As I pick up my pen, it seems as if that 1st of November started like any other day.
* * *
Mom woke me up. She gave me a tired, but warm smile as I came to. I smiled back, naturally, and fought off the pull sleep had on my conscious. I wanted to stay in bed, though only because going to school meant leaving Mom's side. Not that I’d ever tell her that, so I reluctantly left the comfort of my bed to get ready.
In the bathroom I stripped and tested the water with my big toe. It was the perfect temperature I noticed with relief. Mom had a knack for this sort of thing. The water was always scalding when my prepared the bath. I would even see the steam rise from the tub. I loathed his baths. He always said that I exaggerated; yet, by the time I was done washing, I would be a burning red. It was painful, but even more so was it annoying that he would never listen to me. He was adamant in his belief that the water was fine, that I was being a baby. Often, I told him that he could boil an egg in my baths. He would always laugh it off.
A knock came at the bathroom door and tore me away from my thoughts. Mom’s voice called to me through the door. She said I was going to be late. Stepping out of the bath I grabbed my towel, quickly dried myself off, and then picked up the clothes Mom had left me.
It had been quite cold lately so she thought it best to give me long underwear to put on under my jeans. I hated long underwear. It always made me feel uncomfortable, and trapped. They would coil around my legs; the feeling creeping up on me, slowly suffocating me in an unpleasant hold. Mom always said I exaggerated. I would laugh with her as she said it. Then again, she was not the one who would be dying of heat later that day. But I couldn’t help it; her laugh was contagious.
There was another knock at the door, but no voice called through this time. I understood what it meant and put the long underwear on, annoyed. Ready, I sat at the kitchen table and Mom gave me a quizzical look.
"Yes, Mommy, they're on," I said not bothering to hide my annoyance.
Her eyebrows shot up at my display of attitude.
« Quoi? »
She always spoke to me in French. For the longest time, she had been insisting I speak to her in French, feigning not being able to understand me otherwise. Knowing that I would not get breakfast until I answered her properly, I conceded.
« Je les ai mis comme vous le vouliez, Maman, » I said reluctantly.
Satisfied, a smile formed on her lips. That is when I noticed she had forgotten to put her wig on; a wig that held roughly the same shape as her usual hair before she lost it because of her medication. The wig was brown, just like her natural colour. Not only had I inherited her brown hair, but also her beautiful chocolate-brown eyes. I also shared her healthy appetite, despite my unusually small stature.
Another detail I had noticed that day was the whiteness of her skin and the dark bags under her eyes, more visible day-to-day. I made nothing of it at the time. Or rather I was distracted from my analysis as she served me breakfast; two eggs over-easy, three slices of ham, a buttered toast and a generous glass of orange juice - all gone within seconds. I was famished.
She frowned at how I scarfed down my food, but did not complain because at least nothing remained on my plate. I downed the rest of my orange juice as she ushered me towards the bathroom to brush my teeth. She would always lecture me on how important it was for me to take care of them unless I wanted to become like my grandfather who wore dentures; a word that always sent me running for my toothbrush.
There were days, however, when I felt confident enough to contradict her, but she would then point out the house rules that my father had engraved on a small wooden plaque, just behind my seat at the table.
Rule Number One: Mom is always right.
Rule Number Two: If Mom is wrong, please refer to rule number one.
Being the know-it-all I was at the time, I would often contest these rules, stating that they felt one-sided, leaving little room for fair negotiation or democracy. Mom would laugh; however, it was not a mocking laugh, but a whole-hearted laugh that could melt the coldest of hearts. I never had anything to say after that. I never knew then if it was because I was just a seven-year old boy using big words or because I was too busy laughing along with her. In retrospect, it was definitely the latter.
