The closer we are to dying /
Joe Fiorito.
Toronto : M&S, c1999.
321 p. : ports. ; 22 cm.
077103119X (bound) :
More Details
Toronto : M&S, c1999.
077103119X (bound) :
local note
University College Library copy (Bennett Collection) is author's inscribed presentation copy to Avie Bennett.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


North of Fort William, the cold black highway cuts across the hills, disappears in the trees, and appears again on the far edge of the lake, leading itself away, away, until it is lost in the horizon. South of town, a slow brown river draws itself past the grey scree at the foot of Mount Mackay. The river underlines a row of scrapyards and paper mills and the long docks of the grain elevators where rusty ships from Russia, China, and Poland lie at anchor.

    The wind from the east is thick with the smell of creosote and malt; the wind from the west smells of grain dust, topsoil, and sulphur. On rare bright days, the air is clean and tastes of fresh water and wet wood.

    The mountain is a small flat blade of stone.

    In summer it is blue; not as blue as the lake, but a deeper blue than the sky. In winter it is streaked with ice, and there are evenings when the great flat weight of it is lost behind a curtain of snow, or under the wet, white clouds that drift in from the mill.

    Summer blue, winter white: water, sky, and stone.

    Late at night, the freight trains rock along the tracks behind our house: chains of hopper cars piled high with reddish ore, tank cars drippping oils and acids, boxcars stacked with rolls of newsprint for the cities to the east, the south, away....

    In the darkness our small house trembles in the earth.

    I lie in bed and listen to the bells at the level crossing. I can almost hear the low voices of my parents. My father tells a story; his voice is sweet, my mother leads him on. I can hear dance tunes on the radio. The news is from elsewhere, not here.

    The train disappears in the distance.

    I rock myself to sleep.

* * *

The phone rings in the middle of the afternoon.

    My mother sounds tired, empty, a little sadder than usual. We haven't spoken in some weeks. I know what she's going to say. I've always been able to decipher her tone of voice. There are times when I find it annoying; no surprises. But knowing what the other is about to say has been our habit for years, hard-won.

    When I was not yet old enough for school, my father came home from his mail route late one afternoon. He'd been drinking. It was payday. There were bills due at the B&B Grocery. But he'd been buying rounds at the Victoria Hotel because he was thirsty and he'd earned the right to a drink, and the Vic was close to the post office where he worked. Now he was home, he was broke, he was lightly drunk and chipper.

    My mother lost her patience. They began to squabble.

    "You have no right to drink beer when there isn't enough money to put food on the table! I'll have a drink when I want a drink, god damn it. You can't tell me what to do . I'll tell you what to do when it comes to this house and these kids. Ah to hell with it, and to hell with you, I'm getting out of here . That's right, you coward, run away."

    Dusty made for the door. And when his back was turned my mother slapped at him, she pounded his shoulders, she reached for the hair on the back of his head. He turned to fend her off. She tried to claw his cheek. He slapped her in return.

    I was sitting on the couch with my arm around my brother; he was too afraid to cry. We watched. And then something seemed to snap in Dusty. "Jesus wept!" My father tore off his belt and began to whip her. He hit her arms, he hit her shoulders, the thin belt raised red welts.

    Grace fought back. And then he dropped his belt and his hands were at her throat and he was choking her now. She was a fish out of water in his hands, wriggling, gasping for air. He squeezed her neck, and she made a choking sound, and then she weakened and her legs began to buckle.

    And I knew he was killing her.

    I jumped from the couch and ran across the room and leapt on his back. Don't hurt my mother, don't hurt my mother, don't you hurt her . I clung to his shoulders. He tried to shake me off. I wasn't sure if he'd turn on me but I didn't care if he did. She might be able to break free.

    And then he let her go.

    He reached behind and grabbed me; he lifted me up and looked me in the eye. I didn't care what he might do. I looked back. As if he remembered something, he set me down on the floor and picked up his belt. My mother staggered to her feet.

    She couldn't sob, she couldn't make a noise. He threaded his belt through the loops of his pants. She held her hands to her bruised throat. He stalked into their bedroom. I could hear him swear as he rifled through a couple of pairs of pants in his closet, looking for pocket change, nickels and dimes, anything, enough for one more beer. And then he left the house. He did not slam the door. I flinched anyway.

    I returned to the couch and put my arms around my brother. My mother looked at me. There was a sort of calculation in her eyes, an appraisal of her pup. She went to wash her face. Years later, she said I'd saved her life. I probably had. The rest is blank.

    No, that's not entirely true.

