Edmonton was a growing city, the capital of Alberta. There would be no horses, no hills and fields to ride in, no freedom; yet I never heard her complain about being a mother or about being ill.
Mom was the center of my universe. I loved her so much. There were no words for it then or now. Sometimes, she would keep me home from school because, she told me, she wanted to spend more time with me. We would talk and talk. Sometimes, when she wasn’t so sick, we’d go across the street to Millie Saluke’s house for tea and cake. I was best friends with Pam Saluke, Millie’s daughter.
I was angry at everyone in my family for never telling me that mom was dying. They must have known. The anger still surges up in me from time to time. Even at 12, a kid has the right to know the truth. I was an honor student. I was smart. I could think for myself. No one ever talked about Mom. It would be 20 years before I could mention her in a conversation with my sister, Donna. To this day, over 40 years after her death, I have never talked to my brother, Ken, about her. It’s like a cloud of secrets.
Dad, like I said, went crazy. Donna and Ken were gone, living with their new families in their new homes. I was left with an unmedicated, armed and loaded father.
I didn’t know what a nervous breakdown was at the time. I did know that I had to eat. I was going to school, trying to maintain my straight A grades, on an empty stomach. Dad wasn’t working. I would say goodbye to him in the morning, as I left for the school bus, and he wouldn’t acknowledge me. He was hiding between his bed and the bedroom wall, in a cocoon of blankets and pillows, smoking one cigarette after another. I always wondered whether there would be a house to come home to or if it would be spared another day from a blaze.
The day came when I needed to do something. I needed to eat. I went to the doorway of his room and asked him if he was ever going to come out and do some grocery shopping. I was taking a chance. Maybe, if he was irritated enough with me, he would come out. I wouldn’t step in to the room. It stank of stale cigarette smoke. A solid mass of stink. Still no response, except for the sound of another Export A cigarette being drawn from its package and a Zippo Air Force lighter being flicked open. More smoke rose from within his fort. A shotgun poked its nose out.
I used up everything in the cupboards and fridge and was asking friends at school to share their bag lunches of peanut butter and jam sandwiches with me. I must have lived that way for at least a month until, finally, I came home from school to find Dad putting on his jacket and shoes. “We’re going to Safeway,” he said. “Put your books down, and go open the garage door for me.”
“Do you need more cigarettes?” I asked, taking a step back, afraid that I might upset him with a question. He didn’t even look at me. That was good. It meant he wasn’t going to try to come near me. He continued to tie up his shoes in his precise, perfectionist way while taking drags off the cigarette stuck to the skin of his bottom lip.
I was so thrilled to be going grocery shopping for the first time since my mother’s death. When we got to Safeway, I couldn’t control myself. I wanted everything. I was starving. Thankfully, he wanted more than cartons of cigarettes. Dad bought two shopping carts full of food. I don’t know where he got the money from. He hadn’t been able to afford Mom’s funeral, and he hadn’t worked for months.
Two of everything went in the cart: two cans of tomato soup, two cans of beef soup, two bottles of milk, two pounds of butter, two loaves of bread, two bunches of carrots, two bags of potatoes. I could understand the food. There were, after all, two of us living in the house. But in the housewares section it was two mops and two buckets (why, I didn’t know, since we already had cleaning supplies from when Mom was alive), and two electric can openers.
“Why do we need two electric can openers?” I asked. Too late. I shouldn’t be so disrespectful.
“In case one breaks,” was his reply. He didn’t look at me, and kept looking at the electrical appliances. Considering he was an electrician, I wondered why he couldn’t fix it himself. Was he so crazy that he had forgotten how to connect wires? I didn’t say anything. But I thought about how long it would take for a can opener to break and why one wasn’t enough. If he couldn’t fix it, we could buy another one when we needed it.
It did make sense, though, if Dad decided to go back behind his bed and not come out again. I might need the extra can opener. But then, didn’t we already have a can opener on the wall over the kitchen sink? And another one in the drawer that we used for picnics? I didn’t realize how many more times over the next five years I would try to rationalize his mixed-up, manic behavior.