Twenty in Eighteen, 2018 Anthology, Ottawa Independent Writers
copyright Rick Prashaw
On the pillow, in the dead of night, Max heard the unmistakable, surgical snap of the mousetrap in the kitchen, one floor above him. Had he imagined hearing too the final, death bed cry from Mouseland?
Another mouse in Max’s death chamber. Max 1: Mice 0. Max wondered if the mice were keeping score, what their count was. Did they know that they had driven the man downstairs into a permanent fear and loathing of these nocturnal creatures?
Another mouse to carry out in the morning.
The December polar snap this year had the field mice moving indoors early this winter. Max’s Ottawa Kanata lower unit condo adjacent to woods was prime real estate for the mice snowbirds in search of a warmer climate.
Max hated mice. More a hatred for alive mice than dead mice, except his hatred shifted to the dead ones too any morning after their execution. He hated everything about opening the kitchen sink cupboard door, his eyes darting fleetingly to locate the rodent corpse, and it got worse when he spotted legs rigid and skyward. The mop-up routine never varied: Max closing his eyes, the broom reaching blindly to sweep the dead mouse onto the dustpan, marching it at arms length to the condo development garbage bins. Were not my eyes closed the entire walk, he wondered? He wasn’t certain. God forbid if the dead mouse fell from the dustpan. That had happened.
Mice creeped Max out. Their nightly scurrying through his home, dirty, filthy, disgusting, the droppings taunting him in the morning. No matter how his kids mocked his hearing, no matter how little they bothered to listen to his lectures on the distinction between being hard of hearing and deaf, Max knew that he could hear a pin drop during the silence of the nights. A mousetrap popping a hundred feet away was like Canada Day fireworks set off next to his ears. His Kanata condo was an empty nest now, the kids grown up and long gone from the home, but they did know well his baffling hearing prowess in the middle of the night. Family legends told how this ‘deaf man’ could eavesdrop on his kids’ Ottawa Market, beer-fuelled 3:00 a.m. conversations around the fridge.
Their plotting against the local government; him!
“How can you hear us then, in bed a floor away and miss what we say at the supper table?” they demanded over and over again.
“Because there’s five of you all talking at once at the supper table,” Max would answer, growing impatient as he tried yet again to explain his peculiar hearing loss that had to do with background noise, lacking the apparent filter that normal hearing people have in order to listen to what they wanted to hear while disregarding other noise.
When the audiologist showed the hearing-loss graph that looked like the worst day on the TSE stock exchange, that one hearing-capacity line plummeting south off the charts, he wanted to know if Max had worked in a factory or a mine and experienced some industrial accident.
“No,” said Max.
Pressed to identify what could cause it, he said: “Large Catholic Family.” His Irish audiologist, a Doctor Donnelly, had liked that.
Anyway, Max’s repeated explanations mattered little to his children who wanted that hearing at the table, not at three in the morning as they schemed or debriefed from their latest hijinks in the Ottawa Market.
Damn mice. What was it with his fear of them? He wouldn’t be on a chair shaking or screaming at them. That wasn’t manly. And living alone, he would have a long wait standing on a chair in the kitchen. No cavalry to the rescue. No kids here. No Emily now. Max had no choice but to give the mice a good fight and chase. He just hated them. And their creeping him out embarrassed him. Imagine, he thought, one of Ottawa’s top criminal defence lawyers regularly in Ontario Superior Court fighting the good fight of justice against prison and corrections bureaucracies, against a hang-’em-high, punitive, tough-on-crime crowd. Max could sit across from killers and suspected terrorists in visits to the Kingston penitentiaries and not flinch. Now, too, he had a troubling health crisis to soldier through. Courage, in spades, he thought. But none for the mice.
Max switched shrinks when one young psychologist told him that he had an irrational fear. “Jay-sus, you get paid for that analysis?” thought Max, checking the psychiatry degrees on the wall.
“Damn it. Of course, it’s an irrational fear! Aren’t they all? Suriphobia, Musophobia. Max was learning all the professional names for his fear. This young psychologist who told him that mice were small and harmless, seemed to think that he could talk Max out of this crazy fear.
