“To write,” says author Dede Crane, “I get a good daydream going and write it down.” Here is her short story “The Cult of Quick Repair”—a work of fiction about death, Buddhism, and almond canoes.
Janet hangs up the phone, breathing hard through her mouth as if she’s been climbing stairs. Hospice is on their way. She tries to take a deep breath. There’s too many people and not enough oxygen in her mother’s cottage-sized house, she thinks irritably. Or is she just claustrophobic?
God, she wants to fling open the doors and windows, let the cold billow the curtains, scatter the dust, bring this deadly wait to a quicker end. No, no, sorry Mom, she doesn’t mean it. She takes an almond canoe from the open package on the counter, eats it just to have something else to focus on for a minute. She doesn’t even like the taste but the dense, chewy texture feels good in her mouth.Movement out the kitchen window catches her eye. Squirrels, no doubt. Yep, two squirrels chasing each other around the trunk of a Douglas Fir. Her mother’s forested garden consists of fir and cedar trees plus one peeling arbutus which enclose a small green rectangle of lawn that’s more moss than grass. At the garden’s far end is an inlaid brick patio and freestanding fireplace. Her generous, outgoing mother liked to entertain and such evenings always wound up outside by the fire with pots of tea and her almond canoes, maybe a snifter of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Tucked in on the right, positioned on a old stump, is her mother’s buddha. The size of a pre-teen, he’s sitting in meditation, eyes closed, just a hint of a smile. His moss-covered back makes it look like he’s wearing a shiny green cape. Superbuddha.
Janet has slept at her mom’s every night for the last six weeks, stopping by her apartment on her way to work for a change of clothes. After work she comes directly here and each night after dinner, her bedridden mother has asked her to place an “offering” on the statue’s lap: a piece of fruit sometimes but usually an almond canoe: her mother’s favourite cookie.
“An offering to what?” Janet asked that first night.
“Well, I guess, to the things we can’t see, can’t know,” answered her Mom, sounding unsure. “I tend to think of them as my angels. Buddhists would call them local deities or protectors.
“What happened to believing in plain old God?” God, at least when Janet was growing up, used to be the operative word. Though not particularly religious about it, their family did attend the local Anglican church back when and Janet had always considered herself a Christian.
“Sure. Him too. And Mrs. God.” Her mother smiled her impish smile. “But really it just feels like I’m offering up my smaller, more limited mind to meld with something bigger. I shouldn’t really even give It a name because that limits It again.”
Janet shook her head but wasn’t going to argue with a dying woman. And she could understand how one might get superstitious near the end, hedge one’s bets. So every night she slipped her feet into her mother’s old gardening boots and walked across the spongey moss lawn to balance an offering in the statue’s cold, conveniently flat, sandstone palms. His palms are laid one on top of the other, thumbs raised to make a little curved archway. Those empty hands look to her like they’ve been just waiting patiently all day for the handout. Sometimes, out there alone in the dark, she’d get a little spooked and imagine its heavy eyelids rising and those tapered stone fingers snapping closed over hers, tired of almond canoes and wanting her as the offering. Human flesh.
By morning the food would have been stolen by any number of squirrels who, as a result, now populated the yard and came far too close to the house for her comfort.
She walks back into the cramped living room where her dying mom, bald as a baby, eyes closed despite being awake, lies inert on a hospital bed in front of the couch. Somber Uncle Phil sits in a chair holding his sister’s hand and Janet’s brother, Silas, who finally deigned to show up yesterday, paces because he has zero capacity for stillness. Though she hasn’t seen him for half a year, his habits annoy her as much as ever. Filling the couch are three people she never laid eyes on until this afternoon. Mom had actually requested to be displayed like this in the living room, saying her bedroom was too small to accommodate both family and her “family of buddhas,” as she called them, who came in organized shifts from nine in the morning until nine at night. “The atmosphere of meditation will help me let go,” her mother had said.
Again, who was Janet to argue but she can’t get past her own irritation to experience any “atmosphere” emanating from these buddha teams as she thinks of them. Every fifteen minutes, the man on the couch, whose name is Henry, rises out of his place on the couch to lean into Mom’s ear and whisper a string of foreign sounding syllables. No other team member has done this ritual. Mom repeats the syllables after him. It feels like they’re keeping a secret from Janet and it pisses her off. On the other hand, does she even want to know?
