Snapshots from My Father's Euthanasia Road Trip, or Esau by Meghan Adams
What I always find odd about lying in a bathtub is the sensation of floating...
Buoyancy is by its very nature ambivalent.
What I always find odd about lying in a bathtub is the sensation of floating. The weight of the water is as much of an embrace as it is a rejection. I am held simultaneously close and away. Still, I like the silence and the chance to read.
I ignore the phone when it rings the first time. My voice mail begins to play and my father's beach glass voice tells me to pick up the phone. I grab a towel and drip on my way to the kitchen.
"Morning, starfish," he says. "Not too early, am I? Quebec City's not so bad as you expected? Your French getting any better?"
"No, Dad. And, you know, better."
"That's good. You busy much in the next few days?"
I lean over to wring my hair into the sink.
"Not much, no. The new job doesn't start until next week. Everything okay down East?"
"Not bad. Your Aunt Queenie is feeling better, Ron says. Sweetheart, I need you to pick me up tonight and drive me to Toronto by Wednesday." My father exhales the bay through the phone. I look down and drag a toe through bathwater on the kitchen floor.
"Um, yeah. Sure. Why? Is it the university? They need you for something?"
"No, starfish. To be honest, I've decided to take a jump off the bridge over the Don Valley. And I need another driver if I'm going to get there in time."
I pause with my neck kinked to the side, dripping on the dishes in my sink. "I'm sorry, Dad. What?"
"Listen, Caro, it's a long story. There's things I didn't see fit to tell you and Evie. Drive home tonight. We'll talk. Besides, you don't want me driving there myself. I'll just crash the Chrysler before Fredericton. Starfish?"
"Why Fredericton?" I ask. "I mean, what?"
"We'll talk when you get here. If you hop in the car now, you can be here by four. Don't forget the time change. Drive safe."
After he hangs up, I slip on the puddle of bathwater in the kitchen and the phone sails before hitting the floor. It bursts. I consider putting the pieces back together so I can call Evie, my ruthlessly competent little sister. Instead, I leave the phone strewn on the floor while I pack a bag with hands sore from the impact of the kitchen tiles. My hands are only slightly red. They have my father's short fingers and long palms. They don't shake.
I navigate the morning traffic heading out of Quebec City, going over the old bridge, which is never as busy as the new one and has no guardrails to keep men from diving into the river below.
My father's revelation is typically opaque. My mother was more translucent; her moods were bottle green and had sharp edges if rarely a sharp focus. The last thing she did before going into the hospital was to make a stained glass whale in her backyard studio. While Evie and I cried in the house and my father knelt in the garden, she worked. Then she shut the studio door with its glass pane of camellias still broken and went to make sure my father had put her bag in order according to the way she had dictated.
My tireless mother did not approach her rest restfully, if anyone ever does. I have never been in an angrier hospital room. She fumed as my father tried to hold her hand, as if to stay angry was to stay awake. She died in the night while I tried to sleep in a hotel room in Saint John. And then I was angry for her, carrying a flag she had been forced to put down so she could lie under a bronze plate laid flat on the ground so vandals could not upset it, so it could not tilt like old marble markers do in the grass.
My father is too forgiving to be good at being angry and he does not want anyone to have to hold his hand. He will never take his turn to be the furious voice in the room.
He could just be lonely. Evie and I don't visit enough. He could just want a ride to the city. There are plenty of reasons to go to Toronto and self-harm is only one of them.
This house I didn't grow up in is built on soil too sandy for a good garden, but my father likes to cultivate plants that thrive on abuse and too little sun. After they both spent decades teaching sociology at the University of Toronto, my parents bought a house that had belonged to a pair of my father's aunts. They drove away the cats and optimistically uninstalled the motorized chairlift that went up the stairs.
I park near the garage. I inhale salt and walk past blueberry bushes covered by nets to keep the birds away. A short hike would take me to the shoreline. I could visit the fog, the encroaching presence of which renders everything foreground. It robs you of long distances. Anyone who grows up with the fog for a neighbour is bound to be driven crazy by the proximity.
