Excerpt: Smooth Sailing

Smooth Sailing

THE RAIN was of the soft, steady, gentle early October variety, as if the hands of God were bathing an infant. Or perhaps washing the body of a dear one whose time had come. Drip drops from maple leaves slipped to the floor of the forest as quietly as the footfalls of a cat on a thick brown carpet. There was no wind.

She had pushed back her hood some minutes earlier. The light rain gradually moulded the dark hair to the contours of her head. Droplets gathered in tiny sheaves on her forehead, cheeks and chin. Some followed the line of her neck, rilling slowly down through the fine dark hairs of her back until the cotton of the t-shirt absorbed them. To Carol’s left, the river scampered down from the Highlands like a frisky puppy, tiptoed softly across the private pool, then hurried away down to the ocean.

Couldn’t have been better weather for this, she thought; quiet, damp and beautiful. Sunshine would have been out of place.

It had been a long run-up to the ending. Not in terms of a calendar, perhaps, but so rich with emotion and experience that each day insisted on being understood and savoured. She had half expected him to be plodding with the exhaustion of one for whom each step was an effort of will, but it had not been so. He continued to walk with his head up in the same way he had always walked to the grocery store or to the park. He could not stop what was coming—things would be as they would be—but in the interval, he refused to shuffle like an old man.

Somewhat to her surprise, it had been a good time. The invitation had come to her by letter, in his own handwriting, and on a stationery she had never seen before. In ink. She reflected later that the same message, typed or delivered in an e-mail, would not have carried the same meaning. It marked a change in him she thought, from Daddy to Father, and a similar adjustment for her. She was no less a daughter, but at the same time, she had become a respected adult friend. He knew her schedule well, for just as she finished reading it for the second time, the telephone rang.

She requested a leave of absence, and when it was denied, she simply left. She neither resigned nor cleaned out her desk, let the Union sort it out. Paid her rent three months in advance and took the train home.

He stood waiting on the platform as if he had been there since the day she last waved good-bye. There were few words. She hugged him and he allowed it, but his body felt stiff. On the walk to the car–and for the first time in her life— she carried the larger of the two suitcases.

He drove slowly, and not in a direct line home. Through the park, past the school, down Main Street, letting her reset her bearings. Pointing out the window toward the town water tank, he told her, “They’ll be putting in a new one, come spring. This old girl’s so full of rust she could lose all her water any day.” Neither of them spoke again until they were inside the house.

“I need to talk to you about this,” he said later over a cup of tea,“but it may take me a bit to work up to it.Canyou give me a couple of days?”

She could. In the end, it was almost a week before he arrived at the place.

They walked in those few days, miles and miles and miles. Neighbourhood, park, side streets, out into the country, beside the river, along the nature trail. Downtown, too, but only the once. Too many friends and neighbours to meet and greet, all curious, all questioning.

“Carol! When did you get home?”

“Hello, Earl, haven’t seen you in church lately!”

“How are things in Halifax, Carol?”

“We must have you over for dinner. Brian’ll be glad to see you.”

Brian came over. She gave him tea and they talked in the kitchen. “Want to go for a walk, take a drive, go to a movie, have a beer?” “No,” she answered quietly. “No and no and no.” Brian was disbelieving. In his mind, she had left because of her feelings for him, and so the only logical reason for her return was to right that wrong.

“Why are you here, then?” he asked on the fourth no.

“I’m here to help my father die, Brian.”

He was shocked, she saw. Possibly by the news about Earl, but mostly, she suspected, because where he had thought there was a dormant flame smouldering, he found only ashes. It had always, always, been about Brian. From the time he first kissed her in Grade 1 to the night he screamed at her as she left. You’ll be back! Wait and see, you’ll be back!

Brian’s horizons had always been constricted by the town boundaries on three sides and the ocean to the east. On the few occasions when he went away, he clutched to the strings of the town as if without them he would never find his way home. He was what he always would be, a not-very- large fish in a small pond.

He stormed out the back door, not even taking time to speak to Earl. Rudely left his chair pushed back from the table, the petty revenge of a small man.

To her surprise, her father cooked for her, he who had so often been evicted from the kitchen. There’s not room for two of us in here, her mother had insisted time and again. He had told the story often, always with a smile. “I carried the groceries in and put them on the counter,” he’d say, “and the next thing I knew, they were food.”

The meals he prepared for her now were standard fare; meat and potatoes and a vegetable. Fish, sometimes, and store-bought pie for dessert. Except for Thursday.

He woke her at six. Woke her as he had when she was a child, sitting on the edge of the bed, gently rubbing her back and humming softly. “Come back, little bunny, come back. There are things that need doing.” She rolled over, knuckled her eyes as she had always done first thing. “What needs doing today, Daddy?”

