My mother died of ovarian cancer when I was 12, just as I was entering puberty. I wasn’t allowed to see her for the last two weeks of her life, nor was I told she was dying, even though she had been ill since I was 4.
Other moms did things with their kids. Yes, we went on the occasional picnic at Pembina River or Storyland Valley Zoo. I wouldn’t have remembered if it weren’t for the photos that came my way a few years ago. My mother usually stayed in bed, in her and Dad’s dark bedroom with the curtains drawn and vomited. Again and again. I didn’t realize that it was an effect of the chemotherapy. I just hated the smell of the sickness, the sound of gallons of fluid coming up and out of her wasted guts, and the Lysol deodorizer used to clean the mess.
Dad did that. The cleaning, that is. My dad went crazy. He was always a joker and a teaser. I never liked that. I probably should have called the police on him for the things he did to me after Mom died. I was left alone in the house with him. My older brother and sister had already left home and gotten married while still in their teens. I guess it was a way for them to get out of the house and away from the sick.
Richard Evans met my mom, Frances, on a bus in Lethbridge at the end of World War II. My aunt Lucille, Mom’s younger sister, recently told me that it was love at first sight for him. He told Mom, as soon as he sat down on the bus next to her, that he was going to marry her. Lucille also says that Mom had a great sense of humor. The first time I heard this was 40 years after her death. I am sad that I never got to experience it. She was so sick all the time.
She must have been attracted to Dad’s playfulness and promise of a new life in the city of Edmonton, in northern Alberta, away from the daily grind of post-war farm life. There must have been some reason for her to put her life in the hands of a man who would come to depend on lithium.
It must have been hard for her to live in the city. It was a six-hour drive from her home that sat on top of a coulee, where she and her two sisters would ride their horses and swim in the cool stream on hot summer days.
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.