Margo informed Daddy the next morning while he was eating his soft-boiled egg, and he started making phone calls and pulling strings, determined to get Jack admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, which we all believed was the best in the world. Jack was still in his old bedroom when we learned that two neighbour boys had been killed in France. The next day, I went for a drive with Jack and Daddy in Daddy’s little Ford coupe. We were stopped at a traffic light on St. Antoine Street when Daddy suddenly asked if Jack wanted to go into the tavern on the corner for a glass of beer. I was in the back seat, but I think Daddy must have forgotten I was there. Women were not allowed in taverns in those days.
As far as we knew, Daddy never drank beer, or touched any liquor whatsoever, except during a spell.
“No, I can’t hold down a beer,” Jack said.
Daddy drove home without saying another word, and the next morning Jack was admitted to the hospital, where a famous surgeon cut him open and reported the tumour was inoperable. Daddy and Mother spent that night sitting by his bed with a private nurse. The next morning, he was still conscious when Margo, Frankie, Patty, and I got there, but his face had gone bright yellow. Mother went home around noon. Daddy stayed. When the nurse went off for her lunch, Jack asked for a cigarette. Frankie lit one and gave it to him, but he dropped it and it rolled under the bed. Frankie had to get down on her hands and knees, and somehow the four of us found this terribly funny. We were giggling. Even Jack was smiling. Daddy just sat there with his hat on his knees and his polished English shoes pressed so close together. He was such a stranger. He didn’t even look related to us. He could have been the family lawyer, or a judge, or even, with a different collar, a priest. He looked so alone that I suddenly wondered if he would be able to bear what was coming. There hadn’t been a spell since Jack had gone overseas, but I wondered if Daddy would even be able to wait until he got down to New York City.
In those days, we all had rosary beads in little silver cases in our purses. It was Margo’s idea that we say a novena. We were into the second decade of Hail Marys when Jack began complaining his legs were cold. Margo started rubbing them, and she was still rubbing his legs when he died. We finished the decade, then took turns approaching the bed to kiss him. Daddy was the last, just before the nurse came back.
As soon as we got home, Margo ran to tell Mother, who met her on the stairs and told her, “God has taken Jack, but now your Johnny will come home.”
I was upstairs in the sewing room a few hours later when the undertaker’s van turned the corner and came down the street quietly under the summer’s canopy of fresh green maple leaves. They brought the coffin into the living room and opened the lid. I peeked in only once. My brother looked dead and strange. We probably entertained two or three hundred visitors over the next couple of days. Every room downstairs was crowded with white lilies. People would duck into the living room to pay their respects, then come out for sandwiches and cake, tea, and whiskey. Daddy hardly came out of his study, and every evening, after the last mourners had left, four little French Canadian nuns would arrive in a taxi. Mother had arranged for them to sit with the body through the night. It was the custom; you weren’t supposed to leave the dead alone. They brought sewing baskets with them.
I was in bed with Life magazine the night before the funeral when there was a knock on my door. It was Margo, wearing her red doeskin dressing gown. She sat on the bed. “Do you think it’s true, what Mother said? That Jack’s dying means Johnny will come home?”
“He’ll come home, Margo, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Jack dying.”
Margo had always been closer to our brother than anyone else, and I could see how it troubled her to think that his life might have been traded for her husband’s. But it had also given her hope, a straw to cling to.
My sister’s husband was kind and cheerful. Despite the death dancing around that summer, scenting the air with lilies and the fragrance of maple seed, I could not imagine him not coming back to her.
“She didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”
“What did she mean?”
“She meant you shouldn’t give up. You have to hope for the best. It’s what faith is all about.”
That’s what I said then. Now I wonder if what Mother meant was, everything must be paid for.
I took my cigarettes from the night table, and we smoked without saying anything more. I was wondering how Daddy would behave at the church, at the cemetery. I wondered whether he would be leaving for New York City, and who would be sent to bring him home. Margo had too much on her mind, so it would be Frankie or me. In a strange way, I hoped it would be me. I needed to see him broken down. Not because I was angry with him, or hated him, but because I loved him and wanted to feel close to him. I wanted to see the hotel room, the overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles scattered on the floor, and Daddy lying there like an animal hit by a car. I wanted to see Daddy as he was.
We finished our smokes, and what happened next was very unusual. Instead of returning to her room, my sister, without saying a word, lay next to me. She curled up as she used to, summer nights at our cottage on the lake, when we’d hear noises out in the woods. When we were frightened children.
I put down the magazine and switched off the light. I lay with the weight and warmth of my sister’s body pressing against me in the darkness, and I smelled flowers, and maple seed. Death was filling our house, and there weren’t the words to begin to explain.