Writing a memoir like Long Climb Back is tricky. Why? Well, there’s this matter of perception. You sense with your five senses from over there, through the filter of your unique brain, experiences to date, education, and the value systems you’ve either accepted or rejected from family, peers and society. The era in which you were raised plays a factor too.
Despite any confidence I had about the way I told the story of losing my husband, when I handed the manuscript to participating family and friends I did so with great trepidation.
“Uh, the night Hugh died?” my sister Jana said after reading it, “The conversation you and I had over the phone? That’s not how it went.”
Jana’s reading preferences are non-fiction and memoir, so I listened. “We had this long conversation,” she told me, “and I was waiting to hear about a crash. We talked about . . .”
I do not remember one word of this conversation. My brain deleted it. In my death-rejecting state of mind I think I’d reverted to childhood. When I spoke to Jana that night I recall thinking two things – you woke your baby sister up at 3 a.m. to hurt her, you shouldn’t have done that. When I spoke to my older brother Ray I had the complete opposite sibling feeling. He’s your protector, let him do his job. “I’m so sorry,” I recall him saying. “You two were so perfect together.” Maybe he repeated “perfect together”. Maybe not. My brain repeated it. Over and over and over.
What if we were to look at the night of Hugh’s death from a different point of view? Say that of the magnificent and towering blue spruce that grows smack-dab in the middle of our circular laneway?
I was just a little shit when Master placed me here, not long before Boy came. It was a cool morning. Cloudy. Damp. Sweet. He dug a big hole, shoved lots of peat in. Hosed water on it. When he gently set me down and scooped that stinky earth – now that I’m taller and can see further, I’m pretty sure it came from the horse farm over there – around my trunk, I could finally chill. Oh man. I stretched up and down with the full impact of life. My roots slid through the soft wet peat to give a zillion love-taps to the cold clay beyond. I drank and my soft blue needles sang.
“Hallelujah!” I thought. “I’m home.”
Back then, I had to look up to the maples along the gravel driveway. If you could get Blonde Girl 1 (BG1) and Blonde Girl 2 (BG2) to stop moving for a sec you’d see that BG1 was a bit taller than me and BG2 shorter. Boy came home in a blue-green – about my color come to think of it – vehicle that fall.
Being closer to the ground at the time, I often checked out Master’s shoes. They had this on the side: N. He always wore those. By the look of them, he ran around as much as the girls. Oh, and the other thing about him? Besides his busyness? He smiled and laughed. A lot.
And he really loved Missus. I could tell. How? By the way he looked at her. And talked to her. And once I caught them all mushed together – torsos and arms and mouths – under the stars, against the hood of that blue-green vehicle. Another thing about that vehicle? One time they came home really late, parked in front of the old garage – it’s a family room now, where Master plays this game with his buddies, with long sticks on a green table – and had to carry the kids into the house. Master forgot to close that big side door. The old Tom cat? The one who used to sharpen his claws on my trunk? I know. He’s dead now. Killed last winter. Throat ripped out by a dog. Well, guess what? He did the same thing, to a mouse, that night. Then pranced to the vehicle, jumped in and proceeded to tear that mouse to shreds, leaving body parts all over. Missus was some upset in the morning when she came out all gussied up to go to work. Oh man. Master had to clean it up.
Over the years, Master taught those kids so much. To ride little vehicles with three wheels. And bigger vehicles, with two wheels and two smaller wheels on the back. Oh, I remember the day BG2 got those two little wheels off. Rode straight into one of those tall sticks that light up at night! It was a round one in those days – there’s these fancy-schmanzy lantern ones now – and it shattered sparkly shards all over her front wheel. She burst into tears and ran into the house.
Later, there was a two-wheeled vehicle with a motor. And a four-wheeled vehicle with a motor. And then those kids got so big they got put to work. Cutting grass. On an orange vehicle with this on the side: KUBOTA. They could make that thing fly! Way faster than Master or Missus.
For a few years there was lots of bouncing of a tiny orange planet. Master and the kids. Never Missus, though. They’d run around, bouncing it and bouncing it, and then throw it into a sideways circle with a spider-webby thing hanging down, right over there beside the driveway, which is smooth and black now, by the way. The sideways circle is broken and I haven’t BG1 or BG2 much lately. And I’m so tall now that the whole family is like half my size. Who’s the little shit now? Master? Oh man.
What I’ve been getting at, anyway, is that right now is about the time Master would be climbing up this silver thing and getting Boy to help him place these green strings around my branches. Those ones with different colored little lights on them, you know? Green, red, blue and yellow?
Except this happened. Last night, all of these vehicles came in. Late. Master didn’t get out of any of them. I saw him leave with a buddy a couple of mornings ago. And here’s the thing. Except for that blue-green vehicle, like my color from years ago, Master tends to stick to black and white. He drives a huge white thing right now. Missus, a navy sporty thing. Boy? Black. The vehicles that came in last night were yellow, red, green. The people – I’ve seen them before, family people – stayed for a while in the dim house. The red one left and came back with BG1 and this long-haired guy that Master often says this to: “I can see you haven’t gotten a hair cut. A job? No? Your driver’s licence? No?” And then Master turns on his Ns and walks away. After a while, all of the colorful vehicles went away.
This morning, Missus comes out, super-early. Dawn. With Happy Puppy scampering around her feet, then squatting on my earth, fertilizing. Missus looks pale. Sad. Scared. I watch her wrapped up in her orange thing, walking down the driveway, for the package she gets from the box across the road every morning. But she doesn’t cross the road. I hear an awful sound come from her. Oh man. I’ve heard her yell before – she can have a temper when things don’t go right. But this is different. It’s an animal sound. Like when old Tom got killed by that dog. Pitiful.
Before the sound? She kept looking at the sky. I looked at it too. It’s a no-talking sky. A no-telling sky. Closed. Stinky, but not good stink like the earth Master put on me that first day of consciousness. Stinky, like when the turkey vultures are circling because there’s a rotting squirrel, or cardinal, on my earth.
Missus saw it. And I saw it too. Master flying away. Without the shoes. Without the Ns. I guess he doesn’t need them anymore.
After the animal sound from Missus? I see her on the black driveway. On her knees. Praying?
I wish I could talk. I’d tell her I will stay strong for her. I will keep growing. I will watch over her. We will be okay.
Maybe Boy will put the strings with the little colored lights in me from now on?
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