I suddenly heard from my brother, whom I hadn't heard from in years. He sent a text: "Holy crap, Min, you're having a baby! That's awesome!"
I suppose everyone in my family was incredulous. Perhaps my mother recognized the unlikelihood early on; she never exerted any pressure, never even expressed a desire for grandchildren. And yet, when I did become pregnant, she began to unearth clothes, a bassinet, a hairbrush, blankets, cups, bowls and spoons – things she'd carried across an ocean and held on to for more than 40 years.
Micah and I had never talked about having kids. But then we hadn't really talked as adults.
Fourteen summers before, when I gave up my apartment in the city and took up residence in my brother's trailer, the bond between us, a bond I had believed to be unbreakable, had been shattered.
One weekend my brother came up with his then-girlfriend, a troubled, quiet girl with white face paint and pierced black lips. My brother is a canvas of tattoos – her look was not unfamiliar in his world, but out there, in the woods, it was startling. She looked like she'd never seen the sun, and yet they spent the weekends engaged in the all-Canadian summer pastimes of boating, fishing, jet skiing, barbecuing large slabs of meat and drinking beer.
He went off one night to fix a pipe in a neighbouring trailer, and I was forced to be polite and make conversation with the girlfriend. She opened up a bit, talking about her family. An hour later Micah came home, found us talking in the trailer and asked us what the fuck we were up to. He was so angry his hands were shaking. I'd never seen him like this and it scared me. I retreated to the tent but couldn't shut out the sounds of their fighting.
It was the middle of the night when I woke up startled, a flashlight shining in my face. My brother started ranting, shouting profanities so extreme I can't repeat them to this day. I started to cry. I didn't understand what I had done wrong. For fuck's sake – he'd left me with the damaged goth girl, I'd just been doing my best to find some point of connection.
He growled and barked at me. Seeing me scared, huddling inside the tent, only fuelled him. I was 13 years old again, night had fallen. I found myself shrinking in the corner of my brother's tent.
But wait – I wasn't 13 any more. I tried to push past him to get out, but he blocked me. He abruptly left, but moved his truck so that it hemmed in the tent and my car. I was trapped for the night. I left early the next day. I returned to the trailer on Monday morning. I stayed during the week and slept in my car on the weekends. I had nowhere else to go.
We hadn't spent time together as a family since; not a Christmas dinner in 14 years. I never did get an explanation or an apology. Several years after this incident, he started calling me in the middle of the night to tell me he didn't want me to be afraid of him any more. I stopped picking up the phone. A few years later I learned he had a serious drug problem. That explained his rage and paranoia, but it did not absolve him. It made me feel so sad for the lovely boy he had once been, so guilty that I should have survived the mess of my father where he had not. But I was no less afraid of him.
Hence my total surprise at this text. My situation had moved him to make contact. He told me he'd been clean for a year and a half and he asked if there was anything he could do to help. He had stepped up just when I needed him most. A giant wave of forgiveness swept over the past 14 years.
"Build me a deck?" I said, my nesting instinct now extending to the world outside.
"You got it," he replied.
It took him a month to turn up, but when he did, he arrived with tools in hand, ready to work. I heaved the bulk of myself into the cabin of his big stencilled pickup with its overflowing ashtray, sagging seats, gun rack and littered floor, and he flipped open the engine lid to connect the battery to start the truck, jerked it into neutral (which is actually first), cranked the heavy metal, rolled the windows down for some relief in the stifling heat and drove us to the lumber yard, chain-smoking the whole way.
This was not how I pictured spending the last week of my pregnancy. It was not, I imagined, where a woman in her last week of pregnancy should be.
And yet, I soon had a beautiful cedar deck under way as well as plans for a flower bed and a water feature. More importantly, I had a brother for the first time in years
There will be five of us tonight at the table in my white Ikea kitchen with the bright blue linoleum floor. Through the glass, the leaves are fluttering to the ground. It's cold and blustery outside and I am in the mood to roast a chicken.
Everyone has an opinion on how to roast a chicken. I like to insert half an onion, half a lemon and a few buds of smashed garlic into the cavity, grind liberal amounts of salt and pepper over the skin, slip in slices of garlic here and there, place sprigs of tarragon, if I have them, between the legs and breasts. A few dollops of butter will crisp the skin. And if you're feeling really indulgent, there's always bacon.
