Fam­ily ties

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - GLOBE LIFE & ARTS - Gwen Haevens writes Gwen Haevens lives in Gothen­burg, Swe­den. Sub­mis­sions: facts@globe­and­mail.com

The birth of my son and the death of my part­ner’s fa­ther are bound in a bit­ter­sweet knot – heavy and rough, but strong

There is no way to pre­pare for the mo­ment one’s clos­est fam­ily mem­bers abruptly en­ter or exit the world,

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 sixweeks 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 in­ter­parental 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. We want your per­sonal sto­ries. See the guide­lines on our web­site tgam.ca/es­sayguide

DREW SHAN­NON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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