Mom moans a sustained nasal moan, and Janet feels the tiny muscles around her eyes tightening.
“Hospice is on their way,” she says plainly, matter-of-factly. She doesn’t know how else to says things in front of strangers. Their eyes may be closed but their ears aren’t. Actually the Henry fellow has his eyes open slightly yet focused on nothing. He looks like a zombie.
Mom manages a barely perceptible nod to show she understands and Silas stops his pacing to nod briskly, his round eyes shiny gray dimes. He’s chewed a bright red colour into his lips. She knows that Silas slept as little as she did last night yet somehow he has sparks coming off him. She wonders what he’s on besides the pot of coffee he drank earlier. Silas, twenty-four, is three years younger. His shoulder-length hair looks greasy looking despite a morning shower. Probably used the conditioner by mistake. He’d be a handsome guy, thinks Janet, if he wasn’t so gaunt and actually took care of himself.
“They’re on their way,” Uncle Phil repeats close to Mom’s ear. “I’ve got to go but I’ll drop back over after my shift.” He kisses her fingers where they curve around his, then places her hand on top of her swollen belly.
Henry clears his throat and Uncle Phil looks over at him with cold hatred.
“God-damn strangers,” mutters Uncle Phil, turning his head so only Janet hears.
“Mystic vigilantes” is what Silas called them last night. “Get it, vigil-aunties?”
Janet thinks of them as voyeurs, here to witness the big spiritual climax of death.
“Bye Uncle Phil,” says Janet, “I’ll call you if…”
“The angels come,” Mom whispers through teeth too heavy to part.
Janet smiles and Uncle Phil shakes his head sadly. Two beats late, Silas barks out a laugh.
“Her mind’s all there,” says Silas, grinning, his voice too bright for this moment.
Janet kisses her uncle’s cheek then takes his place beside Mom and across from the buddha team, Henry and two women. A grey-haired woman, who’s dressed in jeans and turtleneck, is using Mom’s nicest pillow, the gold Persian one with silk fringe, under her bum as she sits cross-legged on the couch. The other, a young woman in an expensive-looking suit, sits with her stocking-feet planted on the floor and Mom’s antique-satin pillows propping her back. Eyes closed, she clicks what resembles a rosary without a cross between thumb and forefinger, her silent lips moving like a taste-tester forgetting to swallow. Janet can sense their awareness sticking out into the room, taking everything in, including the limited oxygen. Though silent, they feel glaringly present and she resents it. Billowing ferns, spider plants and Christmas cacti in pink bloom fill the bay window behind them. From where Janet’s sits, Henry looks like he’s wearing one dripping pink earring on his left ear. She can remember Henry’s name since it’s the name of her boyfriend’s cat, but can’t for the life of her remember the ladies’ names. Again Henry leans forward and mumbles his gobbledygook in Mom’s ear. Mom mumbles back. It looks like brainwashing the weak.
Six years ago, not long after Dad left her for the proverbial younger woman, Mom began spending every Tuesday evening and at least one weekend a month meditating with this group and studying Buddhism. Janet never really understood her mother’s connection to these seemingly brooding intellectual types, but her mom said meditation enabled her to “let go of those things she couldn’t change.”
But to this day Janet believes Mom’s illness is a direct result of these pacifying attitudes and repressed anger toward Dad. Janet, though, is still angry enough for the both of them. After twenty-two years of marriage to a person as generous and self-sacrificing as Mom, his “falling in love” was not an excuse. Janet cannot, will not, forgive him and hasn’t spoken to him for five years now.
A week ago, Mom asked Janet to contact him for her, to tell him she was dying. “I’m glad to know he has someone else. I really am. And I want him to know, just in case he has any regrets and wants to say good-bye.” Janet said she would but had no intention of doing it. Her plan was to call him after the fact, shock him, she hoped, force him to experience the same degree of loss and confusion he’d put Mom through. In fact, in a morbid way, she was even looking forward to it.
Another pitiful moan and Mom rolls her head from side to side. Her restlessness had started late last night and Janet hardly slept worrying that this might be it. And now she’s got Silas here to worry about. Silas, the x in any equation, feels like an accident waiting to happen. Janet squeezes her mother’s hand and feels the weak effort in return.
