“I swear,” my father said. “It was a religious experience.”
He didn’t then tell me he found the Virgin Mary’s image in a grilled cheese sandwich, or smoked peyote and chatted with a burning bush or anything, although I’ll admit I had hoped he would. We as a family regularly misuse the term religious, due to the fact that we are devout agnostics.
He was talking about zipping through the winding roads on the outskirts of Poltimore, Quebec. Bobbing along to folk tunes as he made his way to Lake Cardinal, more specifically the family cottage sitting up on the hilltops that border it.
Every time he arrived back home from the cottage he looked enlightened. He always came bearing new philosophies, having been freshly inspired by the silence and fresh air. I had been too young during most of my visits to fully appreciate that little bungalow in the middle of the woods. Too young to notice the small lapping sounds the lake made before I went barreling into it.
As I got older, my visits became less and less frequent, and were replaced with the retellings of my father’s “religious experiences.” After a while I became envious; I wanted one of my own.
I like to believe that was what drove me to finally join him. I almost didn’t go that day. My brother had left for work, and I entertained the idea of having the house to myself for the day.
But it had been a solid two or three years since my last visit. A full-time job, homework, and flat-out anxiety usually kept me away.
I should mention that I am completely intimidated by my mother’s side of the family. To say that my father, brother, and I are the black-sheep of the Lafontaine clan is an understatement. Don’t get me wrong - they love us Myers; but lacking the trademark Lafontaine nose is not the only thing that divides us.
The Lafontaine family are a conservative bunch, most likely the ripple-effect of having more than half of the original members picked off by alcoholism. The Myers, on the other hand, are too outspoken for their own good: To put it mildly, we’re shit-disturbers. While my father had broken through this divide, I had not. I would mostly find myself a wallflower among those with whom I should feel the most comfortable. Never knowing what to say, holding onto an irrational fear of bringing shame to the Myers name. I felt different, and unable to find even a scrap of common ground. Even though there was one glaring similarity that I never thought to factor in.
The whole ride, memories flooded back as I predicted each turn and landmark with surprising accuracy. The run-down dépanneurs and auto shops that blended seamlessly into forest, the small family ranches and farms which faded into the occasional Colonial-style home, and ended with the lake amidst cottages ranging from decadent to shack-like. Ours was a nice blend of both, virtually untouched since 1999, the only additions being central heating, and the luxury of indoor plumbing.
All of the cottages are hidden in the trees, and you have to keep your eyes peeled for openings in the brush; those openings are the dirt driveways. We would miss ours every time, until my Great Aunt Lynne stuck a wooden loon in the dirt to signal us.
My Great Aunt Lynne, who we just call Aunty Lynne - as I said earlier, there are not many Lafontaines left. So we went ahead and bumped everyone up a spot in the family tree; great aunts became aunts, second cousins, or second cousins twice removed, became cousins, and so on.
Aunty Lynne was always the first to pop her head out to say hello whenever we arrived. You would never guess by appearance alone that she was not in fact a Myers. We share the same tanned skin and dark hair, hers now thoroughly salt and peppered, much like my father’s. But alas! She is a Lanfontaine, married in by way of my Great Uncle Ben. The dead give-away is her undeniable French accent. Lynne is through and through a Quebecois, and can make a tourtière to prove it.
To be honest, I never knew how to approach her. One second she could be laughing and playfully quipping with my father. The next, her face could go deadpan and down to business: be it scrubbing dishes or finishing dinner. In this case, informing my father that her brother, Thomas St. Louis, was by the water taking measurements for the new dock. I felt my feet tingle, bringing back one too many images of my pouting face in the bathroom mirror as splinter after splinter was plucked out.
Most of the morning, and well into the afternoon, I spent curled up in a lawn chair, sitting atop the hill reading and looking out onto the lake. Aunty Lynne would pop up occasionally, and did not quite know how to keep conversation going beyond basic check-in questions, at least no more than I did. So, she mostly kept to herself inside the cottage.
Thomas and my father were well hidden by the brush that coated the slope down to where they were by the water, so I felt very much on my own.
That’s when I finally heard it. The silence, only broken by the sound of the wind creeping through the trees, and the far-off snap of twigs made by the unseen creatures that roamed within them. I breathed in the fresh air. I felt calm.
“Could you put the tourtière in the oven?”
Lynne’s voice snapped me out of my thought, and I felt my stomach tighten.
“Sorry?” I don’t know why I apologized. I had heard her perfectly.
“At 350, put it in the oven please? So it’s ready for lunch."
I remember feeling a wave of relief, seeing the meat pie make it unscathed to the kitchen table, where it accompanied breads, meats, and cheeses.
I had done my part to help out, to feel like part of the scene, without doing much at all, simply putting a pie into the oven. I could sit in the quaint kitchen, and examine the many trinkets and much loved tacky cottage décor pieces that decorated the walls, having saved myself from suffering the embarrassment of fucking up lunch.
I enjoy family meals because you can sit and munch away without saying much. I didn’t have to be reminded that my family did not know how to approach me, and that I did not know how to approach them. I tuned into the conversation here and there, as talk of renovations, and memories of long nights around the bonfire, floated about between sounds of chewing.
