These days, we tend our gardens, my sister and I, and we remember. Her yard is dotted with plants from our homeland – a pear tree, a plum tree, and couve, or collard greens, for making caldo verde, Portuguese kale soup. She’s planted blue hydrangeas around her property, instead of a fence. Just like back home.
I have roses in my garden. Roses, and whatever else has caught my eye over the years: salal, a dogwood tree. On my deck, there are pots of herbs that take little care and grow back every year: rosemary, mint, and oregano. I use them for cooking. Every summer, I also plant several pots of basil and at least one of lemon verbena. I love the smell of lemon; it takes me back to my island home. It reminds me of the religious festivals when the town women would decorate the streets with greenery. There would be elaborate designs on the pavement, filled in with petals and leaves of different flowers and shrubs. They always used lemon verbena and as people walked past and crushed the leaves, the pungent aroma would be released into the air.
Clip here, clip there. So much salal. It’s everywhere. I can’t believe I actually planted salal, what was I thinking. There’s one rose blooming, a dark orange one, my favourite colour. I pick it, strip it of its thorns and take it inside the house. I wrap the stem with wet paper towel and put it in a plastic bag, blossom out of the bag. There’s a faint smell of lemon.
I wash the dirt off my hands, change out of my gardening clothes and I’m ready to go – enough gardening for now. I get in my car and place the rose on the front passenger seat. I hope it survives the drive across town on this hot summer afternoon.
When I near Toni’s house, I see that she’s in the garden, I knew she would be. She has her gardening gloves on, and she’s bent down low, weeding. She straightens up on her knees when she hears my car and shields her eyes from the sun with one of her gloved hands. I pull up against the curb and call out my window: “Are you ready?”
“Not quite. Come in for a bit. You’re always in a rush,” she says, getting up.
I wasn’t planning on staying for a visit, but I don’t want to be rude. I get out of the car and walk to greet her. She takes off her gloves and we say hello – a kiss on one cheek, then the other.
I prefer to go to the cemetery alone but it’s just the two of us now, and it feels like we should go together, especially today, on the anniversary of our father’s death.
“What should we take to them today?” she asks, looking around the garden.
I think of my single rose. It’s all I brought, and it’s meant for our sister Maria’s grave.
“The hydrangeas are so beautiful right now. You have so many of them. Let’s take those,” I say. “Mine didn’t bloom at all this year, for some reason.”
She cuts a few hydrangeas, our father’s favourite, and presents them to me. I take them, then step towards her for a hug, but I keep going and reach instead for another flower to add to the bunch. I want nothing more than to hug my sister, to cry with her and hold on tight, but the wall between us is solid, layered with years of misunderstandings and petty disputes, and today it feels chest-high. I can’t do it.
“Can I have a glass of water?” I ask.
“Yeah, sure, of course. Go help yourself. There’s a jug in the fridge.”
When I come back out, she’s ready to go. We get in our cars, each of us in her own; it’s better that way, so we can cry alone. We don’t even discuss it. For emotionally open people, we are very reserved with each other. We head north, onto the highway and over the bridge to North Vancouver.
We visit our parents’ grave first. It’s in a shady area, high above the river. They share one spot—the up-down duplex, I call it. One gravestone for both of them. I like that. We place a metal vase with the blue hydrangeas on one side, clear the stone of grass clippings and leaves, and stand quietly in prayer. Then we head up the hill to an open sunny area, to Maria’s grave. I wonder how many people come to a cemetery and make multiple stops.
We don’t linger. We place my rose and more hydrangeas around the green headstone, make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and chest—we’re both sniffling now—then scurry back to our cars.
“Let’s go have a coffee?” I ask Toni.
“Sure,” she says, then blows her nose. I turn away just as the tears stream down my face.
We get into our cars and Toni drives away first. I’m crying audibly now, sobbing. There’s no need to be quiet; I just let the tears come. I put the car in gear, then decide that it might not be safe for me to drive like this, so I turn off the ignition again and try to compose myself. I take a few deep breaths and the sobs cease but the tears are still flowing. I’m grieving for my dead ones – for my mother, my father, and my sister Maria – but I’m also grieving for the lack of relationship I have with Toni, the only remaining member of my family of origin.
My relationship with Toni has been strained for years, though I don’t really know why. We are fifteen years apart so that may be part of it. I adored her when I was little, even called her mama once in a while. When I was five, she moved away to go to university, and I grew up without her in my daily life after that. In my little girl eyes, this made her my celebrity sister. I insisted on sitting at what was normally her place at the dinner table; I remember making myself eat chicken drumsticks, even though I preferred the plain white meat of the breast, just because drumsticks were Toni’s favourite. When she came home for holidays, we all vied for her attention, but I got most of it. She showered me with hugs and gifts, mostly books of poetry for children, which I treasured then and still have today. But somewhere along the way, I must have become the annoying little sister, the obnoxious teenager, and we drifted apart. She got married just as I started university, and our lives diverged.