    From that moment on, I knew how to read her. And I knew there was something in my father that was easily, and unpredictably, unleashed. He was capable of anything, at any time, for any reason.

    The next day, he behaved as if nothing had happened.

    And I began to study him. If I sensed a certain brooding, if the air around him was charged, if there was a scent of alcohol in his sweat, I hushed my brother and plotted the route of my own escape. I glanced at my mother every time he came home.

    We shared the intuition of prisoners.

Not long after my father had tried to strangle my mother, my smallest brother became ill with whooping cough. It seemed to me, as I lay in bed and listened, that he was not going to get better. At night he fought for breath with elastic and horribly liquid gasps; every time he got a lungful of air, he coughed raggedly out of control.

    I tried not to listen. When the night train went by, the rhythm of it lulled me briefly to sleep, even through his coughing. But I woke this night when my mother opened the door to our bedroom and plucked him from his crib. A shaft of light from the hall lay in pieces on my bed. I heard the voices of my parents. I'd heard them fight before. My brother coughed, as if to interrupt them with his helplessness. I thought he must be dying.

    I got out of bed. My mother was in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea. She looked exhausted.

    "Where are they? Where's Dad?"

    "On the front porch"

    "What for?"

    "The air is cooler; it's easier to breathe out there"

    My father was sitting in the darkness on the top step, cradling my brother in his arms. My brother was bundled in a blanket. It was unusual to see my father hold him like that, unusual because, although he held us and kissed us often, he also beat us. Daily solace was my mother's job.

    I sat beside them, holding my arms around my knees for warmth. The stars seemed to be made of glass needles. The night air was thinner, but my brother's coughing continued.

    Finally my father placed my brother in my lap. He rose and went into the house. For cigarettes, I thought. I was glad to help, but unsure of what to do if my brother began to cough again.

    Dusty returned with a mug of whisky cut with hot water, lemon, and sugar, a feather of its warmth rising in the air. It smelled good, but it frightened me. I'd thought whisky was bad; it changed my father. When he drank, he couldn't stop until it was all gone. It made him wild, it made him weep. He spooned some into my brother's mouth.

    "Why are you giving him that?"

    "It will help him relax. If he relaxes, he'll be able to breathe, and if he breathes easily, maybe he'll fall asleep. He needs to rest if he's going to get better." I said nothing. My father must have sensed childish disapproval. "I did the same for you, when you were small."

    I nodded, as if I remembered.

    Between gasps, my brother managed to swallow some of the sweetened alcohol. He coughed, he swallowed, he coughed again, but after a time the whisky did its job. Dusty had succeeded where my mother had failed, somehow.

    I imagined myself, a child his arms. I considered what I couldn't understand. He'd tried to kill her; I'd saved her life. She and I were complicit. But when he held my brother, he won my heart. I knew he loved me. I didn't doubt it. I didn't trust it. But I knew it.

    I asked for a taste of the whisky, heady, tart with the lemon, and still warm. He gave me a drink.

    I came inside, and looked at my mother.

    She knew.

* * *

When the phone rang in the middle of that afternoon, my mother merely said hello; it was all she had to say. I understood at once that my father was about to die. There had been no warning; none was needed. He'd been ill for some time.

    "How bad is he?"

    "You'd better get here right away."

    I had read the tone of her voice correctly, but intuition is not a reliable way to learn details. I pressed her for information.

    She sighed, relieved to recount the specifics. Dusty had been taken to the hospital a few hours earlier. He was delirious. He couldn't speak. He'd collapsed and shit himself. The ambulance had come. And the neighbours had peered out their windows. The doctor said he would not live long.

    Yes, he was in pain. Yes, he could talk. No, he wasn't making sense. Yes, he was getting plenty of medication; that was why he was delirious. No, there was nothing more to do. He was dying now.

    You'd better get here and see for yourself.

    I very nearly said, "He's getting what he's always wanted."

    I said no such thing. I kept my mouth shut. Each of us makes a different set of calculations, and pays a different price, in order to make a life and endure the love of the one with whom we've chosen to live. She'd suffered her own losses and had made her own deals with him, the details of which had long since ceased to be my business. She said he had a few weeks to live, perhaps only a few days.

It's always been difficult for me to go back. I feel as if I am entering the half-light of remembered deaths.

    My aunt Jo spent her last months tied to an oxygen tank. The last time I saw her, she lay in her bed; there were tubes in her nose, her thin hair was sweaty and plastered to her forehead. The visit was an awkward intimacy in a small house. She did not want to be seen in her nightie. She did not want to be seen dying. I reached for her hand; she turned her head away.