“Is empathy not a course in medical schools anymore?” Max had asked Emily way back when. Like words would assuage his phobia.
There was one counselor who wanted to work with Max, teaching him positive associations with mice. Hypnosis Behaviour Therapy he called it. And they had the gall to bill $250 for this life coaching! Max, the lawyer, knew a thing or two about billable hours. Max had always hated mice. He didn’t want them to be his best friends. He wanted them dead. He knew his fear long preceded the baby mouse that ran across his face on that same pillow the winter earlier. Max had cried out that night, throwing on the lights to catch Minnie on the carpet in the middle of the room. Murphy, the lab retriever, was snoring sound asleep at the foot of the bed, a few feet from this intruder. So much for a guard dog. That mouse wanted to play, too young and not life-smart to recognize an enemy. Max grabbed a broom that night and battered the poor creature against the wall. A short life. No remorse nor confession from this criminal defence lawyer. There was only the blood to clean up next morning.
Another psychologist wanted Max to identify the person this baby mouse represented as he reined his blows on it.
That ended the behaviour therapy and hypnosis.
“Damn it. It’s a mouse! Nothing more than a mouse. And I wasn’t inviting it to move in!”
Emily would have understood.
Emily was the one who truly listened to him.
They married 35 years ago, at St. Patrick Basilica downtown, teenage sweethearts who refused to listen to parents or priests. The surprise pregnancy, their first son Ian, got them to the altar quicker than they had planned. Their white wedding plans were preserved only by the winter wedding quickly arranged in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Everything had worked out, as only crazy in love kids could believe it would. Four more kids, Fraser, Dorothy, Rebecca and Adam, and life flew by.
Too quickly. Her pain in the stomach didn’t seem too bad at first. Jesus, ovarian cancer. The very thing that gives birth takes a life.
“There is a time to be born, a time to die,” intoned the reading from Ecclesiastes at her Celebration of Life attended by hundreds.
Just fifty-four. Gone in three months. Five years ago.
“Jay-sus,” Max muttered.
“Death, where is thy sting,” was another biblical verse Max remembered from that day. Well, Max knew the sting of death here and here and here. Soul, heart and sinew cried out. The shoulders stooped, the face now in a permanent grimace in these years alone. These past few years, since Emily died, Max took some solace sitting with his wife on the deck. She is in her favourite rocker, handed down on her mother’s side at least three generations. On the porch, she’s always thirty-five. Full of life, beautiful. Radiant, yes, sexy. Tossing that auburn reddish hair back with her throaty deep laugh. He fell in love with her the moment he heard her laugh. He had crossed a high school auditorium floor to ask her for a dance. She laughed that night. She laughed many more nights. Max knew crossing that gym floor was the best move of his life.
Emily solved all Max’s problems. Or made them disappear. When Max got into his periodic complaining funk, she intoned her own grandmother’s wisdom.
“No complaining now, you are still here.”
Emily always had a gem to share from her favourite writer and poet, Mary Oliver.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” she would ask him.
She seemed to be asking herself that question too. Hear Emily say those words and Max sensed he knew what Moses experienced on Mount Sinai hearing God pronounce the Ten Commandments. Max could sit on the porch late on a summer night talking with his love until the chill forced him inside.
He would close his eyes and hear her say Oliver’s line, “What is it you plan to do with your one precious life?”
Sometimes, she dropped the ‘wild’ part. She had spoken the phrase in her worst suffering, on her death bed, a few weeks before her last breath. Max had not figured out who she was talking to that day. She could make him laugh, cry, love and live another day. He always smiled remembering how petrified he was at breaking the news of their pregnancy to his parents. How he blurted out an indecipherable stutter of words only to have his eighteen-year-old girlfriend jump in to explain matter-of-factly to his Mom and Dad what had happened, what they were going to do and how everything would work out despite the mess they found themselves in. It helped that his Dad was smitten by this girl too.
