We park on the side of the road and I jump out with a shovel to carve steps into the eight-foot snowdrift hiding the cabin gate. From the summit I can see the sleeping meadow, a soft dusk settling. Shadowy furrows mark the frozen streams buried underneath. We’ll have to snowshoe in.
The deep winter relieves us from the gray salty hours and threat of spring squalls on Newfoundland’s west coast. We’re staying overnight at the cabin because the airport is nearby, and I have a 6 a.m. flight home to England. Poppy figured we’d “make a trip of it.” His father built the cabin himself in the fifties, a box on concrete stilts with rose-painted wooden siding on a parcel of boggy land with enough trees for firewood.
We work away: me at my staircase, Poppy loading the supplies into a plastic sled. A good knife, dry matches, provisions, medicines, several pairs of shoes, thick socks, and a heavy red axe. Nan waits silently in the backseat of the car. (“Strange to think she ever roughed it up here,” is all I manage to jot down later on.)
I spent a significant part of my twenties earning a living as a medical editor, but I still don’t know how to write about Alzheimer’s. Nan used to spend every late summer weekend in the blueberry woods with Poppy; they’d collect forty gallons in a good year. He liked to roam, moving between the burnt corpses of trembling aspens, tamarack, and maple trees whose ashes fed the berries, only coming back to tell us if he’d spotted a moose or caribou. She preferred to find a good spot—comfortable, not too knobbly, with a far-reaching view to “keep an eye on her man”—and settle in to pick the bushes clean. She knew how to make a fire for a boil-up and how to gut fish (but refused to do rabbits because they made her feel “wretched”). She never had any sympathy for our mosquito bites or sunburns—everything was a matter of proper preparation. When I want to picture her happy, I remember a photograph of her peeking out of an outhouse in winter, all zipped up in her snowsuit and laughing.
With the sled loaded, Poppy allocates snowshoes. He and I take the older wooden pairs—mine feel about as long as lacrosse rackets. Everlasting, but requiring a good bow-legged swing while you’re walking. Nan gets the modern pair, pristine and plastic.
I’m not putting those on. No, I’m not wearing those, I’ll walk in my shoes. No, I’ll wait in the car.
She’ll freeze to death, or else be up to her neck in snow, and then we’ll have a real problem. These thoughts fill me with something fiery. There’s so little to see of the battle between life and death in England. The thought that the snow could swallow her up excites me, which strikes me as more evidence that I’m an outsider now, just playing at survival.
With Poppy on one side and me on the other, we heave Nan up the makeshift steps and walk clean over the gate. Poppy turns back to collect the sled, leaving me with Nan’s toiletries bag in one hand and her iron grip on the other. What a curious four-legged beast we are. I think of Jesus walking on water—is that not what we are, here in our snowshoes? Everything is hushed and still, with the sacred air of an empty villa whose contents are covered in dust sheets. If only I could lift the corners and shake them off to reveal the rhubarb patch, the dogs’ graves, rotting plums in the summer mugginess, disorderly caravans of frogs crossing the gravel road, and Nan in her rocking chair with the radio on.
She stops now, stubborn and immovable.
I’m going back.
I’m close to dragging her. I know there are perfectly preserved stinging nettles frozen beneath us.
If I’d known it would come to this.
If you’d known it would come to this, you’d’ve never been born, Poppy offers, passing us.
I try to keep us within his footprints, where the snow has already been compacted. She can’t manage the swinging gait she needs, putting too much weight on her heels and sinking in.
I’ll wake up in the night with a panic attack and you’ll have to take me to the hospital.
And, worst of all, Why are you doing this to me?
She clings to me, desperate, but I sense the equal boiling hatred that wants to fling my hand away. With her voice she wants to murder me, bury me, lash at me until I’m bait for whatever’s howling out there in the trees. I think of my whole-body childhood terrors that couldn’t be rationalized away. I too wanted to sleep in the car or plunk myself down in the snow and go no farther. I wish I could scoop her up and carry her like an infant, bury her face in my scarf to hide her eyes—just a few more meters now—to where we could dry off and boil water for tea.
And then we’re in: a matchbox-sized porch brimming with firewood, a tiny obsolete television in the corner, used up word-search books (never crosswords), and innumerable frozen flies who will slowly wake from their cryo-sleep once we light the stove. Great-grandmother’s china cups, at odds with their surroundings. I watch dust revolving in a sunbeam—my great-grandparents’ discarded skin cells, perhaps, and mine from childhood, dancing with the remains of all those disintegrated bluebottles.