As our lives became less entwined, Toni and I argued more, agreed on less. Maria, our middle sister, became our buffer, shielding each of us from the disapproval of the other. Throughout it all, though, the three of us managed to stay connected. I imagined we were like a three-legged stool and believed we’d always have each other.
I thought that grief might bring Toni and me together. We’d both lost the same parents and the same sister. Shouldn’t that be enough to make us want to forge a new path to closeness? But no, in fact, grief drove the wedge between us even further. Maybe it’s just too much loss; maybe it’s too hard to accept it all and start over again. A two-legged stool is too unstable.
We meet at our dad’s favourite coffee shop in the heart of Vancouver’s Portuguese and Italian neighbourhood. We both take our coffee black and strong, a little dollop of sugar, and sit at our father’s favourite table. We stir the sugar, then clink our cups as if toasting him, and we both smile. We talk about soccer, gardening, and the latest recipes we’ve perfected. We talk about everything, it seems, except how much we miss our people.
I couldn’t wait to turn fifty. My forties were a difficult decade, characterized by caregiving, punctuated with death, and marked by grief, starting with my mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis on my fortieth birthday. This was a relief, in a way, because it helped to explain some of the strange behaviour I’d noticed over a few months, or was it years? There was the next-door neighbour stealing water from her well, even though my mother lived in the city and didn’t have a water well. And the time she said my father had started his own bank account to keep his money away from her. Once, at a family dinner, she whispered to me that she thought my sister was stealing cutlery from my kitchen drawer.
When it became clear that my mother needed care, my parents moved in with me and my family. A care home at that stage was not part of our Portuguese tradition or our family’s objective. Besides, with her illness, my mother was forgetting most of her English and it would have been too lonely for her to live in a place where she couldn’t communicate with anyone. Under our cultural norms, it fell upon children to look after their parents in their older years, with this role normally taken by the eldest daughter. In our case, that was Toni. But both Toni and Maria were working, and I was away from the paid workforce, raising my children, so why wouldn’t I do it? It made sense and seemed the least disruptive option. Still, Toni and Maria were extremely involved in my mother’s care and would often take her and my father to their homes for mini vacations, providing respite for me and a change of pace for my parents.
On the same day that my mother received her diagnosis, she tripped over a planter in the lobby of Maria’s apartment building and broke her arm. When I saw her in the evening with a cast, she looked at me and said, “So much bad news in one day.”
Six weeks later she refused to go to the hospital to have her cast taken off.
“This is my arm,” she said, “I don’t want it removed.”
A week after that, she agreed to go to the hospital with me, but while we were in the waiting room she asked what she was doing there and when I told her, she snapped: “I already told you that I don’t want to remove my arm.” And then she got up and walked out, with me following her and pleading.
One day, when the sun was shining and I was watering my plants on the deck, thinking of nothing in particular, my mother called out to me from the kitchen and asked me why she had this white heavy thing on her arm. Her cast removal was now close to a month overdue.
“Because you broke your arm, Ma. But it’s better now. Would you like to get that thing taken off?”
“Yes, I would, I really would. It’s hot and itchy and it’s bothering me.”
I called the hospital and explained the situation. I don’t know if it was the same receptionist, I didn’t notice. Maybe there was something on my mother’s file. But when my mother and I arrived, we were ushered right in. My mother smiled and told jokes, and when the cast was off, she said “Sure feels good to get that stupid thing off. Why did I have that on my arm for so long?”
In the two years that my mother battled her illness, she would sometimes realize she was losing her memory, and it scared her. “Please don’t leave me,” she’d say, looking into my eyes and holding my arm. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, on top of everything else, she said she felt fine and didn’t need all of us fussing around her. We decided as a family that we would provide palliative care for her at home. For four months, I became the manager of my mother’s dying: organizing all the home care workers, occupational therapists, nurses and case workers, the palliative care doctor, even a social worker.
In the last month of my mother’s life, Maria took a leave of absence from work and Toni managed her business around the numerous trips to my house. The three of us looked after our mother in eight-hour shifts. We took turns staying up with her at night.
During one of her shifts, Toni said, “I don’t like this arrangement, that it’s in your house and that you’re controlling everything, and I don’t like the slot you’ve given me,” and walked out. Maria and I shifted to twelve-hour shifts for a few days, and then Toni returned. “Okay, I’m in,” she said. We didn’t discuss it. Maria and I were just glad she was back.
Our mother died on a glorious sunny morning in October, with her entire family around her. We caressed her face, stroked her hair and held her hands. I believe she sensed all the love around her as she took her last breath.
