Memoir

Approximate Directions to a Burial

A son retraces his father’s death

by
Artwork by Daniel Arsham

• 6,279 words

Art by Daniel Arsham
Courtesy of Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, ParisSheet (2007). Expanded polystyrene, plaster, paint, fabric, rubber; 115 × 270 × 15 centimetres.

My father’s mortician was a careless barber. Stepping up to the open casket, I realized too much had been taken off the beard. The sides were trimmed tidy, the bottom cut flat across. It was a disconcerting sight, because in his last years, especially, my father had worn his beard wild, equal parts loony chemist and liquor store Santa. The mortician ought to have known this, I thought, because he knew the man in life. My father—himself the grandson of a funeral home director—would drop by Davey-Linklater in Kincardine, Ontario, now and then for a friendly chat. How’s business? Steady as she goes? Death was his favourite joke. And despite his sincere attachment to the funeral home game, he thought it was a racket. The grieving family paid a laughable sum to play it sober while attending to the musings of a rented pastor. But my father would say that in the end—chuckle—someone has to stage the reverence. Shop around if you think you can find a deal. As for the mortician’s aggressive approach to his beard, he would consider it a forgivable, if regrettable, overreaching. I looked down at him, in his plaid tie and navy blue blazer, his waxen hands sealed over a deflated beer gut, and imagined him opening his eyes to say with a wink, They don’t take scuzzballs.

My father’s brain surgeon is, appropriately, balding—genetically, he’s empathetic, going through life as though prepped for a lobotomy. He talks slowly enough to get it down on the pad in his lap; he wants us to take the conversation home for further reference. The glioma is in the right frontal lobe. (This explains why my father's left side seized up. The receiving doctor at the Kincardine health clinic thought perhaps he’d had a mini-stroke, and yet he had the vital signs of an average, unfit sixty-five-year-old. They gave him a bed and booked a CT scan.) The surgeon says they won’t know whether the glioma is a glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive type of primary brain tumour, until after surgery.

“You need to poke it around on a plate,” my father says.

The surgeon pauses his scribbling only briefly. “Sort of.”

On the wall behind him, there’s a poster showing the brain from above and in cross-section. I wonder if the surgeon wonders if my father understands the gravity of the situation, if, in my father’s cerebral hemisphere, the tumour is smothering the comprehension zone while at the same time opening up breathing room in the sarcasm and bravado zones. Toward the end of the meeting, the doctor assures my father that should he opt for surgery, a team of competent people will be assembled.

“You won’t stumble in alone with a saw,” my father says.

The surgeon doesn’t look up. “Not at all,” he says, lifting an index finger to halt the slide of his glasses down his nose.

I first got the news a week into January, via an email from my oldest brother, who was a professor, as my father had been, and like him knew the importance of being graceful if you were going to be oblique: A health issue has come into view. My father had already been at the local clinic for a few days. The scan showed an obvious growth, and he was headed to London, where an MRI would offer more comprehensive pictures. Our stepmother filled us in on some of my father’s recent odd behaviour: he’d microwaved leftovers until the container melted, and on their way to Zehrs he’d waited so long at a four-way stop that the motorist behind them started honking. She didn’t think my father was daydreaming at the wheel; he was being hypervigilant. Either way, it was uncharacteristic. She became more watchful. At their New Year’s Eve dinner, my father’s lips got heavy and he said something unintelligible; this time, she insisted they get him to a doctor.

My brother had included the number for the clinic in his message. I called my father’s room. It rang thirteen times, then fourteen and fifteen, and I wondered if the ring-a-ling had somehow set off an aneurysm. Eventually he picked up. (I would later picture him floundering toward the phone with his two lifeless limbs.) I asked if he was okay.

