In the Family Room
– Fierce Fiction by Steve Bourdeau –
Before they leave, his mother and sister and him, for what will turn out to be their last visit to the hospital, Jake, twelve and a half years old, sits in his father’s office in the basement. He is holding a joystick, trying to beat his high-score on Skate or Die, an old Commodore 64 game he has recently taken up again, in part out of boredom, in part since it reminds him of summer. And it works: he gets lost in a daydream-memory filled with July sun and cloudless blue skies and hot glittering asphalt. He is skateboarding around the neighbourhood with his friends Francois and Eric, laughing at a dumb stunt Eric just pulled, and trying some fancy tricks on his lime-green Santa Cruz skateboard (a gift from his father on their family trip to Florida two winters ago, the memory of which seems to him now like another life altogether).
It is the mellow, tired voice of his mother, calling him from upstairs and telling him to get ready, that pries him loose from the warm summery glow of that scene. He doesn’t budge immediately. He can see through the narrow basement window that it is already getting dark out, even though it isn’t even 5pm yet. A cold gusty wind moves snow drifts across the front yard like white silk ribbons twirled by an invisible hand. He stares for a moment at the snow blown across the window. He knows it means the drive to the hospital—out of their town, along the highway, across the bridge and into the heavy, frenzied traffic of Montreal—will be long, tense, and difficult, especially for his mother.
As he walks out of the office, he remembers to close the light, so he turns around and, in a flash, seeing the empty chair and desk and the old computer, he has a glimpse of his father sitting right there, back when he still had thick black hair on his head. What Jake remembers: walking downstairs every night to say goodnight, and watching for a couple of minutes as his father types in hundreds of lines of code on the bright blue screen, meaningless assortments of letters, numbers, and symbols taken from a page in a thick spiral-bound book that his father follows meticulously, using a short transparent ruler that he pushes down one line at a time, to make sure he doesn’t lose his way through the maze of gibberish. One mistake, he explains patiently, one missing character, one missing slash, and none of it will work. What he remembers most of all is the Saturday afternoon when his father completes the task, hollers for the whole family to join him in his office and shows them, beaming with fascination, the result of all his hard work: an animated Christmas tree on the computer screen, complete with strings of red garlands, a white star on top, dazzling lights flashing blue, pink, orange, purple, and stars pulsating yellow everywhere in the black sky above.
The memory is fleeting, of course, gone in a fraction of a second, and the next instant he is in the tiny vestibule with his sister Cynthia, putting his jacket on and his (at least) one-size-too-small winter boots from last year. His mother, standing across the doorway, back from clearing the snow off the car, forces a weak smile and asks whether they are all set. Neither Jake nor Cynthia return the smile—even Cynthia, who is fifteen, is too young to understand the necessity, for survival, of certain forms of pretending, in circumstances like that—but they are ready to go, and so in the last blueish fading light of this mid-December evening, they walk sullenly to the car, and leave for what his mother warns will be, in these conditions, at least a one-hour drive.
Jake has come to hate these daily treks to the hospital in far-away downtown Montreal. He barely has time to do his homework when he comes back from school. They eat supper too early, too quickly, then leave almost right away. He wishes he could stay back, stay on his own, but he never complains. He accepts their current routine, even if he cannot fully comprehend it, calmly, with a stoicism that is way beyond his years. The last thing he wants, at this point, is to be another burden on his mother’s shoulders. One thing he does understand, even then, is that the weight his mother carries—the challenges of her present, the fear of her future—it must be enough to crush a person’s spirit and character completely. Enough to crush someone’s sinews and bones as well, Jake knows, making it almost impossible to stand upright, and yet…
His mother, who was from a small town up north, married his father at a young age and moved to the quiet suburb where they currently live. She had been mostly a stay-at-home mom, with the occasional stint at the family video store to help out with bookkeeping or inventory. She was even-tempered, easy-going, but with a distinctively nervous disposition. In Jake’s mind, she had been a rather happy, easily-pleased mother who seemed to have achieved her simple life’s desires through homekeeping and child-rearing. It was his father who had taught her how to drive back when they were dating, she once told them, but Jake and Cynthia knew that she had always despised it. She often complained that it made her anxious and jittery. She avoided it as much as she could, confining her car excursions to short rides within town for groceries and errands, or to pick them up from friends’ houses when it was too late or too far to walk back. She refused to drive on the highway, and in the big city, well, that was simply unthinkable. It had never seemed to Jake and Cynthia like a limitation, or even something out of the ordinary, since their father was along and at the wheel for all their family outings, whether it was visiting on their mother’s side, up north in the Laurentiens, or on their father’s side in Montreal. It had never seemed like an issue, of course, up until now. And thinking back, Jake can remember his mother looking frazzled, off-put, somewhat fragilized even, on the rare occasions when they were stuck in unexpected (probably accident-caused) traffic in Montreal on these Sunday family drives.
