A faded picture of me and my little brother pops up whenever I turn on my phone. Here, encased magically in modern technology that my brother never knew, is the past that we were. It’s his third birthday, we’re sitting on top of the picnic table in striped bathing suits. I’m holding a patterned punching ball in my lap and his arms are reaching out, as if towards the future, but I know what he really wants is the chocolate cake mum’s carrying towards us.
Even today, I stare at the smart phone in my hand and marvel at its ability to link the past with the present, to take bits and pieces of me, my body and my voice, tear them apart, send them hurtling through the air and reconstruct them all on the other side of the world. In Skype milliseconds, I jump from Australia to Canada, from midnight to Manitoba morning, from today to yesterday, from my home office to Nana’s funeral. If only I could reconstruct my brother in the same way.
In the darkness of my study, my sister’s long blond hair and blue eyes pop up on my screen. “You OK?” she asks. I nod. “You wanna say hi to some of the relatives?”
Natasha works the reception room of the funeral home holding me out like a microphone. Lips wiggle through self-conscious smiles. Hands fiddle and clasp. No one mentions the reason we’re here. Aunts and uncles and cousins—mum’s chatty borscht-making side—now seem to have more in common with the black commercial chairs that line the beige walls than the people I remember.
Dad had sent the first email about Nana a week earlier. “Nana has gone into hospital,” he said. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Even though she was 96, I expected her to keep living until my next trip home. Her death took us all by surprise. So did the price of last-minute flights to Winnipeg. “What? 6000 dollars for economy? You can’t pay that,” dad says. “You know, you only need a flight to be delayed by a couple of hours and you’ll miss the funeral,” mum says.
I can picture mum nodding in agreement with herself and dad tapping his clenched knuckles on the desk just as clearly as I see the 26 party bags lined up on my dining-room table. It’s my daughter’s seventh birthday and I have to choose: celebrate the life opening up or the one just ended? The weight of long-ago decisions to live overseas pool and slide down my cheeks.
Technology was big and clumsy when I left Canada in December 1989. We didn’t have cell phones and there were no video calls when I boarded Wardair flight 132 in Toronto with a one-way ticket to Paris Charles de Gaulle.
I arrived on Île de la Cité amid the smog and stench of diesel. The taxi drove off leaving me with two suitcases, a copy of archy and mehitabel stolen from dad’s library and a keychain made by my brother. On the outside I was grownup and adventurous. On the inside I was lost. At 23 I wanted the elasticity of remaking myself in a new country with a new language without letting go of those I’d left behind. I knew I was following one of Nana’s own abandoned dreams so I memorized my address at 4 quai du Marché Neuf and Nana’s post code. In the evenings, I wrote her postcards. Then I threw a scarf around my neck in an imitation of Parisian elegance, stuffed cardboard in my leather shoes to patch the soles, and went out looking for Hemingway-like people in cafés and bars. When I first moved to Europe people said I was running away. I don’t know what they say now.
Over the years, technology has softened that peculiar sense of being out of step caused by worldwide time differences. On Facebook, I watch nieces growing up and ask aunts for advice. Since mum has decided to ignore the computer, dad has taken over as the family communicator and we’ve talked through several phases of technology: fax, email, video calls. Communicating was so two-dimensional until I started getting beamed in. Now it’s even a way to commune with the dead.
I double-check my picture at the bottom corner of the computer screen. I keep my lips turned up, my eyes lit. I don’t want anyone saying, “Hasn’t Kirsten aged?” I didn’t fix my makeup before the Skype call. I’m not that vain. Not yet anyways. Maybe in three years when I’m 50. Maybe that’s when I’ll put on fresh makeup for this video system that flings me around the world at about 300 kilobits a second. By then I’ll have spent more than half my life outside Canada. I’m part of Pico Iyer’s “great floating tribe” of migrants, and at 220 million strong, we have become the world’s fifth largest nation.
For now though, I’m still in a phone and people don’t know how to react to me. Natasha walks towards an uncle and holds up my square shape. He waves us away and we watch the back of his black leather jacket in silence. I am ethereal—nothing more than a shadow at Nana’s funeral.