“I’m fine,” he said. “What are you up to? ”

We’re driving to London for a follow-up with the surgeon. Snow squalls are throttling Kincardine and every other town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron. I was chosen to drive, and the world beyond the steering wheel is like parchment unfurling from an infinite scroll. Nothing helpful is written there. Now and then, I hear soft thumping, and I assume we’ve drifted onto the shoulder. White knuckled, I steer us back. My eyes hurt from straining to see markers. It’s irksome that an overcast day can be so bright. The sun is always at hand, even when it’s doing nothing useful with its light or heat. Above us to the south, I see a slice of blue sky, and I try not to feel relieved: it’s a mirage, a fake slaking of the winter driver’s desire for safe passage. And sure enough, greyness has soon paved it over. My stepmother is in the back seat, gazing out through sunglasses. My father is next to me. Four weeks post-op, the horseshoe incision on his scalp seems to be healing nicely.

“I guess I missed my lunch pill,” he says.

There is no lunch pill. I ask if he’s hungry.

“I can’t imagine you’re prepared to stop,” he says.

“Not really.”

“I don’t know where you would stop.”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“In which case I’m not sure what you’re offering.”

I don’t think of it as grumpiness on his part: he’s just being plain spoken and philosophical in his everyday way. He’s hungry, as all of us are hungry, and for the moment he’s trapped, as all of us are trapped.

Driving on, I imagine the beige Malibu suddenly bottom up in a ditch, my stepmother incoherent, my father dead, not from the tumour but by some other, less pedestrian method—gored, say, by a rural mailbox. North of Goderich, in a slight easing of the blizzard, we approach a band of flashing lights: a police checkpoint. Rolling down the window, I’m told the highway behind us has been closed for an hour. We’ve been alone in our tunnel of fear. The officer says conditions are less treacherous inland, where we’re headed; the worst part of the journey is over. I might have preferred to know beforehand that we were untouchable.

Skip ahead six months to mid-August, when my father has about a month to live. Arrangements have been made for him to die at home; we got a hospital bed from the local Canadian Legion, which runs a lending program, and my siblings and I rotate through complementary shifts with the home care nurses to help my stepmother keep him comfortable. His shin bones are like steel bars, and his fingers seem to have lengthened. I do not think fragile when I watch my sister moisturize his limbs, though. Robotic, I think. Metamorphic. He’s becoming a mega-insect, native to some other fluke planet. I go into his room one afternoon when he’s alone and awake. I sit on the edge of the bed and tell him I’ll probably write about his decline. “I guess,” I say, “I’m asking for permission.”

Though it’s an imperfect science, we have determined (in the course of offering a beverage, say) that when he looks at you only briefly before looking away he means no. When he waits for you to look away, he means yes. On this occasion, he stares at me. “May,” he says. “May may m-maybe.” Okay, I think, he needs time to ponder the idea. Nervously, I begin providing context: it’s a curious thing, I say, this dying business. I mean, I don’t know. It’s one of those big topics. The biggest. Also, do we want to let all of that bathroom humour go to waste?

He makes a guttural noise, and I look over as the full sentence gushes out. “M-maybe we’re discovering something.”

Then he stares at me until I look away.

The London regional cancer centre can seem labyrinthine, even to the clear-headed. There’s a high-ceilinged central waiting area, which leads into smaller waiting areas, each of which branches off into one of several closed rooms, where you then wait for pills or an injection. To be fair, the horror has warm tinges, and the overall scene is more Kubrick than Kafka: the spacious lobby features a refreshment trolley, lush potted plants, and two computers on which they mean for you to investigate the problem (Please restrict personal email use). There’s also a string duet, cello and guitar, softly playing standards.

Radiation takes place far from the main entrance. My father is beginning a three-week cycle, along with a concurrent daily dose of temozolomide, a chemo drug that has proven somewhat effective against some gliomas. “Virtually all” of his tumour had been removed, we’d been told, but the bits left behind would grow back, and fast. On his first day at the clinic, the technician, a blond woman younger than I, assures him he won’t feel a thing. She leaves me with his coat and ball cap, and escorts him away by the elbow, as though off to dance with an old guy on a lark. Several minutes later, a red light starts flashing above the closed door at the end of the hall. Beside the light is a glowing sign: BEAM ENABLED.

