Red

Everyday I take a walk in the leafy neighbourhood south of the new development I live in where the trees are no higher than the three-storey roofs. The cardinals have not yet crossed Gerrard Street to nest in our leggy oaks, preferring the century-old foliage south of the divide between then and now. Cardinals rarely leave Southern Ontario although I don’t often hear or see them on my winter walks. Come spring they call from the topmost bare branches. Today, in July, one posed against a clear sky from a rooftop aerial. Just the lines of the aerial against a cloudless blue, with the red silhouette tracking his mate. I choose to think of it as Craig, just as I recognized him at dawn the day following his death, a red streak from the garden of our old house to the uppermost leaves one fence over. When he calls to me on my walks, I stop to spot him, listen a few moments, then charge him with the task of looking out for our sons. I have a right to his help. All single parents wish for input from someone who cares as much for their kids as they do.

I went on an Alaskan cruise with my mother and my sister a year after Craig died. It wasn’t for my sake but for my mother’s who in her early eighties wasn’t up to travelling on her own. Not since my sister’s marriage at the age of twenty had we three been together for as long as a week, let alone bunked in a single stateroom.

My sister is a tiny woman. I, like my mother once, have been forced to accept voluptuousness. After Craig took his life I gained. I still worked out at the gym and followed my usual routines, but it was as if, having been reduced to half of the couple we’d been, I’d added girth to fill in the missing limb. Around that time, my therapist began her dying. I hadn’t been aware that shortly before we’d started our work together, she had suffered from cancer. She was my main support through the last, worst years of Craig’s illness. Then her cancer returned, this time brooking no truck with treatment. She wondered if I was putting on weight to compensate for her waning. These were sessions filled with tears. I had been crying since Craig died. Now I was crying for her. Can you imagine the dedication and courage it must have taken to spend the last year of her able life, her life in the world, listening to an assortment of clients snivelling over her imminent end? Despite my regard for her opinion, I didn’t agree. Craig and I together had been one; now I was reduced by half. Despite the fact that we didn’t fit together (not like two jigsaw puzzle pieces that mesh, but rather two pieces that almost mesh, so that you think they might even if you know they won’t), on some level I still aspired to the whole.

Shipboard, my mother played bridge while my sister read on a lounger in the shade. I ran my laps on the track around the pool deck. Playing my role as the youngest, I offered to take a top bunk so they might have the two lower berths. We shared the tiny bathroom peaceably. In fact, after my noisy childhood during which at least two of us were usually locked in verbal contest, it was surprising that no altercation disrupted the voyage. Perhaps we were mindful of each other’s diminishments: my mother’s advanced years, my bereavement, my sister’s menopausal fretting over where she’d misplaced her sun glasses or ship card.

A year earlier, after Craig’s memorial, once everyone went back to their lives and my sister again was a voice on the line from the city where we were raised, she gave me this advice: accept all invitations. She spoke from experience learned from divorce. I tried, once spring turned to summer. I carted my youngest son with me from one friend’s cottage to another, smiling, and swimming, and sipping g & ts. I hadn’t put on weight yet. I bought two new bathing suits and felt good in them. Then one night, my eyes refused to close. I could barely blink. The longer I stayed awake, the more impossible it seemed that they would ever again lower their lids to release me. I remembered once saying something to Craig when he too had not been able to sleep, his breath short, voice pitched to squeaking. “No one ever died of missing a night’s sleep.” What a sorry attempt at consolation. The toxic zinging under my skin must have had something to do with my racing pulse. This was my punishment for surviving Craig, for surviving Craig’s illness, and for having the gall to try to live again: my children’s remaining parent next in line to lose her mind.

There would be no short-cut. I’d have to study my way into widowhood: going to the movies alone on Saturday nights; taking long walks by myself; eating out with my book for company. There’s no reason it should come naturally after twenty-five years as half of a couple. I had to force my nose into it, acknowledge, no recognize, no learn what wasn’t there. Fill in for it, fill up with something else, fill out.

I don’t like heights. During childhood, I dreamt of hanging off one end of Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge as it lifted. The roadway tipped down, spilling the car carrying my family towards the other shore, while I clung, rising ever higher over the broad St. Lawrence. Sweat drips from my palms when I clutch the supporting posts in gondolas. I play miniature golf in amusement parks while others go on the rides.

