I was at my father’s bedside at eleven sharp. He was sitting up this time, and smiled when he saw me. The ponytailed doctor had him hooked up to the same machine he’d been on the previous night, and was nodding as she scribbled on her clipboard. They were almost done with him, she told me; a few more tests, and he’d be able to come home that afternoon. In the meantime, there was no reason for me to stay at the hospital, so I told my father I’d pick him up when he was ready.
Back at the house, I opened all the windows, and the chirping birds and buzzing lawnmowers made the place feel smaller and less empty. I made my way through the place; it was still cleaner than mine was most days, but I swept and dusted and scrubbed anyway, and changed my father’s sheets and made his bed. That took the better part of an hour, and when I’d finished, I was hungry. The contents of both fridge and cabinet suggested an owner who’d meant to go grocery shopping the previous day but could have put off the task until the next. I toasted two pieces of stale bread and opened a can of soup, and consumed this uninspired meal as I flipped through an academic journal that I’d taken from my father’s desk. I turned the pages without absorbing much; I recognized some of the terminology from a decade earlier, but that was it.
A few minutes into this lonely exercise, the doorbell rang: Mrs. Chandler, holding a translucent plastic container. “Half a casserole,” she explained. “The recipe serves four to six, and I didn’t have a smaller pan, so I made the whole thing, and I can’t eat it on my own. I thought your father may not be up for cooking right away. Apparently it freezes well, too.”
“He’ll be home this afternoon,” I said defensively. “And I can cook.”
“Should I take it back?”
“No. No, I’m sorry. I mean, thank you. I appreciate this.” I took the container and set it on the bench near the entrance.
“It’s a new recipe,” she said. “From the heart-healthy section of one of my old cookbooks. Low fat, low salt, high fibre. I tasted it earlier, and it’s not bad. Let me know what you think.”
“I will. Thanks, that was really thoughtful of you.”
We stood there for an awkward few seconds; she wasn’t going to dismiss herself and it seemed rude to dismiss someone who’d brought a meal, so I invited her in for tea. She stepped out of her loafers and I led her around to the kitchen, which she surveyed with the look of a tourist in a new setting: unfocused, trying to take in the entire scene at once. With a pang I realized I didn’t remember her ever having been in the house beyond the lobby, aside from that one time twenty-five years earlier, before the walls had been repainted and the floor had been replaced. God, we were an oblivious pair, me and my father both.
A few minutes later, I set a teapot and a pair of cups and saucers on the living room table; props that spared us the need to speak. It was Mrs. Chandler who broke the silence. “You’re a good kid,” she said. I looked up in surprise. “I said some things yesterday that I might not have said under different conditions. Your father raised you well.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, and settled on, “I’m twenty-nine, you know.”
“You’re a good kid,” she repeated.
I nodded, and took another sip of tea. “You meant it all, though, didn’t you?”
She didn’t answer, and that was answer enough.
“I probably deserved it. And needed it. You’re right, my father won’t ask anything of me.”
“Apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
“You said that last night.”
She shrugged, and topped up her teacup. “So, Kathleen, talk to me. What’s going on?”
I refilled my own cup, blew on the hot liquid, and took a few sips while I mentally edited the story. “I was in a car accident a few weeks ago while I was in Calgary on business,” I finally answered. “Minor damage to both cars, no injuries. That should have been the end of it, but when I tried to follow up with the other driver, I couldn’t find her. The phone number she gave me at the scene was a dead end, and her driver’s license belonged to someone else.” I started to mention that the car wasn’t hers either, but something made me continue to withhold the fact that there was a second missing woman. Instead, I continued, “Maybe that should have been the end of it, but by then I was curious.”
“So that’s what you were doing in Calgary.”
“That’s what I was doing in Calgary.”
We busied ourselves with our teacups for another minute or so, when Mrs. Chandler said, “That’s not the whole story, is it?”
“No, it’s not.”
There was another pause, and she nodded. “Are you still looking for her?”
“Yes. But Dad comes first.”
“That was why someone called him to tell him – ”
I cut her off before she could complete the thought, before I had to hear it again. “Yeah. That’s why.”
“Do you think you’ll find her?” She was looking directly at me now. It was not a question about my commitment to the task, or about my confidence in myself.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think you’ll find out what happened?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”
We sat there for another few minutes, when the phone jolted me out of my reverie. “That’s probably your father,” she said. “I’ll see myself out.”
He was waiting in the lobby when I arrived, dressed in the previous day’s clothes, an outfit that didn’t quite fit; and like every time he was somewhere other than at home or in his office, he didn’t seem to know quite what to do with his eyes or his hands. I embraced him lightly, afraid of breaking him, and he patted me on the arm. Halfway into the ride to the house, he mentioned with an air of nonchalance so unconvincing that I wondered how long he’d rehearsed it, that he had some prescriptions to fill. At the pharmacy, I stepped away from the counter, affording my father the dignity of thinking I didn’t notice the pharmacist handing him several bottles of pills and instructing him on their use.
I waited until we were home before I asked him what the doctors had told him. “Oh,” he said, settling into his recliner, “They say that I’m in as good shape as any sixty-nine year old widower who lives alone and doesn’t get any exercise or pay much attention to what he eats.” He smiled at this. I didn’t.
Over a dinner of Mrs. Chandler’s casserole – slightly dry, but nicely spiced and tasty considering the constraints on salt, sugar, and fat – I told my father I’d be staying with him for the next several days, and that I’d cook for him and take him to doctor’s appointments. He protested at first, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. “I’d like that. I’d like that very much, Kathleen.”
As I collected the dishes, he asked how long I’d be around.
“As long as you need me,” I replied. He cocked his head at me, and squinted, and I continued, “I have three weeks of vacation per year, and part of it is cumulative. I’ve never used all of it.”
He looked at me for a few seconds, and nodded. He opened his mouth to speak, but then changed his mind and stated at the table for a bit longer. “You’re a good kid,” he said finally.
“I’m twenty-nine,” I objected for the second time that afternoon.
He nodded. “So you are,” he said, “so you are.”
I rose early the next morning to make oatmeal for the two of us, and waited until my father was settled in with his newspaper before setting out in his car to run some errands. I stopped at the library first, where I picked up a half dozen cookbooks with heart-healthy recipes. From these I drafted a grocery list, and at the supermarket I paid in cash for a few armloads of food that was healthier than what I usually ate. Heading home, I noticed the tank of the car was nearly empty, so I made a third trip to the gas station. Between the day’s expenses and the previous day’s cabs, the wad of money I’d carried from Calgary was dwindling faster than I’d anticipated. I still had over five hundred in cash, and my father would probably insist on reimbursing me for the groceries and the gas, but I had bills to pay at home. I made a mental note to follow up on the account I’d had Matt set up for me, and to talk to him about the additional headache I’d created for myself when transferring the money from the account I’d found in Calgary.
Cooking kept me busy. I seldom cooked for myself, and while I was competent enough in the kitchen to assemble edible, and even tasty, meals for my father for his biweekly visits, I was not an efficient chef. I soon discovered that preparing an entire menu – especially one that diverged from my usual heart-unhealthy fare – for two people over the course of several days took much of my time and most of my energy. It was a welcome diversion, though, one that allowed me to delay having a real conversation with my father. Further to that goal, I invited Mrs. Chandler for dinner; she was surprised at the invitation but seemed genuinely touched, and I was pleased with myself for having thought of it. I wouldn’t be able to put off talking to my father indefinitely, though, and I was still trying to work out what I was going to say.