With life, comes death
There is no way to prepare for the moment one's closest family members abruptly enter or exit the world, Gwen Haevens writes
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Apropos nothing at all, my boyfriend's father told me that his son was too young to have children.
I don't remember where Tore and I were driving – alone in the car, heavy snow hitting the windshield – nor what we'd been talking about before he brought up the topic of children. I was 25 at the time and Anders, the son in question, was three years younger. We'd been together a year. Broke students, we'd moved from Canada to Anders's home country of Sweden and were now camped out in his parents' basement. I had at present no interest in getting pregnant and told Tore this.
"Is that so?" he said quickly, staring ahead between the snowdrifts straight at the road.
"If anything, you're talking to the wrong one of us," I added. Anders occasionally floated the idea of having children early by me; each time I sunk it.
"Is that so?" Tore said again. He paused. "Children change everything."
It wasn't the last time I'd hear him say this. The statement was a short refrain he repeated over the years when the subject of children came up. He never explained it. Because of this, I assumed he meant the change had been a surprise. And not of the birthday party with funny hats kind. Still, his warnings seemed curious because Tore was such a loyal and loving father. He could be depended on, regardless of the occasion – to pick you up late at night, no questions asked, or to initiate a toast at your celebrations. Tore was always there.
Eight years after this conversation, our first son, Ruben, was born. We lived outside of Sweden, so when we returned from the hospital, we set up a video call with the grandparents. The call began classic Hallmark: In the long sun of a late summer day, a giant bouquet of white lilies filling the living room, we held Ruben, swaddled and sleeping, up to the camera to meet his farfar and farmor. Tore and Ulla cooed, watched Ruben blink himself awake and then sigh himself back to sleep.
They heard about his bravery during his first check-ups – the sharp needles of the blood tests, the uncomfortable ultrasound of his narrow hipbones. The doctor had asked if there were any orthopedic problems in the family and our answer – "Not if you don't count orthopedic surgeons themselves" – made Tore, the surgeon, smile. Tore explained the hip exam and how these problems are simple to fix, if you catch them early.
Tore paused then. Ulla said there was something they had to tell us. Tore's cancer was already advanced, inoperable. He would begin chemo immediately.
After the call, we sat still in the living room as evening fell. Then, we sat in the dark, the scent of lilies thick in the warm air. It didn't occur to us to turn the lamps on. We had lost the script to our daily lives. When Ruben began to cry, we recalled that it had already been a week since that had happened. Nothing had gone according to the birth plan. I held Ruben tight; I rocked him and sang Anne Murray's rendition of Danny's Song until he calmed.
There were regular video calls as Tore got more information about his condition and his treatment. Ruben grew. I sent photos: Ruben sleeping, his cheeks heavy peaches, the beaded family-name bracelet that the midwife had strung together hanging from his chubby wrist. Ruben in his "Team Tore" onesie with tiny fists raised, mouth protesting. I worried the pictures might make Tore sad as well as happy. Soon, the results were in and we learned that the six weeks of chemo proved useless for anything except wasting away his formerly healthy physique, most noticeably the thick muscles of his legs.
Friend after friend told us that Ruben would help us, that Ruben would help Tore. But Ruben hadn't studied oncology. Weak from the unplanned C-section, the hopelessly sleep-broken nights, the failed breastfeeding and the pathetic inter-parental fighting over how to take care of the new most-important-thing-in-our-lives – it was an enigma how this new family member did help to sustain us over the next months. When a lung infection kept Tore connected to silver canisters of oxygen for breath and Ruben simply sat on the hospital bed mesmerized by the crackling of farfar's Christmas candy wrappers between his fingers. When, at the family cabin for New Years, on overnight-leave from the hospital, Tore disconnected from these canisters and climbed the thin ladder up onto the icy roof to look beyond the tall pine, out at the grey, frozen sea. When, in the spring, Tore's humerus splintered and no operation was planned to repair it.
Then, the fresh season before the Swedish midsummer celebrations had passed. The translucent greens turned vivid and the watercolour-toned lupines along the roadsides withered back to soft seedpods. The hospice nurse pulled a pen from her breast pocket and let Ruben, now almost a year old, click it, open and shut, open and shut, with visible delight. "It's a shame he won't remember his grandfather," she said with brutal honesty.
We understand now what Tore meant all those years earlier on that snowy evening in the car: That, despite months of notice, there is just no way to prepare oneself for the moment one's closest family members abruptly enter or finally exit the world. For us, Tore's last year and Ruben's first are bound in a bittersweet knot. It's heavy and rough, but strong too, like the base of the jute rope-swing that now hangs from the tall pine at the cabin.
Gwen Haevens lives in Gothenburg, Sweden.