September 23, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Nancy Huggett
What can I tell you about John, the third and oft-forgotten child? As a baby, he was tow-headed, hated sand, ate only hot dogs and floppy cheese. He could roll his stomach like a belly dancer, combed his long eyelashes after every bath, and by 13 had more than 200 Richie Rich comic books stashed beneath his bed. He was quick, but no one noticed, and always distracted and now I think, enchanted by the world around him. He would pay no attention, then tell you everything that he had just heard, seen, touched. Words flapped endlessly from his mouth. He used peanut butter to bribe the dog to sleep with him. He constantly bartered to crawl over the back seat of the Wagoneer into the front to exit from my mother’s door. “Nancy came out of your stomach, can’t I at least come out of your door?” His mind wrapped the adoption around his self like a cloak to sustain and define him. And in the end, protect him. Which I had failed to do.
Unknowingly, of course. Because at 16, what did I know of my own power to protect or influence? Sixteen, 10 years older than his small six-year-old self, is when I blithely, gladly, desperately left for university. Leaving him with: a suicidal and abusive brother, a recovering alcoholic mother, and a very active alcoholic father. All clothed in the finest and most respected linen of the Montreal establishment.
I abandoned him, he tells me now, with a rueful smile. And I am caught off-guard.
He has brought me to the golf club for dinner after our meeting with the lawyers to finish up portions of my mother’s complicated estate. I look at him and out across the links and the distant pool where we spent our childhoods. Faint memories cascade of a life I, in the end, did not choose, that he continues to chase—golf clubs, locker rooms with attendants, country houses in the Eastern Townships. Names roll off his tongue that he wants me to remember, but I don’t. Generations of families in Anglican churches and ancient golf clubs and hallowed private school halls.
I resist the older-sister urge to chastise or mock him for his excesses. Because today we are tender with each other, open, sharing confidences and memories. Laughingly grateful that we were the ones left to shepherd my mother through a difficult death in an uncaring palliative care hospice; that everyone else more troublesome—father, brother—had already died and it was just us raising and lowering the bed rails, wiping her lips with water, fussing with the flowers. “We were a good team,” I say, “you and I.” “Thank God it was us!” says John, and we giggle. Each imagining some other disastrous scenario. But we were both attentive carers and quick to laugh at our own ineptitude. We took turns easily, bringing a favourite painting, a grandchild, a sweater. Took turns escaping outside for a coffee, a smoke. Took turns running to the empty nurses’ station looking for help as Mum’s agitation exploded; never leaving the other too long alone in that netherworld of transition. That long last night we watched her picking at the bedclothes, straining up and looking into the corner as if some apparition was calling her. Who? we wondered, as we peered together up to where the ceiling met the wall. What’s up there? Agitated, she tossed and turned and groaned in deep pain and we looked at each other, brother, sister, terrorized, humanized, tied by this final act of accompaniment. Tied by everything but blood, and that is more than enough.
After dessert, he confesses. “I stole your pen.” I am confused. What pen? “Your fountain pen. Your favourite fountain pen. When you were getting ready to go to university. You loved that pen.”
I am remembering. I wrote bad poetry and kept a journal and wrote with a fountain pen. A black Parker fountain pen with a silver uptake hinge for the ink. I had an ink pot and blue stained fingers and sat at an ancient desk overlooking the backyard. I begin to meander through the memory of me at 16 that John has triggered.
“I stole your pen because I knew you would never leave without your pen. And then you did.” He looks at me. “I was sure you wouldn’t leave without your pen.”
We are both silent. My world shifts and I see the little six-year-old John lying under his blue duvet in his bedroom. Me, nightly, standing at the other end of the long hallway waiting for him to tell me he is ready. I count down and at “blast off” careen down the carpeted hallway and catapult onto his bed, threatening suffocation but landing gently tenderly on his little boy body. I remember how I blessed him before I even knew what blessing was.
“Night night,” I now whisper into the carpeted hush of the mahoganied golf club dinning room. “Night night,” he whisper-repeats back. “Bye bye; Bye bye. See you; See you. Love you; love you.” The old litany rolls off our lips without effort. Then we turn to look out the window at the setting sun streaking over the cool green links. I see that little boy’s reflection in the glass and wonder if he can forgive my naïve adolescent abandonment.
The black-clad waiter gently interrupts our private musings with the bill in its slim leather folder. John pulls a pen from his pocket and signs it with his signature flourish, practiced over many years of elite club membership. Then slowly places the pen on the white linen tablecloth and pushes it toward me, all the way across the table. It’s a fountain pen. A black Parker fountain pen with a silver uptake hinge.
Nancy Huggett is a settler descendant who writes, lives, and caregives in Ottawa, Canada on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people. Thanks to Firefly Creative, Merritt Writers, and not-the-rodeo poets, she has work out/forthcoming in Literary Mama, The Forge, Pangyrus, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly, and Waterwheel Review.