Nine months later, my father fell. This wasn’t the first time he’d fallen at home but somehow, this felt different. I was preparing dinner and he was in the next room, watching television. I heard a huge thump and ran in to find him lying on his back on the floor. I screamed and knelt down beside him and yelled, “Are you okay, are you okay?” He blinked and said, “Don’t freak out on me, please.”
I called out to my husband and to my friend who was over for dinner, to come and help me pick him up. Janet, my friend who was in the kitchen washing the lettuce, is a doctor. She checked him out and said he seemed fine but he might be sore from the fall.
“Take him to the hospital if the pain is unmanageable,” she said before she went home later that evening.
My father had had dinner with us after his fall, even had a glass of Portuguese wine as usual, but a couple of hours after Janet left, he was moaning with pain. While we waited for the ambulance, he threw up.
At the hospital, the doctor said that my father had suffered internal bleeding in his head, a massive brain haemorrhage, and was not expected to survive.
I needed to know whether my father had fallen as a result of a stroke, or whether he’d fallen by accident and, because of that, suffered the haemorrhage. I really wanted it to be the former. “Inconclusive,” the coroner said when she called. And then, “I’m sorry. You couldn’t have prevented this. At his age, their veins are so fragile that it doesn’t take much to cause a bleed. I’m not going to do a full autopsy.”
Three years after my father’s death, my sisters and I had emerged from the miasma of grief. We talked about it one day, over coffee, and noted that laughter and joy had seeped back into our lives. We’d noticed the cherry blossoms in the spring, and we’d started gathering as an extended family again, celebrating birthdays with big meals and special cakes. Toni and I had planned our gardens and Maria had brought her flower boxes back onto her patio and filled them with flowers and herbs – geraniums and petunias, impatiens, basil, oregano and lemon verbena.
My family and I drove across the country to live in Quebec for a year while my husband was on sabbatical from his university job. He had arranged for a research position at the university there, and the children and I would focus on practising our French. Maria planned to come for an extended stay, but she never made it. Five days after we arrived in Quebec City, I flew back to Vancouver to be with her. She’d been admitted to the hospital.
“I don’t get it,” I remember her saying. “I was feeling a little tired, went to the doctor, got a blood test and now I’m here? I don’t understand.”
It surprised us all. Maria was always the healthy one, the one who paid close attention to her diet, the one who exercised regularly. The doctors never actually used the “C” word, not that I remember, they referred to the lesion, mass, tumor. Sometimes we held out hope that if no one had actually said cancer, then maybe it really wasn’t cancer. But it was.
In the four months that Maria was ill, I flew back and forth between Vancouver and Quebec City seven times. My first few visits, she was still well enough for us to go out—we’d window shop in her neighbourhood and go for short walks—mostly, I’d drive her around English Bay so she could see the ocean. Sometimes, we’d stop and sit on a log and eat ice cream, our toes buried in the sand.
One day, after a doctor’s appointment, Maria told me that she wanted to go for a pedicure, and wouldn’t it be fun if we could go together. The thought of someone massaging my feet made me shudder, and she knew that. But for her, a pedicure was the epitome of luxury.
I agreed to go, but I was clear that I would not get a pedicure. Instead, I would get my lip line waxed or something.
“Great,” she said. “Get your eyebrows done too, you’ll love it.”
That was hard for me to imagine but I went along with it. We picked a small place near the doctor’s office. Maria settled in and was already soaking her feet when my name was called and I was whisked away to the back, into a little room with a bed in it. I was told to lie on my back, and the woman applied warm wax on one side of my upper lip line. She proceeded to rip it off then press on my skin. I could not believe how much it hurt. A tear formed in my right eye and escaped from the inside corner. Then she did the same on other side. The woman inspected the results with a magnifying glass, coming so close to me that I could see the pores in her skin. And then, as if needing to blow away fluff, she blew on me. I think I felt droplets of spit land on my lips. Then she said, “That’s done. Now for your eyebrows.”
I wanted to run. I declined the eyebrow treatment, told her I’d changed my mind, and rushed out to the front and paid the cashier, then sat down and read a magazine while I waited for Maria, who was still soaking her feet and looking very content.
When we left, Maria said, “Thanks for coming with me. I know it’s not your thing, but I really enjoyed that. How did it go for you? Looks great!”
“It was pretty gross,” I said. I think she spit on me.”
“What? Why?” She was squealing. “Eww. That is gross. Why would she do that? I’m sorry.”
We burst out laughing.
“Yah, and now I have to keep doing it because it’ll look terrible once it starts growing in again, right?”
“Hey, you should be thanking me. It looks so much better now.”
As we went through the afternoon and evening, one or the other of us would burst into laughter spontaneously, and the other would know exactly what she was thinking. In the evening, we watched a piece on the news about the potential hygiene problems with some fly-by-night pedicure spas. We made tea, and laughed some more.
