In the hospital, a few weeks before my grandmother died, she stopped speaking English. It was only French from then on, in whispers, through a ventilator mask.
Colombe had never been a confident student of the English language, wading in only reluctantly after moving with her husband, my grandfather, across the country. Jacques worked in the Canadian Armed Forces, a desk job, and took a transfer to the base in Chilliwack at a time when the children were still young enough to uproot without too much fuss.
Unlike Jacques, who relished the opportunity to talk about all the classic English novels he had read during his army-sponsored ESL classes, Colombe treated the language like a necessary, if inconvenient, part of life in British Columbia.
Her children had grown up speaking both languages, but English won out in the end. In Montreal, they had gone to English schools, as a progressive educational endeavour and in anticipation of a life on the West Coast. But in Chilliwack, French shrank to the size of the three-bedroom rancher they all shared.
While English was likely never a battle that she thought to win, in the hospital, she also lost her cooking.There had always been soup, and then there wasn’t. Flecked with grains of white rice, her vegetable soup would be simmering in a large stock pot an hour before lunch when we would visit.
She and her husband had remodelled the kitchen ten years earlier, knocking out the back wall to make room for more chairs at the dining table. The family was growing back then, with marriages and new cousins, but the growth never really caught on. Instead, Colombe filled the extra space in the kitchen with side tables purchased from the church thrift shop and books by the Pope.
The other changes were smaller. The soup lost its salt, to accommodate Jacques’ blood pressure, but you could always add that back in yourself. The stewed tomatoes disappeared next, as the acidity became harder for him to stomach.
We only heard afterward how Jacques had driven himself to the hospital. He was on his way to morning mass, but then kept driving when the chest pains started, towards the emergency room one block down. He came home from surgery with a heart-shaped pillow, carnation red with careful white stitching, to cushion his ribs when he coughed. The pillow took up residence on the living room couch the same week the tomatoes disappeared.
We started cooking Christmas dinners at my parents’ house. It was a burden, they said, to have Colombe manage the meal on her own. The aunts and uncles and cousins rarely congregated en masse anymore, separated as we were by ferries, bad roads, and small grudges.
“You didn’t need to bring the turkey,” said my mother from the driveway that first Christmas, as she helped her parents unload the trunk of their car.
Together they balanced stacks of still-warm dishes, carrying them to the kitchen counter in shifts. Parboiled potatoes, already turning black in their own steam, and carved turkey. Tourtiere, crust from scratch. Cranberry sauce stored in reused jam jars, labelled with masking tape. The transition was slow as my mother spent the next few holidays trying to convince her mother that it wasn’t necessary to bring the entire meal along.
Those Christmases spent around my parents’ dining table were always quieter than those we had spent in Chilliwack, and as the illness progressed, time began to unwind for Colombe. Her stories would loop and blossom as fractals that encompassed relatives or friends we had never met and their often untimely deaths. We would hover over our forks, politely, waiting for the thread to wind itself back up so we could pass the gravy.
Rice suspended in a bone broth, laced with white marrow strands that I would pick out and lay on the edge of my bowl. The soup had been reduced even further, but this time it was to accommodate Colombe herself. Marrow for marrow, a broth to fight the battle that the soft tissue of her bones was losing. Leukemia, we were told, and two months to prepare. In the end, we got six.
At Jacques’ insistence, we gathered at an early morning mass the week she went into the hospital. The weekday regulars wore light sweaters and heavy, orthopaedic shoes, shuffling out of the pews towards the exit after the final hymn.
“I saw her yesterday. She doesn’t look well at all,” said a large woman whose wispy grey hair had been cropped short like a finely woven cobweb stitched to her skull.She had my mother’s hand clasped in a parchment grip, her palms cold and dry. There was lint on the woman’s sweater, but it had all accumulated on one shoulder, like a patch of grey moss.Later, wearing blue hospital gowns that fell past our ankles to drag on the linoleum, we saw and tried not see Colombe propped up in bed, surrounded by rumpled linens. Already a small woman, she had shrunk down to child-like proportions. The hospital bracelet was a gaudy bangle on her wrist.
My mother stayed in Chilliwack that week and then carved a rut into the highway commuting back and forth after Colombe was transferred to hospice.Unlike her brothers, my mother rarely spoke French as an adult. Often, conversations with her parents would be dual language affairs, with each sticking to their own preferred tongue. Sometimes this was simply to avoid excluding my anglophone father—who swore he could understand everyone anyway—but often it was simply to avoid the embarrassment of misconjugated verbs and a rusty vocabulary.At the hospice, my mother grew into her French again, just as my grandmother left that behind as well.
In July, after the funeral, we had sandwiches.
The extended family sat at folding tables laid out with bleached table cloths and stackable, ceramic mugs of coffee in the church hall. The summer pollen was in full force and my mother planned to stay on for the night. She had packed a bag, just in case, but had left her allergy pills on the bedside table back home.
My father was sent questing for a new pack at the corner store, and we lingered by the rotisserie display and watched the hot dogs sweating on their carousel, not willing to head back too soon.
Someone needed to stay. Jacques would be alone now, which was a new reality without precedent for the man who had never had to care for himself.
He had his meal deliveries from Veteran Affairs now, which he would dutifully stuff into the chest freezer every week. There would be a cleaning service. But the long, silent nights without another body breathing alongside him in the house would be a stark, uncomfortable change. There would be no proxy for Colombe, but for a little while at least, my mother would stay.
On the phone to my mother, while we make plans for another Christmas—one where Jacques will be having dinner in Mission—she tells me that she’s made vegetable soup.“I cooked a whole ham,” she says. “I cut it up into little bits to add to the soup. I wanted to try something new.
[Originally published in FORTH Magazine, October 14, 2017]