Matt wrenches the wig from my hands and shoves it back on my bald head, “Ow, Matty what the hell?” I shout, staggering back from him.
He stares at me in silence.
“What? You think if you don’t see the bald head, the bald head doesn’t exist? This isn’t a tree falling in a forest, Matty, and goddammit, you saw it, it’s real.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t even know why I just did that,” he stammers. “You have a perfectly shaped head.”
I laugh. I can’t help it. I laugh because laughing has always been an easier release for me than crying. I laugh because laughing feels appropriate after my twin brother stole the hair from my hands and shoved it on my head, crooked by the way, in order to cover up the secret that I had just let out. He joins me in laughing, or maybe he’s crying. It’s kind of a laugh/cry hybrid.
“I don’t understand. How long have you known? Why didn’t you say anything? What treatment are you getting? What’s the prognosis? I have a lot of questions, Annalou.”
I sigh, “I can tell, and maybe that’s why I put it off. I don’t know. Let’s just go visit dad and I’ll tell you everything I can.”
We walk in silence for the few minutes it takes us to get to the Aberdeen Cemetery. What once must have been a field is now filled with aging headstones proclaiming the love of fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, grandparents. Like a piece of rock placed above a decaying body under six feet of dirt is what matters at the end of life. This place created to place our dead, is really for the living. For people like Matt and I to come, to place flowers, to drink toasts, or to speak softly to honour those we loved and lost.
The day of dad’s funeral was unseasonably warm. It was northern Alberta winter after all. A season that could reach temperatures as low as minus 40, freeze tongues to slides, and create a desire to stay inside by a fire with a cup of tea and a book. But work must be done, and alas, bodies must be buried.
After what had been days of blizzards during the day, followed by deep freeze temperatures at night, the weather had broken. The sky had cleared to the clearest blue, and the temperature steadied at minus 5. Absolutely balmy for mid-January in Aberdeen. The funeral had been held at the Roman Catholic Church.The church smelled of incense. The sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows reflected hues of green, red and yellow on the alter, almost giving the priest a halo. This was the same church I had attended as a child, reading Fergie the Frog tales in the back pew with Matty, waiting for the priest to finish his sermon on whatever righteous topic he felt compelled to carry on about for far too long each week. We knew that once we got the bread we were in the home stretch.
“Body of Christ” Father Luke would say, placing the small circle of gluten in our hands. We would place it on our tongues, pressing it to the top of our mouths, waiting for the stale Eucharist to melt into a gummy paste. It was the best part of the ceremony that was our Sunday tradition. Not because we had incredible faith. Not because we were hungry or because the tiny disc was tasty – it wasn’t – but rather, we knew that this meant that we only had to make it through a few “Peace be with you’s” and the recession and we would be on our way to Grandma’s for breakfast. Usually french toast, or pancakes.
We sat in that church and watched a new, younger priest, officiate over my father’s final ceremony. Funerals are a weird thing. They bring out people you didn’t even know had a connection with the deceased, and some that definitely didn’t. They volley between being a sacred ceremony of solemn remembrance and a brash celebration of who this person really was. When you grow up in a small town you find yourself attending more than your share of them. The hazard of a sparse population is that you tend to know them all, and one person’s death is a loss for every family. Lowering the population one bout of cancer, one car accident, one heart attack at a time. Bringing people together along with their offerings of casseroles, hams, and squares. As if food can fill the void of those we lose.
My mother’s counter was full but her heart had a hole in it. She had run out of room in the fridge, and freezer, we started taking food over to the neighbours, to eat, or keep, or chill, or do whatever people do when they receive surprise funeral fare. I had never seen so many lasagnas, and pulled pork, and buns, and pies. It was like Christmas, or our own last supper. But food would never be enough to occupy the space left when my father died.
After the priest had finished his sermon and we had moved through the readings dad’s oldest friend, George Zabuk, stepped up to give the eulogy. Dad and George had been friends since elementary school. He stood, nodding to my mother, Sarah, Matty, myself. His grey suit pulled tight to button at the gut, the blue tie loosely knotted, he took a deep breath and started to speak, “A man like Walt can’t be summed up in one little speech. I sat last night with his family to discuss all of their memories of a man we all loved and I realized that he was bigger than even I knew, and I thought I knew this man so well.
“Walter John Emerson was born here in Aberdeen and he never saw a reason to leave. ‘This is God’s country’, he would say. ‘No place on earth like it.’ He wasn’t wrong, and for these reasons he chose to raise his family and continue his family’s business, growing it and the community around him here, in Aberdeen.”
George shuffled his papers, looked back up at the silent crowd, “last night, sitting around the kitchen table with Joan and her kids, we talked about what I should say here today. Should I go into Walt’s history in the community, but is that really necessary when his history touched each and every one of you?