"Hey, starfish," says my father, leaning out from the front porch's screen door. His eyebrows are getting shaggier, threatening to outgrow his face, but he still has the mouth of a declaimer. "Tea's up."
Inside, the house smells like gingersnaps and my father offers me a plate of cookies and a mug of tea. I look from one to the other.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Have a cookie, Caro. I'll have a beer. You won't. You're driving the first leg."
He waves me into a front porch crammed with bookshelves. The stacked pages are getting so yellowed, they are slowly becoming insulation rather than reading material. I sit in an armchair and inspect a gingersnap. My father sips his beer and looks out onto the front garden.
"Sweetheart, I won't go into the hospital." Another sip. "You can lend me a hand here. Evie wouldn't. You know how sentimental she is."
Evie is as sentimental as an axe.
I shift my weight from one leg to the other and the small mountain of cookies on the plate threatens to shift and cause landslides in my lap.
"And I'm what, crazy?"
My father points at me with the open mouth of his beer bottle. "Well, come along then. Maybe you'll talk me out of it."
I wet my pointer finger to pick crumbs from my jeans. I scrape my fingertip with my lower teeth, tasting ginger and cloves.
"I made those today. There's plenty for the trip," he says.
"You're trying to bribe me with food?"
"Just letting you know I have too many for one person." He stands. "I'll clean up the kitchen. You have a think. And another cookie. Your mother would have kittens, seeing you so thin."
Any kitchen sounds are deadened by the mouldering pages. I look out into Dad's ever-aspiring garden. In the morning, the shore breeze and the dew will make salt water drip from the leaves of the blackberry bush. If I convince my father to stay, I will have to wash the berries clean after I pick them or they'll taste like the tide.
He isn't supposed to be lonely. He runs the local United Church Men's Group. He isn't supposed to be crazy. He does crosswords.
After a good stare, I walk out to the kitchen, where my father stands at the sink, freckled elbows deep in soapsuds.
"Why Toronto?" I ask, leaning against the door frame. "There's bridges here. And the sea. The sea's good enough for plenty of people. Great Aunt Constance, for instance. It's practically a Canadian Heritage Minute, drowning yourself in the Bay of Fundy."
"Not here," my father says.
He hands me a dishtowel and talks to the sink. "The Bloor Street Viaduct over the DVP was scheduled to have a barrier put up. Some god-awful ugly thing, delayed again. It'll ruin the view. But it's back on schedule and starting construction in a few days and I'd like to get there before it does."
"What would Mom think?"
"You know your mother was a great believer in self-determination" is all my father says before scouring a baking sheet with a handful of steel wool. "We can take turns driving and be in Montreal by morning. We'll save on hotel bills." He points at me with an orator's precise gesture. "There's your inheritance to think of, starfish."
"You're certainly not getting any insurance."
We drive. We trade seats whenever the one driving gets too tired to be trusted on the highway. I snore loudly enough to wake myself just before we hit evening traffic near Rivière-du-loup. I lie in the back seat, waiting for the lights from cars to lengthen and disappear across the car's interior as other vehicles pass by. I eat a gingersnap.
When I was young, we would drive from Toronto to St. Martins every summer. We would cross eastern Quebec by night and the only one awake would be my father at the wheel. Evie and I would be in the back, surrounded by blankets and books that would spill out onto the pavement when we opened the car doors. I didn't want to arrive anywhere; I only wanted to be driven along the way. Even on the way somewhere familiar, possibility unfurls. Arrival is just a coda.
He sleeps through Drummondville. A few hours before dawn, we pull over by a lake outside Gananoque, at my father's insistence.
"We're making good time," he says. "Let's walk, starfish."
We walk down a path to the lakeshore. My father winds up before skipping his cellphone across the face of the water.
"Jesus, you really are serious," I say.