Everything is different now, and there is a strange, alienating distance between his early childhood memories and what Jake knows to be real about his current life. It’s as if he can’t hold both of these things in his mind at the same time: memory and reality. His mother, after a feeble attempt at de-icing the windshield wipers, gets behind the wheel and hunkers down low in her seat. The blower hasn’t defrosted enough of the windshield yet, so she stoops down, like an elderly lady, to get a clear view of the road. As they drive above the overpass, towards the on-ramp to the highway, the traffic in the opposite lane is dense with commuters returning from work—dense with fathers happily returning home for supper—the glare of their headlights, refracted aggressively through the frosted windshield, is almost blinding. When they turn onto the highway, his mother takes her gloves off, passes them right to his sister, and grips the steering wheel firmly, resolutely. Jake can see his mother’s knuckles turn white, as she braces mentally for the road that lies ahead.
Alone on the backseat, Jake turns on his Gameboy and concentrates on the blocks and lines of Tetris, or on the clusters of colors of Dr. Mario. Often, he asks his sister to borrow a cassette tape from her tote bag and he isolates himself even further from the time, the distance, the aggravation of the drive, with music from his Walkman. He picks a random tape from her bag—on the case, written in his sister’s scrawl, he reads: the smiths – strangeways here we come—and pushes it in his yellow cassette player. His mother used to let him skip one or two visits in the week. She would drop him off at his uncle Tony’s house (his father’s only brother), which was about halfway there, and pick him up again a couple of hours later, on the way back. But now, she explained, they were getting close to the moment when it would happen, and Jake had to be there when it happened. At uncle Tony’s, Jake would usually just sit cross-legged on the living room floor and flip through his uncle’s extensive vinyl record collection until he saw a cover he thought was funny or curious. Most were records by Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin, and John Lennon, with a few selections by Chicago, ZZ Top, or The Eagles. Uncle Tony would put the record on and Jake would follow along with the lyrics if he could find them inside the cover. It was either that or checkers with Aunt Sophia.
When they turn into the parking lot that’s all the way around the backside of the hospital, without even trying for a closer spot, his mother parks the car at the far end of the lot, and with an audible sigh of relief, turns off the engine. She reminds Jake not to leave his mitts in the car, as she flips the hood of her fur coat over her head. It’s a dark, moonless night, with a cold December wind howling ominously across the straight aisles of cars crusted with brown slush and dirt and salt. The shortest way up to the palliative care unit is through a deserted corridor in a sub-level of the hospital that leads to a seldom-used freight elevator which rumbles and squeaks menacingly as it shoots up the building. They used to go through the main entrance, with its large revolving doors, where Jake would get to see the tall Christmas tree and its thousand golden lights and crimson bows. Often, with a bit of persuasion, he’d get a treat from the gift shop, where he’d drench in the pleasant smell of fresh flowers while waiting for his turn to pay. But with time, they have gotten efficient: they know which corridors to use and which elevators are the quickest to get wherever they need to go. Even Jake is allowed to head down to the second-floor cafeteria on his own.
