I came home after midnight one January day. I shivered as I stepped out of the car; it was quite cool for the middle of summer. I would have come back a lot earlier but I knew she would have been there. She was always there whenever dad was (which wasn’t very often those days). Dinners were awkward and everyone was in a rush to eat and get away to their own sanctuaries, far away from the two of them. My music helped to drown out their chatter and giggling that ran on into the night.
She had been scrutinised right from the start of their relationship, and sometimes that made me feel sorry for her, and sorry for dad, who was constantly trying to change our opinions of her by giving us his own. But his infatuation offended me. Within several months, this woman had changed his entire life, and mine had shifted uneasily as a result. He joined a gym not long after that, which he would have normally dismissed as a waste of money, and he began buying organic food from the farmer’s market. We even had to buy a different brand of salt.
My siblings and I gossiped about her behind her back, and sometimes I thought the two of them did the same when we weren’t around. I only spoke to her when I was in a good mood. She seemed to know enough about my life without me even saying a word. I felt betrayed when dad showed her pictures of when I was a baby.
One day, my dad and I were driving back from the hardware store in silence when he struck up a conversation.
“What do you think about moving closer to the city?” I had heard my grandma warn me that he wanted to move houses to live with her but I didn’t believe it. Now that I heard it first-hand, I knew that this was going to happen whether I liked it or not. He was always a very impatient man. I inherited that trait from him. I wound down the window of the old Ford and let the wind rush violently in, chopping up the sound of the radio.
He spent the remainder of the trip home trying to convince me that moving would be beneficial for me and for everyone else. I wasn’t keen on moving away from the place I had grown up in and my grandma had already mentioned that she would not move with us, and would rather move in the opposite direction and live with her sisters in their country house. The move would also mean that I would be half an hour’s drive from my girlfriend of three years, which was a definite deal-breaker. I gave him a flat “no”, and the conversation ended as swiftly as the slamming shut of the car doors.
He didn’t have the guts to bring it up again in front of the others. I would tell them secretly later so that we could conspire together, but deep down I knew that it was hopeless. We had no say in the matter.
The air was chilled but not as cold as a regular June morning. The darkness was so complete that if one was not accustomed to the regular rising of the sun, he might not believe in its existence. It was almost 6.30. I both accepted and rejected my father’s call, knowing that I would be late if I fell back into my blissful coma. He did not stay in the corridor to make sure that I was coming. I was 15 years old and he trusted me.
My brother was first, and I soon followed, trudging downstairs in my dressing gown to the kitchen. The lights were on and the heater wasn’t. I was never the morning person. And it would be a while before my body felt the desire to eat anything more than a few forced spoons of cereal. My father on the other hand handled mornings well, and so it was a bit unusual to see him looking so exhausted and dejected.
We all sat at the table. My brother and I ate our small food slowly and I assumed that my father had already eaten his. He sat there at the end of the table, unlike his usual spot, positioning himself as far away from us as possible. Since I started high school, I never ate breakfast with him any longer as he left for work before I woke up in the morning. I missed it. But he was always good to us.
“I have something to tell you both,” he said solemnly, and I knew straight away what he would say. My mother had been sick for the past few years. The doctors said that she had to take new drugs again about a week ago. We were all getting desperate. She had accepted her fate long ago, even before she was seriously ill. We joked about it sometimes. She was perhaps wiser than I thought, and maybe I was too naïve. Often she would say that she was going to die as if it didn’t matter. It did matter, and it made me upset that she didn’t care about her life as much as I did. Apart from when she was in the hospital, we spent a lot of time together since there was no way that she could work in her condition. We watched daytime movies during the school holidays and I listened attentively as she told me stories of her childhood experiences as a poor girl living in Milan.
“I got a call from the nurse at about 3, and she’s gone.” The last few words had extra weight on them, but he didn’t cry. I didn’t have the heart to look at him for a moment, or anyone at the table for that matter. I thought that now I wouldn’t have to play soccer but quickly shunted away those thoughts, feeling ashamed at myself. When I finally looked up from my cereal, which would surely not be eaten now, I found my father’s eyes. He looked uneasy, like a toddler left in a group of big people. I struggled to find something to say.
“Now what do we do?”
“Well I still have to tell your grandma and your sister. Then we’ll go to the hospital.” My grandma lived had lived with us for as long as I could remember. I knew that she had her own house when I was little but it continued to escape my memory. I could not decide who I felt most sorry for: her or my sister. But I did not feel sorry for myself.
It took a while for my father to build up enough strength to make it back up the stairs, and I still remember the wailing and crying from both rooms as he delivered the news. I admired him for that. And I hoped that I would never be admired in the same way.
I don’t remember much else from that morning. We all put on warm clothes and made the trip to the hospital. No words were said in the 40 minutes it took to get there from my house. No one cried either. I hate when people cry.
We were greeted by sympathetic people with practiced faces and reassuring gestures. Maybe these people understood what it was like to lose a loved one, but at the same time, no one could possibly understand. They led us to her room. We all knew the way by heart. I didn’t want to go in, but my feet led me, and I didn’t have the mental strength to stop them.
Her face was white and her body was covered with the bed sheets she slept in. Apart from the colour and the vacant appearance, she could have been asleep. She would often stay in bed well into the morning, and sometimes the afternoon reading books. That was her passion. My grandma would get annoyed because she didn’t help out enough with the cooking and cleaning, but the rest of the family loved reading too. I left the room. The family would all come soon.
The sun was starting to come up from behind the houses on the horizon. I felt like I was living in Alaska, even though I had never been there and had only seen the place in movies and pictures in National Geographic. I wanted to buy a coffee. I didn’t drink coffee, but I always assumed that when I was older I would drink it. I used to watch my uncle make glass after glass every night, until the early hours of the morning. He lived with us until a few years ago, and I idolised him sometimes more than I did my own father, even though I knew that I never wanted to be like him.
People slowly came throughout the day. One hour, no one came, but then next, more people came than could be handled and some had to wait outside in the TV room. This is where I spent most of the time with a few of my cousins. It didn’t matter what was on the TV, and not much was spoken, but they reassured me. I was disappointed when dad said that they weren’t going to come over to our place after when we left, but I didn’t complain. I was merely looking for an excuse to put aside my thoughts for another day or so.
Over the next few days, we received many calls and visits from friends and other family members, as well as some of the same ones that came to the hospital. Within a few days, we had more food than we could possibly eat and a shortage of vases for all the flowers we received. I walked into the kitchen one day to see all the flowers and cards arranged messily on a table, and I decided to arrange them properly. I had never cried so much in my life.
I sat on the veranda with my wife of four years, and the smell of fresh paint and cut grass filled our nostrils, carried by the warm northerly breeze. We loved the summertime, and this was the first time we were able to enjoy it in the new house. The heat had a soothing effect, and the kids were fast asleep inside.
I thought back on all the difficult times we had endured together. She had been there from before the beginning, when my mother passed away and still when my dad remarried and we moved away. I remember how we wept, and held each other in a loud kind of silence. We never needed words to explain. We could tell an entire story with an embrace.
Tonight we would visit my dad. We went every Thursday. The boys loved seeing their grandparents. The house had none of the sentiments from my childhood, but I liked to think that it would carry theirs.