Nadine needs her rituals. Everyday starts at 6:00 am with a cup of Earl Grey. Regardless of the weather, she drinks it outside, sitting on her battered porch swing that overlooks the street. She likes to take a few minutes to herself, watching the newspapers being delivered and her neighbours starting their commute to work. There is a quiet community this early in the morning. Everyone acknowledges each other, but no one feels the need to engage. This suits Nadine just fine.
It’s a crisp fall morning, so she wraps herself in the red flannel blanket that Cecilia presented to her on a long ago Mother’s Day. It is actually a dog blanket, but ten year old Cecilia was so enthusiastic that Nadine made a big deal of displaying it. Now, a day doesn’t pass where Nadine doesn’t caress the frayed piece of cloth.
As wisps of steam spiral from her cup, Nadine watches the cars go by. She starts counting to twenty. If a silver car passes by before she reaches twenty, nothing extraordinary will happen today. Silver cars are easy; one passes by before she even gets to seven. She starts counting again, this time looking for a blue car. A blue car is a good omen. Blue Car Days usually mean some smiles, maybe even a laugh or two. No blue car passes so she doesn’t even bother moving on to red. A red car would mean a breakthrough, but even the time she counted to one hundred, no red car passed by.
Nadine shudders to think what would happen if she counted while looking for a black car. She doesn’t dare. Black cars are all too common.
After she finishes her tea, she showers, makes herself breakfast, and cleans up. Now that she is just cooking for one, it never takes long. Nadine is a tidy person, and her compact bungalow requires minimal maintenance, so by 9:00, her day stretches ahead of her like a prairie highway.
It is time for an album.
Nadine was once an avid photographer. Sunsets and landscapes, goofy posed photos of Cam and her when they could still backpack. Pretty good stuff for an amateur, but her talent never really blossomed until Cecilia was born. Then her hobby transcended into art. Not that she would ever publicly display these photos. These portraits of her daughter, her family, her life, are far too intimate for public consumption.
She must have over a hundred photo albums, meticulously cataloguing their life together. Back when she considered herself a stay-at-home parent, her friends despaired when they saw her collection.
How do you keep on top of it all? I get overwhelmed just looking at it. What a great gift for Cecilia when she grows up…
On Monday, she’d looked through May 2001. Cecilia was a chubby six year old, and Cam still had most of his hair. She must have spent twenty minutes looking at the photo she took of them following Cecilia’s first dance recital. Her costume was hideous; she was a hula girl, dressed in a neon-green grass skirt and a coconut shell bikini top. Cecilia’s baby fat spilled over the waistband, and her hair was lacquered back in a severe bun. Cam was bending over, presenting her with bouquet of daisies. The look between them was electric; Cam bursting with pride, Cecilia bubbling over with sheer, unadulterated joy.
Nadine’s focus on Tuesday was October 2006. She loved the series of photos she took of Cecilia in their Victorian home over Thanksgiving weekend, racing with her younger cousins around the massive oak trees, diving into piles of gold and scarlet leaves. The best photo by far is a sepia-toned one she took of Cecilia, crouched on the kitchen floor, a look of intense concentration on her face as she gently herded a cluster of ants into a paper cup. They’d discovered the ants after dinner, beating a path to a sugar bowl that one of the more rambunctious cousins had knocked onto the floor. There were ants every where, and Cecilia burst into tears when Cam headed to the garage for a can of Raid. Cam relented, and Cecilia skipped the annual Pictionary tournament to deliver the ants to safety.
On Wednesday, Nadine reviewed December 2009, during Cecilia’s first year of high school. Nadine could have filled a library if she commemorated every one of her daughter’s triumphs. On a single page there are photographs of Cecilia accepting a gold medal for academic achievement, Cecilia winning the provincial science fair, and Cecilia shaking the mayor’s hand on the steps of city hall. She had waged a campaign to relax the penalties for begging on downtown streets. Despite his oily grin, the portly mayor is visibly annoyed. Cecilia doesn’t look triumphant, however; just relieved.