They exit the elevator and make their way to the left-most section of the sixth floor. As they walk past the nurse station, his mother and the nurse on duty nod at each other silently, like old partners in a failing business venture. Jake is pretty sure that by now his mother knows the work shifts and schedules of all the nurses in the unit, as if she oversaw them herself. When they get to the room where his father lays in bed unconscious or sleeping, Jake walks straight past without stopping, without exchanging any words with his sister or mother, without even a quick glance inside the room. He walks straight past and all the way to the end of the hallway where the family room is located. Le salon des familles (as it is called, even though he is alone in there most of the time), is a large, dimly lit space, with dark green shaggy carpeting, walls half-painted a pale shade of yellow or beige, half-covered with a diamond-patterned burgundy wallpaper. There are comfortable, lazy-boy-type chairs upholstered in soft fabrics, each with its own reading floor-lamp. Two or three small round tables occupy the center of the room, four chairs apiece. There are puzzle boxes and chess boards in a small cupboard, and on every wall, old, imposing bookcases filled with dusty hardbacks (many of them harlequins, which Jake recognizes easily from his mother’s night table), yellowed paperbacks and stacks of magazines in French and English. Jake’s main interest, however, is the corner bookcase with the rows of red, brown, and green leather-bound books. At the top of each spine is the same gilt-lettered title, Reader’s Digest, but below is a list of four or five different short novels included in each volume. Sometimes Jake will spend the better part of an hour pondering this choice, hesitating between “No Escape,” or “Patriot Games,” “The Cop and the Kid,” or “The Killer’s Wake,” “The Lady of the Labyrinth,” or “The White Puma.”
And this is how most of his evenings disappear in the ether of thoughtless time: split between hours of reading spy novels or clearing Tetris levels, alone in the family room. When his Gameboy batteries are depleted and the story he chose fails to sustain his attention, he turns to a million-piece puzzle scattered all over one of the round tables that he began eons ego and returns to occasionally with renewed but short-lived fervor.
Jake has lost all notion of time, and these countless evenings spent in the family room have started to melt together into one long continuum without any sense of beginning or end, and without any discernable purpose except, for Jake, the only obvious one: to wait for the inevitable. His sister and mother remain at the foot of his father’s bed every night. They read. They plow through whole books of crosswords (bought at the giftshop). They hold his father’s hand, they caress his face. Jake doesn’t remember exactly when it was his mother stopped insisting that he spend time in the room with them, when it was that she realized he seemed more serene when he was allowed to stay in the salon des familles. It could be two weeks, could be two months. He can’t tell how long they stay every night either. About the time it takes to read seventy-five pages, is his best estimate. He seldom reads the whole night through, but on the few occasions when he did, he had read over a hundred pages. Extended family drift in an out without his even noticing. Sometimes they come to the family room to say hello, but Jake, bent over his puzzle, or buried in the pages of a Reader’s Digest, barely registers their presence.
If he gets hungry, he walks back to the room where his family actually is to ask for some money and permission to head down to the cafeteria. Each time he walks into that tiny room he notices the clutter first: Styrofoam cups, cafeteria trays, magazines, the complicated levers and metal bars of the hospital bed, the pole and bags and twisting tubes of the IV drip… Then, he looks briefly at his father, whose eyes are always closed now. He doesn’t remember how long ago it was when he last saw them open, but he remembers the effect it had on him, the last time he did. He had looked at his father directly, smiled and raised his hand to say hello, but there had been no sign of recognition in his eyes, no sign that the father who had once laughed and played with him still existed somewhere behind them. Emptiness is all there was. And it had been a shock for Jake, this sudden realization that his father, though his body was still there in that bed, was truly gone, had been gone in fact for some time, and was never coming back. At that moment, Jake had taken a step back, looked with bewilderment at his mother and sister, holding his father’s hand, stroking his hair affectionately, and had felt like asking: why are we here? Why does this have to keep going? But he couldn’t ask, of course. He had walked out of the room with a huge lump in his throat, spikes of pain in his chest, an incomprehensible mass of sorrow and grief that he could not communicate, that he could only experience alone, and had gone back to the salon des familles, where he had cried in silence for a while, before eventually picking back up his novel where he had left off. After that, he had avoided the room where the empty shell of his father lay whenever he could.
