By Sonal Champsee
The phone vibrates against my coffee cup. Mom. “Can you do me a favour?” she asks.
“Depends.” I’m at my desk at Dad’s office. He’s not here, but he’s been out a lot lately. I should be reconciling accounts, but instead I’m writing out a grocery list on a yellow sticky, scanning my memory for an inventory of the fridge and cupboards. I should have done this last night but the washer broke again and I had to handwash the critical items. Jinan had forgotten Dress Like A Flag Day was today and needed me to splice together some t-shirts. Alen had left a crumpled pile of business receipts in the kitchen for me to sort, record and file. Remember to call appliance repair. Buy school-safe cupcakes but not the store brand because Jinan thinks they taste weird. Email the accountant about whether Alen should lease or buy his next car. Buy milk. Eggs. Toast bread and good bread. Dishwasher pucks. Does the lawn need mowing? “What?”
She pauses, and then blurts: “You know your father is in the hospital, right?”
All the thoughts in my head are crushed flat. “What?”
“I need you to sit with him for a little while.” She rattles off a number of errands she needs to do. I don’t listen to what they are. Instead, I start shuffling the things I have to do today into categories: delay, delegate, do it anyway. I peel off the grocery list and stick it to the side of my cell phone. There is a 24-hour grocery if I take the long way home. Jinan has clean clothes for tomorrow and I can drop off laundry at the cleaners in the morning. The lawn can wait. Alen can take Uber until we figure out the car. I jot down hospital room numbers and shut the laptop and stuff it into my bag and grab my purse and go.
On the way to my car, I text Alen: Something came up. Talk later. Pls pick up Jinan. Dinner is in the blue container, second shelf, reheat on high for 3 minutes. I don’t call and turn off my ringer so he can’t reach me. I don’t want to hear him explain why he’s too busy or soothe his complaints about his latest client or listen to him ask question after question about simple things until I get annoyed and do it myself because it’s easier. I have too many questions of my own. What’s wrong with Dad? Why is he in the hospital? Will he be okay?
In the days and weeks and months that follow, everyone asks me these same questions. Family, friends, clients. Everyone asks what’s wrong, what tests were performed, what specialists has he seen, what medications he’s taking, what’s the prognosis? Everyone tells me about someone who had the same symptoms but thanks to one test, one diet, one homeopath, everything was fine. Everyone pesters us to consider trying something because it can’t hurt, it might help, it worked for their cousin’s hairdresser’s brother-in-law. Everyone smiles reassuringly after pronouncing this new and surely correct course of action and I thank them for the suggestion. Everyone is a fucking doctor all of a sudden.
Pour cold milk into hot coffee, and the newly-lightened liquid swirls up and around, illuminating the convection currents. The coffee goes from black to light in moments, uniform in colour, again deceptively still.
The movement of the continents, the solid land beneath our feet, is based on convection currents, the masses of land floating on the Earth’s mantle, unmoored, just a thin, cooled crust on liquid. The Earth is not made of earth; it is a thin veneer over burning, boiling liquid.
I was in my cubicle at my first job sorting work emails and voicemails: delete, to do, for reference, important. I made a note to order flowers for Alen’s mother’s birthday. We couldn’t really afford the flowers on my salary, not the nice florist ones his mother liked, although we’d be fine once Alen’s business took off. But Alen had a meeting and forgot, and my job was less taxing. I could juggle the bill payments and tack up the hem on my fading work skirt to make it last another year. Do those supermarket dyes work? Remember to stop at the cheap grocery store: buy beans, rice, milk, dye and whatever vegetables are on sale. Tell Alen we’re doing Meatless Mondays for his health.
I opened the door to the Ladies Room, a pregnancy test hidden in my purse. My coworker stood at the line of sinks, fruitlessly dabbing at her mascara while hiccup-sniffing.
“Not you too!”
She nodded. “George and Marlene came by my desk. Said they needed to talk to me.”
I gave her a hug and pretended not to notice the anxiety creeping up my neck, and reminded myself we would be fine as long as Alen’s meeting went well. “You’ll find something better.”
Her arms squeezed the breath out of me. “You’re always so calm. I’m going to miss you.”