Mom struggles to pull her knobby knees up under the covers, in order turn onto her side. Even with the extra pain medication, she can’t seem to get comfortable. If only these buddha people weren’t around, she’d try and distract Mom with music maybe – what’s so holy about silence anyway? — or those anti-Bush jokes that were going around a while back. Her mom had loved the one about Bush in a restaurant ordering the “quickie.” The waitress gets indignant, walks away, then Cheney explains to Bush how to pronounce “quiche.” Janet smiles at the memory, can almost hear Mom’s infectious, belly laugh.
Mom plucks weakly at her covers.
“Silas,” Janet says. “Help me here, please.”
Silas smiles, baring his teeth. His teeth are so white, she wonders if there’s some chemical in his saliva that acts like bleach. It takes him several seconds to unstick his feet from his piece of carpet. Janet knows it’s hard for him, a shock really, to see how much Mom’s changed these last six months, the amount of weight she’s lost, the loss of her wavy mane of hair.
“Other side of the bed Silas and take her hips,” Janet instructs with her chin.
Silas tentatively moves to other side and rubs his hands up and down on the thighs of his jeans. Then he holds his hands up in the air like a surgeon awaiting his gloves.
“Just do it,” she says. Grow up is what she wants to say.
“He’s an artist. He’s sensitive,” her mother would say. He’s self-absorbed is Janet’s perspective.
Eyes squinting, as if afraid something might come off in his hand, Silas gently turns his mother’s shoulders while Janet guides her hips and knees. The buddha team continue with their respective meditating and bead counting. Janet has to wonder if Mom started gagging, flailing or worse, if these three would even react or simply meditate and mumble all the harder.
“Okay, good,” breathes Silas after Mom is safely settled on her side. He backs up and into one of the meditators on the couch. “Oh shit, sorry,” he says to rosary woman. “I mean ship, no, shoot. Your foot okay?”
“Fine,” she mumbles through a smile, not bothering to open her eyes. She readjusts her pillows and fidgets an inch backwards. Henry leans forwards and mumbles into Mom’s ear. Mom mumbles back. Go away, thinks Janet.
Silas escapes into the kitchen. Janet hears him rummaging in the fridge and calls to him to put on the kettle for the hospice people due anytime now. Janet has, upon each new buddha team’s arrival, offered them tea and almond canoes, because she knows that’s what Mom would do. She uses Mom’s favourite red teapot, the Matisse mugs and the sunflower “cookie plate.”
“Okay, sure,” he calls over the sound of something falling.
Silas took the boat over yesterday morning from Vancouver, days later than he’d promised. Mom had held on for him. Two minutes after he walked in the door, she took his face in her palms and performed a wearied version of her ritual kissing of both cheeks followed by his forehead. Then she smiled and shut her eyes. It was as if his face was the final thing her eyes needed to see, because she hasn’t opened them since.
Much to Janet’s dismay, Mom was still sending him a monthly allowance because his “art” didn’t yet make ends meet.
“It only goes up his nose or up in smoke,” Janet told her. “One or the other.”
“Silas does things his way, Janet,” Mom would say gently, as if far more concerned with Janet’s ungenerous attitude.
Janet wouldn’t call him an addict, not yet, just a hard-core partier, hungry for anything other than reality. She remembers his model car phase at age ten. How he locked himself in his room, taking weeks to build one stupid car, the air in there nothing but glue fumes. When he was sixteen it was spray-paint art. He even got good enough to sell to tourists down in the Victoria Harbour; Silas the only spray artist not wearing a gas mask. Since dropping out of art school, he’s turned to sealing objects in acrylic. Dried flowers, pasta, watch parts, Disney toys, preserved forever in Future floor wax and sold as paper weights, soap dishes, kitchen tiles, even table tops. Mom had thought it might be fun to commission a kitchen floor of almond canoes.
“Would make for a lovely colour really. That warm gold.” They’d imagined walls and furniture, an entire house of embalmed food. Had a good laugh.