Both were quiet for a dozen heartbeats, thirty years washed away as if they had never been. Finally he spoke. “I need to be at the market when it opens at six-thirty,” he said. “Will you come with me?”

On the way, he talked in the car. “At first, after your mother died, I promised to treat myself to a nice restaurant meal at least once a week. It worked for a while, but then sitting in a restaurant alone became something I wasn’t looking forward to. So I started studying cookbooks. Me, cookbooks! I picked out recipes for things that I might order in a good restaurant and set out to make them at home. Now, I spend up to a week getting ready. Longer, sometimes, if I have to send away for ingredients.” He looked … not embarrassed, but slightly abashed, as if he had confessed to something very private. Which indeed he had.

That first Thursday, he set the table with the linen cloth, the good china and flatware, two silver candlesticks and an excellent Chardonnay in chilled glasses. He served a shrimp creole that was as good as Carol had ever tasted, even in Louisiana, along with a tasteful rice pilaf and steamed asparagus under a Béarnaise sauce. “The sauce is a mix,” he apologized. “I haven’t quite got the hang of getting everything ready at the same time if I have to do the sauce separately.”

She choked up when he said that, could hardly swallow. Her father, the lunch-pail guy, apologizing for not making a complex sauce from scratch. Tears welled up from a place so deep in her gut that she hadn’t known it was there. They rolled down her cheeks and onto the plate. He looked at her, perhaps closing in on tears of his own. Then, the look passed and the old, familiar mischief began to beam out of his face.

“I used salt in the rice,” he said, “but you seem to think it needs more.”

She laughed then, through the tears. And he laughed, eyes brimming. The stood up at the same time and came to each other around the table. And this time, he hugged back.

That was the real beginning of it. I could write a book, she thought later, Things You Would Never Have Imagined About Your Father.

They carried lawn chairs down to the spit at Goose Cove, and he told her about leaving home for the first time. “Heading for Halifax,” he said, “Just like the song. But there was no work there, so on to Toronto. I hated Toronto. Nobody on the street would look at you or say hello. Everybody in such a god awful hurry to get somewhere so they could turn around and hurry back. Locked cars and locked doors and noise all the time, all hours of the day and night. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

It was almost summer by then, so he hitchhiked his way to the prairies.

“Nothing!” he said, “That’s what I thought at first. Any rock more than a foot high was a local landmark. No water, hardly any trees. It took me a long time to recognize the beauty of the prairies. It kind of snuck up on me, though. I remember exactly when it happened. I was bumping across the field in a grain truck one September evening with the sunset all around me, as wide as the world and as high as heaven itself. I remember thinking that if I didn’t love home so much, I could live here easy enough.”

Saskatchewan is a quiet place for work in the winter. After harvest, he shouldered his pack and continued west. The sheer scale of the Rocky Mountains stunned him, their height and massive size closing in on him in a way he had never experienced in the Cape Breton Highlands. Vancouver felt much like Toronto, so he took the ferry to Victoria.

“Much more like Halifax, Victoria was. The trees were taller, and the mountains too, but the people were about the same size. I liked it okay, but it was a long way from Cape Breton. Believe it or not,” he chuckled, “I missed the snow. I remember walking on the green lawn of the Parliament Buildings on New Year’s Day in a light jacket, and it raining.” He was quiet for a bit, looking off into a distance only he could see. “I got arrested there, too.”

He wouldn’t say much more, except that there were some sailors involved. Cocky Americans on shore leave from an aircraft carrier docked at Esquimault, mouthing off in a restaurant. Carol looked out across the bay. It had never occurred to her to imagine her father in a barroom dust-up, but she could see it now. With his strong sense of proper conduct and his unwillingness to look away, it wasn’t that surprising, after all. Another new swatch of colour to add to the revised picture of her dad.

The peaceful silence went on for a long time, then . . .

“It’ll probably not be smooth sailing, Carol,” he told her. “Riley says there are drugs for the pain, but that I’d have to be in hospital. I don’t want that.” He looked directly at her. “It’s my death, Carol, and I want to be here for it, not in a white room with strangers calling me by my disease instead of my name. I have tried to live every day of my life right where I stand, and disappearing into a fog of drugs just to keep from hurting isn’t going to happen. I have never let any kind of drugs run my life, and I’ll be damned if I let them steal my death.”

He looked away over the water. White clouds drifted north to south across the top of Kelly’s Mountain. She remembered sitting in this same place with him as a little girl, finding ponies and puppies, unicorns and whales in the shapes of them. From the look of them, the snow he had missed in the West would not be long in coming. He spoke again.

