Phantom Limb

My mother’s suffering, from a distance

Illustration by Kyle Metcalf
Illustration by Kyle Metcalf

“You don’t know,” my father tells me. I pause, ready to argue, but I’ve already lost. “You’re right,” I say. “I don’t.” The line crackles. I ask after the weather, the lake, what’s for dinner.

As close as I am to my father, there’s one line I’m not to cross: pretending to understand what it’s like to be sick, or what it’s like to deal with my mother’s chronic illnesses. It was my mother who, as a twenty-six-year-old private in the Canadian Armed Forces, had a craniopharyngioma cut from her brain and was given four years to live. It was my father who signed the papers for the risky surgeries that saved her life, and it’s he who stays up until dawn to massage away her phantom-limb pain before leaving for the tool-and-die shop. His life, some days, is a grim carousel: helping my mother, working, taking her to and from specialists.

While my mother survived her initial expiry date, a cascade of health issues have since arisen: panhypopituitarism, blood clots, two kinds of diabetes (insipidus and type 2), silent heart attacks, sepsis, an astonishing twenty-two peripherally inserted central catheter lines in the last four years, and a Hickman line. She continues to eke out days no one thought she’d have, but the recent removal of her right leg (a complication of diabetes) made us realize she’s not immortal. Some days, it feels as if she’s being erased.

My father and I try to restart our conversation. “How was your vacation? ” he asks. He speaks in a thick Québécois accent, which he thinks he’s lost but hasn’t, even after all these years in Ontario. I describe a meteor shower against the blue-black northern sky, fishing for trout, running down brambly ATV trails, fires burned to glowing embers.

“I envy your life,” he says. I hear my mother’s voice in the background. She’s dropped something and can’t reach it.

“Got to go,” he says, and he’s gone.

A few days later, walking down the street, I call my mother. We talk every day, sometimes twice. What I lack in proximity I make up for with a robust long-distance plan. “I had a bad night,” she says, which often is how our conversations begin. The progress of an infection, how her tomatoes are doing, which distant relative has died. In the background, the whir of a vacuum. Her sister Laurie. Since my mother’s last surgery, Laurie’s been over almost daily to help. Around me, the noise of streetcars and commuters.

My parents rarely question why I live away from the family. At some point, I simply decided that Toronto, not Essex County, was home. I was born at York Finch hospital while my parents served at CFB Downsview, and the city lured me back long after we moved away. “You’re the daughter we raised,” my father says. He intends it as a compliment, but it stings. He means I left.

Like my parents did, I moved out as a teenager, once living on an enclosed porch for $150 a month. I inherited their stubborn independence. Family and friends, though, wonder what I’m doing so far away as my mother’s health declines. Sometimes I do too. Maybe I believe that, because she hasn’t died yet, she never will.

What tethers us are daily phone conversations, supplemented with frequent weekend and holiday visits. Emergency trips are more difficult, a careful balance of deciding when to go home and when to wait. Days off work, travel expenses, the worry that things will get worse. Would it be better to go in another day, another week?

At times, it’s obvious, and I leave immediately. Five years ago, it was a near-lethal cocktail of pseudomonas and flesh-eating disease. Hours spent in the ICU waiting room, hoping for the best. The hospital chaplain called in. Last spring, it was blood poisoning again. Instead of driving east toward my book launches in Cobourg and Ottawa, I took the train west, to the hospital. Other people read my poems for me.

Midday, seated at my computer. My phone buzzes in my lap. “Could you measure your doors? ” my mother asks. “I need to make sure my wheelchair fits.” My parents are visiting for the first time in years. They haven’t made the four-hour trip since 2008, when she went septic during Nuit Blanche. I prepare: furniture moved to make way for her wheelchair, dry runs on the subway to seek out the best routes, phone calls placed to restaurants about accessibility.

I’m registered for a fifteen-kilometre race. “I want to watch you run,” she says. On Saturday, we take the ferry to Centre Island. No phone lines between us, no distance, only the breeze off Lake Ontario. Toward the end of the race, I see my mother cheering from the sidelines, and I note her stump peeking out of her pink shorts.

The next day, we drive north to see what remains of CFB Downsview, now Downsview Park. The place my parents first met, the military chapel where they married, and their first home are all long since demolished. Now there are stretches of green grass dotted with geese. My mother glances up from her wheelchair. “Nothing looks the same,” she says.

This appeared in the July/August 2015 issue.

Dani Couture
Dani Couture ( is an award-winning poet. She published a novel, Algoma, in 2011.