Creative Nonfiction Prize
Judy McFarlane, "After, and Before"
All this week, we're publishing the five stories selected as finalists for the 2011-2012 Creative Nonfiction Prize.
In this entry by Judy McFarlane, a mother reflects on how a traumatic event affects her relationship with her son.
After, and Before
OK, he says. Ready.
He stands, braced against the new black padded stool, one hand on the tiled wall.
You reach into the shower, fully clothed, soapy facecloth in one hand. Run it over your son’s lean back, his buttocks, down his long legs.
Yellow tiles, bright as buttercups.
He clutches a towel over his genitals, one palm flat on the wall, balancing.
You kneel and dab the cloth over his feet. The soap slides away in fat bubbles. You’re drenched now.
OK, he says, sitting down, that’s good. Thanks.
You pull out of the water, the soap, and wring your cloth beside his feet.
The call comes on a Monday morning. Your son’s boss. An accident, he says. He fell. The ambulance is here. The good news is, he knows his name. I gotta go. The ambulance is here.
The night your son is operated on, you sleep curled on two metal chairs. At midnight his friends arrive, white-faced young men. No news, you say.
A few nights later, you perch in the black sky. Watch out! You cry. No one hears you. Everyone—the man from the edge of the cliff, the girl holding the flowers on the roof, even the Irish dwarf, climbing the water tower on a dare—falls, cartwheeling down through the endless black.
You wake with a gasp. Your husband turns, alarmed. Bad dream, you say. He says nothing. He knows. Turning back, he pulls his pillow over his head.
In the hospital, you meet your son’s roommate. A dwarf, having his legs lengthened. You try not to gape, but there he is. A few years older than your son, sporting a dark goatee, exuding an intense energy. Hey, buddy, good to see ya, he says, offering your son, still unable to eat, half a sticky bun. Later you’ll learn he sells painkillers from his bed to a steady stream of nighttime visitors. But now, unaware of his entrepreneurial inclinations, you smile, resist the urge to ask, you’re not Irish, are you?
When your son was three, his brother one, you looked off your deck to the ground far below. Your house on a cliff, firs soaring close, the ocean a wide blue backdrop. You stood on the deck, holding their small hands, turned to your husband. Let’s buy a net, you said, and cover the house. He looked back and you waited for the laugh, the knowing smile, but he picked up a son, bounced him in one arm. A fishing net might work, he said.
The job site is closed down. Notices taped to a rented fence. You peer through the wire, your husband silent beside you. The roof soars above you, shiny, corrugated, supported by massive dark red beams. You squint, hoping to make out the corrugation that caught his boot, but it’s late in the day, the light dim.
You stare up and up. The roof so high.
Neither of you speak.
The skylight opening, cut that day, covered with flimsy sheets of plywood, the kind that flex and bow when pressed hard by something solid like a young man’s body. You stare up at it, the square of light too bright for you.
Forty feet. A concrete floor.
The wind shifts and hits your face. Your husband takes your hand and together you walk back to the car.
The day after, in front of your favourite organic store, a man sits cross-legged, mildewed blanket collecting coins. You stop and he hops up. Just outta detox, he says, I ate a banana and kept it down. You want to walk away, but instead, you say, you’re a lucky man, you can stand up. Then it comes out, your son chalky on the gurney, how he looked up and said, I thought I was going to die. The man pulls you into his smoky shoulder where, for the first time, you cry.
At the net store in the only fishing village left near the city, you explain that you’re not going fishing, no, you want to cover your house. On a cliff, you say, and the man behind the counter looks at you, your husband, your two small boys.
What you need is seine net. Tight mesh. No one fall through.
His face open, courteous, as if there’s no reason to guffaw, or even smile. As if house-netting parents are everyday customers.
A memory flicks at you. Falling forward, face down, into soft snow. Weightless. Laughing.
The net is shiny, black, tightly coiled. At home, you cut the twine and it springs out across the wooden floor. Your boys laugh and start a tug of war, tug of net. You lose it, yell, tell them it might save them one day and then you kneel down, roll it up tight again and tie the twine.
The net sits coiled until you move three years later. At the garage sale, an elderly man hugs it under one arm. Good for beans, peas, you name it, he says.
The net becomes code: what you don’t know, can’t anticipate.
At the Emergency entrance, you arrive before the ambulance. It’s eerily quiet. A man in a green uniform swirls his grey mop across the floor. You sit, stand, sit. You walk, but only where the floor is not wet. He glances at you, nods his head towards the doors swishing open, raises his mop to the lip of his tall white bucket. He’s here, he says.
The surgeon is blunt. Move it or lose it. You have two weeks.
He means your son’s arm, the one that took the brunt of the fall, splintering into a frayed straw broom. Now it’s a titanium meccano set, braces, struts, screws. Everything else, he says—the back, the pelvis, the ribs—will heal on their own. But the arm. You have to move it.
In the car, your son beside you, wheelchair slung in the trunk, you talk. No eye contact, so the words come more easily. The rain helps too.
Are you angry? you ask. As angry as I am? Sometimes I feel like going to that worksite—
No point, he says. It’s done.
You want to press him, get him to finally say how he feels. To uncoil, let his anger, his sadness spill out. But he jiggles the door handle the way he has since a small boy and says, soon as I ditch this wheelchair, I’m going skiing again. He flips the sun visor down, studies himself, head turning this way and that. Twenty-three, he says. And going bald. That sucks.
You want to laugh, muss up his thinning hair. But instead, you keep your eyes on the road.
Yeah, you say, that’s tough.
Months later, he’ll reveal the perspective of someone much older. Someone like you. Life is short. You never know. Do it now.
At the bridge, faced by two crawling lines of traffic, the ambulance driver amps up the warning. Siren, accentuated by whoop and blare. He maneuvers between the lines and the cars peel off on either side. We call it the zipper, he says.
The occupational therapist is English and efficient and borderline jolly. All right, she says, let’s get going. She stretches out your son’s arm. Bend for me, she says, and your son makes a minute movement. Excellent, she says, efficient and English and you could get to love jolly. She measures the bend and tells your son that next week, he has to double that. Here’s what you need to do, she says.
Cycling across the bridge, you anticipate the spot that matches how far your son fell. You talk yourself through it—not here, not here. You hold your breath, eyes half closed. Here.
Your son moves on to an advanced physical rehab program. Every day he spends four hours in the gym. He tells you about his last day. I did hopping pushups the length of the gym. Everyone stood up and clapped. Even the guys who sleep on the mats all day.
You ask your son whether the memory of his accident haunts him the way it haunts you.
He shrugs, give you a quick smile. I tell myself, he says, suck it up, buttercup.
In the kitchen one morning, your son wheels in. You’re cleaning up. The radio on, some talk show, and through the window you see the sun, an end, maybe, to days of rain. Under the hedge, a clump of early daffodils, no more than a few inches high, a hint at coming yellow.
Your son wheels in, pulls up in front of you. OK, he says, ready?
He heaves himself up and stands. Takes three steps towards you, neon grin across his face.
You’ve seen that grin, these careful steps, before.
He is your small boy, these are his first steps.
You drop to your knees and open your arms, wide.
Keep going, you say, I’ll catch you.