Alone, in the stall, I balanced the stick on top of the toilet roll holder and wrote out to-do lists while I waited: House, Work, Family. The control line had shown up quickly. The second line appeared at the same time as a text from Alen. Meeting went bad. Going out for drinks. Home late.
I should call him, find out the details, reassure him. The chicken in the fridge had to be used today, but I could cook it tonight and we could eat it together tomorrow, and I’ll tell him then. Remember to pick up a bottle of sparkling wine—sparkling grape juice—to celebrate the pregnancy, keep my voice light and excited about how we can manage fine on my salary. Remember to look up daycare costs and price out baby gear. How many diapers do newborns go through? How much do diapers cost? Remember to tell him about the layoffs, but not for a few days. He needs to focus. I could afford the added stress. I could pivot, shift directions, keep things moving, and do it with a calm, soothing smile on my face.
I was going to call him from my desk, but George and Marlene were there when I got back. “We need to talk to you.”
My stomach sank and I tried to lift it with the thought that worst case, I could always go work for my father.
The hospital bed is an air mattress that sinks slightly and vibrates every few minutes. It takes me three days to realize that this is by design, even though I have seen it shake for hours every day. I make a guess that it’s to prevent bedsores.
The backs of Dad’s hands are purple and black with bruises from the IV and regular blood draws. He has small veins and it’s hard for them to find a place to stick him. Like father, like daughter. I never knew we had this in common.
I tell each new phlebotomist that she needs to use a butterfly needle, and so does Mom, and when he’s more coherent, so does Dad. But each one tells him to make a fist and then make another fist and ties and re-ties the blue rubber strip and taps at his veins and pokes him a few times before giving up and using the butterfly needle.
I take the mornings and Mom takes the evenings so I can pick up Jinan, feed him, check his homework and clean something if I have time before heading back to the hospital. Alen handles bedtime; there are too many questions if I ask him to do anything else, and Jinan knows the routine.
We know definitively that Dad’s sodium is low. They can test for sodium, and they can give him some in the IV. They draw blood regularly to check his level. I tell Alen, who tells his parents, who can’t quite comprehend the problem. “The problem is sodium?” his mother says. “He must have less salt.”
“The symptom is sodium,” I say. “It’s too low.” I curse Alen for not explaining thoroughly and leaving me to deal with this too.
“How can this be a problem? He must have more salt.”
I stop giving Alen details; I don’t have time for his mother’s questions.
The doctors have no explanation, but they explain anyway, that his body is probably not absorbing sodium well since it’s rare for it to fall otherwise. “You only see something like that happen in people who are drinking lots of water and excreting it, like marathon runners.”
Dad only takes in part of this. When he’s awake, he tells everyone that the doctors say he drinks too much water. “It’s very strange,” he says softly. “They say water is good for you.”
I take over, explaining more fully. Dad nods along and still tells the next visitor that the doctors say he drinks too much water. Mom has given up on talking to people; she cannot bear their questions. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Tell them to talk to me.” This is one thing I can do, take over communications, as I have taken over the office in his absence. I call his clients, check his voicemail and forward his emails to my phone, answering them while Dad sleeps. Realtors call me when they can’t reach him and I explain, over and over and over again. There is no one I can consult about business questions. I put off what I can for when Dad gets better, and for everything else I do my best and hope.
I don’t know what medications Dad’s taking, or when the problems started or even what he ate for breakfast before the pain flared up enough to put him in hospital. I should know but my brain is too full to keep track of everything. I stop trying to answer people’s questions and instead use an optimistic tone, tell them they’ve ruled out cancer, talk about needing further tests, and thank everyone for their concern. At least it makes someone feel better.
When his sodium is back up to normal, he can go home, and he does, but he’s still not better. His pain is unrelated to his sodium. There is no explanation for the pain. When it flares up enough there are more trips to the hospital, eventually just for morphine. There are good days and bad days, and then good weeks and bad weeks. Then months.
I stop giving optimistic updates and just say things are up and down; it’s too hard to keep saying that we were wrong, he is not better, this is not over. I stop putting clients off until after he recovers. There’s surgery, there are medications, there are talks about going to the Cleveland Clinic if he can make the drive around the lake to get there. There are specialists. There are no answers.