“Maybe I should talk about Walt, the business man who took his father’s business and grew it from a paint and nails stop to a full hardware and lumber store that supplied not only this town, but every community and farm for 40 miles. How he founded the Chamber of Commerce in this district, and worked to create a place at the table for any business that needed an advocate? I could talk about how Walt’s business was a place where many young kids had their first job, stocking shelves, cutting lumber, taking orders, delivering supplies, giving kids the money to go to school, or to buy some beer for the weekend party. He’d be the first to let them know that although it tasted like piss, no kid could have a real Aberdeen upbringing without at least one night of getting crazy with a flat of Pilsner.
“I could talk for hours about the shit that Walt and I used to get up to. The time that we decided to head to Harry’s party, after being expressly told no by our folks. Taking Senior’s old red pontiac on the backroads. We bottomed out on a thick patch of gravel, a rock sticking in the accelerator the car kept going faster and faster and Walt, thinking quick hit the emergency brake and threw the car into neutral, but not before the car was thrown into the ditch. Senior wasn’t so happy with us, but we were lucky and walked away from the wreck, hitchhiking the rest of the way to the party. Had a hell of a time that night. Might have been the Pilsner. I remember him telling that story to his kids as a cautionary tale, to always listen to him when he tells them no. Not sure the caution worked, but those kids grew up pretty fantastic.
“I should talk about how he raised his children with a gentle firmness, every once in a while letting them off the hook when Joan would discipline. Buying Matt ice cream when he was grounded, teaching Sarah how to drive after she stole the car and crashed it when she was 14, or buying Anna new runners when her’s got ruined in the mud trespassing on Tende’s fields.”
I flashed back to the night George was talking about. Running through Joe Tende’s fields just outside town. We were trying to get back before curfew and cut through the muddy field. Tende had signs all over the place, no trespassing. He was a mean old bugger, but it was the middle of the night and it was the fastest way to avoid missing our curfew. It was dark and I didn’t realize that I was running right for the slew in the middle of the field. My feet sunk into the skunky water and my feet came right out my runners. I tried to pull the shoes out, but they were a lost cause. I finished the trek home with muddy socks weighing down my legs. I’m sure those shoes are still in the middle of that slew.
After the eulogy, a few more hymns, and the recession, with dad’s friends, nephews, and brother carrying his casket to the hearse, we all followed, headlights on, at a slow pace to the Aberdeen Cemetery for the interment. I don’t remember much from the actual ceremony that happened at the graveside. I remember that I sprinkled dirt on the casket. I remember that mom had to be helped by Uncle Jim and Matty back to her car. But it was the after that I remember best. Matty and I hung back. Sarah taking Ava back to the house with Katie and the kids.
“Is there a reason we’re still here?” Matt asked me.
“Well, I guess I just wasn’t ready to leave. As soon as I leave this place, he will be officially gone, no matter how many times I come back here, no matter how many times I visit, no matter how many memories I hold on to. I guess I just wanted to hold on for a few more minutes before becoming ensconced in the eating and greeting that is about to commence at the house,” I responded. I continued to look down at the casket.
“He’ll always be with us, Annalou.”
“Oh my God, that’s so trite Matt. Yeah, I guess, I’ll always remember him, and the lessons he taught me, and the times we had, and blah, blah, blah. But I won’t ever get to ask him for advice, or recover from his disappointment in me.”
“What disappointment? Seriously. All he ever wanted was for us all to be happy, and married, and provide him with grandkids, and even if I figure that shit out, he’ll never see it.”
“You’re so stupid sometimes,” Matt said. “He was so proud of you. He thought you were so strong. He always thought that there was something wrong with your relationship with Scott. He liked him fine, and would have been happy if you were happy to marry him, but he could tell you wanted something different. He could see how smart you are, how incredible you are at your job, how you make these decisions for other companies that he could never even comprehend. He often talked about getting you to provide some insight into some changes he wanted to make to the store, but felt shy about asking for help. He loved you Annalou, he was never disappointed in you.”
“Why didn’t he ever say any of that?”
“Do you really need to ask? Dad was always the one to show that he had the answers, even when he didn’t. He expected us to know how he felt, we’ve never been the family to wear our hearts on our sleeves.”
I shook my head, looking down at the sprinkling of dirt and flowers that lay on top of the mahogany casket. “I think we should start. I love you dad, and I wish you would have lived a healthier life, because I wanted you to live forever. I wanted that, because you were, well, cool, and my dad…”
“Come on,” Matt said taking my hand, “Let’s go do the whole eating and greeting thing.”
We started to walk away when I got an idea in my head that wouldn’t go away, “Wait, wait… we need to leave him some snow angels.”
I started running, dragging Matt behind me, to a patch of virgin snow, never been touched. “Here, we need to leave some snow angels.”
Matt looked at me quizzically, “I’m in a suit, and you are in a dress.”
“Thanks for the update on our fashion choices today, so what?”
“No, nothing, just thought I’d mention it.”
Matt sat softly in the snow and I followed, and we spread out, arms and legs making imprints in the snow. I may be of little faith, but no one can tell me there aren’t angels out there somewhere, the least we could do was leave a couple behind to watch over dad.