My father remains blasé about the experience, and on the fourth day he says I ought to come in and see what it’s all about. I waffle. I know he’ll ask for permission regardless. The smiley young technician agrees, though she says no one except the patient can be in the theatre during the actual radiation. She winks at my father as she leads him off: “You’re sure he’s not a troublemaker? ”

“He is, but it’s not his fault.”

The room beyond the door with the red light is cool and dim and almost empty. In the centre is a hydraulic table, and looming above, like the Cyclopean antenna of an alien robot, is the linear accelerator. The high-energy beams that pour from its eye are meant to destroy the remnant cancer, but can also result in fatigue, burns, and possibly “affected thinking.” This last caveat was vague and unsettling, and it echoed one of the brain surgeon’s comments from several weeks earlier: Normal cells might be compromised.

The computers that control the linear accelerator are in an alcove near the waiting area, and when I get there a second technician is programming the treatment field coordinates. On a closed-circuit monitor, I see my father lying there patiently. It’s like grainy security footage, and I half expect a disturbance to suddenly enter the frame, a shadowy figure that would circle him in a crouch with its arms out, as though preparing to strangle—

“You okay? ” the technician says.

“Yeah,” I say.

She raises her eyebrows at me. Then I realize she has the intercom button depressed. She was talking to my father. She sees I’m embarrassed.

“Won’t be long,” she says to both of us.

My father raises a thumb.

Radiation treatments completed, he is back home in Kincardine, worn down and distracted. The curtains on both bedroom windows are translucent but usually drawn. The door remains ajar. Sometimes I spy on him and, by the light spooning in from the hallway, try to determine if he’s sleeping.

“I’ve figured it out,” he says. I stop tiptoeing. He’s turned away from me. He rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling. When I enter the room, he invites me to turn on the bedside lamp. His beard is splayed flat on one side, his scalp peeling in nickel-sized flakes. “You wouldn’t believe how bad I feel,” he says. “It’s a rough ride in and out of the wormhole. You’re familiar with the wormhole? ”

He’s tried describing it to me before—the tunnel between this universe and another, less familiar. He returned from one of these deep-sleep journeys mumbling about the pleasant visit he’d just had with the recently deceased wife of an old friend. But mostly he doesn’t know where he’s been or, more disconcertingly, where he is in time when he wakes. He had an idea to keep a mini-recorder within reach. Before nodding off, he would note the hour and rewind a touch, so that when he opened his eyes he could reach to the nightstand for the recorder, press Play, and be immediately grounded in the world. We haven’t tried this yet. (Would he even remember the crucial step, or end up listening to blankness for several minutes, with a studious frown, until the tape clicked off?) Instead, he often spends his first half-hour of consciousness studying the matter.

I stack some pillows behind him and help him to sit up. I ask what he’s figured out.

“Time is not a place. It has no form. Events have form.”

“So what’s time? ”

“What’s time? ” he says. One side of his mouth curls up. I wonder if he sees me as the smart aleck who only asks the obvious or the impossible. There’s a rope of paste on his lips that splits when he talks. “Time is the space in a bucket.”

He asks if the supply of Werther’s is holding steady. The hard caramel candies are kept in the top drawer of the nightstand. I unwrap one for him. He puts it on his tongue, closes his mouth around it, and sighs enormously, like a whale in a cave.

My father was one of many doe-eyed Ph.D.s who secured a tenure-track position at York University in the late 1960s. He was twenty-six, hired into the geography department at Atkinson College while still fattening his thesis (“A Study of the Factors That Assisted and Directed Scottish Emigration to Upper Canada, 1815–1855”). York needed to accommodate the soon-to-explode student population on its sprawling and windy Keele Campus in north Toronto. He was pleased to be caught in the updraft.