    When my uncle Dave was diagnosed with cancer, he scraped up some money and went to Mexico for laetrile treatments. He came home pretending to have hope. He ate vitamins by the fistful, he changed his diet, and his hair turned from grey to coal black. He died gaunt, but radiant. Dave's wife, Millie -- they'd split up years before -- returned to his side, sat by his bed, and read to him from the Rubaiyat. She died a few years later.

    My aunt Tree spent her last years in a nursing home. Her room was eight feet wide by twelve feet long. She was unable to speak or walk or use her left hand after her stroke. But she could purse her lips; "Mmm. Mm-mm." It seemed she lived like that forever. Dusty would visit her from time to time. He'd tell her stories, and he'd sing the old songs: " Ay compa're, i voi sonare, i chi sona u mandolina. E coma chi sona u mandolina, a-plink, a-plink, u mandolin', a-tippity, tippity, ta ." Tree couldn't speak, but -- a small miracle common among some of those who've had a stroke -- she could sing along. It was as if she needed the music of another voice to fred her own. And then she died.

    My uncle Frank eroded slowly, the way a mountain loses the form of its shoulders to the weather and is blown away. He raged, he lost his eyesight, he imagined himself surrounded by schemes and plots and betrayals. He had ninety years of dying.

    For a time, it seemed that I only returned home for funerals.

    Each one diminished my father. He grew quieter. He'd been the baby, and the others had now gone where he would have to go. With each death, he was a little more alone.

    At the funerals, I wanted to ask if he heard what I heard, gazing at the gentle wreckage of those who remained, a kind of ticking: not much time, not much time, not much time .

    I lived far away in the Arctic, on the prairies, in Quebec. The life of an exile. When the phone rang at an odd hour, it always struck me like an alarm clock: time's up .

    His time was up.

While there was no unfinished business between my father and me -- we'd come to terms with each other long ago -- there was now this one thing left to do. I would go home. I would sit by his side and take his hand. If he had things to say, I'd listen. If he gave up hope, I'd reassure him. If he lost his faith, I'd tell him faith didn't matter. And if he wanted a drink, and could keep it down, I'd pour it for him. There was no need to grieve; he was about to die. I wanted to watch. I wouldn't have saved him if I could. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

    I swept my work away and bought a plane ticket.

Row 17, Seat A. I know the flight path by heart. I've made the trip often enough.

    The airplane makes a beeline as it skims across the water, aiming for the town. It comes in low over the tops of the mills, passes across the face of Mount Mackay and makes a wide, sweeping turn as it approaches the runway. I look out the window as we descend. Below is the graveyard where my grandparents are buried. There are new rows of headstones every year, and they are like the stones the frost lifts from a farmer's field.

    The old house is filled with the invisible embers of memory. I know where the bed was when my youngest brother leapt up and fell on a forgotten kitchen knife. I can see the corner of the basement where my oldest brother curled into a ball after Dusty beat him senseless. With my eyes closed, I can find the hole in the bedroom door made by the rasp my next-youngest brother threw at my head; had I not slammed the door, the hole would have been between my eyes. I can show you where Dusty's piano stood. And there, just inside the front door, is where Grace fell when he was choking her.

    My son is flying in from Vancouver. I haven't seen him in a year. He is lean and handsome, and he was exceptionally close to my father. He has no idea of what is about to happen; no idea of what to expect of me, of his grandmother, or of Dusty.

    My son is full of sap; death is new to him.

    But he is here and, along with my mother and my brothers, we make plans to divide the day into a twenty-four-hour death watch at the hospital. I take the graveyard shift. I don't call it that in front of the rest of the family, nerves are too frayed. But I insist on sitting up nights. My brothers work during the day, they need to sleep at night. I've taken time away from my job, and besides I'm used to late duty, odd hours.

    I have another reason.

    My father was always the last one to go to bed. He came home late, he stayed up late. He dozed, he woke, he smoked. If he had company, he wanted to talk. He told the family stories, fragments from the time of his parents, the adventures of my uncles.

    As a child, I'd listened eagerly.

    Later, when I was in my teens, I shut my ears because I was full of resentments and I thought he was full of shit, with his endless ribbon of myth about our origins, the whisper of old murders, and the tales of those who had died before I was born.

    He spoke of his mother and father, his brother Tony, the things he'd been told about the old count, his tales of the Depression. When I moved away from home, I found myself going over these old stories in my head. I knew now I'd never hear them again. He was dying.

    This was my last chance.

This item was reviewed in:
Globe & Mail, October 1999
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