It’s devastating to Janet that her mom’s laugh is now lost to the world. She should have taped it, she tells herself, should have made a tape loop to play whenever something funny happened. Like the canned laughter on sitcoms. She could put it on right now, see if the buddha team would react. People used to say that Silas had Mom’s laugh. It’s similar, Janet admits, but phony in comparison, the sound without the substance. Silas can’t settle into his body long enough to laugh like Mom. He’s too hungry, always one step ahead of his skin.
A soft knocking at the door and Janet calls to Silas to answer it.
“What?” calls Silas.
“Get the door.”
“I didn’t even hear the door,” Silas says, coming through the kitchen doorway.
“Just get it.”
Mom presses Janet’s hand. “He’s listening for angels,” she breathes.
No, he’s not, thinks Janet, squeezing back. She has no sympathy for Silas. He hasn’t been the one driving to specialists, chemo-treatments, cooking meals, spending overnights. And he isn’t the one with the full-time job and boyfriend.
Janet cringes as she listens to Silas’s disjointed greeting.
“Hi. Welcome. Good of you to come. I’m the son.”
The son of what? God?
“We’re in here,” she calls.
“Yeah, this way,” says Silas.
The social worker introduces herself as “Eve.” She’s tall, forty-five maybe, with cropped black hair and eyes like a whiskey jack’s. The younger woman, “Martha,” is the nurse. Framed by shoulder-length blonde hair, Martha’s pretty face is more practical than anything, her expression like those of the men and women on the Texas Hold’em channel her boyfriend sometimes watches. Martha carries a large black tackle box which she hoists onto the dining room table.
Eve does the talking. Her voice is calm and confident, upbeat even. No holy silence for her. She makes it sound as if helping people die is the best job ever. She instantly makes Janet feels less alone. And less afraid for her mother.
“My angels?” mumbles Mom.
“Yes, your angels have arrived,” says Janet, and Eve laughs a free, unselfconscious laugh.
“I’m Eve, Lorna,” she says, kneeling beside Mom and placing a firm hand on her forehead. “We’re here to make you as comfortable as possible.”
This sounds slightly sinister to Janet. Angels of death she’d like to say, thinking Mom would laugh at that if she could.
“I hurt,” says Mom. Above her closed eyes, her smooth brow crinkles slightly.
“I know,” says Eve. “It’s all right.”
“How are you holding out?” Eve has turned her friendly bird-eyes on Janet.
“Me?” Janet stutters at the question. “Well, I really can’t complain, considering.” She glances down at her mom.
Eve nods warmly, knowingly. “So tell me, how’s she been today?”
“She still won’t open her eyes. Hasn’t slept much, if at all, in the last twenty-four hours. She’s been very restless, can’t seem to get comfortable.”
“The restlessness is very common at this stage,” Eve says. “The dying feel like there’s someplace they need to get to. The body’s anticipating the journey.”
This plain talk about death makes Janet instantly angry. Not angry at her mother for dying, but angry at herself for wanting it to be true, wanting it to be over and done already.
“I’ve seen people pack a suitcase,” says Eve, smiling.
Janet doesn’t want to hear about other people. “So what happens now?”
“Well,” Eve speaks to Mom’s closed eyes, “Martha will administer some morphine and a little Ativan – to help your body relax, Lorna, and then a third needle to prevent hemorrhaging.”
Afraid that this new stage of things might be a little too real for Silas, Janet looks over to see him standing in the kitchen doorway, furtively sipping a Coke. She doesn’t remember hearing the kettle boil. He probably forgot to plug it in. Janet follows his gaze to where Martha has opened her tackle box. Packed with rows upon rows of little vials, Martha lifts out three and taps their glass with her fingernail. Three syringes follow and a whip of tan rubber tubing.
“Silas,” Janet’s voice is abrupt. “Is the tea ready?”
Oh, the tea.” He ducks back into the kitchen.
She sighs. Maybe she should just go ahead and put on some of Mom’s favourite music – Tom Jones or Barbara. She’s about to ask her mother if she’d like that when she speaks first.
“You called Robbie?” breathes Mom, as she turns herself onto her back with a slight thud. “Called your dad?”
“Yes,” Janet says quickly.
Her mother’s lips part with a huff, the sound of grief, of being abandoned all over again. Her chin falls towards her chest. No, wait. Janet doesn’t want her to feel like that. Should she call him now? Force him to come? But he lives an hour north. If he’s even home, that is.