His office might have seemed spacious if eight filing cabinets hadn’t been rammed in there. In groups of four, on two walls, they stood approximately shoulder to shoulder with some drawers jutting, like a ramshackle colonial guard. Above one set hung a large aerial photo of York Region, a grid work of settlements to the immediate north, the type of image by which sorties get orchestrated. Stacks of papers and books lined his desk, and spilled together and toward him in a sloppy barricade. On the wall behind him was a black and white print of an elephant pissing (It never rains, but it pours!). There were coffee mugs with rum residue, a saucer full of Century Sam cigar butts on the windowsill. His nickname among colleagues was Supreme Allied Commander, and with his trademark beard-minus-moustache, he did cut the figure of a distinguished leader, although perhaps one displaced from his rightful century.

He lived then a few kilometres north, in Maple, home of Canada’s first major theme park, an American-owned operation branded by a many-peaked lump of fibreglass called Wonder Mountain, and Canada’s largest landfill, the destination for Toronto’s garbage. So, on one side of town there was a fake hill, and on the other side a foul hole. My father railed against both projects—among the high points of his academic career was a book co-written with another York professor that examined the cultural repercussions of letting America pitch its tent in Canada’s backyard—but ultimately the diplomat in my father recognized that neither was stoppable; the city was advancing on the village. Maple’s leaders made plans to profit from the arrangements, and my father, in his extracurricular role as a local councillor, preached caution. He demanded a thorough assessment of every next step. Change was palatable if it came in the wake of mindful conversation.

He retired from teaching at fifty-seven, his patience for the students’ idle chatter and their moments of gross indifference all but gone. He spoke of a certain young man who sat there, having brought nothing to write with and nothing to write on: “Had he asked to borrow a pencil, I would have been happy to oblige. Part of me kept thinking he might ask. I wanted the poor bugger to rise to the challenge.” Due in part to his own growing detachment, when informing his last class of its final exam he got the date wrong. Days later, when he told them it was sooner than he’d thought, the students turned mutinous. They threatened to go to the dean to get the situation repaired, and while they were at it to investigate disciplinary action. The dean at the time was one of the old boys my father had up to the cottage twice a year to feast on eccentric meats such as beaver and, more generally, to celebrate the invention of Scotch. He told the students to go ahead; he was available at the dean’s leisure to discuss the matter.

Spring breaks in mid-April, and we return to the cancer centre for a case review. My father’s lead oncologist is tall, trim, and not much younger than his patient. He puts me in mind of a Clark Kent long retired from the off-hours heroics. He asks after my father’s well-being. When my stepmother or I interject—There’s cramping in the left thumb! The left foot is dragging!—the doctor doesn’t look at us. He never looks away from my father. Speaking of the tumour, he’s cautious with adverbs (although which is more emphatic, “likely” or “probably”?) and precise with adjectives (aggressive is aggressive is aggressive). He knows his power. My father, for his part, never looks away from the doctor. His damaged brain is trying to record every word for playback purposes. Involuntary as it may be, there’s a trace of yearning in his expression.

In the main lounge, my father and I have a table to ourselves. My stepmother is on an upper level, getting the new prescription filled. The doctor encouraged him to take a few days to decide whether to continue the combination therapy, but as a precaution, to save us having to return to London, he suggested we take his chemo drug home. My father speaks while blowing on his tea.

“Well, I guess—” Whooo. “We ought to talk—” Whooo. “About the doing of it.”

“It’s up to you,” I say.

“It is and it isn’t.” He sets down his tea and asks if he can speak in confidence. I nod. He says he feels obligated; he wonders to what degree he’s been doing the program for us, for the family. He sometimes feels “the matter is beyond discussion or dissection.”