As its axis shifts, the Earth leans to and from the Sun, sometimes closer, sometimes farther. When it’s farther, the Earth gets dark and cold. Snow falls and water freezes on the cold, thin surface, overwhelming all traces of heat from below. There’s not enough warmth and light in the atmosphere. And so the ice builds.
At the FRBO conference, Dad introduced me in the same way to everyone he knew.
“This is my favourite child,” he said. He looked at me expectantly.
“Only child.” This was our routine from my childhood. Dad still thinks it’s funny.
“She’s joining me in business.” He beamed. I swirled my sparkling water and hoped I didn’t look too pregnant. The conference was boring but it was better than applying for jobs and hearing no. Better than staring at a shrinking bank balance and a growing line of credit. And perhaps it would be the start of something good, something Dad and I could build together that would be more than a single, tired joke.
“More people’s kids should do that,” said one realtor. “It’s a terrible shame, you know, seeing all these people build up a business and then the kids aren’t interested.”
“Happens to all my friends,” said Dad. “We came to this country, we start up a business, we work hard and then what do you do with it? Sell it?”
It would break his heart to sell the business, I knew. My coming to work for him made his dreams come true. My earning money allowed Alen to pursue his business dreams. The baby kicked me and I smiled slightly; his dreams will be next. I can figure out my own in the future.
“I wish I’d been so lucky,” agreed the realtor. “My father worked for GM. In the factory." He turned to me. “How are you liking the business so far?”
I smiled politely. “It’s very interesting,” I said. “A lot to take in.”
“But she’s really enjoying it,” said Dad. “Right?”
I nodded. It’s a paycheque, and I would never have to worry about layoffs or childcare. Alen and the baby and I could have some stability for a while. And Dad was proud of me, so proud, maybe for the first time. I had never felt so seen for what I do.
“Like father, like daughter,” he said. “It’s been forty years and I still don’t feel like I’ve worked a day. I don’t have any hobbies, I enjoy this so much. I don’t even play golf.”
The realtor was delighted in Dad’s delight. “You’re one of the lucky ones.”
“Do you know,” Dad clapped me on the shoulder. “We talk more than we ever did. All about the business. It’s like now we’re friends, not father and daughter.”
I trip over the shoes jumbled by the door when I come from the hospital. None of them are my shoes; I have been wearing the same grey sneakers for months. The shiny patent leather of my other shoes is now dulled with dust. I march up to Alen’s office on the second floor, yelling en route: “Is it really so hard to keep your shoes on the rack?”
“Sorry.” But he doesn’t look up from his computer. The daybed in the office is unmade. Alen sleeps here now, has been sleeping here for months, but we don’t talk about that. He told Jinan that it’s so he can work late without disturbing me, but these days I am up later than him. It’s the only quiet time I have. I sit on the porch and look for stars, but I can’t see any. Alen complains that I wake him up when I go to bed, and he can’t deal with my tossing and turning.
“Every day, I walk in the door and there’s this shoe-pile. We have a small entrance, Alen. This is a safety hazard. We have a child.” He doesn’t answer. There are clicking sounds from his keyboard. “I could have tripped and hurt myself. In fact, I did trip!”
He glances up. “Did you hurt yourself?”
“That’s not the point. I could have hit my head!”
“I have a deadline tomorrow. Do we have to do this now?”
I shut up. This is not the time to say that he’s not the only one working hard; neither of us has time for this argument right now. Dad is still nominally running the business, but his lawyer and I have made an agreement to quietly vet all his decisions. The pain distracts him and he can no longer focus like he used to. Mom keeps talking about retirement and winding it down. I say nothing. He can’t run the business, but without the business what else does he have?
As I’m leaving the room, Alen calls out that there’s a note from Jinan’s teacher on the kitchen table. I go downstairs, and Jinan is straightening up the shoes. He sees me. His eyes are black and round, and he needs a haircut. “So you don’t hit your head,” he says.
My head feels hollow and I can’t manage words beyond “Thank you.”
He backs away from the shoes, head down, embarrassed but grinning and goes back to the television. Alen was supposed to make sure Jinan started his homework before he watches television. Alen has deadlines.
I pick up the note from the kitchen table. Science fair. I snatch the remote control and the television blinks off.
