we all just sat with her."
Alec could tell that Jonathan was frustrated by this level of plot detail, shifting irritably on his leather recliner, his eyes flickering from the window to Alec, then back again. Alec paused for effect. Jonathan's twin girls, who earlier had been climbing all over Alec, were now outside, bossing each other around on the lawn.
"Mom woke up for a bit and made us understand that she wanted us to turn on the television, which we did, and we watched the end of some kind of game show with trivia questions, then a rerun of Downton Abbey."
By now Alec was hooked on Downton Abbey. He wasn't going to be able to admit this to Maureen when he got home. He could just imagine the things she'd say about the kind of guy who gets caught up in a BBC period drama. Could he watch it on his laptop at the office? He should try that. Or maybe he could PVR it, watch it on the nights she went out. When he'd left to fly to Vancouver it seemed she always had lots of reasons for being out on weeknights. So did he. Maybe he wouldn't mention Downton Abbey to her, wouldn't have to.
He'd started watching the show with Mom when he'd flown out to Vancouver the last time, in October, when she'd first been admitted to hospital. Back then she was sharing a room with another older lady and the three of them would watch it together when it came on at 9, then talk about it all week until it came on again.
Alec glanced down at the piece of paper he was holding and noticed Jonathan was trying to read what he'd written, upside down. He casually covered it with his hand. He knew he didn't really need to worry: his handwriting was illegible. He should have been a doctor himself. He knew what Jonathan's handwriting looked like -- as if his pen could type in Times New Roman.
"When the show ended, Matthew said he'd drive Stace and Lynn home, so it was just me and Mom. She started trying to pull off her oxygen mask and was really insistent, so I helped her. She started talking and asked me to write some things down, so I went and got a pen and paper from the nurse at reception."
This was the same story Alec had told to each of his sisters that morning, and to Matthew when he'd finally arrived last night at the bar at the Century Plaza Hotel where Alec was staying. Alec could have stayed with one of his brothers or sisters, and Maureen had been on his case about how much it cost to stay at a hotel for so many weeks, but he'd wanted to be as close to the hospital as possible. Now he was glad he'd done it.
Alec was three beers in by the time Matthew arrived, then they'd each had at least two more. He could tell the bartender wanted them to pack it in, but he didn't cut them off. Alec figured, you run a bar across the street from a hospital, you get used to seeing people like them, staring at the bottom of their beers as if they'd miss something magic if they blinked or looked away.
Matthew came into the bar and gave Alec a bear hug of the sort he can't ever remember sharing with his youngest brother. Of all of his siblings, Alec was closest with his sisters, Stacey especially. He'd graduated from high school before Matt had even started grade 8. Now Mathew had a business selling parental-controls software and practiced a kind of avuncular hipsterism that only partially lent itself to hugs. Alec and Matthew held each other longer than either of them intended, squinting back tears, then pounded each other's backs and let go. Alec lowered himself back onto his barstool and told Matthew the whole story of what had happened after he and the girls left Mom earlier, using his intro line for the first time. The beer helped.
This is how it went down.
Jonathan had made a big production of making them coffees with his new Krups cappuccino maker, saying he didn't want to talk about anything until they could get some quiet. "Daddy needs to talk to Uncle Alec on his own, okay girls?" Jonathan said, peeling them off Alec after he'd come in the door. "You guys go and play outside."
Now Alec and Jonathan were settled in front of the big bay window. Jonathan hadn't even touched his coffee.
"Well, what did Mom say?" Jonathan asked.
"She told me she wanted me to pass along a message to each of us kids and that it was really important that I get it all right, so I had to write it down."
Alec made as if he was consulting his notes, which he wasn't.
"She started with Stacey first and said to tell her that she was so proud of her for going back to school, that it wasn't too late for a do-over, and that everything else would take care of itself and that you don't need a man to complete you."
Alec wasn't sure Mom had actually said, "complete you," but he felt it conveyed her meaning.
"Then she talked about Lynn and said I was to tell Lynn that she was an excellent therapist and to ignore anything Mom had ever said in the past about therapy being for weaklings, because at the end of her life she realized it took special strength to try to talk about your problems, let alone listen to others."
Alec lifted his notes closer to his face, as if he needed to study them, then lowered them back to his lap. "She also said to tell Lynn that she knew about the time Lynn had hidden her boyfriend, Tim, in her closet in grade 11 and she -- Mom -- had come home early from work and Lynn had pretended she had been sent home from school because she was sick."
Alec stole a look at Jonathan. "I actually didn't tell Lynn that last part because she was crying so much, but maybe I should?"
Jonathan grunted. "Go on."
"She told me to tell Matthew that he was the smartest boy she knew" --Jonathan grunted again -- "so why on earth was he being so stupid, he should just ask Naomi to marry him." Alec broke off: "Is that her name? Naomi?"
Jonathan closed his eyes and for a moment looked tired. He never looked tired. He was always on, throttle forward.
"No, not Naomi, Naleen, " Jonathan said. "Mom always got that wrong."
"Okay, well, then she told me to tell you that she was very proud of you and that one day you'd be running this hospital. But also that you work too hard, and if you're not careful, you'll blink your eyes and the kids will have flown the coop -- she said flown the coop -- and you'll wonder where the years went."
Jonathan stared at Alec for a long moment, holding his gaze even as his eyes started to water. Alec swallowed a sip of his lukewarm latte.
