The Gloaming

Pangyrus presents Generations, a new column about family. Generations shares the most complex and heartfelt stories in the human existence, the stories of family. Whether by birth, choice, or circumstance, each of us is a part of a family with a story to share.

Silence, January 1975.
West coast snow has been coming down since lunch time, closing schools and sending us joyfully home. After a lunch of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup and Premium Plus crackers prepared for us by our mother, my brother and I don our boots and snow pants and head up the back hill with our red plastic sleds. Over and over we launch ourselves and speed side-by-side down the driveway, slowly crunching to a stop where it levels out near the house. Then we hoist ourselves to our feet, grab the sleds, and tromp through the snow to the top of the hill again.

Dark comes early these days. When it does, my brother, being younger, tires and goes inside. I carry on, but now pause between runs. I stand at the top of the hill, savoring the soft swish of flakes falling through the dusk; I can just make out the other side of the harbor. All is muted, transformed, protected. It’s possible to fall and not be hurt.

The crest of this hill is also the top of the access road, which leads away at a ninety-degree angle. As I’m about to take flight down the driveway once more, I hear the distant rumble of the grader as it labors up this other road. I turn to watch, and the revolving light appears, orange swathes slashing the snow-laden fir trees with increasing intensity, the engine growing louder until the machine appears. I fill with pride: my Dad is driving this monster. When the grader reaches the top of the hill and the headlights pick me up, I wave my arms like someone signaling for rescue. Dad cuts the engine and drops down beside me, hoists me up into the machine. I sit beside him as he pushes the gears and the beast begins its descent to the house and our waiting supper. Dad parks the grader and helps me down. We go toward the golden warmth of the kitchen without speaking.

Words, July 1976.
Some Friday nights my grandfather comes up the hill to join my father at the table. They drink and smoke and complain until about ten o’clock, at which time my mother busies herself making them scrambled eggs. My grandfather will be dead in a year, and I will be glad, clutching the unfounded hope that my father won’t drink if he’s alone.

Tonight Tommy Hunter is on the TV, and my father sits alone at the kitchen table, turned sideways on his chair, one leg crossed over the other. He wears marine blue work pants and shirt, thermal undershirt peeking out even though it’s summer. He’s hunched over slightly, lost in boozy reverie: vodka and orange juice. He smokes, hand-rolled.

He is a cobra, but sometimes I forget to be small and still. A singer with a red lipsticked mouth appears with Tommy on the TV. As they sing together I notice how wide her open mouth is. I’m discovering my love of words and their many shades of meaning. “She has a big mouth,” I say aloud, pleased with my word play.

He strikes from the kitchen. “That’s a lousy thing to say. How would you like it if someone said you have a big mouth?”

I recoil. “I just meant her mouth was big — like large.” But this only serves to enrage him further. He’s found a focus now, and I’m it.

I don’t remember any more of his words, but I do remember how I felt: like a fly must feel, thrashing in a sticky web that will only tighten with each movement. He wanted to believe the worst of me.

Years later, the smell of alcohol on a man, the phony largesse that can quickly degenerate into a snarl, still makes my blood run cold.

Silence, August 1988.
My summer courses at SFU are done, and I’m home for a week out of my uncertain adult life. Seen from the deck, the mouth of the harbor looks about the same as it always has, and the possibilities of the outside world don’t exist, either to taunt or to entice. I spend afternoons in the shade reading books I have no time for during the school term.

One morning after breakfast, as I’m about to head outside, my father speaks. “Thought I might take the boat for a spin today. How’d you like to come along?”

This is odd: my father and I have rarely ever done anything just the two of us.

“Okay,” I reply, cautiously pleased.

My mother offers to pack us a lunch. We make our way down the rocky trail to the dock, my father leading the way, advising: this rock is loose, don’t trip; watch that branch. We reach the boat, get in, and putter away from the dock. Dad steadily opens up the throttle, speeding us out into Malaspina Strait. The waves pick up and the boat slaps over the surface as I sit in the prow, face into the wind. Fine mists of spray cool my skin. I look back at my father, and we share a smile.

We round the southern tip of Texada Island, and Dad cuts the motor. The water is clear and shallow here, near shore. The boat drifts as we sit together in silence under the shimmering August sky.

Words, June 1996.
I’ve spent the day miscarrying what would have been my first child. After speaking at length by phone to my closest friends and to my mother, I’m now sitting numbly on the couch with a glass of wine and my husband. We are very still as we pretend to watch a video. The early-evening sun lights the room as if it’s never heard of night.

The phone rings. It’s my father, who never phones me, and with whom I rarely share anything but the most casual and brief conversation.

“Your mother told me what happened. I’m really sorry to hear that, Jan.”

Simple words, just right. He leaves an opening for me to say more about it, which I do, sharing my pain with this man who is part of a generation of men who were taught to never speak of such things, and certainly not with their daughters. He listens.

Silence, December 2001.
Just before Christmas, I take the ferry with my young children and my soon-to-be-ex-husband into Vancouver. They do their own thing downtown while I visit my father at St. Paul’s. Dad has been out of ICU and in a single room for a couple of weeks. He has an antibiotic-resistant infection, so I must wash my hands, then put on a mask and gown. I go into his room carrying a poinsettia and a Christmas card, which I will read aloud to him. There’s nowhere adequate to set the plant; I perch it on the narrow window sill. Seven floors up, the room looks west, out over the West End and English Bay. Down and to the right I can see Nelson Park. My husband and I lived close by, in another life.

I chatter to my father, but he doesn’t look directly at me and he answers in monosyllables. His voice is rough from having been on the ventilator so long. Once he asks, “How’re the kids?” but he says nothing to my response — which, considering its blandness, is perhaps appropriate. On the wall across from his bed is a collage my brother and his kids have made. Pictures of all four grandkids surround the words We love you, Granddad. He looks straight through it.

After a while, I step out to use the washroom and the nurse tells me she is going to feed him lunch. She asks me if I’d like to do it.

“No,” I answer quickly. Then I realize lunch will probably take up the rest of the time I have for my visit. The kids and their father will be waiting to leave for the ferry home. I tell the nurse I’ve changed my mind, and she gives me instructions.

As I feed my father, I’m unaware it’s our last day together. I’m skilled at it, my youngest child only recently having started to feed herself. Feeding someone is an art. Sensitivity is required — to scoop up just the right amount of food, to wait the right interval so that the eater is neither stuffed nor left waiting too long for another mouthful. There’s a knack to getting the spoon into the mouth without getting food on the face. Occasionally I miss, and I wipe his face with a napkin. He won’t look at me while he is eating, and my time is up once we are done. I kiss his forehead and tell him I will see him soon. Then I leave his room, remove my mask and gown, and wash my hands.


Image: “dusk, an odd light on Malaspina Strait” by Doug Schaefer, licensed under CC 2.0.

Janet Pollock Millar
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