Once I was done brushing my teeth, Mom checked to be sure that I had done them properly. With silent approval, she would send me downstairs where she would do a last minute check to make sure that I was dressed appropriately for the weather. Sadly, her definition of appropriate clothing and mine were vastly different. They were so different in fact that her choices almost always resulted in me overheating. I understood it was better to be safe than sorry, but to me being able to breathe comfortably was always much more important. Unfortunately, her choices of clothing rarely gave me that luxury.
Mom always woke me up early because of everything we had to do. She had perfect timing. Everything was calculated from the time it took me for my bath to the time allowed for my protests.
Despite how early I was up and about, I was genuinely happy. In fact, the earlier she woke me up, the happier I would be for it meant that I would get to spend more time with her. She was, of course, never allowed to know that. I had an image to preserve. What seven-year old boy in his right mind would admit to wanting to spend time with his mother? Again for appearances sake, I would always refuse to allow Mom to accompany me to school. I was more than old enough to walk alone. In exchange, I would agree to let my sister take me since we went to the same school. In truth, now I wish Mom had walked me more often.
I remember the strangeness of that day. An uneasy feeling nestling itself in my gut from the moment I said good-bye to Mom at the door. I remember being quiet at school, lest the nausea overtake me. While a refreshing change for my teachers, it unnerved my friends. Quite frankly, it unnerved even me. I figured I would put that feeling to rest soon enough once I went back home for lunch. As the bell for lunch hour rang, I made my way to my locker where my sister was already waiting for me. She told me that she would be eating with friends. I agreed to relay the message dutifully.
I had the goofiest grin on my face. I was free! Even if only for an hour or so, I would be away from school. I would also get the chance to see Mom, and if I was lucky enough, my aunt would be there too. I was as close and attached to her as I was to Mom. She was dear to me to the point where I had once called her "Maman un" and my actual mother "Maman deux." It had made them laugh, which is all that really mattered to me.
I turned the corner of my street; I could see a car parked in our driveway. My heart felt as if it was about to burst; we didn’t own a car, so it had to be my aunt's. Even though I had just seen her the other day, it felt like we had been apart for too long. I quickened my pace to a slight jog. As I approached, I could see Mom just about ready to get inside the car. This confused me. Mom turned to me with a mixed expression. It was somewhere between relief at seeing me and an unspeakable sadness. Too young to pick on the implications of such complex emotions, I remained the oblivious child.
« Maman! » I yelled out excitedly.
Crossing what little distance remained between us, I gave her a big hug. Before anything else could be said, my aunt came from the house. She too wore the same mixed expression.
« Il faut y aller Viviane, » she said as she approached us.
I could feel Mom let go of me reluctantly. In that moment, I knew something was wrong. I became terrified. I felt it then and there that I would never see her again. As if reading my thoughts, Mom looked at me and said: « Soit brave, mon petit ange, je te reverrai. » The tears that welled in her eyes said otherwise.
* * *
It had not been less than a week since I had last seen Mom. My aunt had come to pick up my siblings and me to spend time at her home. I liked going there. There was this big open field in front of her house, and not too far from the farmland was a forest. I always wanted to go there. I was always curious to know what kind of creatures the trees kept out of sight. I would imagine wolves prowling about at night, the thrill of the hunt glistening in their eyes, owls' hooting piercing the cold silence of the night. That would be the little rodents' cue to burrow deeply underground to escape their nocturnal predators. To me, the world always seemed livelier at night, just not this one.
That night I stared out the window into obscurity. Sleep eluded me even though I was snuggled comfortably in my aunt's arms. She had fallen asleep a while ago. I wished that I was sleeping too, and that I would wake up soon, and that it was all a dream. I wished that I would wake up with Mom gently shaking me, or maybe to wake up to the aroma of her delicious food. I clung to the idea. It gave me hope. It gave me strength. It made the emptiness I felt seem just a bit more bearable.
