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Dad’s been calling.
Usually he calls my brother, but, sometimes, the calls come in the night and even my brother gets to turn his phone off once in a while. I’m awake, in my distant time zone, and I answer, honestly grateful for a chance to save my brother just one drop of this waterfall of misery.
"Where's your mom?! I've looked all over the house, I can't find her anywhere."
Dad's pretty much deaf. Only yelling will be enough to move my answer across the ocean between us.
"MOM DIED, DAD."
How do stage actors project their voices with sombre and serious tones? I cannot. At high volumes, I can only sound angry or impossibly cheerful, like I'm running a morbid puppet show for children. And I only want to say it once, otherwise we will slip into a very dark Abbott and Costello routine.
Strangely, he doesn’t usually crumble at the news. It's possible, at some cellular level, he already knows.
The news does awaken a tortured moment of self-awareness and, with it, some understandable panic. “What the hell is wrong with me?” This is hard. There’s no explanation he will understand and even if he could, nothing would help.
“You just need some sleep, Dad.”
“Did you come?” This one, at least, is easy. “Yes.” I came, on a flight from Zurich, through Reykjavik, to Calgary. My brother, who still lives in Canada, has shouldered almost all of the burden of caring for our ailing parents. When I arrived, I was at least able to help a little – draft an obituary, get the hospital bed out of the living room, sign some legal documents – but mostly I sat with Dad.
“Did we have a decent funeral for her at least?” This one is trickier. We did not. Mom was quietly cremated; her ashes are in a pretty urn just down the hall from Dad. He probably saw her in his search of the house. This is the only time I nearly lie. I mean, what’s the harm in letting him think we had a grand ceremony?
His initial request for a big funeral had surprised and terrified my brother and me. Funeral plans had never been discussed, and it had never occurred to us that Mom would have wanted something elaborate. After her own parents died, Mom had instructed my brother and I to bury their ashes in the backyard. We planted a tree on top, but it died. I don’t suppose that counts as a decent funeral?
Mom and Dad were a vibrant couple. They had lots of wonderful friends. But hardly anything has survived their last couple decades of self-destruction. The idea that my brother and I would have to engage in a protracted pantomime, of pretending that any of this was normal, while also having to repeatedly explain the unexplainable to lots of concerned strangers, made me want to bolt.
“No, Dad, we didn’t.”
"Oh. I feel awful."
“I know, Dad, it’s really sad, I’m sorry.”
"How did she die?"
This is the worst one. A dark and bitter part of me wants to say, “she drank herself to death,” but that’s just pointless cruelty. And it’s not entirely true. Over decades, Mom catastrophically eroded her physical and mental health with a steady routine of smoking, drinking and barely eating. A particularly insidious feature of alcoholism is that with enough drinking, you can damage your brain to the point that even if you wanted to quit drinking, even if you had an utter and complete moment of clarity and saw God and fully and completely committed to treatment, you can forget all of this a few moments later while sipping your next whiskey.
Not that Mom, as far as I know, ever had doubts. She was righteous to the end.
She was, undeniably, a remarkable woman. She built and ran a successful accounting practice. As one of the very few women in her field when she started out, she must have experienced no end of sexism. She was so matter of fact and quietly talented about it, though, that when I was first introduced to the concept of unequal opportunities for women in school, I was genuinely confused.
She was tiny and tough as nails. After breaking her thumb skiing, she wore the cast for a few weeks, but then decided enough was enough and convinced Dad to saw the cast off in our basement. (If you’re wondering, I was an anxious and sensible child who found this incident flatly terrifying. The sight of a Dremel saw still makes me shiver.) Of course, she woke up in agony and had to go to the doctor and ask her to, pretty please, put the cast back on. I like to think she was sheepish, but, honestly, this is my mom I’m talking about.
The last time I saw her, before she died, she was mad at me. I have no idea why, although her anger was quick and common. She glared at me from her hospital bed with alarming ferocity, as if nothing would have pleased her more than to see me incinerated on the spot. How could a five foot tall, bedridden woman, who weighed less than my 9-year-old still command such terror? I managed a cheerful goodbye and a hug before giving my legs permission to bolt.
None of this can be shouted into a phone in short phrases. “She had been sick for long time, Dad!” How does my brother get through these calls in his open-plan office?
“So, are you still coming to visit us for Christmas?”
“Dad … I’m so sorry, Mom isn’t there anymore… ”
“I know. I know she’s gone. But it will always be ‘us’ in my heart, I think.”
“We’re still coming for Christmas, Dad. We’re looking forward to it.”
“Can we have ham for Christmas dinner? Your mom hated ham.”
Paula Ramsay lives in Lucerne, Switzerland.