I keep saying it was five years ago, but it’s more like eight, when Louise Stewart Potts encouraged me to put a dream I had had down on paper. She was excited about my excitement for this story that just popped into my head one night; she told that it was meant to be “my” novel, the one I kept saying I wanted to write. This is NOT that dream, but it is the story I wrote the next day after capturing the dream. Same characters, same lives, just carried out a little after the dream. So I have the dream-story and this ending, and nothing in between. And I need Louise to tell me to go back to writing “my” novel. And if not Louise…
Can there be a word sharp enough, cold enough, to describe the painful edge of a brisk November wind, a wind that promises rain soon and snow not far away. There is certainly no word for the peculiar, nearly painful grey the sky can be in November, a grey that deadens the eyes and dulls the soul. He held on longer than we thought he would, my darling boy, but late in the afternoon of All Saints’ Day, he left us.
At first, I fought the idea of having a funeral. It seemed to me that doing so would be admitting death. Like the flip side of a wish, if I didn’t say it out loud, it wasn’t real. But then my mother told me that she didn’t believe funerals were really about death. She thinks of them as being about life. Funerals are where we gather to remember why we live, my mother said. We have our family and our friends with us to share our pain, to help them bear theirs, and we remember the life that was. So I thought about it, and realized she was right.
It was Mum who went with me to the funeral home, who sat with me to listen to what Kim, the funeral director said. There’s something very brave about a woman who buries a grandchild, at least there was about my mother. I mean, it’s awful to be a parent whose child dies, but to this day, I’m not sure how his grandmother found the strength to bury Piglet. When I asked her about it, she said it was because of her child, because of me. If I could stand strong for him for all his life, then she could stand strong for all his death.
Don’t parents sometimes just really surprise us, eh?
So there we are sitting in this very tastefully decorated sitting room of a Victorian house turned into a funeral home with Kim who, I have to say, really didn’t look like my idea of funeral director. Gus said after the funeral that all he could think of every time he looked at her was how he could possibly ask her for her phone number without looking like some sort of loser, thinking about sex and not his dead nephew. Mitch, of course, said that he was a loser, thinking about sex and not his dead nephew.
We all moved slowly from our cars into the funeral home chapel where the service would be held. People stopped to look at me, to pat my arm or hold my hand. Some wanted to hug me, some needed to be hugged, and I let them comfort me as best they could, knowing I wasn’t the one who was being made to feel better.
What leaves were left on a remembrance of lawn skittered and dashed from marble stone to mulberry bush and back again, swirling around our feet a little before tumbling off to more lively features in Creamery Hill Cemetery than our sad little party.
I always called him Piglet. I did give him a real name of course, Piglet not being the sort of name with which you can go into business, or plumbing, or law, or any profession really, except maybe sports, but I called him Piglet. And sometimes Poopy Drawers. And in return, I was Mummy when he needed me and Doris when he loved me most. I was tempted to put Piglet on the gravestone, but thought better of it, so instead I told the world who he was and what he believed.
George Louis Mathey
May 14 2000 – November 1 2007
sometimes it rains
Do you know they don’t actually lower the casket while you watch? I don’t know why, but they don’t, at least not where Piglet is buried. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I would know he was gone, you know? There’s the coffin, there’s the hole, there’s the coffin in the hole, there’s the dirt on top of the coffin, and he’s gone. On the other hand, what I remember from the cemetery is the group of family and friends who stood around with me and talked about him a little, and about the football season a little more, and the fact that it was bloody cold and maybe we all needed a drink, eh?
We trooped back to my parents’ place, where the ladies from the church and the neighbourhood had been working hard, putting together great plates of sandwiches already made, and cold cuts and cheese for the do-it-yourselfers, a couple of crock pots of meatballs and pineapple chicken, enough veggies and sour cream dip to keep a rabbit happy for weeks, and a giant bowl of fruit salad. Scattered around the living room were plates of cookies and squares, and bowls of nuts.
I noticed all this with some detachment, grateful it was there, wondering how long it would take people to eat and drink and leave me alone. I spotted a big blue bowl on the mantle, one which I didn’t recognize. Sure it wasn’t my mother’s, I walked over to the fireplace and looked in. Jelly Bellys. Tiny, sweet, multi-flavoured, little pills of happiness. Oh, god. It hurt so much to just look at them.
There was a pull on my elbow, and I looked at Mrs Sanji. “I remembered what he said, my dear. I hope bringing these was alright?” She was anxious to have done something to make me feel better, to make sure I knew my darling boy would be remembered with love and happiness. Of course, at that moment, what I wanted to do was take the blue bowl and toss it across the room and scream and scream and scream.
“Happiness? You think this stupid gift reminds me of happiness?? It breaks my fucking heart! And all you miserable, rye soaking, sandwich eating ghouls are just stomping on it!”
What I said was, “Oh, Mrs Sanji, thank you. It was so sweet of you to bring this. He would have loved it. And of course he would have picked out all the purple ones first.”
Mrs Sanji smiled and patted my arm, and walked away to join other neighbours as they whispered about the poor Mathey girl and her dead little boy and what was she going to do now.
I smiled vaguely at them all, knowing I was just one word from cracking. I turned from the fireplace and went out the garden door. I needed to catch my breath, and settle myself down a little before going back inside?
“Hey.” His voice was low but carried clearly, making me look up and around. He stood there on the other side of the garden wall, tall enough to see over, tall enough for me to see he was wearing a dress shirt and tie, a jacket, a real overcoat, nothing made of leather.