“Hey—” Natasha rallies. “You want to see the pictures?” We stop in front of the old photos and I see parts of the past I hadn’t known about: Nana in a line of 1930s bathing beauties, Nana with my chubby-legged toddler, mother sitting on the front steps of the veranda. Every Saturday night for decades Nana scrubbed that veranda, down the steps, out the front path, and even the wooden sidewalk. I want to be there in person so I can touch the past, so I can cluster around it with mum and my aunts and be part of the collective story. When we get to more recent photos I lapse into habit and divide them into Picassoesque periods of my life: Canada, France, Canada, England, Australia.
As we take in the pictures I hear muffled greetings in the hall. Friends and family and people I don’t know have come together from all over Canada. I look for glimpses of my brother in the photos taken before 1987 and I can’t help but think that Nana’s funeral is crowded, not so much by the people who are there, but by those of us who aren’t.
“This is the picture you look like,” Natasha says, holding me up to a black and white engagement photo. At 21, Nana is smiling coquettishly over her shoulder. It’s not an expression I ever saw on the soft lines of her ancient face. I didn’t think I looked like her yet there I am in the young features of Stanislawa Pajik and it’s like I’ve taken a genetic leap back to the 1930s, to a time when my grandparents had not yet anglicized Szczerbaniewicz to Smith. I see my eyes. I see my forehead. I see a desire for something more.
Dad walks over, his military gait stiffened by an arthritic knee. He’s smiling. Is that the same blue suit we bought together for my first marriage and that he wore, years later, to my second one?
“I’m going to hand you over to dad,” Natasha says. I’m thrust into his palm. The screen turns a pink red that reminds me of camping in the backyard with my brothers and shoving flashlights in our mouths. Neither of my brothers are here at the funeral. My older brother is back in Toronto. My little brother is nestled in a cremation box that I’ve never seen, sitting on a shelf in dad’s closet.
While the journey in my sister’s hand was steadfast and reliable, with my father it’s like we’re back in his Argus bomber chasing submarines. We bump low over an ocean of elderly. He swings me around, up to the pendant lights and down to the floor. We skim a table, run sideways across the wall and bound over women sitting in a row of chairs. Dad slows just enough to show me the lined foreheads of the middle-aged. There is mass confusion about the target and proximity for this type of mission. I look into the hairy ears and confused eyeballs of octogenarians. I stare at the red veins of pitted noses still growing while the rest of the body shrinks.
My aunt’s second husband, who succeeds Nana as the family elder, steadies the phone and looks at me. “So you’re in Australia? Right now? And you’re here? And you can see us? Well I’ll be. Isn’t that just something.”
“Just a minute,” Dad says and sets me on a coffee table like a partly eaten apple. Thank God. I relax my too-happy lips, my too-open eyes. This parked end to my flying extravaganza would be funny if I weren’t at a funeral. It’s as if I decided to lie down on the floor in the middle of the room. Staring at tight-stockinged varicose veins and practical shoes, I think about my brother’s funeral. I’ve never talked about it. There was no large gathering, no laughter, no celebration of a life well-lived. He will never be older than almost 17. He will not complain about a receding hairline or arthritic fingers. And yet, look at the coincidence. Nana’s funeral is exactly 26 years after he disappeared. To the day.
Just as I’m starting to head back in time, Dad grabs me and I hear my littlest sister. “Hi Kirsten,” Lesia says and takes the phone. She has a low voice that I love because it reminds me of Nana’s gravelly tones—not concrete gravel but gravel made out of candies and bits of chocolate and crunchy nuts.
Lesia is the baby of the family. My brother didn’t stay long enough to meet her. She was born in El Salvador 87 days after he died. “Would you like to see Nana?’’ she asks. “It’s an open casket.’’ Oh. No one had mentioned this. I’m not sure I want to see her now but I do want to say good-bye. At this moment it seems crucial. My brother never gave us a chance to say good-bye and for years afterwards I was startled by a glimpse of a blond teenager in a crowd, or a similar giggle. This endless state of au revoir exhausts me, so with Nana, I really want to say one final adieu.
Lesia walks down a hall and stops outside a closed door. I want to squeeze her hand. “You know Kirsten,’’ she whispers, “she looks different.’’ Nana is wearing her French blue suit jacket and skirt. There’s a resemblance to the person who refused to leave home and spent her last years watching hockey in black track pants and an oversized sweatshirt. There’s a hint of the woman who left chocolate smudges on the pages of Rosamunde Pilcher novels and library biographies, but the fullness of her personality has left. Her cheeks are empty and slack and she almost seems to have become a part of the soft ivory linings of the casket. Where has she gone?