“What’s your science project going to be?”
My stomach drops as I realize I am going to have to pick something and force him to research. “What about that Discovery Kids show we were watching last night. That looked fun.” I remember sitting beside him answering emails in the flickering TV light, but otherwise my mind is blank. Something about ice? “What was it about?”
He rocks from side to side. “I don’t know.”
My phone rings, and it’s Dad. “Do you want any of our furniture? The things I brought back from Surat?” His voice is slightly slurred.
“What’s happening to your furniture?”
“Your Mom wants to sell the house.”
I sit down at the table. Jinan grabs the remote with less stealth than he thinks and turns on the TV. A laugh track echoes through the room.
“But you built that house!” Not with his hands, of course, but with his money, the money from the business he built. He gave everyone in the neighbourhood tours.
“She thinks it’s too big for her to manage.” A pause. “She may be right.”
The television blares music from a gum commercial. “How are you really?”
“This pain,” he says. “I don’t know how people live with pain. Sixty-eight years and I’ve never been sick once until now.”
“How bad is it today?”
“About a six.” He speaks before I can say something about it not being that bad. “I just don’t have any hope anymore that it will go. The only thing I look forward to every day is sleeping. That’s the only thing I have to live for.”
“Come on, Dad,” I say, but there’s a scuffle on the other side of the phone, and after a few minutes Mom comes on the line.
“What did you say to him?”
“Why are you selling the house?”
“Shila, it’s the best decision. I can’t manage this much house.”
“You will break his heart if you sell the house. He sounds depressed enough as it is. Is he talking to anyone? He has to figure out how to manage with the pain.” I should call his doctor tomorrow, ask about referrals to pain clinics, about anti-depressants, psychologists. Are there support groups for chronic pain? “Do you need help? I can help. Or we can hire help. I can find someone.”
“I can’t talk about this right now. The doctor is coming down the hall.”
“Doctor? Are you in the hospital?”
“Just give him some peace of mind and tell him you’ll take the furniture.” A few moments later, Dad comes back on the line. I tell him.
Everything is still when it snows. The world becomes quiet and white.
The snow, light and feathery, falls and falls and builds and builds. As it floats down, it crushes the layers beneath it. Ice sheets are formed. Little by little, the snow inexorably weighs down on the ice, pressing it into the Earth, pushing the solid-seeming crust down into the liquid magma. It’s invisible from the surface, but beneath the layer of cold and ice lies a depression.
“I realize,” Alen will say. “That maybe I haven’t been there for you.”
He will say this expectantly, like he is awaiting a prize. I will look at him and immediately look away because the sun will be too bright in the sky behind him, obscuring his face. He could be anyone.
This will be his apology, even though there is no apology, even though we will drive two hours to this faux-Victorian hotel room for him to say it. After months of sleeping in his office, after two big business deals that I had no energy to celebrate with him, Alen will suggest we go away for the weekend, to try and reconnect, repair what’s left.
I will arrange this. Between calls from clients, calls from the hospital, my mother, his mother, Jinan’s teachers, my father, the furnace people wanting to schedule annual maintenance, the dealership telling me that my car has recalls, Alen’s dentist reminding me that he’s due for a cleaning, I will find a romantic hotel, book it, make dinner reservations, arrange babysitting, trade times with Mom to sit with Dad in the hospital, use up groceries so that nothing will spoil while we are away, print out directions and maps. Alen will drive.
Alen will enjoy himself. I will try.
The seconds will pass after Alen speaks, and I will feel obligated to say what I always say, that I understand, that he’s been so busy with his business, that it’s okay. I will squint into the shadow of his face. The truth is not something I have time to deal with. “You’re here now,” I will say, and he will hug me. At least someone will feel better.
Two years ago, Dad and I were in the car, driving home from a meeting out of town. He began to talk about the future of the business. “I think I’d like to step back in a few years, be a little less busy.”
“I can’t imagine you less busy.”
“Your Mom thinks I should slow down.”
The air in the car was heavy with expectation, and I felt my shoulder blades start to close together like armour. “What were you thinking?”
He glanced my way, his face alternately in shadow and in light from the streetlamps we passed. “That depends on you.”
