In my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees (Goose Lane, 2011), there are many brief meditations on time. As I was writing that book, my parents and parents-in-law were fading, and then dying. In the fall of 2009, my father (with whom I had a complicated but not unloving relationship) was in the process of leaving the earth. Well, he was, and he wasn’t. I’d left my home on the Sechelt Peninsula several times in early fall to visit my mother in Victoria and assist her with arrangements for my father; he’d gone into hospital with a whole lot of medical issues (prostate cancer, dementia, plain ill-humour…) and with my help, and (more usefully, I think) the help of my brothers, we were trying to find a placement for him a long-term care facility. This coincided with a trip John and I had planned for ages — two weeks in Paris, a week in the south of France, and two weeks in Venice. My older brother Dan urged me to take the trip. We had a plan in place and there wasn’t much I could do — and it seemed that he might go on until the New Year in any case. I went to Victoria, held his hand (though he didn’t know me at that point), helped my mum with some stuff, and then went to France. I called at regular intervals and by the time we were in Venice, it seemed that my father was truly dying. It was strange to try to figure out the time difference and the logistics of who would be where at a particular time of the day. Should we phone my mum? Or my brother Dan (who was in Victoria)? Or my daughter Angelica, who lived in Victoria and who was helping her grandmother? Should I fly back to Canada? They all said no. (Do I feel guilty about this? Oh yeah.)
In Mnemonic, I wrote this, in a section called “In Venice, a death”:
O the metaphysics of time: that I could stand at a phone kiosk on the Campo San Pantalon, calling my mother on a Saturday evening in November to reach her as she drank her morning coffee. “I won’t lie to you,” she told me. “He has a cough that the nurses say means he will probably die this weekend.” Her weekend was beginning was mine was half-finished.
I remember that time so vividly. I’d never been to Venice before though John had and it was so beyond what I’d ever imagined. People talk about the smell. In November there was no smell, beyond the drift of strong coffee from the little bars, the rich dense scent of history in every church or palace, the beautiful odour of gardens on Torcello as we walked from where we’d been let off by the vaporetto and then the dim smell of stone in Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (built in 639) and the 12 c. Santa Fosca where I lit a candle for my father (he was a very lapsed Catholic but candle wax is a powerful link to him and his religious paradoxes).
And when I called again, from the Campo San Pantalon, which was just opposite the little pension where we were staying, with its own glorious church, it was to discover that my father had died the night before. But what day? It was night for me, morning in Victoria, and they were talking about the previous night. I tried to grapple with my sense of time. What had I been doing? Where was I? Were the candles in time, or too late? Did the smoke mean anything in the cool November air on Torcello where cats prowled as we walked the path and where we stopped for a glass of prosecco for the pleasure of sitting at a small table and writing into our respective notebooks?
Time is again on my mind as I wait for the birth of my first grandchild, due any time now. I think of the baby’s father (my son) and how I was so impatient for his birth. I wrote a poem for him, which was printed on his birth announcement, and in it I confess to impatience:
Every day I vacuum and clean,
make sure your clothes are ready.
Please come. I wake in the morning
from dreams of you, I love you,
you are curled up back to my heart…
Today a note from the grandchild’s mother assured me she is comfortable and relaxed. So I tidied the linen shelves, sorted out what I wanted to keep and what I no longer needed (single sheets from the years when my children slept in bunk-beds or their own narrow pine-framed beds). I aired and refolded the sweet-smelling linen (sachets of lavender!) and organized the shelves for the next chapter of our lives.
How quickly those previous chapters have concluded themselves! My father five years gone, some of his ashes under a copper beech I planted in honour of his father’s birthplace: Bukovina, “place of beeches”. My mother who followed him, exactly a year later, and some of whose ashes have joined him there. I still see the tiny bone fragments when I water. My children gone out into the world, their pine beds given away, and now the old sheets tucked into a bag for the thrift store. And in the thread of time that is always now, we are waiting for the new child to join the family, a basket of blankets and quilts ready for its bed.