On a warm August day in 2011, my dad pulled into my driveway on the Lanark Road. I would soon be moving off the mountain from the hundred-year-old rental house and down to the 1970s rental in the town in the Valley. The Lanark Road was on the North Mountain, in backwoods seashore Nova Scotia, where I had lived with my four-year-old son and his father and part of the time with my stepdaughters, seven and nine. But that was over, and it was just me and my child in the house with two weeks to move. I didn’t know where my ex lived. I’d heard he was living in his van. The girls were with their mother.
I watched my dad park his old Toyota pickup truck. I saw how stiff he was. Both his knees had been replaced. He was a rack of sore muscles, stiff bones and joints. As he came around the front of the truck, for a moment he looked like a young man, the father I remembered when I was five, when he would press his freshly shaved cheek next to mine. Who once waded into a pond to pick me a bouquet of water lilies. He was a good father for tiny children but then became too enmeshed in his own troubles to parent children tumbling towards puberty, especially a daughter.
My dad was always the best at removing splinters when I was a little girl. I was forever full of splinters from climbing trees, climbing over fences, building driftwood forts on the beach along the Bay of Fundy. The wounds would fester and fill with pus, and my mother would be so rough in her anxious attempts to take away my pain. I’d scream. My mother couldn’t stand it. My father, because he didn’t have the tremor yet, would take my finger into his hand or place my foot on his knee, never rushing but never hesitating, the wood removed, the wound sterilised. Chris. He called me Chris. No one else ever did. ‘Off you go, Chris,’ he always said. Me, scampering away to the beach, the pain forgotten so quickly.
When I was nine, we began to speak a different tongue. That year we moved back to Nova Scotia from a small town in central Canada near the Bay of Quinte, about three hours from Toronto. I was old enough that I still have intact memories of how desperate it all was—my mother quitting her job, my father losing his job as a janitor at the School for the Deaf, my father always drunk, the relentless wake-ups at night when my mother would crawl into bed with me and my father would come lurching down the hall after her. This created my lifelong insomnia which has had me in sleep clinics connected to electrodes, in endless therapy and sleep hygiene programs. There were the cold times at the uninsulated cottage with no hot water, bathtub or shower when we had nowhere else to live. And my father in pursuit of jobs, any kind of job.
But briefly, in front of his pickup truck, he looked like the dad of my five-year-old self. Perhaps it was the way the August sun fell or the shadows from the tall birch trees near the driveway. Or perhaps it was the slant of my head, my squinting eyes. He looked like a Kennedy, there is no doubt. It was my grandmother Conlin’s last name before she married my grandfather, the one who died before I was born. My aunt Eleanor says the famous Kennedys and the poor Kennedys living in closed Irish immigrant communities in Quebec all came from the same place in Ireland. We are related, she tells me, although distant famous relatives don’t elevate my life in any capacity. Conlin translates from Irish to English as hero. The surname Conlin comes from O’ Coaindealbhain. I learned that it means hero from a woman who named her premature baby Conlin after his heroic attempt to keep living despite the many health issues thrown at him by his early arrival. From that point onward, I contemplated what a hero was, how divorced I felt from any symbolism in that name.
Earlier, in the late winter, before we moved off the mountain in August, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. A few months after that, on April 29, my birthday, my mother drove up the mountain and came to sit at my kitchen table. It was ostensibly a birthday visit, but as she gazed out the window, she told me the ocular vein in her right eye had collapsed. She had no vision left there. She knew it was coming but it had been a matter of time—maybe a long time, and maybe not so long. It was not so long.
‘The other eye isn’t up to snuff either,’ she confided as I made her coffee. ‘Maybe a cataract. There was one on the other eye, but that’s of no consequence now it doesn’t work.’ There was a cataract surgery if she could afford it. I wondered if she should be driving, but it was not the time to ask.
And nor was it the time to ask my father, with his Alzheimer brain, if he should still be driving. He was coming up the mountain to help me move. He offered. I accepted. For years I tried to avoid any one-on-one time with my father. He was so troubled, and we clashed continually from when I was a small child. The birth of my son and the arrival of my stepdaughters ushered in a lovely and surprising peace. He was helping me move because he felt it was his duty. And he understood more than anyone my sense of failure and futility. I had asked him at different points in my life for help with moving, for advice when I stopped drinking, when I dropped out of university, when I dumped an earlier boyfriend. He’d always said he couldn’t help me. He’d always said he couldn’t manage. And truly, that was the extent of some of those conversations. ‘That’s all,’ he’d say. And if I pushed him, he’d say what he said when I was an angry fifteen-year-old: I was enough to drive a man to drink. There were so many angry comments and lashings out from my dad, a man of his time, a man so lost in his mind that there was no room for an alien creature like me with her bag of troubles and neurodiverse brain, screaming and furious at the chaos of the childhood home, the endless financial struggles, my father’s demolished mental health.
