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Chapter 32

It was past eight when I handed four twenties and all of my coins to the cab driver who’d carted me from the airport to Ridge Meadows Hospital. Inside, though, the sense of purpose that had propelled me from Lisa’s home to the hospital in Maple Ridge had dissipated, leaving only an undirected energy in its place. I took a seat under the fluorescent lights in the lobby, next to a woman cradling a broken arm and a man who winced as he squeezed a pair of fingers wrapped in blood-soaked gauze. After the receptionist processed them, a woman who couldn’t have been older than twenty sat down beside me, murmuring to an infant in a blanket. “You go ahead,” I said.

She didn’t even pretend to object. “Oh, God, thank you,” she said, halfway to the window already.

When a nurse arrived to take the young woman and her baby, I gave the receptionist my father’s name and asked to see him. “I don’t know where he is right now,” I said, “but he’s been here since early afternoon and they’re holding him. When I last heard they didn’t know if he’d had a heart attack and they were going to keep him overnight.”

“Visiting hours just ended. You can come back tomorrow at eleven.”

“Oh.” I looked over my shoulder. An elderly man had taken the young mother’s seat, and he was bent over almost double, gripping his cane with one hand and coughing violently into the other. “Could you give him a message? I was supposed to –”

“Check his file.” I spun around: Mrs. Chandler, dressed in exercise gear, approaching the window. She didn’t greet me; she just braced her hands on the desk and addressed the receptionist: “This is Dr. Kovalevsky’s daughter. There should be a note in the file, to take her to see him, no matter what time it is.”

At this the receptionist turned back to the computer, scrolled through the record, and nodded. “Room 1350, down the hall and take your first left, and follow the signs to Coronary Care.” She seemed to be regarding me with something like pity, or disappointment.

Mrs. Chandler had taken a seat in the lobby; she hadn’t so much as greeted me and I took that for the rebuke it probably was. I made my way down the long, sterile hallways alone, and when I arrived at room 1350, I stopped at the doorway and froze.

My father lay in a blue gown, propped up on a bed, a mask over his face and a rubber cuff around his left arm. A ponytailed woman in a white coat stood with her back to me, looking alternately at a monitor and her clipboard. She scribbled onto the second, looked up, and said, “Looks like you get to stay around a bit longer.” I saw my father’s lips curve into a weak smile. I bit my lip.

The doctor turned to face me. She was in her fifties or so, with greying hair and faint lines around her eyes. “Kathleen?”

I nodded. She said a few things to my father that I couldn’t hear, and then took me outside for a briefing. I didn’t know what a coronary artery spasm was, or how serious it was, and I didn’t know what it meant that my father was on oxygen, and I had been under the impression that nitroglycerin was an explosive, not a drug, but I nodded every few seconds out of a combination of habit and duty. When the doctor had finished talking, I asked, “Is my father going to be okay?”

“He’s not in any immediate danger,” she replied.

I nodded, afraid to repeat my question.

She led me back into the room, turned back to my father, and said, loudly and in a high pitch, “Look who’s here to see you, Mr. Kovalevsky!”

My father turned his head a few degrees, and gave a weak smile. “Come here,” he said, his voice scratchy from disuse. “Come.”

I forced myself forward, smiling.

“I’ll leave the two of you alone,” said the doctor. She hadn’t abandoned the bright tone that was more suited to Carol’s kindergarten class than to a grown man, and listening to it felt like an invasion of privacy. I averted my eyes as she left.

Once alone, I offered my father my hand, and I stood there as he gripped it, neither of us speaking for a full minute. “How are you doing, Dad?” I asked at last, stupidly.

He shrugged, and then let go of my hand to adjust his gown. “What can I say, I’ve been better.”

I gave a half-choke, half-laugh, and said, “Someone called you.”

He nodded, and then turned to look at the far wall. “Left a message. Said there had been an accident and they’d found my phone number in your wallet. Didn’t leave a number of their own, so what was I going to do?”

“So you called me. And when I didn’t answer, you called St. Paul’s, and then the other hospitals. And when none of them knew anything about me, you called Mrs. Chandler to see what else you could do.”

He nodded again. “And she had the idea to phone the police, and that’s when…” He swallowed, and motioned to a glass of water by his bedside. I handed it to him, and waited for him to finish drinking and pass it back to me. “And that’s when I started to feel the pain, and I couldn’t breathe. And Gwen, God bless her, she recognized the symptoms, and she called an ambulance, and…”

I took his hand again. “I’m okay. I wasn’t in an accident. I wasn’t hurt.”

“You didn’t answer your phone.” It wasn’t an accusation; he was just trying to make sense of things.

“I was in Calgary. I turned my phone off while I was working.”

He continued to stare at the far wall, and didn’t speak again for several seconds. “Why would they do that? Call me and tell me you had been hurt?”