Today, Nadine looks at July 2011. These were pictures taken at a cottage in Georgian Bay they’d rented for a week. They were the last pictures she had taken of Cecilia wearing a bathing suit. She was still beautiful then, her silky blonde hair reflecting back the light of the sun. Though willow-thin, her ribs and hipbones were still cushioned with a healthy layer of flesh. There are pictures of Cecilia learning to windsurf, lazing on the dock, perched in the shade reading a book. She is doing everything you would expect a teenager to do on a family vacation. Now, Nadine can see, in every shot, that Cecilia was painfully self-aware. She was a gifted actress performing the role of a carefree sixteen year old for her parents’ sake.
By high school, Nadine and Cam had figured out that their daughter was not only intellectually gifted, but she had a work ethic that bordered on religious fervor. It’s not lost on Nadine that there are no friends in any of these pictures of Cecilia. Everyone admired Cecilia, but she was too earnest for other teenagers. While her peers were worrying about school dances and acne, Cecilia lost sleep over global warming, terrorist attacks in India, and starving children in Sudan.
The final shot is of Cecilia and Cam setting out in a canoe at sunset. She is smiling at Cam, but her eyes are distant. Nadine wonders if Cecilia was already making plans then, if she already knew.
Nadine doesn’t need a watch to know that it is time to go. She puts away the album, gets her coat and purse and gets in the car.
Thirty minutes later, Nadine makes her way up the winding drive to the Georgian estate. She thinks it’s ironic that, at first glance, one would find this an upgrade from the cozy Victorian they sold to afford this place. That is, until you reach the security gate.
Nadine has photo ID so she passes quickly through security detail outside, General Reception, and past the guard on the seventh floor. Getting in never takes that long; getting out is always a process.
Nadine signs the visitor’s book at the nurses’ station. She flips back a few pages and sees that Cam was here on Tuesday. Good, one less email she needs to send him. She is about to head down the corridor, when a nurse catches her arm.
“Mrs. Madden, you should know that Cecilia tried to rip out her IV yesterday. We had to restrain her; it’s the only way we can get her meds into her.”
Nadine just nods her head. Inertia envelops her when she gets bad news these days. She’ll process the pain when she gets home.
She takes a deep breath and opens the door to Room 712.
Like all the other patients here, Cecilia has a private room. They are allowed to decorate, make it more personal, so the walls are painted a soft lavender, and many of her favourite photographs are framed on the walls. You can add all the homey details you like, but the hospital bed is standard issue, bolted to the floor, with various medical appendages.
Cecilia appears to be sleeping. Nadine is now used to seeing her emaciated body woven with needles and tubes necessary to keep her alive, but the restraints binding her arms and legs are a new indignity. The arm restraints cut halfway across her forearms, so the jagged scars across her wrists are still visible. Funny how the scars are always the first thing Nadine’s eyes are drawn to now.
Cecilia’s eyes flutter open. She almost seems relaxed until she sees Nadine. Then her body hardens, and she starts spewing out expletives, all directed at Nadine.
For so long Cecilia’s eyes were haunted, they reflected the sadness of thousands. Now, they are cold, dark and empty. Animalistic.
Nadine ignores the verbal taunting and starts stroking Cecilia’s arm. She looks deep into Cecilia’s eyes and tries to find a chubby six year old, dressed in a garish hula costume, joyfully spiraling across the stage.
After an hour, the nurse tells Nadine it is time to leave.
In the parking lot, in the car, Nadine rests her head on the steering wheel.
Maybe tomorrow she will see a red car.
Valerie Connor enjoys writing short stories and her work has been featured in ParentsCanada Magazine and long-listed for the Writer’s Union Contest for Developing Writers. Her short story Meeting Mister Ruaumoko is featured in the November issue of the on-line magazine, Barebacklit. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children.
© 2013, Valerie Connor