Winter, 2018–2019 / No. 42
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

The Rouge River lies below me. From the cliff looking down, I wonder how it would feel to dive into the frozen water and drift beneath the ice. If it would be any different than the helplessness I feel on the edge of this cliff, in the cold, unable to change the outcome of things. My huskies pull me away. We walk along icy trails, led by my young male, an Inuit sled dog straight from Nunavut, born to pull, to navigate precarious trails like this in winter. They lead me safely to the van, plunk down in the snow. Their job is done.

I wanted to stay out there in the valley. A deep thunder alerts the dogs, pricks up their ears. I realize it’s a train, just a train, and that trains sound different passing through the valley in winter than they do in summer. The hard, cold earth alters the acoustics out here. I want to record it so when I tell my friend he can hear what I mean. But my hands are too cold to press all the right buttons on my phone in time. So, I close my eyes while it passes and record the cadence in my head to repeat for him later when he presses his ear against mine. When we are alone and warm, talking about all things musical and mystical, sipping jasmine tea.

Jasmine berries turn black when they are ripe. My fingertips turn white when they freeze. I go to bed and I wake up and pull on my snow pants and Kodiaks, hat, scarf, and parka. I gear up the huskies, attach them to the sled. Snow fell all night and it’s deep enough to sled on the road around my neighbourhood. The neighbours smile when they see the dogs pulling me around the block. They wave, some hoot, others take pictures with their phones. Cars pull over and drivers gape. “This is awesome,” some kids say on their way to school. All passersby smile. Huskies pulling a sled in a suburban neighbourhood make people happy which makes me happy. I need to feel happy before I leave the huskies at home and head to the hospital.

It’s a different world in the Rouge Valley Health System than the Rouge Valley itself. It’s been seven weeks since my mom was admitted. She made a good friend there and lost that friend. She was buried on Sunday. I keep in touch with her daughter. We bonded like our mothers bonded. I’m on a first-name basis with the nurses. We hug when we see each other. I imagine they live in the hospital. This is their world. I can’t imagine how they could possibly balance another family outside of here, another existence. How do they have anything left to give? I imagine they don’t sleep. They are programmed this way, to work without sleep, to be caring and giving twenty-four hours a day. They are their own breed. Down to what they wear, the nurse’s uniforms, functional like animals’ coats. Each one unique, zebras, jaguars, Dalmatians, parrots. This place is its own environment: a jungle, a park, a sterile park, a deep, deep valley with no trees or rivers, just stairwells and hallways and elevators and rooms and rooms and rooms and nurse’s stations and hoteling offices for the doctors that move from one world, one universe, to another every single day.

When I’m in the hospital nothing is the same as in my outside worlds. I pass through the Rouge Valley to get here. They ploughed right through it to build this site. All this sickness surrounded by deer, skunks, squirrels, groundhogs, coyotes, foxes, woodpeckers, hawks, cardinals, snakes, turtles . . . Nature surrounds this structure, this world, this universe, full of so much poison, and there’s nothing those creatures can do to change it. Why can’t nature change what goes on inside here?

Jasmine is used to relax people, to aid in liver pain, as an aphrodisiac, to kill cancer cells. Jasmine doesn’t grow in the Rouge Valley. It is too cold here. My mother won’t eat. Before the stroke, when she did eat, she loved going to the Mandarin. She always ordered jasmine tea. I wonder if we’ll ever go to the Mandarin again.

My friend sends me a recording of a beautiful song called “Magnolia.” Then he sends me his version of the song. His guitar, his voice and rhythms. His breath. It warms me like its suddenly summer, like I blinked and the seasons changed. The days are longer, the air is skipping, there’s a sensation of chirping birds and cold beer and the smell of barbecuing, and the backyard he’s never been in lights up with his voice. I play his version for my mother; she smiles in her sleep.

I’m split across three worlds. The hospital, where I feel like a robot, a daughter robot—a daughter robot trying to emit as much love and kindness as the nurses, as much love and kindness as a robot can. I move mechanically. I have no control over anything in here. I just move from Room 4411 to the coffee shop, to the bathroom, to the chair beside my lilting mother’s side. “You’re not trying,” I say. And when the speech pathologist comes in to check on my mother’s cough, my mother points to me and says I gave it to her, when I haven’t had a cough to give. The speech pathologist tells my mother it’s not nice to blame me. Says she must go back to nectars, the thinner liquids are causing a change in her breathing. Says she must go back to pureed foods. Which causes my mother to make a face and pretend she’s shoving her finger down her throat. My mother has been nothing but successful her whole life. Regressing is not good news. For her to feel like a failure on top of the traumatic, debilitating effects of the stroke won’t stimulate her appetite. She must eat to build up her strength. “You have to eat, Mom.” She makes another face. When her food comes, she attempts to eat, for me. I promise to make her salmon, puree it, and mashed potatoes when I get back to my other world and bring it back to this world by five o’clock. Her eyes light up.

My other world is a two-bedroom bungalow in a place called West Hill, where I live with the huskies and an Epiphone parlour guitar. These are my lifelines. I leave the bungalow to waitress at a bistro by a marina. I work beside yachts and water. I enjoy my job and the women I work with. They are sweet to me, like the nurses are to my mother. They are like sisters, all of them. We are all there because we have to be, keeping roofs over our heads, making money the way we choose to. “How’s Mom,” they ask. Some days I think I answered that she was getting better, but that was a week or so ago. The new answer will be, “Not great. She’s regressing, confused, tired, won’t eat.” She’s giving up. She can’t give up. “It’s hard,” they say. It’s all they can say. They ask and that is all I need. “Lean on your friends,” my uncle says when he calls weekly. “That’s what they’re there for.” I’ve never been good at leaning on people. I lean on trees, bars, and posts at times, but not friends. I’m learning.