I sighed. “It’s someone from the car accident I was in a couple months ago. I – I told you someone was giving me grief about that, but I didn’t tell you everything. I’ve been trying to track down the other driver. At first just to work out the insurance and stuff, but then later because…” I stopped abruptly. This was the part that had tripped me up during my conversation with Julia; my failure to confront my motivation was no longer mere oversight. “Because I was curious,” I continued. But that wasn’t all of it, and I tasted a sourness where the words should have been. “And I can’t find her, even though I got an address and a phone number at the scene. So I’ve been looking, and someone wants me to stop. And I don’t know why.”

I stopped there, and my father just nodded. We stayed like that for another few seconds or minutes, at which point the doctor poked her head in. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave now, Miss Kovalevsky,” she said, back to her grown-up voice. “I don’t know what you were told at reception, but we’re going to monitor your father overnight, and then run some tests tomorrow. He can probably go home tomorrow afternoon, provided there’s someone to look after -”

“I can look after him.” My father turned to face me, and I thought he might speak. He didn’t.

The doctor smiled. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.” She didn’t even look to my father for confirmation. “You can come by at eleven tomorrow morning.”

I nodded. “Good night, Dad.” I said, and took his hand again. “I’ll be here at eleven. Sharp. And I’ll leave my phone on if you need to talk to me before that.”

Mrs. Chandler was half-reading a tattered magazine when I returned to the lobby. She stood when I approached. “Thank you,” I greeted her. “Dad told me you were with him when…when it happened. I’m sure he was glad to have you there.”

She furrowed her brow. “I’m not sure about that,” she replied. She sounded reflective, not argumentative, and I looked up in surprise. “He’s so independent, your father,” she explained. “Too independent. I’m not sure he’s ever been glad to receive help. Appreciative, maybe. And even that, I’m not always convinced.”

I opened my mouth to object – but you saved his life – but surely she knew that. “Well,” I said, speaking as much to block out my own thoughts as anything, “I’m glad you were there.”

“So am I.”

We stood there for another minute. A mother entered the lobby with a coughing toddler; behind her, a middle-aged man winced as a teenager leaned on his shoulder and limped over to a chair. “Where are you headed now?” Mrs. Chandler asked.

I blinked, surprised. “To Dad’s, I guess. I said I’d stay with him for a few days, as long as he needs.”

“He’ll appreciate that. Be glad of it, even,” she said, and I smiled. “I came over in the ambulance,” she continued. “There’s no reason for us to pay for two cabs.”

I phoned for a taxi, and we stood outside in the summer breeze, waiting. As the car pulled up, she said, “You’re your father’s daughter, you know. Anyone ever tell you that?”

It was something of a running joke between us, all these years. “I might have heard it once or twice. But no one ever told me if it was good or bad.”

“It’s both.”

“What about right now? Since you brought it up.”

She didn’t hesitate. “It’s both.”

I insisted on paying for the taxi, and was glad to be alone in the back seat where no one could see me peel off a twenty from the wad of money in my backpack; and Mrs. Chandler insisted I join her for tea. Once in the kitchen, she changed her mind and instead poured two glasses of white wine; not my first choice of drink, but I had to force myself not to drink it all at once.

“Do you remember the first time you came over?” she asked. “You were sitting in that same seat, but on top of a phone book. Later I hauled up the booster seat from the basement, but I had to dig around for it. And you were drinking apple juice instead of wine.”

I did. “Twenty-five years ago this winter.”

“That long? You’re right, so it was. Twenty-five years.” She shook her head at that, and then went on: “You’d moved in a year earlier, but I hadn’t gotten to know you – your parents weren’t unfriendly, but they kept to themselves. And you were shy. It wasn’t until after your mother passed that your father so much as spoke ten words to me.”

I didn’t say anything. This was her story.

“And then that spring, I brought him meals. I was already cooking for us four, it wasn’t much to add another two. He thanked me, and every single time told me – you don’t have to. And every single time I said, I know I don’t have to, I want to. I never knew if you two ate them.”

“I don’t remember,” I said.

“No, of course you don’t. You were what, three? Four? Anyway, he worked at the university, and they were generous with bereavement leave, so he had the rest of the spring. And then in the summer, he didn’t have classes, so he could stay with you. And in the fall – you were in preschool then, a half-day thing, and he worked out his schedule so that he had all of his classes in the mornings and could pick you up at lunch time. I said to him, I can take your daughter once or twice a week, let you get some work done, and he always said no.”

I nodded, even though I hadn’t known that part; but I knew now where she was going, why she was telling me this now, and I waited as my old neighbour picked up a story I only remembered because as a child I was overwhelmed by it.