* * *
It was time. That morning there were no pleasant smells in the air. There were no smiles, and no protests. My father was in front of the mirror in his usual suit, tying a black tie. Once he was done, he turned to me and buttoned up my white dress shirt and tucked it in my pants. He popped up my collar and wrapped a smaller version of his tie around my neck. He did all this without looking at me. I was the spitting image of Mom. And it was the first time I felt sorry for my father.
"There we go, mon Beau Jean," he said.
That was his nickname for me. But the words seemed hollow today, loveless. He gave me a quick smile before standing up again.
"Go see Christopher. He'll help you with your shoes."
I obeyed. I sat on the steps in the hallway, picking up the tiny dress shoes that my oldest sibling was supposed to help me with. I held out my foot for him as he came over to me. He didn’t say anything. His eyes were focused on the task at hand. And I felt a small degree of satisfaction as silence washed over us.
* * *
The car ride was quiet, much quieter than it had ever been. My sister sat up front with my father while I was stuck in the middle between my two brothers. I disliked the middle. There was never any room. It was worse than long underwear.
Later, we walked across the wet grass up to the small building with a name I couldn’t make out. The whole family was there, but the usual festive atmosphere was missing. In fact, there was more than only that missing. I stayed by my father’s side for a little while as he talked with distant relatives I didn’t remember ever meeting. The exchanges were brief and all the same. People would approach me as well, giving me sympathetic smiles. My siblings had all run off with our cousins, and finally I asked my father if I could go as well. He didn’t answer.
I made my way through the crowd despite the stoic reaction –lack thereof– I had elicited from him, and up the walkway leading towards the end of the room. There were three short steps leading up to a small altar. I tentatively reached my hand out, and I could feel everyone's gaze suddenly fall on me, I became deaf to my surroundings. My fingers brushed hers, and I shivered at how cold they were. I stroked her hand for a while. She hated when I would rub her knuckles. She didn’t react though, no matter how times I did it now. I looked at her motionless chest before staring at her lips. My chest tightened in anticipation. Would they move? Wouldn’t she get up for me again to tell me how I was her little angel? Wouldn’t she tickle me one last time, and amidst my squeals of glee tell me to hide my feathery wings? Just speak up even, so I could hear her voice.
The tightening in my chest moved to my throat, and I could feel my eyes watering slowly as it all finally sunk in.
« Maman? » I asked, hoping she would answer. I continued playing with her hands a while before finally the feeling became unbearable. I had to leave. I wouldn’t be seen like this. I wouldn’t let her see me like this. She wouldn’t want me to feel this way.
* * *
We were outside again. The rain was still lazily drizzling. All of us were ducked under big umbrellas, standing in a circle around the coffin, getting ready to set it in the ground. The priest droned on about things I didn’t understand, or maybe I didn’t want to understand them. When he was finally done, a murmured "Amen" rang, and the coffin slowly began its descent. Just as slowly, tears trickled down my cheeks. The burning in my eyes was too much; the tightness in my throat loosened with each sob. I wanted to run, to hide, to disappear, but Mom’s last words echoed in my soul.
« Soit brave. »
I looked on, fighting my tears with fierce determination, and felt my father's hand rest on my shoulder. With a loud sniffle, I regained my composure, stood straight, and spoke to her.
« Je t'aime Maman. »
* * *
I put my pen back in my pocket, closing the small journal with a sigh. I look at the tombstone in front of me. It reads: Viviane Marcoux-White, Always Loved and Never Forgotten. I can feel my family looking at me, waiting. They didn’t have to come. I didn’t want them to, but then again, I couldn’t exactly tell them to stay at home either.
It has been ten years, and still, I feel this tightening sensation in my throat every time I visit her. Crouching in front of the grave, I place my journal next to all the flowers. She loved flowers. I stand up again, and continue looking at the tombstone with my hands in my pockets. There is a chill in the air that makes me regret not having worn long underwear today.
My father puts his hand on my shoulder just like when I was younger.
« Viens, mon Beau Jean, » he says, and just like then, his words ring hollow; echoing the emptiness left behind by Mom’s death.