But this time, and only this time, my father offered to help. I did not ask him. He said he would help me move some of my things, for my son and I were moving off this isolated road and down into the town to the 1970s house on the dead-end street. The new house was an older home to most, but to me it was a home of convenience and luxury. It would be the first modern home I’d ever lived in. I’d spent my life in small century homes, full of drafts and creaks, mould and cold. But not the 1970s bungalow. Built for easy living. Made for optimal light. And for the first time, I would live in a town where we could walk everywhere. There would be streetlights. But the move felt daunting, this move brought about by my breakup. A move is demolishing even at the best of times, for the best of reasons. This was for a fresh start. I was a single mother. Our lease on the old mountain house was up.
I had gone running one evening, down the road, too far down the road, when the murky light of dusk closed in. I turned. I saw the moon above the trees. There was a noise in the woods, at the edge of the woods. I ran as fast as I could. A rustle of leaves. The rustle of trees and grasses as the eastern coyote ran along the forest, at the edge of the road. I kept looking ahead. Don’t pee your pants, I told myself. I ran and I ran and I ran, and I don’t know when the animal disappeared. The road came out from the forest, and I ran up the hill, grit in my mouth, my heart smashing against my heaving ribs. At the top of the hill by the driveway, I looked back. It stood there just at the edge of the woods in the middle of the dirt lane. A faraway howl. And then it howled back and was gone.
I needed a fresh start. I longed for safety and security and, mostly, anonymity. My life had crumpled into pieces and tufts. And yet I had this small child to care for. My precarious online teaching and freelance writing to do. The novel I feared I would never finish. My joints puffed up, and I had no idea why. I was infected inside and out by the splintered fingers of my country childhood where life was hard and dreams were for the affluent. I could not live with the coyotes. I was too stupid to live in the country if I went running at dusk alone. It was time to come down from the mountain.
My relationship with my son’s father collapsed completely at the end of June. It had been five years of unrelenting stress with his ex and constant litigation over their two daughters. His sister had died of a brain tumour. His father died when our son was eighteen months old. His problematic mother had moved back after years of estrangement from her children, having lost custody of them in the mid-1970s to their father, a disabled farmer. Yes, dirt poor, but determined to keep his kids, to raise them, to give them a home. But my ex couldn’t manage the stress. He had changed careers, from working in an egg-hatching factory to working with people with special needs in a long-term care facility. It was a good job, with a pension and benefits and a regular pay cheque, but with it came a schedule, and with the three children came a massive responsibility and routine. He cracked; that’s all I can say. I no longer recognised him and could no longer predict what he would do. When he started leaving a gun and ammo lying around near the kids, I couldn’t sleep.
And so, we had a cataclysmic breakup. A relationship explosion of a failure. With a lot of police cars. Cops with guns. I could tell you how it all started and how it shook down. But the consequences wouldn’t change. My ex was arrested after a social worker called the police. I was enraged that she had called because she was no regular social worker but a friend of many years, a friend to whom I had cried into the phone, feeling trapped and helpless on the lonesome dirt road. Did I forget she was what is called a protection worker, a social worker who wades into messes and apprehends children? Yes. I only thought of her as Suzie, my former roommate, who understood the joys and sorrows of rural Nova Scotia. There are intimate parts of our story which sometimes others see, but we don’t realise they do. We all make mistakes. We all get lost. And some of us find our way back or find our way to a new landscape.
Our time together is captured in a map of the past. When fearless six-year-old Rebecca rode her bike down the calamitous oxbow turns of the mountain with me behind her. When tender Emma played with Wynken in the back meadow. When the girls wore pink pjs and sat on pink plush chairs holding their newborn brother. All those occasions on the beach and in the hay fields, on dirt roads and tobogganing hills, on lobster boats headed out to Isle Haute for camping trips. These memories will settle in me as ornaments on a shelf I occasionally visit. But the child brain that moves through puberty washes these times with pastels, and others fade in the brightness of the new day, the new people and experience. I too will be forgotten.
And here we were—my father arriving to help me move from this tiny road which was more like a trail, a right-hand turn off a bigger dirt road and then a slow incline to the peak where our rental house was on the left. It was the last surviving original house on the lane which once ran right through and intersected with Barely Street near the old graveyard.