“Then your father caught pneumonia. It was just before Christmas – I know you two don’t celebrate Christmas, but that’s how I remember when it was, we had the tree up – and we had that huge snowfall, you remember that?” She didn’t wait for a response. “And most days, I’d see the two of you outdoors, off to the grocery store or the park or what have you – you had that week off from school, and so did your father – and then, for nearly a full week, I didn’t see either of you at all, and you hadn’t left – your car was buried in snow, no one had cleared the driveway, and when I went to check, there was a pile of newspapers just outside the door, no one had collected them – so I knocked on the door, and of course no one answered.”

I remembered that part: a knock on the door as I flipped through a picture book on the floor in my father’s room. My father was sleeping. My father had been sleeping a lot that week. Should I wake him? He’d told me he needed to rest. But what if it was important?

“So I phoned him, and, wonder of wonders, he answered. And he sounded like death. I told him I was coming over and I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and if he didn’t let me in I’d call the police. So he let me in, shivering, fever of a hundred and god-knows-what, coughing up a lung. The sink was full of dishes and there were empty soup cans and boxes of cereal all over the place. You were in your pyjamas; probably wearing them for days, and hadn’t had a bath in at least that long. But you weren’t hungry, I’ll give him that. I told your father I’d take you over for a few hours, that you could even stay the night. That I’d take him to the doctor if he needed, that Rachel could babysit for a few hours. But he refused. ‘Katie’s fine, and all I need is rest,’ he said. And you were fine – a little messy but well-fed and not sick. He could barely breathe but somehow he found the strength to fight me.”

“But eventually he gave in.”

“Eventually he gave in. It became clear soon enough that I wasn’t going to change his mind by appealing to his health. So I set you up with crayons and a colouring book in the den, fixed him a cup of tea, took him back to his bedroom – and read him the riot act.”

“The riot act.” My glass was empty now; hers was still three quarters full.

“I said to him – I said, Meyer, you may think that you deserve to suffer for your wife’s death, but your daughter doesn’t.”

The wine bottle lay just out of reach. “And that worked.”

“I knew it would work. What I hadn’t realized was that nothing else would.”

The silence of the next few seconds was absolute. “He did his best,” I said weakly. “He was a good father. Is. He is a good father.”

“No argument there. He would do anything for you. And for your mother, too, before she passed. But he got so wrapped up in himself at times, and he didn’t always know what he needed to do. And he wouldn’t ask.”

I waited.

“You’re your father’s daughter,” she said for the second time that evening. “And he needs you. Kathleen. I don’t know what trouble you’re in, what it is you’re not telling him. For all I know you deserve it. You certainly seem to think you do. But the decisions you make affect him, and you’re not a child anymore.”

I closed my eyes, spent. “Can I go home now?”

She drained her glass. “Sleep well.”

My father’s house was empty when I entered, emptier than it had seemed in recent memory, as though it had registered the cause of its owner’s absence. The lights were brighter, the foyer larger, my footsteps louder on the hardwood floors. I dropped my bag by the stairs at the entrance, and entered the kitchen. A day’s worth of dishes lay in the sink; on the counter was an empty soup can, its lid still attached by a shard of metal. An empty box of cereal lay on the table.

I rolled up my sleeves and attacked the dishes, glad to have something to do. I dried them by hand, returned them to their places in the cabinet, and carried the soup can and the cereal box out to the recycling bin in the garage. Then I headed up to my old room, changed into an old pair of pyjamas, brushed my teeth, and headed to bed.

I lay there motionless for a good twenty minutes in absolute silence, exhausted but alert. My phone battery was down to its last few minutes, and I’d left the cable in my apartment, so the device was useless as a music player. The last time the old house had been so empty, so quiet, I was four years old, sitting at the kitchen table nibbling at a pile of chocolate chip cookies as I watched the needle of the record player float back to the edge.

I threw off my blankets, bounded out of bed, and changed back into my clothes. I pulled out the wad of cash from my backpack, put five twenties in my wallet, and stuffed the rest into a sock that I returned to the top drawer of the dresser. Mrs. Chandler was probably asleep by now, but I nevertheless instructed the taxi dispatcher to send a car to the end of the block, and that’s where I was waiting ten minutes later when I provided the address of a dive bar on the highway.

There was a band playing that night, apparently a popular one, and the place was filled to capacity. I took a seat at the counter and yelled my order into the bartender’s ear while a guitarist screamed into the mic and his drummer and bass player did their best to drown him out. When my beer arrived – a proper drink, dark and thick with foam – I downed half of it in one gulp, and felt its effect at once.

I stayed another hour, sipping my second beer as the rest of the patrons slowly filtered out. When the band members started packing up their instruments and a handful of fans crowded the stage to talk to them, I asked the barman for the bill and to call a cab for me; before he could return, I slipped a twenty under my half-full mug and waited in the parking lot for my ride back to my father’s house. Once there, I drank two full glasses of water, kicked off my shoes, and went to bed in my clothes. I fell asleep right away, and didn’t wake up until after nine the next morning.

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