My brother, Micah, says: Do it, go for the bacon. He has shot and cooked any number of birds himself. It's the legacy of our English father – what men of a certain class do. I know the taste of lead. I wouldn't know the taste of pheasant or rabbit without it.
That my brother is here in my kitchen expressing an opinion about chicken, that my brother is here in this most ordinary of settings, still strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. He was here at the end of the summer and has now returned to renovate my basement. Tita, my daughter's Filipina nanny and my personal saviour, calls him Tito Mike.
He is terrified to pick up his niece, though, so afraid that he'll hurt her in some way. I put the baby in his arms a few times just to prove to him that he won't break her. He stands in the kitchen with his shaved head and goatee and his tall frame, every inch of his skin covered in angry ink, and looks amazed and terrified by this little white egg in his arms. He jumps back whenever she sneezes. He pulls up Herb Alpert on my iPod. The egg flails her legs enthusiastically to Spanish Flea and Tijuana Taxi, which never fails to make us laugh.
We take her with us to Home Depot when we go to get building materials. "You know people think you're the father," I say.
"Cool," he says.
Tita and Micah have, I think, a sweet little flirtation going on, though neither of them would ever admit it. They are both beautiful to look at: Tita with her long, thick hair and brown wide-eyed face; Tito Mike tall, dark and handsome beyond the tattoos. He's a man to admire, one with an amazing breadth of talent. He is a visual artist and a silversmith. He earns a living as a welder. He once built his own cabin in the woods.
When Tita tells Micah the story of her last employers and how they still, despite my e-mails and phone calls to them, owe her two weeks' pay, he gets furious. They claim they cannot pay her until she comes to pick up her things. Tita thinks she might have left a pair of jeans at their house – she can't think of anything else.
My brother offers to accompany her, but as tempting as it is to imagine Tita turning up on a suburban door step with a six-foot-two, 240-pound tattooed white guy, we realize this may be perceived as threatening. I will carry on with the e-mails and phone calls. I will be a mosquito buzzing around their heads until they can't stand it any more.
Micah and Tita are back to talking about food – a shared passion. He worked in a kitchen for years; she learned to cook in Singapore from an old Chinese woman. "I didn't even know how to chop vegetable before," she says. Her father, who was once a cook in a Chinese restaurant on the island of Mindanao, did all the cooking at home when she was growing up. She makes many of her Chinese lola's recipes now.
My tastes were a surprise to her: "You know how to eat spicy?" A meal isn't a meal without a bit of heat, we agree. Tita is at home in our neighbourhood among the Chinese groceries, the Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries. A familiar palate, the taste of home – it matters more than one might realize.
Tita had worked only in the suburbs before coming to live with me, miles of houses, nowhere to go, no spice. She arrived at my house with recipes for quiche. Canadian food, if there is such a definable thing, is boring to her. The one exception is cheese. "You make me so expensive!" Tita says after she tastes aged cheddar for the first time. She and Tito Mike are locusts for aged cheddar. A brick of it will last only three days in our house. When she and Micah win four dollars each on a lottery scratch card, they buy cheese for the house with the winnings.
Last to arrive for dinner tonight is my friend Miles, who is coming in by bus from the grey town miles away. I don't wait to ask her opinion on how to roast a chicken; she has never roasted anything in her life. She cooks Island food – lobster, potatoes, mussels, things boiled in a single pot. On her lonely far-flung island province, "boiled dinner" is a specialty, salt the extent of seasoning.
My kitchen is full of laughter tonight and the egg is strapped to my front in the BabyBjorn. She likes to see everything that's going on; she is at her most content strapped against me, watching my hands work. She is helping me mash potatoes. A little horseradish goes into the pot. Next, she is helping me massage olive oil, lemon and garlic into Swiss chard. She is at the heart of this unlikely circle who will gather around the table for dinner. The grieving single mother, the recovering addict, the lonely gay, the temporary worker and the arthritic cat.
From This is Happy by Camilla Gibb. Published by Doubleday Canada. Copyright © Camilla Gibb, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.