At the north edge of the graveyard was a spread of lily of the valley that blossomed each June. The year my mother was going blind was the first year we did not pick lilies of the valley. It was the year I turned forty-four. ‘Feel the spirits,’ my mother would say when we were small children. She has always believed, in a curiously pragmatic way, that the dead never really leave us and that there is nowhere better to find lonely souls than in a graveyard. My brothers and I would run as free spirits, maybe those spirits briefly possessing us, when I was eight years old. As I thought of the graveyard, those memories of lighter days, my mother walked into my mind reciting Wallace Stevens to me, as she did when I was a child: They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are.’ The man replied, ‘Things as they are, Are changed upon the blue guitar.’ In my father’s truck, I was the girl with the blue guitar, caught in the lyricism of my old-world childhood as my adult life became more than just one day leading to the next but a mosaic of years and experiences. And as my father and I prepared to move my belongings, my life split into pieces—the time before, the time ahead and the present moment Dad and I were in on that warm August afternoon when everything felt familiar and yet changed.
My dad and I loaded up the back of his truck. The swelling had gone down in my knees, and I could walk again. It was as though they had never puffed up at all. I didn’t know at this point, but I have an obscure autoimmune disease; when I am under stress, my joints occasionally respond, with no warning, by swelling up like stove pipes. And I knew what a stove pipe looked like, for we had one in this mountain home.
We did two loads, packing the truck full of chairs and boxes. We worked slowly and steadily under the summer sky. The afternoon crickets sang. We bounced along the bumpy dirt road, and then my father, who hardly drives the truck anymore, turned onto the Brow of Mountain Road; the air smelled sweet, of Queen Anne’s lace, a few wild roses in the ditches. I looked at my dad, and I knew better than to say anything, to initiate a conversation. For what was there to say? That I’ve failed at almost everything I’ve ever set out to do? That I was an obscure writer living hand-to-mouth, now dealing with an ex through a restraining order? That I knew I was a disappointment? My father had wanted me to be a bookkeeper or a secretary. To get married and have a family. For my work to provide what he called a second income. When he’d describe his plan for my life, I used to feel such rage at his dismissal of any possible deviation from this traditional path. But I came to understand how much he longed for this more respectable life, a life of possibility and comfort that had always eluded him. His was the second income. His inventive mind was never able to navigate the harsh realities of the business world, of a rigid childhood ruled by a harsh father and a cold mother, a small town ruled by a heartless priest. But as we drove along on this endless summer day with the outrageous blue sky and the array of delicately scalloped clouds, my father said quietly that things will work out. ‘It will just take time, Chris’. He patted my hand, as though I was an old lady.
Tears seeped from my eyes, and the wind streaming in from the open window pushed them from my cheeks as though they had never fallen. And for that moment, a moment which now feels preserved in amber, everything was okay— just me and my dad, the first and only time he would help me navigate a life crisis, and the last time we would drive down the road together as though everything was desperate and everything was perfect at the very same time. I knew in that moment that my son was so young he would hardly remember his grandpa. I knew in that moment how my father came alive in a new way when my stepdaughters and Wynken arrived, how the sheer life force and joy of children revived in him a long-diminished wonder, and how these children loved him, trusted him and saw the same otherworld in the changing light of the day.
My father will fade, as the dead do, from the intensity that permeated his last years. The breathless pace that comes with so much caregiving, how, beneath the endless domestic tasks, there is a living grief submerged beneath the everyday. The meals that need to be cooked, and the cleaning, the medicines, the desperate last treatments. There will be the dollops of frantic last hope for a miracle, and these will disappear the way wind finally stops. The way the wind rushes over the surface of a pond, ripples, a mosaic of greens and blues as the shape of the surface changes. It is never the same colour, and yet it is, merely reflecting back the sensory world around it.
I knew too that my stepdaughters would forget me. I would bow out of their lives when I saw the strain and agony it put on them to continue the past, of me as their stepmother.
A cardinal flew across the dirt road, and my father asked, ‘Did you see that?’ and I remember his enormous love of birds, of the colours of the sky and the shapes of the clouds, the magic of light, the evening light his photographer’s eye has shown me since I was tiny. We turned to head down the road into the Valley below. My mother may have taught me about whimsy and occasional magic, but my father has taught me about beauty—savage beauty, the outrageous beauty of a bloody sunrise, and the tender, tender beauty of being alive on an August day. Later that year, when my father is in a nursing home on a locked ward, I’ll find a photo on my phone, a random shot taken by accident as we sat in the car, my father in the corner of the picture and my eye in the centre, an accidental selfie, from that moment when we loved each other the most, father and daughter on one last August afternoon.
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