It was only when Lynne mentioned that the cottage always brought back memories of her daughter Ashley, and of the literal buckets of sangria she would make, that Thomas spoke up.
It was the first time I had heard Thomas speak more than a few mumbled words. Any details I had ever known about him were hearsay. Only whispers here and there of a sordid past that I had chalked up to a couple of failed marriages, and enjoying the bottle a little too much.
I had no idea of the story he would go on to tell. I had never heard the name Antony before, let alone what had happened to him.
Fifteen years earlier, Thomas had sipped his coffee, preparing for the drive ahead of him. Even after two cups, he was still groggy from being awoken by his son Antony’s phone call the night before.
“Can you come get me?” Antony asked.
“By the time I get there it will be too late to make the drive back. I’ll come get you tomorrow morning.” Thomas told him.
As Thomas was finishing his third cup of coffee, the phone rang again. Except the voice on the other end was not Antony’s.
The voice verified that they were in fact speaking with Thomas.
It told Thomas to sit down.
The voice told Thomas that his son was dead.
It explained that Antony had hung himself during the night.
As his story came to a close, he fumbled with something inside his coat pocket. I only realized he was retrieving pills when he knocked his head back and swallowed.
I glanced around the table. That’s when another memory hit me.
July 15, 2011, Lynne was taking in the July heat by the lake. She tried to spend as much of the summer at the cottage as she could, disappearing there for weeks at a time with Ben. She heard the phone ring, but let it go to the machine. It rang a second time, but it would be the third round that caused Lynne to trek up the hill to see what all the commotion was about.
“Yes, how are you Catherine?” Lynne recognized her neighbour’s voice without caller ID.
“Lynne, there are two police officers at your house, they’re looking for you. You should come home.”
Lynne and Ben made the 45-minute trip home in just over a half-hour that day. They came home to the two police officers, who would ask them to take a seat on the couch before they began their speech.
Ashley, at only 32, was found dead in her bed that morning.
It was only after the autopsy that the family would find out she had died due to an enlarged heart. Which we went on to conclude as poetically fitting, because Ashley was one of the most kind, vibrant and giving people you could have ever meet.
Without having to retell her story, we all knew that’s all Lynne was thinking as Thomas concluded his own tale of tragic loss.
That was when I really looked at everyone I was sitting with that afternoon. We all shared the same expression, which can only be described as downright lost. It’s a look I’ve seen too many times when I caught my reflection time and time again.
I was more like my family that I could have ever known.
May 26, 2013 2:23 AM, my father shook me awake.
“Come now,” he said.
I shot up and trailed him into the master bedroom.
This moment was five years in the making, but a moment I had convinced myself I would never actually have to consider, let alone face.
Minutes earlier I was told to lie down and get some rest after spending the day by my mother’s bedside, talking with her even though she was well beyond able to respond. The nurses told me she could hear me, but could only manage small gasps and movements in return. I like to tell myself I still knew what she was trying to say without words. Deep down, I know it to be true.
It was only when I finally started to nod off that my father burst through my bedroom door.
At around 2:30 AM, holding her hand and whispering into her ear that I loved and will always love her, my mother lost her battle with colorectal cancer. After five long years of chemotherapy, holidays spent in the hospital, and nothing but strength and grace on her part, she let go. She could hold on no longer, as much as we all know she tried.
Once you lose someone, someone you never thought in a million years could just be gone, who you were before that second in time dies with them. The part of your brain that comprehends your world reboots. The things you originally believed are wiped out, because in the most macabre way, you finally understand the phrase, “anything can happen.” Good or bad.
Some people recover their old selves more than others.
For the first few days afterward, after shock subsides, the world seems new. You rediscover everything and see it with depressively serene eyes. As time goes on, the safety net of hope and ignorant bliss returns. But you never forget. It leaves you with a glazed expression whenever you become lost inside memories of the final moments of your loved one, and of your former self.
I don’t think anyone finished their lunch. All I remember after that is tossing my book into the back seat of the car before my father and I said our good-byes and took off like nothing happened.
To everyone else, it was just another afternoon at the cottage. They had learned what I realized that afternoon a long time ago.
“That was crazy,” I said for the fourth or fifth consecutive time. “I never knew that about Thomas. Our family is cursed.”
“No more than anyone else’s,” My father joked. We can never stay serious for more than an hour, I swear.
My mind was buzzing, my stomach somersaulting in time with every broad bend in the road on our way back to the real world.
Passing through the trees, and into civilization I found myself reflecting on what had just transpired. Understanding that I may not be able to trigger a lively discussion with my extended family, but I can find solace in knowing their looks are not of judgment, but of quiet contemplation. That they are not looking at me but right through me, into their memories, just as I do with them.
The death of our former selves gave me that scrap of common ground, but the discovery of this fact taught me something much more important.
We are all still here. A part of us may have passed with our loved ones but in the end we survived. We are still able to laugh, we are still able to cry, and we are still able to put tourtières into ovens at three hundred and fifty degrees.
Then, like a tap on my shoulder, I noticed a bobby little folk tune playing on the radio.