We still need to fetch water from the car, but tell Nan that she can stay here to watch us from the window. She looks at us with reproach.
I’ll have to find a knife so I can slice my head off.
She stands stock-still as she says it and looks more real than usual, like a dream. Closer to the bone than I care to be, as brutal as nature itself. I start to load the stove with wood to have something to focus on and watch the logs light up, releasing all their August heat. It charms me despite everything, tucking me into the comfortless evening. Poppy heads back out alone.
This morning, he handed me an electric razor and asked me to trim the hair at the back of his neck. Nan used to do this. I placed a towel around his shoulders and stood tall in the blueish light of the bathroom. Their house has hardly changed since I was young, and the bathroom not at all. Everything is untouched: the patterned wall tiles, the beige sink, the glass jar of seashell bath jellies bought sometime in the seventies and hardened well beyond use now.
It was the same room I’d bathed in as a child, in two inches of water—any more was a waste, Poppy thought. The same room where he made me brush my teeth until my gums bled, or scrub the scribbled ink off my hands, or stand on the scale in the corner, inexplicably afraid. Now, his white hair is as fine and soft as a baby’s. I didn’t even need to ask him to crouch to reach his hairline. His skin felt paper-thin—I hadn’t expected that. I got him to face the door, knowing that my tears were coming and hoping at that angle he’d miss them in the mirror. Something churned about in my chest while the razor hummed, while something else fell neatly and securely into place. Like when new parents tell you how the midwife placed the baby in their arms and everything—yes, everything—made sense.
When he comes back in with the water buckets, he drives a nail into the leather straps of my snowshoes to make new holes so they fit better. I go for a walk to get some air, tracing the wide perimeter of the tree line. The quiet is an indescribable relief. Lately, I’ve been lamenting the noise and heaviness of England to my therapist, trying to name an emotion I can’t shake. I get the sense that my adopted country is a worn palimpsest and that all those centuries-old stone structures, layered atop one another, are weighing down the land. And that this whole history book of human enterprise is suffocating and inescapable—in every isolated pasture, on every hilltop at dawn, and on each windswept chalk cliff, I can hear the rumble of the motorway.
But here, Nan painted the back deck red every summer. When she missed a year because of a broken foot, it peeled and whined and fell swiftly away. It’s a consolation, really, that this earth will devour our roads and strip the paint from our boats and blow down our wooden houses in moves so vicious and wild that they’ll feel like rage. The landscape has given itself permission to forget us, and forgetting is always a cruel and aching thing.
The birch trees crack in the cold and look at me with the ringed eyes in their bark. Beyond them stand endless chorus lines of black spruce, so that the whole scene looks like a black and white photograph. I spot a set of tracks ahead of me, under the naked plum tree. They’re enormous and I cannot help but think of the howling earlier. I take a picture to show Poppy, then crouch and wash my face in the snow.
Nan appears in the cabin window. I watch her pull back the stiff lace curtain and her eyes look up, up, up the ladder to find Poppy standing firm on the roof, shifting the snow gently off and over to the side. She’s not smiling, but she’s attentive, and I think: lovely, altogether lovely. The cold is stinging my eyes, so I close them, tormented by a poem from an old schoolbook.1
Rock-forbidden roses on her walls
gleaming kettle coming to a boil
no neighbors anymore for tea
who needed them
her home was all.
Poppy says the pawprints belong to an Arctic hare. Look at how they’re arranged, the front feet seemingly tailing the hind feet, a little offset on a diagonal. Nan shuffles in and out of the dark bedroom as we talk, telling us to go to bed. I sink into each time she says my name, warmed by her recognition, keeping what I can of her.
Thin driftwood brittle fingers
clutching at her door
she faces her husband
on the rain-bright pebble path
“I’m not going, I tell you.
What’s there for me?”
(Old devil, he
always was the one
to gad about)
In the spare room, I set an early alarm on my phone before getting under the covers. A friend texts me a consoling message about anticipatory grief but it’s not quite right. I’m not anticipating anything—the grief is here, sharp and snarling, like the coming squalls, the wildfires, the floods. It’s clear to me that we’re already deep in the elegy.
I imagine the Arctic hare in his burrow, satiated on lichen and roots, a little sleepy. Soon the ground will be warmer. Outside, the boughs sing on and on.
1 : “Leave-taking,” Geraldine Rubia. Landings: A Newfoundland & Labrador Literature Anthology. Eds. Norman, Sparkes, and Warr. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Breakwater Books, Ltd., 1984.