The third world is where the music is. It is a song. It is laughter. It is pleasure. It’s slits of blue eyes that lure me into a warm pool, water caressing my skin, water I can breathe under. Swimming. It is white flowers whose fruit turns black when it is ripe. It relaxes me. It is an aphrodisiac. It is the haunting depth of an E-minor, the melody of a velvet voice. It is the sweetness of clearing snow from my van windows when I am rushing to work, from one world to another. It is floating. It is like the greater-than-just-a-regular full moon that only shows itself every hundred and fifty years that very few get to see through clouds. It is the world that floats in and out of my bungalow, across the valley, to his world, and settles in there for a night.

The doctor calls and tells me he is concerned. If my mother doesn’t start eating, they will have to consider other methods. I wait to see if he is going to bring up the other method. He’d spoken to me about the other method before. He brings it up. “If she continues to not eat, we are going to have to put a feeding tube into her stomach. It’s not as bad as it sounds,” he says. But it is. My mother said she’d rather die than have a feeding tube. Then eat, I said to her. “I can get her to eat,” I tell the doctor. But I have no idea how I’m going to do that. The day I brought back the salmon and mashed potatoes, on a china plate with silver cutlery and a linen napkin from my other world, she didn’t even look at it. She gazed past the food and me and pointed to the clock. “Mom, I made you the salmon. I went to all this trouble.” She looked at me and said, “What?” I pushed myself away from the plate, my childhood memories pureed in front of me and landed next to the mashed potatoes. “This is how you used to make me feel all the times I tried to please you,” I said inside my head and into my fists. “Walk,” I said to myself, “go for a walk. Head into the stairwell and breathe. Come back when you are calm. It’s not her. It’s the stroke, but oh no, it is her.” Why didn’t the stroke affect that part of her brain? Before she went in, all she ever wanted to do was eat. Eat, eat, eat. I began to resent food. Food was her company. Now it is our nemesis. “It’s not conscious,” the doctor says, “it is more than likely the stroke. She hasn’t got an appetite.” Of all the things for her to lose, her new best friend, her companion, since losing my dad, her appetite. Now what?

The bistro calls to let me know it’s slow, they don’t need me. If I want the night off to stay with my mother, the call-off is mine to take. I pause, think of my dwindling bank account, the company I will miss, the escape. The huskies watch me, four dark eyes pleading with me to stay home with them. They feel my absence, the tension, wonder where I go every day. The world that doesn’t smell like the bistro, or the other world my friend occupies. They know my mother, their grandmother, is not well. They sense it. It’s in their eyes when I come home, in their loping gaits, the way they look at the phone then me when it rings and rings. The way they join me at the farthest corner of the backyard I run to, kneel and cry in the nights when I just can’t take it. The nights when I scream into the darkness, “I cannot set foot in the hospital again. I need time to myself, my time. I need to be home. I need time at home.” I take the call-off. Settle the huskies and float across the valley to spend the night with him.

Jasmine came up in a dream once. I don’t know why. It was just there, that word. Then there was a child, a fair-haired child who as she ripened, turned dark.

The nurses call my mother “Mommy.” Something she always wished I would call her. She told me once that when I was young I never took her hand—not just to cross the road, anytime. I would never take her hand. The nurses tell me how much they love her. I think they treat her better than I could ever possibly treat her. They are all better daughters than me. Look at all the things they do for her. The other day she said to me, “That one, you know the one with her hair piled on her head? She said, ‘You must have been such a kind mother. You must have been so good to your children.’” She laughed, then stopped and said, “What? What’s wrong? Well it was nice to hear someone say something nice to me.” She will miss them when she goes home. Home. What will that be for her? Where is she going? Back to her sprawling three-bedroom apartment in the Guild? Alone? Into my West Hill world, with the huskies and where my other world floats across the valley two or three times a week? The huskies lick my face and give me their paws, speak to me in howls, with their eyes and with their ears. I understand every single gesture. I prepare to navigate a new world.

My friend and I barbecue T-bone steaks under a sparkling winter sky. Stars crisp, a sliver of a moon like the curve of a fork. T-bone steak. Something my mother would have loved and eaten in a flash. I light a candle but it keeps blowing out. It’s like camping in February. Something I never would have done, but I’ve come to appreciate the winter through the huskies and a friend that keeps me warm even when he isn’t with me. At the end of the night we lie next to each other. I press my ear against his. His fingers tap out a rhythm on my bare thigh. A deep thunder. Trains in winter.

The doctor calls and tells me he is so happy with my mother’s progress. She is eating, she is eating. He tells me she wants to talk to me. “Hi, pet,” she says, in a still slightly slurred voice. She laughs a little. “I have one wish when I get out of here.” “O.K., Mom,” I say. “What’s that?” And she laughs again. “Can we go to the Mandarin?” I close my eyes, reach out my arm, imagine slipping my hand into hers. Gripping onto it and pulling her through the phone into our new world.

Alexandra Leggat is the author of The Incomparables and a teacher of creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Her short story collection Animal was short-listed for the Trillium Book Award. She first contributed to the magazine in 2000. Last updated fall, 2022.