The road ahead was newly paved and smooth, and the headlights illuminated one painted white dash after another as they swiftly disappeared under the car. I watched them disappear while I spoke. “I mean, of course I’ll always be involved. I can keep things running and whenever you’re not around I can be there.” I can’t break his heart with the truth, that I don’t love the business the way he does, that after so long I don’t know if there’s anything else I can do. That I will keep the lights on but not much more.
He nodded slightly. “I’m going to start talking to people about selling off some of the properties. Keep one or two. Maybe take on some small projects for fun.”
“You’re going to wind things down?”
“Of course,” he said. He turned his blinker on, and a rapid click-click-click filled the car. “This business isn’t right for you.” He stated this simply, like a fact and not an accusation.
I exhaled, and only then realized that I’d been holding my breath. “No.”
“It’s too much for you to handle the way it is. If it’s smaller, you can manage it.”
The weight of his disappointment was not evident in his voice, but I felt it anyway, familiar and heavy as a blanket. “You don’t have to scale down for me.”
“We’re like friends,” he said. “Not just like father and daughter. It’s been nice talking to you about business every day.”
“We’ll still talk,” I said.
He nodded. “Of course, it will take some time to wind everything down. A few years at least. I don’t want anyone to think this is a fire sale.”
The axis of the Earth keeps moving. The planet warms and cools. The continents keep sailing across the surface. The axis once again leans in towards the Sun. The ice melts. The glaciers recede.
Newly released from all the pressures of gravity, the ground rises again, revealing old stresses and creating new ones, seeking a new equilibrium. Faults, once compressed under the glaciers, begin to fail.
The Future is Present
The funeral directors are good at their job. I notice how they are gentle with my mother, answering her every request with a reassuring “Of course,” and then quietly asking me questions about logistics, making suggestions whenever I hesitate. For the first time, I feel like I can relax, that someone else will take care of things.
My mother sobs but I am calm. My face is calm. I don’t have the energy to feel things.
Alen is by my side the whole time, except when Jinan needs attending to. I nod blankly when people come to tell me how sorry they are, tell me about my father. Alen shakes his head sadly and commiserates with them. “He was so young.”
In my head, I correct him. He is so young. Was. Is. I haven’t figured out the grammar yet.
Clients come. Realtors come. My old co-workers. Alen’s parents. Even some of Jinan’s friends’ parents. I recognize everyone, but it’s Alen who chats with them, nods sagely and talks about long illnesses and blessings and the end of pain. I hate him for it.
I stare at his ruddy lips opening and closing as he thanks people for coming, and hate every chapped flake of skin, every flying fleck of spittle, every breath of stomach-scented air.
The Present is Past
I always thought loss would be one big event, but instead it’s been one small loss after another. Dad. His business. His house. Each one punches like chest compressions trying to revive a heart gone cold and still.
The marriage too. I’ve packed what’s left of my belongings and Dad’s furniture into storage. We sell the house, and Jinan and I move to a condo where someone else worries about the lawn. Alen has his business; I have a legacy from Dad to keep me afloat for a little while. The lawyers handle everything and there is nothing more to arrange. Nothing left to delegate or delay.
My to-do list holds only one item: get a life. I’m still too tired to figure that out. My brain is too unused to the quiet, the blank spaces. The pressure is off and there is nothing more for me to hold together. I can put my arms down, but the weightlessness is painful. I find myself forgetting to eat, unable to sleep. I cannot remember if I’ve worn this same t-shirt and yoga pants for a day or a week. Jinan microwaves frozen dinners for himself and I order pizza when we run out.
I manage to take Jinan to the park, where he swings and slides and runs along the worn grooves in the grass. I stare at the field behind him, open and empty and spread out like time.
Sonal Champsee’s short fiction and essays have been published in anthologies and magazines, such as The New Quarterly, Ricepaper, and Literary Mama. She was a finalist for the Writers’ Union of Canada’s 2017 Emerging Writers Short Prose contest, and has had a play produced by Prathidwani Drama Wing in Seattle. She served on the PRISM International Editorial Board for five years, and has been a creative writing instructor for Sarah Selecky’s Writing School since its inception. Sonal lives in Toronto, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC, and is finishing up a novel.