By: Johanna Skelly
On a chrome-cold winter’s morning, I look up at the overpass. A commuter train is rocketing across my line of vision. The inter-play of golden-thin, early-morning sun and billowing exhaust fumes from a lineup of cars combine to imprint the image of the train as plummeting through clouds of steam. Of course, it isn’t. It’s merely a trick of the light. But this is my memory, as frozen as twigs encased in ice, the scene glittering and beautiful.
It is the morning of her death.
My brother called very early today, to give me the news, and this morning, as I’m about to drive under the train bridge, I feel her racing away, in beauty and in light, in billowing clouds of cold air. It makes me swell with understanding and I rejoice and grieve for her.
I didn’t know her well, my brother’s wife. Their marriage, commonly referred to as “a shotgun wedding”, was a hasty joining of two contrasting personalities and discordant needs, for which my younger self had no sympathy or understanding. A ten-year difference in our ages meant my brother was married, with a child on the way by the time I was eleven. He entered the realm of the grownups, lost to me.
His wife was a small-town girl, who threw herself into motherhood and wife-hood, striving, her whole life, to make amends. My mother never spoke of her without a sniff of dismissal, a frown of censure. I grew up having unconsciously absorbed my mother’s disapproval of her.I remember my rare visits to see my brother and his wife as strained; they, mismatched and unhappy, battled to make the best of it. He was often critical and cold, she was often hurt and withdrawn. A marriage. A mess.
They had been married 45 years when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
My brother rallied to stand by her with a ferocity fuelled by rage. After they had both quit smoking, she slipped, and like my mother, he expressed his contempt by turning his back on her; refusing to stay in the room when she smoked, rarely missing an opportunity to compare his success in quitting with her weakness in relapsing. Their house became a divided camp; he retreating to his basement office, she left to clear the dishes and smoke.I later realized she used his behaviour toward her quite effectively when she wanted to be alone and read her historical romance novels, of which he also disapproved. She continued to smoke, alternating her cigarettes with her asthma puffer. Her lung cancer, when diagnosed, was stage four.
One year into her cancer treatments, my brother asked for my help, to stay with her for a weekend so he could get a short break from his round-the-clock care-taking. I was happy to help, ashamed I had not thought to offer him any support earlier. The habits of a lifetime. Connie was still at home, still fiercely determined not to be hospitalized, though there had been several crises, several panicked calls for an ambulance. She always rebounded.
I remember sounds from my weekend visit with her; the drag of hoses and intravenous lines following her as she padded to the kitchen from her bedroom for tea, the distinctive and oddly soothing sound of an oxygen tank, the whir of the hospital bed positioning her for comfort.I was surprised by her vitality and improbable optimism. She expressed her remarkable “take”on her advanced lung cancer by saying, in a bemused tone, “I am really so healthy. My blood and heart and body are working perfectly. It’s just this cancer that’s the problem.”
One weekend is all I spent with her. But time enough to recognize, with regret, that I knew nothing of her; that I’d ingested my mother’s prejudice, dismissed her, and diminished my own life by failing to question, failing to think for myself, failing to know her. She had withstood a long and unhappy marriage, withstood raising her boys very much single-handedly as my brother spent every waking hour getting academic degrees that would put him back on track, re-route the accident of their marriage.
I think I recognized, when that early-morning commuter train powered across the trestle bridge – all noise and motion – that her life’s energy, so constrained by illness, was now released, accelerating full throttle across those tracks.
But, then again, it may just have been a trick of the light.
Hi Johanna: The death of your sister-in-law’s narrative is quite a read. Yes, we often regret times when we ought to have responded better in life’s demanding and perplexing situations. But we learn by our shortcomings and neglected opportunities. I enjoyed reading this post and thank you for expressing your feelings so well.