“Do you remember the snow angels?” I asked as we approach dad’s grave. Matt’s hand squeezed mine in acknowledgment.
I haven’t been here since the headstone was placed. It’s a large slab of grey granite, an image of a tool belt and a cross on the left side, his name Walter Matthew Emerson engraved in large font, “Loving husband, father, gramps, and friend” etched below his name with date of birth and death to round out the words.
For a small town cemetery, it is well maintained. The grass is kept short and mostly weedless. There are silk flowers adorning many of the graves, mostly sun bleached, and dusty. Dad’s has a bottle of Pilsner, never opened, and an old hammer laying at the base of the headstone. I kneel on the ground and place my hands on the grass next to his grave. “Hi pops,” I say as Matt sinks down beside me. “I didn’t want to have to tell you and Matty this separately, figured we could do a once and done kind of thing here. I hope you don’t mind.”
Matt sat on the grass, his knees bent and picked up a blade of grass, tearing at the edges of it, splitting the blade down the middle and then starting on a new piece.
I look at Matt, “So apparently it started in my pancreas. I hadn’t been to the doctor in a long time, and so I blame myself for that, but I didn’t really have symptoms, and they say they probably wouldn’t have detected anything anyway, without symptoms to cause them to check. And so what started in the pancreas started to spread.
“It turns out you need a pancreas, so removal wasn’t an option, and besides, like I said, by then it had spread. I’m kind of a walking cancer cell at the moment. It would take less time to tell you the places it hasn’t spread. And so I started treatment. I had to take some time off work, because the chemo is horrible. I couldn’t eat anything, not anything that stayed anyway. I was living on a healthy diet of toast and tea. It’s why I’ve lost so much weight, and well, the hair.
“There was also radiation. Before they knew for sure that it had spread to so many other places they tried to kill it with laser beams. They got some of it. Some of it just seemed to disappear, like a magic trick, and like a magic trick it seemed to reappear somewhere else. And so after three rounds of chemo, I decided that it was time that we talk. So I’m here, telling you.”
Matt took a breath and looked ready to say something. I put up my hand, “I know. I know I should have told you sooner. But you know I’ve never really been good at having the hard conversations. It’s why I dated Scott for so long, it’s why I ran away to University and then moved to Calgary and hardly came home. It’s why Sarah and I have a strained relationship, neither one of us ever willing to say the things that are on our minds. And I know that you of all people deserved to know. Well, you and mom…”
“Does mom know?” Matt asked, searching my face for an answer, for signs of disease, for honesty.
“She knows that I’m sick. She doesn’t know how bad, she doesn’t know the details. But she knows that I’m sick, and she’ll be here on Sunday with Sarah so that I can fill them in on everything.”
“So mom is coming home from London with Sarah, because, what? Do you not have much time? Are you actually dying?”
I looked at Matt, in that moment it was like he had transformed back into the little boy who’s head I used to rub when he would have nightmares. He had always been my rock, but in this moment he was struggling to find the foundation to take hold, and it was my turn to be strong. I, after all, had had months to deal with this. I had time to put my affairs in order, and to think about what I needed and wanted before my anticipated end. He was just finding this out, he was just finding out that the one person who had been his constant since before birth was going to leave him permanently, and he wasn’t processing the information.
“Yes, I’m actually dying. But in a sense we all are Matty. We all die at some point, I just have to go a little sooner than others.”
He took a deep breath, his silver blue eyes glistening with the threat of a flood, he always found tears easier than I did, “How much time?”
“A couple months.”
His breath blew out with a force. His expression went from sad, to surprise, to rage in a matter of seconds, “A couple months? A couple months? You’ve been living, or should I say dying with this thing for months now, and you only come here now. You waited this long, so now we only have a couple months. You’ve stolen all this time. How could you do that, Anna?”
How indeed? I asked myself that every morning since the diagnosis. How could I not tell anyone? There were a number of reasons. Most of them selfish. And didn’t I get the right to be a little bit selfish at this moment in my life? I shifted my position on the ground, the grass rubbing a stain on my knees as I pulled them out from under me and sat. I had expected this reaction. I knew that it would be difficult for him to understand that I felt like I needed to fix this on my own. That I needed to get better before I could see everyone. And in all honesty, this is the best I’ve felt in months, and so the timing was perfect. I could come home and be with my family while I was at my best, but how do you explain that to someone who believes his mission in life is to protect you? How do you tell your brother that he can’t protect you from mutating cells that cause havoc on your organs? As strong as he is, he doesn’t have what it takes to protect from cancer, no one does.
“It isn’t fair, Anna,” Matt said. “I need some time.” Matt stood up, looked down on me, and walked away, back toward town.
I sat for a while, staring at the headstone, then looking to the spot on the grass where just two years ago my brother and I laid on the snow, making snow angels to watch over my dead father. I swear if I looked hard enough I could still see our imprints in the grass.