I’m a little taken aback, even though I was faintly aware, every time we put a decision to him, that we were the ones chewing our fingernails. I remember how, when the problem was first identified, he considered not bothering with the surgery, and we considered his deliberation wilful stubbornness. The plan was to open a large door in his skullcap and enter with knives and lasers. At the initial meeting with the surgeon, we’d received a breakdown of the possible hazards:

  • Death or coma < 1%
  • Infection 1–2%
  • Speech impairment 1–2%
  • Vision impairment 2–3%
  • Seizures 5%
  • Weakness/paralysis 10–20%

The surgeon needed my father to sign a form indicating that he understood all of this, so that if he decided to go ahead with the procedure they could begin preparations. As I recall—and I don’t believe it was my perverse imagination at work—the scraggly surname looked like Cancerous.

Hope is a fat, obnoxious angel who barges in, sits down, and starts banging for a meal. God only knows where he’s been—his wings are filthy and sour smelling. He insults the cook, scares the children, manipulates conversation. People are tolerant because he’s not always like this, and he tends not to linger. When he returns, days or weeks later, he taps meekly at the back door. It’s open, he’s told. He steps inside and waits, avoiding eye contact. He’s told dinner will be served at six sharp. He knows where the clean towels are if he wants to wash up.

The Erie Belle was a Great Lakes steamer that exploded just south of Kincardine on November 21, 1883, killing four crewmen. On April 30, 2008, my father and I dine at the Erie Belle, a popular seafood restaurant on Harbour Street, near the lighthouse. We each order the haddock and a pint of Rickard’s Red. Though I’m familiar with the place—wall-mounted sailfish dwarfing a scale model tall ship, netting strewn about in silly abundance like Halloween cobweb—it’s not a spot my father and I have ever frequented. He wonders why I’ve escorted him out for such a classy lunch. Did I have an announcement to make? I’ve already told him, and the sarcasm means he remembers. Next week, I start a new job in Toronto. I tell him I’ll drive up on weekends. Then I ask whether he thinks things are under control. Neither of us really knows what I mean. “Going forward,” I persist, “if you have questions about your condition, you ought to press the experts.”

“Does my secretary have your number? ” he asks.

I doubt he’s aware that he’s no longer any good on the telephone. He can’t stay focused on who he’s talking to, or on what he might like to talk about with that person. Whoever it is says, I hope to visit soon, and he says, Drive safely.

We finish eating in silence. After the meal, we drive past the lighthouse and over the bridge to the harbour. The sky is as heavy as an X-ray apron. No one is around. A few aluminum runabouts are already tucked away in their berths, but most of the sailboats and pleasure craft are still up on land in winter cradles. Somewhere a tarp is yapping.

We idle facing the lake. The wind is carrying sand from the shoreline dunes and throwing it at us.

“This word ‘aggressive,’” he says.

“Uh-huh.”

“They used it, did they? Someone said it.”

“Yes.”

“What does it mean to you? ”

“The tumour was old when they found it. At least, it had been there a while. But it’s acting young. It’s active, the part of it they couldn’t get. It’s alive.”

“So where do we stand on the treatment issue? ”

“You tell me.”

“You know I’m not overawed by the medical hierarchy,” he says. He has only a tentative trust in the Internet—with mocking respect, he calls it the great machine in the sky—but I assure him we’ve taken our readings from several reputable sources. I remind him that temozolomide is highly toxic, and the benefits in his case are incredibly improbable. We know because he’s tried it already and the cancer is marching forth. As for radiation, his team determined that any more would needlessly damage healthy cells. Then I remind him about the math: the median rate of survival is ten months, four of which are already in the books. I mean to be funny when I say stage four would be no big deal if there were a stage five. I’m talking too much and too fast, so I shut up and we sit there. After a time, he belches, filling the small car with the scent of deep-fry.

“You’re not going to beat this,” I say.

My father’s mother died of a brain tumour in 1979. We had relayed this tidbit to the surgeon as though we were the first kid in from a scavenger hunt. As though we’d personally and with wild effort found the decoder. Genetics explained everything, or at least a lot, or something, right?

