The Paralysis of Home
In late 2008, I returned to Canada briefly from South Korea where I’d been living and working for a year. I rented a place on the Plateau in Montreal in the depths of winter and the global financial crisis, and after shivering through November, December, a rapidly depleting bank account, and an onslaught of professional rejections, the new year came and I moved out west to stay with my mother and father on Vancouver Island while I waited for yet another visa to be processed, this time for India. Then in February 2009, my Oma, my father’s mother, passed away. I was twenty-six.
Here’s something true: there are moments throughout adulthood that reduce us, repeatedly, to children. These are moments in which everything around us grows burly and imposing and suddenly becomes unreadable. These moments are different from those that spirit us to childhood, the ones in which we see things again through the veil of wonder and innocence and innate selfishness through which we once saw all things; rather, they’re host to the phenomenon of everything we’ve practised for falling out from under us, leaving us in that navy blue one-piece ski suit we wore on the bunny hill for the winters of ’86 and ’87, and which was difficult to get off in a hurry without help, and to which we once succumbed in a snowbank, and in which, as a result, we peed. These are the moments that make us feel insecure, terrified, cold, and wet.
A major catalyst for such regressive moments is visiting parents, as is well known to most grown people who have moved away from home and are well on their journey to building an adult life in which they make decisions for themselves and are capable of deciphering scarf weather from t-shirt weather, indoor voices from outdoor voices, and which pronged household items should and should not be inserted into electrical outlets. Some of us care for pets, raise one or more children of our own, are capable – even fond – of cooking nutritious and occasionally adventurous meals for our friends and families, and can keep our apartments clean. And yet: after the first two days of a stint back home, something that lurks in the shadows descends upon an otherwise perfectly – or at least somewhat – adjusted cluster of adults. This is when, despite the aforementioned capabilities and good habits, you forget how to be your adult self and things begin to play out how they did twenty years ago. You feel insolence, you feel frustration, you feel embarrassment and even sometimes voiceless. You suddenly crave approval. And your parents? They’ll be sucked into the pantomime, too, and dammit, they’ll insist you mind your manners.
Another source of such regression is grief, either confronting one’s own or seeing the raw pulsating face of someone else’s. This is something we never get better at. It is disarming and perplexing and causes the dreaded sensation of a spreading, dampening, humiliating chill. There is never the right way to articulate what you feel, and never the right thing to say to someone facing loss. Words become nonsense.
When Oma died it was not sudden or unexpected, just very sad. She lived in Villach, Austria, and had been cared for by my dad’s sister and a rotation of two live-in care workers through her later stages of Alzheimer’s. My father visited fairly regularly. From the time I arrived out west, it felt as though we were simply waiting. It’s a horrible thing to be waiting for, and everything felt paused; we knew when it happened we would need to be ready to go.
One morning, early, the phone rang. I didn’t answer it; I knew who would be calling. As a child, I was terrified of answering the phone at home in the early mornings and late evenings because there was always a possibility it would be a member of the Austrian contingent (nine hours ahead), who would speak to me in German while I panicked, gripping the portable phone and running through the house to find my father. It’s not that I couldn’t understand my Oma or my Tante; it’s that I was crippled by the fear of being misunderstood myself, or of suddenly being at a loss for words, or forgetting the word for something and standing dumbly, breathing into the receiver. It made me feel like a baby. This particular morning, early and cold and February, I listened to the phone ring twice, and then stop. It was around five o’clock and I knew at that moment that my father had answered it and I knew which words he was hearing. I knew he would be trying to brace himself with the justification that he had known it was coming. I knew he’d be finding himself surprised at how impossible that was.
My mother happened to be out of town and for a minute or two I resented her absence. It was her job to be here for him, not mine. I was ill equipped for this. My father’s grief was not something I felt grown up enough to deal with. I suspect no one ever grows up that much. I lay frozen in the spare bedroom – the room in which my mother’s father had passed away twenty years earlier – feeling like I was holding a phone to my ear, my father on the other end, and choking on my own silence.
I got up. I pulled a hoodie on over my nightshirt. I went into the hallway and stopped at the top of the stairs to turn the furnace on. As a child, lying awake in my basement room, the low rumble of the furnace springing to life had always seemed an indication of the day itself coming alive, an indication that my father was up and the world wasn’t as still and empty as winter mornings let on.
I stood near his bedroom and listened, and when I walked in the phone was on his nightstand and he was lying curled up on the far edge of the bed, his back to the doorway. I said, “Dad,” and he stayed still and said nothing. The room was that early morning grey–blue. The furnace hummed. My father, who stands six-foot-three, looked small. I sat down on Mum’s side the bed. He cried very quietly and I felt a quiet despair, not just at the death of my grandmother – my last remaining grandparent – but also at his pain, his loss, and my complete inability to know what to do in this situation. Signs were slipping, becoming unreadable. How do you truly comfort a parent? After a minute he turned to face me and rested his head on my knee. He was just as unprepared for his grief as I was. I grew uncomfortable, even disturbed, by the wrongness of the moment, given rise to by his tears, by the fact that my mother had gone away overnight, by my incomplete arsenal of emotional mechanisms. I had stepped out of my space, my framework. After a minute the situation became unbearable for me, and I stood up and said, “I’ll call Mum.”
Throughout the day I did my best to atone for having cowered in the shadow of the circumstance by doing things I knew how to do. I called my mother. I called my brother, who was living in India at the time, and told him I’d book him a flight to Austria. I called British Airways and negotiated bereavement fares. I made arrangements for pet sitting and cancelled the Island Farms dairy delivery (I have no idea why the little slice of heaven known as the Saanich Peninsula, in 2009, was still serviced by what we called The Milkman, even though we knew his name was Dave). When it came to the admin of flying to Europe for my Oma’s funeral, I seemed to know what I was doing.
I also held it together several days later at the actual funeral, a ceremony that unexpectedly left my brother completely unwound (it might have been the requisite Catholic drama of the whole thing, the rose-covered casket disappearing gracefully behind a sweeping velvet curtain to the tune of Con te partirò). I was moved by my brother’s show of emotion; there was something theatrical and heartbreaking about him weeping to Andrea Bocelli. Maybe it was because I could picture how my Oma looked when she listened to that song, which was one of her favourites: her eyes closing as she leaned back, the corners of her mouth curling into a slight smile, her small hands swaying on the armrests of her chair, conducting a tiny orchestra.
After the funeral and a week with relatives, I flew from Austria to Bangalore with my brother and spent the next six months traveling in India, Nepal, and Oman, figuring out my next move. The paralysis of the unknown, it turned out, would always be a passing, fleeting thing. The paralysis of home, however, lingers, and the memory of that morning, of my weeping father and lack of words, continues, years later, to disarm me.