The ship made various ports of call. My mother disembarked occasionally, once to shop for gemstones for her daughters and granddaughters. Another day, we took a narrow-gauge railway ride on the Alaskan side of the Yukon Trail corridor. She seemed as happy, though, to stay on board with her bridge buddies, and not miss her afternoon nap so she might be fresh for the evening song and dance revue, her favourite part of each day. My sister and I were free to take hikes together and to visit the museums. I got it into my head to go on a helicopter ride up to the Mendenhall Glacier. My sister abstained for her own good reasons. In fact I couldn’t explain why a person with such a morbid fear as mine would insist on not missing out on this adventure. I thought of how my boys would enjoy it, but then again, had the boys been with me, the expense for the three of us would have been prohibitive. I reasoned that going solo was a great savings, a bargain, and thus not to be passed up.

A shiny red helicopter, gently rocking heel to toe, then tilting its nose up so as to taste the brilliant northern air before lifting off is a work of motion art. I felt privileged to watch each make its ascent. I didn’t doubt my decision for a moment, single though I was, the only single person in line, with no one to hold my sweaty hand as the feeling would inevitably come upon me that surely I would slip and plummet to my death. Our pilot promised us that he was of age to drive a car. He looked around twelve. The other four passengers were all in their twenties. There I was alone, the widow, my youth gone with the remains burned in a box. The things you hold in your head when you’re on the brink. A woman on a cruise. The ashes of her husband that she’d rolled in her palms.

I’m superstitious but my left brain laughs it off. It’s only now, sixteen years later, that I recognize the cardinals I address on my daily walks in the red helicopter as it swung out its tail to present its cheek to the bluest of skies. Perhaps that’s why I heard its call. Its redness, its resting bird-shape, the blue of the Alaskan sky. I think Craig took me on that flight.

The pilot’s voice in the headphones was eager to show us. Did we realize how lucky we were? All summer long the range had been shrouded in fog. Fog here fell like a curtain on a bad act. Except these acts were stupendous. I had seen it for myself as we edged out of yesterday’s port. The town hugged the waterside. Eagles, impervious to the scale of our ship and the jagged, white-capped grandeur behind them sat the posts along the quay like guiding totems. From one moment to the next, a curtain dropped on the left side of the scene wiping out eagles, posts, and pier; while on the right, the mountains and the town still glinted under the late afternoon sun. The pilot said he’d been flying tourists all summer but had been able to show them only the most immediate mountains en route to the Mendenhall. Today—his excited voice was indeed as unfiltered as a child’s—the whole range was visible. If we didn’t mind losing some minutes of our time on the glacier, he’d take us around a few extra peaks. Didn’t mind! Take us around! I’ve since flown in a chopper over the Grand Canyon, and once over the limestone formations off the southern coast of Australia, and though these outings were a pleasure, no similar experience brought us this close to the rock face as we hugged the sides of the mountains of the Coastal Range, sweeping up one side, then down the other, our pilot a-swoon with rock and air. Who says there isn’t a God? That the heavens hadn’t opened up for just my moment of deliverance? I do, but it hardly matters if one makes use the trope to take the leap. At that height, our conveyance as slight as a bird against the monuments of nature, I let go the tether that bound me to grief.

 

 

Judith Kalman is a Toronto writer whose collection of linked short stories, The County of Birches, was published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1998 and St. Martin’s Press in the U.S. in 1999. It was a co-winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and a finalist for the U.S. National Jewish Book Award. Several stories in the collection received individual awards. “Not for Me a Crown of Thorns” appeared in the 1998 Journey Prize Anthology. “Flight” won the Tilden Canadian Literary Award, a National Magazine Award and the President’s Medal for overall best magazine publication and was broadcast on CBC’s Between the Covers. Other stories from the collection have been anthologized in The Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women and Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada, as well as in other anthologies. 

Most recently, her personal essay “Testifying” was published by Another Chicago Magazine, which submitted it for consideration for the Pushcart Prize. Another piece, "In Sickness and in Health," was published in STORGY Magazine this March 2018. 

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