To this point, he said, there is no evidence gliomas are hereditary.

I kicked at the dirt in my mind.

Thirty years ago, they knew less and were able to do less. As for which area of grey matter got tainted, my grandmother had terrible luck. Her glioma was in the brain stem, resulting in a complete loss of motor control. One day in her final weeks, when my father went to the hospital to pay her a visit, he found her marble-eyed and in restraints.

He told me this story over the phone. He was thirty-six the day he stood at her bedside; twenty years passed before he related the moment to me. He called back several times, drinking toward preparedness, tripping through obfuscations, unable to communicate, simply, that he was desperate for her to die.

We’ve given up on the condom catheter. Every time we struggle to fix it in place, he calls out in irritation, though it’s never clear whether the latex is pinching him or he just doesn’t want his children fussing down there. I watch from the doorway of his bedroom as a home care nurse lifts his legs and draws out the used diaper. She asks for my help. Together we get him on his side, and I hold him steady while she cleans him. He clears his throat and starts in with the low muttering that we’ve learned comes before a thought.

Mmmm …

I’m…

I look at him and nod encouragement. His eyes are immense. The stare is becoming more intense by the day, but it might be an illusion that comes with the withering.

Mmmm

I’m…

I’m…

I’m…

…a baby.

And one successful sentence leads to another:

Hold on…

hold on…

hold on…

…he chants as we settle him onto his back. But he seems refreshed by the movement. He must feel the blood coursing along previously closed byways. We’re shifting his body often these days to prevent bedsores, buttressing one hip and then the other with pillows. He has said there’s no pain, no aching in his head or bones, and we have to trust him on that, though the tumour has again caused his left side to seize up. The arm stays curled at his chest, the fist clenched. Having noticed sickle marks on his palm from the burrowing fingernails, we’ve taken to wedging a sock into the fist.

Now that he’s officially palliative, I’m more curious about his emotional torments. What’s on his mind when he’s not being looked at or tended to? It occurs to me that there’s not much difference between a child running out of time to ask questions, and a writer facing permanent holes in the story. But much as I try convincing myself that my motive is somehow altruistic—maybe there’s something he wants to get off his chest—I can’t shake the feeling that I’m the reticent one. I spare us both the heart-to-heart, and instead spend our stolen moments wondering that his stoicism has lasted.

Five years before the cancer announced itself, I got a strange call from my father:

“The trusty thermometer reads ten below,” he says. “But it’s not bad. No wind. It’s the wind that gets you. It finds its way in.”

I mull this over for a few seconds. Then, “You’re at the cottage.”

“That’s pretty good for a wild guess.”

“Do you have a fire on? ”

“You’re saying a guy could freeze to death.”

He would have his reasons for being sequestered in a drafty cabin that leaned badly toward the frozen expanse of Lake Huron: maybe he’s impatient for spring, or he misses the ambience of crackling cedar, the orange light of flame in crooked windows; more likely, his wife told him to get lost.

He says, “The doctor told me this week, ‘You’re good for another 10,000 miles.’ He’s like my tire man. Setting aside that you can abuse yourself, if your genetic material says X, Y, or Z you’ll do that well. There’s a terminality coming, but I assure you I’m not looking forward to being struck down.”

“That’s good.”

“What I mean is I don’t anticipate being struck down. There’s a difference.”

“I understand.”

“I intend on functioning until I stop functioning.”

He pauses for a swallow of rum. His drunkenness could be hard to gauge, because he often remained eloquent. And even when he hadn’t been drinking, he tended to belabour his points, say the same thing differently. This was, I thought, symptomatic of a teacher who was never quite sure if the pupils were getting it.

“Life is good, you’re saying. You’re happy.”

“There’s no reason I wouldn’t be,” he says. “I view it in that context.”

He attempts a verse of “My Way”—I planned each charted course / each careful step along the byway / But more, much more than this—and then stops and clears his throat: “One always has regrets, in a broad sense.”