“He says that the pain will be more than I can bear. Well, Carol, I watched your mother die and I bore that, and went on living afterwards. If I didn’t take painkillers for that, then I don’t need them for a bunch of nasty little black cells.” He spat the words out as if they were dirt, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. His jaw jutted slightly forward, the way it did when he had set his mind on something and would brook no argument.

“I asked you to come home,” he said, “so that I could explain this to you face-to-face. There is a nursing company that specializes in this sort of thing, and I’ve talked to them. Riley is under very clear legal direction about my treatment, so there’s no problem that way. I’ll be fine, Carol. It’s how I want to do it.”

He looked tense, shoulders high and hands clenched almost into fists, as if waiting for an argument he knew was coming. When it didn’t, he released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

“I’m glad you came,” he said at last. “I wanted you to know from me and not just get some overworked doctor’s version. I didn’t want you to worry yourself sick trying to fix something that isn’t broke. I know what I’m doing.”

Both were quiet for a long time. Absently, she picked a donkey out of the cloud pile, or maybe it was a camel. She sniffed the air. It is wonderful, she thought, to smell the salt of the sea without the stink of the city just below the surface. But they were not here to admire the scenery. She took a deep breath.

“Daddy,” she said. “What if it’s too much?” She held up a hand to forestall his response. “No, don’t get all in a knot here. I’m just asking, what if it becomes too much? Will you take some painkillers? I mean,” she hurried on before he could interrupt, “there is lots of room between being drugged out of your skull and taking just enough to keep the pain in check. Will you consider that?”

He was steamed, she could see it. A red cast to his face, and his lips so tightly compressed they were only a thin line. It took a full minute before he mastered it. His voice, when he spoke, was as harsh as the rasp of a steel file on an axe head.

“This is not for you to decide, Carol. My death, my way, and that’s it. You came, I told you what I had to tell you, and now you go home and I get on with it.”

She studied her hands, clasped together at her knees. In spite of the tension, a small, indulgent smile came to her face, the kind of smile you would show to a stubborn but much- loved child.

“Do you remember,” she asked, after a pause, “what you said to me, time after time, when I asked you why I had to do something?”

He looked at her, puzzled.

“You would say, ‘Because I said so, that’s why.’”

He smiled slightly at the memory, but with a shade of uncertainty.

“Well, I am here to tell you, Earl Joseph MacLean, that that crap doesn’t work any more.” He started to protest, but she overrode him. “I will listen to whatever it is you think you have to say,” she told him, “and then we will go home and meet this thing together. You are my father,” raising her voice to cut him off again, “You are my father and you are my friend. I was not raised to walk out on my friends. And that’s how it is.” A moment later, “Because I say so, that’s why.”

And in the end, that’s how it was. The pain was indeed as intense as Riley had predicted. He resisted the medications for a very long time, but finally relented, probably as much for her as for himself. And it did help.

They talked those days, hour after hour. And in the time between they sat in companionable silence, neither one needing to fill the spaces that were quiet, but far from empty.

He died on a Thursday. She had spent the afternoon making a delicious broth of shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms, with shallots, garlic and sherry, knowing that he could not have more than a small sip. It was not the food that mattered, but the preparation, and all afternoon the house smelled wonderful. She carried it upstairs on his bed tray, serving it in the best bowls with linen napkins and the silver candlesticks. He tasted it, smiled. His head sank back down on the pillow and he took a shallow breath, looked sideways at her.

“I have to go now, little bunny” he whispered. He closed his eyes a moment. “There’s a thing that needs doing.”

She nodded, took his hand. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “You know best.”

He died, then, a few minutes afterward. She sat with him for nearly an hour, and then made the necessary calls.

His ashes came in on the bus on Monday. She placed them on a table in the funeral chapel with two photograph albums, a guest book, and the wedding picture that had hung in the living room for as long as she could remember.

People came and spoke to her after the service, Brian among them. He hovered around her, circling like a dog trying to stake out a territory. She quietly ignored him. For a while, he followed her like a puppy until the futility of it dawned on him. He went to stand with his mother then, the two of them declaiming in low tones about how grief had distracted Carol today. The vague self-deception of a pair who refused to accept an unwanted reality.

She had gathered the ashes this morning, both his and her mother’s. Following her dad’s directions, she carried them a mile or so up Indian Brook to this secluded swimming hole that he said had been important to them early on. As he had asked, she mixed their ashes together and emptied them slowly into the river, and the river carried them down to the bay and out into the salt water of the ocean they had loved so much.

She watched, sitting on the rock in the rain and remembering them, one at a time and together. “Good-bye, Momma,” she said aloud. “Good-bye, Daddy. Fair winds and smooth sailing.”

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