Martha is there, holding three prepared syringes on a small napkin-covered tray.
“We’ll need one arm, Lorna,” says Eve, “and one shot we’ll put in your leg.”
Mom slowly lifts her chin. “Yes.”
“Can Martha sit there for this, Janet?” Eve indicates the chair.
“Oh, sure.” She stands. “But…how much time do we have after…” She strains to see the clock on the kitchen wall. Silas waves at her from the kitchen doorway. “Tea’s on,” he mouths.
“We can’t really say.”
“Will this…” She wants to say kill her but that won’t sound right.
“She’ll still be aware but not so responsive.” Eve has obviously answered this question before.
The first needle pierces her mother’s flesh.
Oh god, should she call him? But she hasn’t spoken to him in five years. Or maybe she should tell Mom the truth. But then she’d have to explain why and can’t really with these people around. In the quiet, Janet can hear the gray-haired woman’s deep breathing moving in and out behind her. In and out. It’s a soothing, uncomplicated sound, and for a moment that’s all there is.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” says Martha, picking up the next needle.
Mom sighs in response. Henry begins to stand and lean over in Mom’s ear again. Mom mumbles back.
Janet once asked her mom if she was sure this group wasn’t some sort of cult. Mom looked a little taken aback by the word ‘cult.’ “No, it isn’t, because they’re not offering a quick fix. Buddhism is concerned with the root cause of suffering. Why we suffer. Why we’re never satisfied with these moments of our lives.”
“Because God’s a jerk?” Janet had said cynically, but her Mom hadn’t laughed.
The word cult had obviously stung a little because a week later, she and Mom were watching television together when she used it again. Viagra commercials had been playing in between shows, graying men being affectionate towards their creased-faced wives. “The dick fix,” she’d snorted, making Janet laugh. “This modern world has become the cult of quick repair,” she’d added with a tsk.
Janet felt that, in her roundabout way, Mom was referring to Dad, and was glad to see her letting off a little steam. Which made her think that, yes, she should probably call him now. Or should she?
The second needle slips into her mother’s thigh and Janet turns to see Silas setting the tea tray on the dining table. Then comes the third needle, which is inserted in the neck. Janet can’t look. Silas has gone into the front hall, is putting on his coat. She goes over to him.
“I got to go for a walk,” he says, smiling nervously.
“I understand,” she says and means it. “Be back soon though, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. Don’t worry.”
She steps close to him and hugs him. He feels so thin, and so stiff. It’s like hugging a piece of wood but she holds on. He pats her tentatively on the back in return.
“Do you think I should tell Dad she’s dying?” whispers Janet, pulling away.
“He doesn’t know?” he asks.
“I didn’t tell him, did you?”
“Was I supposed to?”
“No, no, but do you think I should call him now?”
“Yeah, he should probably know.”
“Could you call him?” she asks. “It’s been like five –”
“I really want to go out now,” he says, an eager hand on the door. “I’ll call him when I get back.”
“Okay. Or maybe I’ll just do it.” She watches him leave, surprised to see that it’s nearly dark outside. She hadn’t thought it was that late.
When she returns to the living room, Eve is in the chair beside Mom taking her pulse. Mom is snoring lightly; finally she’s asleep. Or is she dying? It’s too late to call now. She couldn’t wake her up. She’ll wait until Silas returns and then see. The buddha team is perfectly still, the suited woman no longer mumbling and handling her beads. Janet goes to the tray on the dining table and pours herself a cup of tea, picks up an almond canoe. All she’s eaten today are these damn things.
“Eve, can you help me look?” Martha is leaning over her tackle box. “I seem to be missing a couple morphine vials.”
“Unless I counted wrong.”
What? Oh, god, thinks Janet. Silas. Eve comes over and gets down on her hands and knees to comb through the thick pile carpet. Janet closes her eyes, pictures her brother squatting under a tree somewhere, tying off his arm. Mom hiccups in her sleep, a softly goofy sound that makes Janet laugh out loud. It’s too much. It’s all too much.
“Excuse me,” she says and puts down her tea. She goes to the kitchen door to slip on her mother’s gardening boots. Cookie in hand, she goes outside. To make an offering.