If I’d known that would be Maria’s last pedicure, I would have had one too.
I was startled awake again. I was sweating, my heart was pounding, and my throat felt like it was full of gauze. I couldn’t remember my dream; all I knew was that I had to get up and check on my children. I needed to make sure they were still there, that they hadn’t started sleep-walking in the middle of the night and left the house or worse, that someone hadn’t entered their rooms through their locked windows and taken them away. It could happen, I tried to rationalize. It has happened. It’s rare, but it’s possible.
I sat up on my elbows and twisted my body to look over my husband, lying next to me: 4:01. Again. It had been 4:00 last night and 4:15 last week.
It was cold in the bedroom and I wished I didn’t have to get up, didn’t have to go check, but I had to. I put my slippers on and made my way in the dark, to the office alcove that separates our bedroom from Georgia’s. From the door, I could see her bed in the glow of the nightlight. There was a little mound in the middle of the bed and I could see her dark hair against the white and blue polka-dot pillow. But that wasn’t enough to soothe my anxiety. I had to get closer, make sure she was breathing. Once I was reassured that she was indeed alive, I tiptoed out of her room, but I couldn’t relax just yet. There was my son, barely a teenager, but who was now taller and stronger than I was. My rational mind told me that no one could kidnap him, not quietly anyway. But what if he had an allergic reaction to something during the night and stopped breathing? What if I lost him too?
There’s a hierarchy of loss in our culture. In the Portugal I remember as a child, there were rules for everything, even grieving. In our small town of Lagoa, on the island of São Miguel, widows wore black. Sometimes, I would see women dressed in black from head to toe: black scarves on their heads, ends tied tightly under the chin, black dresses and coats, and black nylons and shoes. They were like black clouds floating down the street.
“Their grief is fresh,” my mother would say. I remember feeling a little afraid of those women and wanting to avoid them.
I grew up knowing that when grown-ups lose a parent, they wear black for a year; a sibling, six months; a cousin, or an in-law, three months. This is the official period of mourning. I don’t know what the rules state for those of us who suffer consecutive losses. How much black do you wear and for how long, when you’ve lost your mother, your father and your sister, all in four years?
I tried to slip back into bed without waking Eric up but it was too late. I pulled the duvet over my shoulders and settled in, tried to get warm, when he asked:
“What is it? What’s up?”
“Nothing, just checking on the kids.”
“Not again. When is this going to stop?”
“Do you think I’m losing it, Eric?”
“No, I don’t think you’re losing it.”
“Sometimes that’s what it feels like to me. I’m so afraid.”
“Of what?” He sounded exasperated.
I started to cry.
“I’m afraid of going crazy and I’m afraid of losing our kids.”
He pulled me close, and I felt comforted in the envelope of his arms.
Seconds later, I could hear his breathing change. He was snoring.
This summer, my garden looks lush and overgrown. It needs work. My daughter is helping me today. We are both squatting, side-by-side, not saying anything to each other, just pulling weeds and digging up the earth, making it look renewed and clean. Georgia falls backward and lies there for a moment.
“Nice sky,” she says. “I think I’m done. I’m thirsty.”
“Me too. Let’s go have some tea.”
We sit on the back deck under the umbrella. The herbs have grown to full summer foliage and the lemon verbena is emitting a light scent. Georgia takes a big gulp of the mint tea we made yesterday.
“I’m tired,” she says.
“Sometimes you really look like your Auntie Maria, you know. Like, right now,” I say.
She sits forward in her chair and I can see that her eyes are filled with tears.
“Oh, really? I’m so glad, mum. It makes me happy that you think I look like her.”
“Not always,” I say. “Mostly you just look like you. But once in a while, there’s a certain look or an expression and then you really look like her. Just for a moment.”
“I miss her, mum.”
I hear a knock at the front door and scramble to go answer it.
Toni walks in with an armful of couve from her garden.
I thank her and set the greens in the kitchen sink. “Come join us on the deck for iced tea.”
“I don’t like tea,” she says. “When have you ever known me to drink tea?”
“I can get you something else, what can I get you,” I ask.
“It’s okay, I just came for a quick visit,” she says.
The three of us sit together for a few minutes. We talk about soccer, and about what I could do with the couve.
“The leaves are so young and tender, they’ll make a beautiful caldo verde,” Toni says. “I just had to bring you some.”
Then she gets up, kisses both Georgia and me on one cheek and says, “It’s a long way home, gotta go. Enjoy your soup,” and she’s gone.
Out in the garden, the hydrangea bush is in full bloom. I’ve cut the salal back this year, but only a little bit. I like how it goes wherever it wants to and fills in the empty spots.
Esmeralda Cabral is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University and the MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Her work has been published in several anthologies, the Globe and Mail, Understorey Magazine, Curiosity Magazine, and online. Two of her stories have aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.