Immortal Highway: a memoir

By Jon Magidsohn

Biography & memoir

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5 mins

Chapter 1 (excerpt)

Our family grew faster than we’d anticipated. No sooner had we learned we were to be parents than we were nursing the nascent breast cancer. It was like having twins.

From the beginning, like some biblical tale, Sue’s pregnancy was enigmatic, almost mythical. For forty weeks she nurtured another life while barely clinging to the reins of her own. With complete faith, conjured out of desire for a long life, she kept the spectre of sickness in check just long enough to sustain the lifeblood of the person growing inside her. Pregnant, she appeared as chosen as the original woman herself. Our son within that mystical pool of fluid – floating among the bulrushes, eyes closed tightly in a kind of prayer – was the only obstacle preventing a guarantee of killing the cancer. Sue glowed, as expectant new mothers do, with the joy in a future of which she may have had no vision.

Those forty hallowed weeks of gestation began, by ideal Canadian standards, normal enough. Sue and I had both started new jobs and had moved into our recently purchased house. We shared the news with our respective families, brought together so that neither side would be seen as having received preferential treatment by getting to hear it first. Our delight was tempered only slightly by the reminder of her first pregnancy, which ended in a spontaneous miscarriage during one long, hot night on a camping trip the previous summer. But now, only one whirlwind spring later, we had won the middle-class trifecta – house, career, baby. Our lives were moving along as planned and everything was, at least so far, normal.

By the time Sue’s pregnancy had gone to term, the enemies of normal had surrounded us. For forty weeks our son, we feared, was swimming in a pool of cancer. For twelve of those weeks, anti-cancer concoctions were thrown into the pool. Our efforts to neutralize seemed to be going strong, but we were on the outside. Inside the warm, swirling incubation fluid – infused, we worried with cancer and anti-cancer alike– he was alone. Throughout the countless hospital visits we believed that our son would hold his own and everything would end up, if not normal then, as normal as possible.

* * *

Summer crept closer like a crippled kitten. Each day was a week, every week a month. My daily tasks generally revolved around Myles’ needs, which I’d become quite adept at satisfying. Somehow I’d take care of my own needs along the way. I was anxious to set out on our road trip but in the meantime I had to settle Sue’s estate, such as it was. She hadn’t left a will. She wasn’t supposed to die.

If I’d had the energy and focus to commit to it, I could have completed everything in a day or two. But it took weeks, ten or fifteen minutes at a time. It was tedious work that involved explaining my situation to a series of generic customer service representatives from banks, insurance firms, credit card companies and anyone else that had Sue’s name on their mailing list. There was always a perfunctory expression of condolence followed by a more sincere gasp as they looked at their files and realised they weren’t talking to an octogenarian. For some reason, probably self-pity, I’d imagined credit card balances would be struck after someone’s death. But I was obligated to pay off the balances in Sue’s name, not that there was much. First I had to wait for the life insurance benefit, which could only be paid after they determined, through Sue’s medical records, that we hadn’t taken out the policy after she was diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t enough that my wife had died, now I had to prove it. To the minute.

Months later I was still getting phone calls asking for Sue from any number of unsolicited enterprises. It was a mistake they only made once.

With the paperwork wrapped up I could put more effort into preparing for our road trip. I had most of June and July to make sure I had everything I would need, which mostly included mental preparation. As much as I looked forward to being on the road, I wondered if I would have the wherewithal to ensure that Myles and I would be safe. Moreover, would that much time out of my comfort zone – away from the sanctuary of my home and the steadfast support of loved ones – provide the kind of solace I was looking for?

Toronto summers, as any Torontonian will concede, means hot, humid days followed by long, restless nights. Unless you subscribe to the local code of air conditioning, which is: if you can’t store meat in your living room, it’s not cold enough. Some days the newspapers run articles outlining the dangers of spending more than a few minutes outside unless you constantly hydrate. People complain about the relentless heat, praying for a respite as the sun burns the grass on their manicured lawns, all the while forgetting that in six months they’ll be damning the dry, sub-zero air crystallising their nostril hair within seconds of stepping outside; the ice-storms making their commute to work treacherous and stressful. Then, as the annual cycle repeats, they seem once again caught off guard by the return of the sticky summer heat.