“What about in a specific sense? ”

“There are things I could list.” He says he skipped the funeral of a great-uncle. He doesn’t remember what he did instead, but it was obviously of less consequence. And there was the time he lost his head at a faculty party, took one of his nemeses down a peg: “I tore the guy to shreds. I apologized the next day, even though he needed to be torn to shreds. I regretted the manner of it.” And there was the dissolution of his first marriage: “Superficially, nobody was destroyed. It’s no treat, I can tell you, dealing with me every day. I’m fortunate that in the aftermath I was able to maintain relations with you people.”

I don’t say anything, which might suggest that I feel awkward.

“One moves forward,” he says. “Some things should probably stay in the black box at the bottom of the ocean.”

He’s not the type to pass out. Nonetheless, I picture a vole exiting a crack at the base of the chimney to sniff his blue-lipped body where it lies by the cold ashes.

“Will you go back up to the house soon? ” I ask.

“You’ll tell them where to find me, will you? ”

“Will you go? ”

One afternoon in January, while my father was at the Kincardine health clinic awaiting surgery in London, I found his bed empty and wondered how far he might have gone in his semi-paralytic state. By accident, I was walking by the patient bathing room when the door swung open. A nurse was coming out to get something (more soap or rubber gloves, or perhaps a specialized reaching gizmo). Over her shoulder, I saw him. He was naked in a sling that had been winched a few feet off the ground. The nurse recognized me as one of the children, and she said I could have a moment. I let the door close until only my head and chest were sticking in. He was swinging and turning slightly, like a wrecking ball coming to rest. There were taps and a hose, and the tiled room was so bright and sterile that I also thought of an abattoir at shift’s end. He was the last of the day’s drained carcasses. He was both things. He was a wrecking ball of meat.

“Did you bring the camera? ” he asked.

My father is home again, recuperating from what would be his last week of radiation. There’s been a mild spell, and in the hour before dusk I’m in the yard rolling snowballs until they’re so large I can’t push them any farther. I try to be more modest when rolling midsections, but I almost throw my back out lifting them anyway. Then I roll some heads, leaving them on the ground. For limbs and faces, I bring twigs and stones from the treed side of the property, along the shoreline. Eventually, what I’ve got is a reunion of snow people that has turned into a brawl.

Too late, I turn toward the house. My father’s been watching me from his recliner in the living room. I grin at him and shrug, snap a twig in my hands. He raises the remote as though in salute. When I go inside, he’ll say my performance was better entertainment than the Weather Network. That he was intrigued at first, and then transfixed. Extravagant sarcasm is for both of us a crooked route to sincerity.

It almost brought a tear to my eye to see you building friends like that, the way any boy would of a lonesome winter’s day.

I hoped it would have that effect on you.

I start cleaning up the scene, using snow from untouched outlying areas. I’d like to cover any bits of exposed grass, hide as well as possible the evidence of my padding around, the evidence that something was laboriously built. A real snowman would arrive out of thin air. He would doff his top hat, scrunch his charcoal nose, and offer reassuring counsel to anyone who had faith enough to approach him.

My father is still watching, so I move to the edge of the yard, using the garage to break his sightline. I consider walking down to the lake—the ice pack has already been beaten back to a few hundred metres from shore, and it’s getting easier by the day to hear the waves slapping in—but the direct route would involve clambering down a slope deep with snow and the mulch of fallen trees. My wet toes curl at the thought. Also, I’d have to cross three other properties, lurching as I went, like something sprung from a cage. I circle back to the open yard, and for a moment I stand there, exposed and exhaling like a hobby llama on the frozen Ontario plain, irritable and cold weary, with no rider to carry, no hills to carry him into.

“Approximate Directions to a Burial” was written with the support of the literary journalism program at the Banff Centre.

This appeared in the December 2010 issue.

Dave Cameron earned a gold National Magazine Award for his 2012 Walrus feature, “Fade to Light.”