He shrugs and picks up a stone, hefting it in his palm.
We continue, dragged along by an Ontario drizzle, which is a listless kind of rain. My father sings along with Hank Snow on the radio. The song is a cover of a country tongue twister. I saw Esau sitting on a see-saw. I am not sure how a man who sings along with the radio can actually want to die. I saw Esau sitting with my girl. Or maybe he just wants to see the city. Maybe it's a joke. I saw Esau sitting on a see-saw, giving her a merry whirl.
Ever since I was a kid, see-saw and teeter-totter have been two of my favourite words. The words sound like the actions the objects make. The syllables go back and forth, like a car always heading toward or away from the city and the bay. Lying in the back, I try to think of other words outside of playgrounds that do this. I give up by the next verse and listen to my father's bass rumble before I fall asleep.
As we approach the city in the early morning, I am the one driving.
"Let's go to Fontaine's," my father says, yawning. "It's open early."
Apparently, my father wants his last meal to be ice cream. Whether this is an effort to amuse me or the Toronto medical examiner, I am not sure. We approach the Bloor Street Viaduct, my father's intended point of departure. His concrete diving board.
"Still looking good, Dad?" I ask, but he's dozed off.
I could turn around. I could say that the construction was ahead of schedule.
I wake him after I park close enough to Fontaine's to walk.
"Oh, here already?" he says.
We walk to Fontaine's and wait for it to open. It was outside the stand's window that my mother announced to my father that Evie was due. Everywhere you can drive to, someone has dropped some history on the earth, staining the grass and the ground like an ice-cream cone mourned by my six-year-old self's open-hearted wail.
I get a rocky road cone. My father gets a banana split. It's the first thing I can remember him eating since we left Montreal. He eats it methodically, making sure to get a bit of every component of the dish on his spoon before he raises it to his mouth.
"Not exactly eating like a man with a death wish," I say.
"Jumping takes energy," says my father. After this, we eat in silence until I start to spit out the peanuts into a napkin, sorting them out from the ice cream.
"Did you say goodbye to Mom?" I ask.
"Hardly need to, starfish," says my father. "I'll be seeing her soon enough."
"Did you close the windows at home?"
"Very funny, Caro."
"It's probably already rained," I say. "The couches will be ruined."
There is a Pizza Pizza next to the bridge with its still-pristine view of the valley. After we pull into the parking lot, my father opens the passenger-side door. He unbuckles his seat belt and sighs.
"You stay here for now, starfish. I have to go have a think for a bit. Then, after a while, you head home. Call your sister."
My father is blocking my exit. My father is barring the way, afraid perhaps he'll land on my windshield.
My forehead meets the steering wheel, gently. There is dirt under my fingernails I cannot seem to coax out.
"I didn't think you'd do it," I say. "I mean, come on, Dad." I turn, my head brushing the horn, too light to honk, though I'm tempted to hit it until someone comes and takes us both away. I look at my father. "We got here. God, it was fun, even. Now let's go home."
My father smoothes my unwashed hair back, tucking a strand behind my ear.
"You need some sleep, starfish," he says. "But first I need you to get home. If you're quick about it, you can make it back by tonight. You promise me you'll drive safe." My father kisses me on the forehead. His lips are chapped from the wind, which won't be any gentler on the bridge. "You stay here for a while, starfish. Then you get home." He closes the door, patting the window with the flat of his hand and my temple is hot against the steering wheel. The texture of the hand grip scores my palms.
I will not drive away. My father will not dive into a sea of boughs. He will come home and help me wash salt water from the blackberries. Or we will dive in tandem, hand in aching hand. Or I will stop here and stay. It will be like it was when I stepped on broken glass in the kitchen. The light will bend around a pair of tweezers and the slow beginning of the slide of glass out of my foot. All will be cupped gently in my father's callused hands.
Click here to read the text as it appears in the August 2011 issue of Air Canada's enRoute Magazine.