I don’t believe in heaven. I’d clung to God for weeks after my brother drove off in the happy yellow VW Rabbit. Dad printed hundreds of `Missing’ posters with his picture. He hung them in shop windows and on library boards and gave them to people to post all over parts of Ontario. When dad travelled to London, where I was studying and working, he gave me a stack of posters too.
Dad never gave up on my brother, but I did. I don’t remember why or when. At one point, I just stopped taking the posters out with me. I’d been going over the last conversation we’d had, replaying it the same way I’d play Ravel’s Bolero over and over again in my teenage bedroom while my brother built model airplanes in his. The same way I’d try to recapture the feeling of my right hand on his right shoulder (or was it my left hand on his left shoulder?) when we sat together that last time on the front steps. When he said he wouldn’t be coming down to stay with me after all. I didn’t ask why.
After that I decided there was no God. It’s odd though because I still want to believe that I’ll be able to touch him once more. I’ve made up my own theories about spirits and souls. We’re all just energy attached to skin and water and bones and blood. And energy doesn’t disappear, it goes somewhere. It must get re-absorbed back into the universe although I don’t know when or how.
My sister and I stand looking at Nana’s body. Lesia holds her face to mine in the phone and wipes her eyes with a manicured finger. I thought I’d say good-bye to Nana here, but it doesn’t feel right. As we walk to the chapel, I’m passed from sister to sister. Natasha holds me in her lap and I strain to hear the eulogy. The signal keeps dropping out, like the way I drop in and out of everyone’s life. I don’t want my memories of Nana becoming pixelated, like my memories of my brother, but already I know I’m in trouble. I feel the loss of her history. Why did Nana’s mother and aunt leave Poland for New York in 1908 when others in the family went to Winnipeg? Was she angry that her father pulled her out of university during the Depression?
We step outside the funeral home and I squint into the boldness of the June sky and inhale. It’s as if I’ve been breathing in stale chapel air instead of the winter air of my home study. I walk with my sisters behind Nana’s casket and watch as my cousins lift her into the hearse. The soft accents of Toronto, Winnipeg, eastern and western Canada wrap around me like a duvet from my childhood. We get into the front seat of the car and my parents sit in the back with the windows rolled down. A row of young elm trees shimmer and sparkle in the sun.
“Wave to Kirsten,’’ mum says to her siblings as we drive past. The words are stuttered by the baffling wind in the phone. I close my eyes and imagine the breeze on my face and I’m taken back to long summer days at Wasaga Beach. To the drive home in the rusty Ford station wagon, leaning out the window, picking sunburnt flaking skin out of my hair, my small bare legs next to my brother’s, his head on my arm. That was when I still thought my parents had all the answers. When I was basking in the splendid ignorance of childhood. When we still had one decade left together.
At the burial site, my aunt’s husband sprinkles earth on Nana’s casket: “Let us remember that we are dust and we will return to dust.” Out here the Skype reception is clear and fast. I wonder if a packet has picked up a wandering particle of Nana energy and delivered her to me in my study.
Mum places her hand on the casket and says good-bye for me. She picks a white rose for me from the funeral wreath even though she can’t send it to Australia. I watch my mum and, even more so now that I’m a mother, I wonder at her strength. She was the last of one of us to see him. “Hey mum, I’m going downtown. Do you need anything?” my brother had asked. Mum put two quarters in his hand for the local paper. It never came.
A farmer found his body weeks later. I remember how we sat in a tiny line in front of my brother’s casket in the barren church. How outside the sun was too bright and the trees were too green. How I wanted hail and wind to rip away the beauty of summer. I wanted the skies to weep the opening string chords of Grieg’s “Death of Aase.” I wanted a sign that his suicide had been a mistake.
After my brother, I thought all deaths would rip through me with agonizing, unanswered questions. I didn’t think I could live through another one. As I’ve aged, I’ve incorporated my brother and his death into the person I am. I’ve woven silk threads of love and confusion around the crater he left. And I’ve finally come to accept that his disappearance will always drag on my heart. It will not lessen. I will always miss him. I will miss the possibilities spread out before the two smiling children sitting on the picnic table in their bathing suits.
But Nana brought me hope that death can be gentle as well as sad. Before I hang up the phone, I breathe in the huge blue sky of the prairie and the vibrant young grass, the colour of endless beginnings.