“Hey,” I said back. “I’m a little…” I didn’t know where to take that thought. Surprised? Yeah. Uncomfortable? Well, it had been a little while since he’d left town. Worried? Oh, yes. He was there, my father and the boys were just on the other side of the door. Armageddon was possible if they all met up. Happy? Well, that one shocked me, but I think maybe I was.
“I can go right now.” He gestured as if to leave.
I shook my head. “No. Come on over here, out of the wind.” I walked over to the corner of the patio, where the garden wall met the house, offering some protection from the wind, and a little more still from curious eyes in the living room. He walked around the wall, and huddled in the corner with me.
His hand reached out for mine, taking it, holding it close to his chest. “I was there this morning, you know.”
“Where? At the church? At his funeral? I didn’t see you!”
“I was at the back. It seemed best to stay there.”
“But you’re his fath- You were his father,” I corrected myself. “You should have been up front with, well, with the rest of his family.”
He shook his head. “Not much of a father, eh? I was just fine where I was.”
I looked at his face for the first time in several years. He seemed so much older to me now than he had ever been, although to my mind the difference in our ages seemed less awesome. I was 24, a childless mother, a woman who had experienced the best and worst of life already. He was 36, 37, not even really middle-aged and yet I saw an older man staring back at me.
“I know it was you.”
He just looked at me.
“I know it was you who sent the boxes of toys and books, the new winter jacket every Christmas, the tickets to baseball games for every birthday.”
“You could have included a note, a birthday card. You could have brought them by in person, helped celebrate his birthdays and Christmas.”
“Well, maybe not the first one or two,” I agreed. “I was still a little mad at you.”
“And I’m pretty sure your brothers would have killed me.”
I giggled. I laughed! At Piglet’s wake, I laughed! Which meant, of course, I started to cry. He pulled me close and held me tight, letting me cry on his new shirt and tie, waiting for the storm to pass. I pushed myself away.
“And you could have been there at the hospital with me and him.”
“And what would you have said to him when he asked why that big jerk was sitting there?”
“He knew who you were.” For the first time, he looked surprised. “I had photos of you, of us. I showed them to him, we talked about you. I told him that the boxes came from you, and weren’t you smart for knowing he loved to paint and fly kites, and for remembering my favourite authors.”
Now his eyes started to fill with tears.
“I did talk to him a couple of times.” I was startled.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Once at a ball game, when you let him go buy popcorn on his own, and once at the hospital, just this summer.”
I thought back to our visits to the ball park, and remembered the first time Piglet insisted he was going to treat me to popcorn, which of course meant going to the counter by himself, ordering and paying, and carrying the bag back to our seats in triumph. We argued a little, and then decided that, if I stood in the passage, well away from the counter, I would feel safer and he would still be in charge.
“But I was watching him,” I remonstrated. “I was watching for strangers around him. I would have seen you, wouldn’t I? Why didn’t I?”
“I was just a guy in line next to him,” he said. “We talked a little about value for money when buying popcorn versus nachos. It was a pretty grown-up conversation for a 5-year old.”
“Six,” I corrected him. “He was six. It would piss him off if you couldn’t see the difference between a baby who was five and a big kid who was six.”
“He was certainly a big kid standing in that line.” He smiled at me. “He was the biggest, strongest, bravest kid ever, eh?”
I nodded wordlessly, afraid to speak for fear of crying again. A deep breath, and then I asked him, “When did you see him at the hospital?”
“About a week before he died.”
I was truly shocked now. “But I was there with him, all the time. When did you…?
“It was in haematology. I was there to be tested, and he was wheeled in for some tests himself.”
And then I remembered. Piglet came back from having more blood drawn, less angry than usual about having more needles stuck in his tiny, bruised arm, so excited to tell me a great story about a tall man in a cool leather coat who was there to see if he could be a bone marrow donor for someone he loved. Piglet had asked him who that someone was, and I remembered the answer.
“He told me that this man said he didn’t know the person he loved who needed the bone marrow. He told me this man said it could be anyone who needed help to get well and if he could help, he would. That impressed Piglet.”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t put two and two together then. I should have known it was Karl. “It was you? You were there to be tested for him? To see if you could donate bone marrow for him?”
“I didn’t know if it would do any good, but I had to do something, anything.” I was so familiar with that feeling. “It didn’t work out, of course, but I meant what I told him. It was important to try to help.”
This was the part of Karl I had tried to share with Piglet, the guy who wanted to do the right thing even if he didn’t always. “I’m sorry.”
He was surprised. “Sorry? For what?”
“I didn’t make an effort to find you, find a phone number, call you. I should have told you he was so ill, told you to come and meet him, properly meet him. I should have given you, given him, the chance to know each other a little.”
It was still cold and windy out there on the patio, and I was shivering, not just from the weather. I could hear the garden door opening. “Hello, Karl.” It was my mother, not exactly warm but at least she wasn’t shooing him off with a broom. Or with my brothers.
“It’s too cold for you to stay here. Get in here, both of you. You look like you need a drink and something to eat.”
Karl started to protest, but my mother cut him off. “Get in here. The boys will be nice, and the neighbours need something new to gossip about.”
The war was over before the battle began, so we went inside, holding hands. Not a couple, but parents, together for once. A childless mother and father who shared pain and joy, trying to cope with a greater loss than should ever be known, dealing with an ugly gape, waiting for time to file down the bitter edges, and hoping that even without our child we would find a way to remain parents, and maybe, someday, become friends again.