He understands the sequence of events that led there, the same way he understands the plot of a Sherlock Holmes novel, for example, but he can’t discern a timeline anymore. Everything seems like it happened simultaneously yesterday and years ago: his father’s first symptoms, his sudden deteriorating health, the diagnosis, the operation, the chemo treatment, the remission followed by a short interlude of normality, then the relapse, the new treatments, the strange esoteric group meditations, eventually the transfer to another hospital, and then this, the long endgame… There are moments throughout all this that Jake wishes he had marked in some way, committed to memory with some kind of timestamp. Their last meaningful exchange, for instance, is something he has no memory of. The only thing he remembers is his father repeating: we’ll laugh about this someday. It was like a mantra: we’ll laugh about this someday, we’ll laugh about this… But that was some time ago, probably even before the relapse. And maybe it was too gradual to notice, anyway. It isn’t as if his father had lost his mind all of a sudden, but rather that his mind had erased itself bit by bit, tiny increment by tiny increment, as the morphine necessary to assuage the otherwise unbearable pain of the pressure of the tumor in his head had increased, drip by drip, so that eventually, almost imperceptibly at first, his father had stopped making sense, and then everything had stopped making sense. Jake doesn’t remember exactly how or when his feelings shifted, when all this sadness became self-pity, when all his fear turned to frustration and impatience, when his moment to moment anxiety shifted into numbness, when his grief—a grief so intense as to manifest itself as waves of physical pain coursing through his body—slid into boredom… into a confusing absence of emotions.
Tonight, he is bent over his puzzle when his uncle, standing in the doorway of the family room, summons him. For a moment, they look at each other from a distance, then his uncle says, simply enough: it’s time, Jake. As he walks back, holding his uncle’s hand, Jake realizes that in all these months, all the stages of his father’s decline, even when everything had failed and all hope was gone, he couldn’t recall anyone ever using the words death, or dying. He heard expressions like leaving, departing, passing away… when your father decides to let go, they would say. The word dead, as a matter of fact, has a certain playfulness to it for Jake. It’s only something that happens in videogames, or when he plays wargames in the park with his friends. In Jake’s mind, leaving, or departing, is much worse, much more permanent than being dead. When you’re dead, you come back to life, you try again, but when you leave, you’re just gone forever.
When he walks into the room he immediately senses a pressure, a stillness. He feels slightly dizzy, as if the stagnant air is missing an essential ingredient to make it fully breathable. Around the bed is his sister and mother, Uncle Tony and Aunt Sophia, as well as a nurse and a man he has never seen before, who he is told is a priest. He looks over at the bed, stares at the thin, emaciated face that now bears only a faint resemblance to the face of his father, but he doesn’t notice anything different, anything that would point to the moment of agony. If he listens carefully, he can hear the slow, wheezing breath. Everyone remains immobile, with hands clasped together solemnly in front of them. It goes on like this for what seems to Jake, who is now staring at the floor, like a very long time, until the nurse approaches the head of the bed and slowly nods to his mother, who brings her hand up to hide her face and starts sobbing loudly. She then extends her arms towards him and his sister, who is also crying, so Jake joins them in an embrace, although he cannot get himself to cry at that moment. He puts on a sad face and buries it in his mother’s chest. He would like to be able to comfort her, he would like not to feel like all he wants right now is to get out, not to feel this urge to get out and get back to the family room.
Later, in his bedroom, his mother cradles him in her arms and says: you loved your dad, didn’t you? You know, he’s looking out for you now, from up above. You know that, right? But Jake, just then, doesn’t remember how he loved his father, or rather, he cannot get himself to experience his past love for his father. What he feels instead is relief, and gratefulness, a sense of freedom, almost, as he realizes they won’t be going back. But then, as his thoughts drift unwillingly to the puzzle left incomplete on the table, and he can’t help but feel some regret at the thought, Jake is filled with an overpowering guilt.
What Jake remembers, years later: not the estranged visage of his father on his deathbed, not even the image of the last puzzle (was it a mountain landscape? A Van Gogh painting? Animals in the savannah?). What he remembers above all else: the way his mother smiled in the doorway, and the way her knuckles turned white as she gripped the steering wheel and drove every night—in the cold, in the dark—to face all of her worst fears.
About the Author – Steve Bourdeau
Steve Bourdeau teaches English culture and literature at a small Cégep on the North Shore of Montréal, where he lives with his better half and their three children. Some of his short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in print and online in venues such as Carte Blanche, The Portland Review, The Toronto Star, Full-Stop, and (parenthetical), among others.
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