"She was always telling me that," Jonathan said softly. "I thought maybe she'd wanted to tell me something new."
They sat quietly for a bit. Jonathan's sunroom was soaked in light, dust motes drifting as if lost. Alec felt too warm in his hoodie. Back in Hamilton it was -15C and Maureen kept complaining that the kids across the street, who they paid to shovel the snow, had gone away to Cuba, or maybe it was Aruba, and they'd chosen the worst possible time. Alec would be telling Maureen about Mom and how she'd stopped eating much, that they'd moved her to her own room, that she was seeming less and less like Mom. But Maureen, he could tell, wanted to get her grievances in too. What were his meddling sisters saying about her? Did he realize how drafty the window above the kitchen sink was getting? The winter tires on the car were shot, she was sliding all over the place. Maureen had never really connected with Mom and his family.
Outside in the yard, Jonathan's twins were digging at the dirt with sticks, squatting down in their red rubber boots. It was strange for Alec being back in Vancouver long enough to watch one season slip towards the next. On the street in front of the hospital, it was like the magnolia bushes had conferred with one another during the night, then shown up dressed in the same flowers the next day. He'd forgotten how much he loved this time of year out West. If you didn't know better, you'd think Spring was an invention this city was keeping secret from the rest of the country.
Jonathan twisted a knuckle into one eye. "What did she say to you?" he asked Alec finally.
Alec forced a smile. "Same old, same old. She told me it was high time Maureen and I started a family, that your girls needed some cousins, and that we should move back here to be closer to all of you."
For years, Alec had always told people that he couldn't imagine ever living so close to his big family again, all prying into his life, giving him advice. Now he thought about Stacey grilling him about his work and projects, like she was actually interested in all the things that were going wrong and how to fix them. About Lynn on the phone earlier, crying so hard all he could hear were the long stretches when her breathing stopped altogether -- how much he just wanted to drive straight over and be with her. He couldn't imagine flying back East, away from them.
"And then what?" Jonathan pressed.
"Right," Alec said. This was probably the part Jonathan had wanted to hear all along. "When she was done with all of these little messages, she looked at me with a little smile, gave my hand a squeeze, and closed her eyes. We just sat like that, not for very long, and her breathing got sort of rattle-y and then her face went quiet and I could tell, she was gone."
"That ending sounds like something out of a movie," Maureen said, sounding skeptical, when Alec finally called and repeated the whole story all over again, exactly the same as he'd told it to everyone else. This is how it went down. It did sound like something scripted, right down to the little squeeze of his hand, but he hadn't imagined that, he wasn't making it up. The stillness of Mom's face at the end, how it turned so smooth and peaceful: that was something he'd never forget.
Standing in Jonathan's garden, cell phone hot against his ear, watching a cat stalking something under the stand of cedars -- for a moment Alec couldn't remember the last time he had talked like this with Maureen. Him giving so much of himself away, and her actually listening.
"Typical that your Mom would say we should start a family," Maureen said, when he'd finished. "As if babies are a solution for everything."
Then she asked if they'd be having the funeral that weekend and whether she could just take the red-eye on Friday night or if he thought she had to take some time off work to come earlier. Work was unbelievably busy and nobody appreciated all the extra hours she was putting in. For the past two days her boss had asked her to work through lunch to help him get ready for a client visit and didn't even offer to order in so she'd have something to eat.
Alec lifted the phone an inch from his ear, then a little bit further, and further. At a certain point it was hard to tell whether the twittering he could hear was Maureen's voice, the birds in the hedge, or an argument still to come.
This is how it really went down.
Everyone but Jonathan had been there, pretending to watch the TV, but really watching one another. They'd shared tight smiles, all the time wondering if this was the night or if there'd be another and another. If this was it, what should they be doing, or thinking, or saying? There was a framed photo of all of them, taken at Mom's 70th; Stacey had brought it from Mom's place and set on a ledge beside the bed. Looking at his brothers and sisters crowded close around Mom along with Jonathan's wife and kids, Stacey's man of the hour, Lynn's golden retriever, Naomi or Naleen -- Alec realized: Maureen hadn't made it out West on that occasion either.
Mom lay in the bed, her slow exhalations fogging the mask over her mouth and nose. After a while, she had said she was tired and Matthew had offered to drive Lynn and Stacey home. All of them had kissed her and hugged her as best they could, then left, worrying as they did every night that this might be the last time they'd leave her. And it turned out it was.
Mom had tried to lift her hand to pull the mask aside, and Alec had helped her. Then in a sleepy voice, she'd asked Alec to write things down. She said the bit about Stacey and school and men; about Lynn, and therapy, and hiding her high school boyfriend in the closet; about Matthew and being smart but how he and his girlfriend should get married; and about Jonathan running the hospital but missing out on his kids.
Then she'd squeezed Alec's hand, which was like something right out of a movie only it had really happened. Mom had said the part she wanted to say to him in a whisper, so softly he'd had to bend close to hear it, had stopped writing things down so he could make sure he heard.
And you, Alec, you. I know you're not happy. You know you don't need to stay with her if you're not happy, right? You don't need to stay out East. Nothing is keeping you from leaving. Nothing is keeping you from coming home.
Shelley Wood works full-time as a medical journalist. She has a short story in the Spring 2014 issue of The New Quarterly and her creative nonfiction submission, What Happened That Day, won honourable mention in the 2014 Carte Blanche/CNF Collective contest.