This particular summer, when I had more than enough time to sit inside my refrigerated house pondering my life without Sue, I spent as much time outside as possible, hydration be damned. Often, when Myles was looked after, I went for long, early-afternoon runs through High Park, the sun at its peak. Breathing was akin to drinking hot soup and my sweat-soaked shirt weighed me down. But I didn’t care. Could I have had a small sense of immortality? (Other people died. I just live on to suffer without them.) The searing heat was responsible for countless deaths every summer, just as the petrifying cold was in winter. But I never saw a weather forecast I didn’t ignore. The summer sun always drew me outside. Besides, I couldn’t just sit around feeling sorry for myself. There was work to be done.

With three more weeks before Myles and I were to leave on our road trip I decided to rebuild the front porch. The tired structure had seen better days and, more than just being an eyesore, it needed some essential improvements. I was always afraid that one day the mailman would fall through the rickety floor, landing on his tailbone among the broken glass and mouse nests on the dusty ground below. It was a project I’d wanted to tackle since Sue and I moved in over a year earlier.

It started with a solid thwack with the crowbar into one of the decaying banister supports. Steel on soft wood like a paring knife into an apple; like flesh, I imagined. The banister came down easily. Too easily, I thought, from a construction perspective, but it felt good for my hands to render something useless. I had been drifting in my shadowy realm, rotting from the inside like the banister. Now I found a way to turn the tables. Take that, you piece-of-crap – you see how it feels for a change. The fragments of timber accumulated on the front lawn. I moved on to the floor planks, grey and weathered with an unlimited supply of toe splinters to anyone brave enough to walk barefoot over them. One by one they cracked like breaking ribs under the heavy blows of my crowbar. With each swing another bead of sweat wept from my forehead, my chest, my arm pits, until I was drenched and gasping for breath, standing on the porch’s skeleton under the humid summer sun.

Sue was constantly on my mind as I worked. The house – our house – still rang with the echoes of her footsteps and clear voice. I imagined her inside, talking on the phone while she pulled faces and waved to me through the living room window. Then she’d put some music on, loud enough for me to hear, and sing along at the top of her lungs as she fluttered around the house. Occasionally she would come outside to see how it was going (‘Wow, look how much you’ve done!’), tolerating my sweaty moans with typical mockery: ‘Pauvre petite crète,’ she’d say with perfect French intonation. It was her favourite saying she’d picked up from her time in Aix en Provence. ‘Poor little turd.’ Then she’d bring me a cold drink, kiss me and thank me for doing the hard labour.

Among the ruins, panting and taking stock of the budding blisters on my hands, I paused for thought. For the first time in over a year, I was in control of my world. I was responsible for the destruction in my life for a change. Only I could have destroyed the house’s feeble limb and only I would be responsible for rebuilding it. I accepted being sad. I cried at the thought of my new-found control. I cried at the exhilaration. I just cried. I was in the process of reducing myself, like the porch, down to my basic components: wooden joists, brick, dust – body, mind, spirit. I had my tools: crowbar, saw, hammer – grief, time, Myles. And once I had gone down as far as I could go, only then would I be ready to build myself up again into a stronger, bolder, shiny new me: timber, nails, paint – healthy, hopeful, happy.

Aside from playing with Myles, constructing the new porch was easily the most fun I’d had since Sue died: the smell of fresh cut timber, the satisfying feel of deck screws penetrating a new board. It was like piecing together a monumental jigsaw puzzle that would stand forever as a testament to my struggle and progress. By the time it was finished, it looked exactly as I’d hoped it would: not perfect but strong and orderly. The new porch stood where the old one had been and that was all it needed to do.

The following week I rebuilt the back deck.



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