As the rushed wedding meant no real celebration or parties, family and friends put on a night to celebrate anyway. The money collected as they passed a toque let them go on a honeymoon to Emily’s home in Cape Breton the next summer. Another favourite memory of his wife was seeing her on the cliffs along the Cabot Trail staring out at the ocean, the blustery wind whipping her red hair and the salt of the ocean on their tongues, her ear-to-ear grin telling him that she was home. Somehow, intuitively, Max understood that Emily would be his shore for life’s storms ahead.
Like Ian’s epilepsy that appeared out of nowhere one day, small seizures, trances walking in front of a school bus that he had just disembarked from. Max was beside himself with worry for his son. Those problems didn’t seem to scare Emily in quite the same way. She would have her quiet time, thinking time she said, always time to pray, to be still. Max preferred to rage against the forces unknown. Max craved control. It was part of the reason that he excelled in a courtroom. He never asked a question that he didn’t know the answer to. Damn, why couldn’t life be like the scripted play of the courtroom?
Max saw problems. Emily embraced them as opportunities. Once Emily spoke, Max felt he could take on the world. Just not with the mice. Still, in their division of labour and love, Emily’s no nonsense found the broom and swept away the dead mice. Max cleaned the bathrooms. It was a beautiful thing, he raved, this marriage of mice mop-up and toilet bowl cleaners.
Max missed Emily more than ever this long, long year. Back in February, he had been standing at the Ottawa Transpo bus stop on Irwin St. waiting for the express commute downtown to his legal offices. He felt the tingle down his left arm but thought nothing of it. He thought to himself that was the price to pay for skipping his coffee in the rush not to miss the bus. He missed the bus anyway and now the left hand, and left arm went numb, making him shake them. It wasn’t a cold day. This was bizarre. In five minutes, his entire left arm was numb. He did something so uncharacteristic of this no-nonsense tough lawyer. He picked up his briefcase, crossed back across the street and returned home. He sat in his La-Z-boy in his living room. He spoke with Emily.
What are we going to do, Emily?
He hated living alone at times like this. He needed Emily. “What are we going to do, Emily,” was Max’s most frequent question these days.
Max heard Emily’s same answer immediately. “What is it you are going to do with your one precious life?”
Thank you, Mary Oliver.
Max teased his Irish Catholic wife that she had to be a bit Jewish too. All his Jewish lawyer friends answered his questions with another question.
Max started to get the feeling back in his arm and one hand, but he decided to go to the nearby Queensway Hospital just to be sure. He was gradually unlearning his father’s aversion to doctors and hospitals. The TIA mini-stroke diagnosis surprised him; a ‘transient ischemic attack’ that interrupted blood flow temporarily in a part of the brain. Yes, he was now sixty, but still senior partner in Ottawa’s biggest criminal lawyer firm, a legal empire that had thirty-five other lawyers, paralegals and staff, a million-dollar plus enterprise. Max thrived on the files and workload. He was blessed, some say cursed, with an energy as deep as an Alberta oil well. Other managers half his age could not keep up with him.
“Best kind of stroke to have,” a neurologist would explain a few weeks later. A million dead brain cells but who is counting? No lasting physical disability. No loss of speech.
The second stroke four months later was not the best kind to have. He had collapsed at his office desk. His last spoken word was “Elizabeth,” the name of his secretary who he called as he felt weird and dizzy, a swarmy soup spilling in his head.
This second diagnosis was the killer for everything he cherished. Fear gripped every corner of him. His mouth was so dry. He felt a panic move in. He was released from the hospital a week after the ambulance brought him from his office. But it would be almost four months of physical therapy and occupational therapy, excruciating, painful, every day work, before he was gradually able to use his left side, control his left arm and left leg. Still, Max had limited use of his right arm and leg.
With therapy, the doctors said he would learn to walk, perhaps with a limp and shuffle. But it was the loss of his speech that was his death sentence. A defence lawyer with no words.
His eloquence in closing pleas was legendary. Legal associates, students would shuffle their appointment calendars to find the courtroom to hear Max argue. Better than a post-graduate law school credit, some had said. Max, who made a living with his eloquence, his closing arguments, his reputation to win in the courts against some impressive, damning evidence. Max could not speak after the stroke.
Max, speechless, was dumbstruck. It may have had no negative impact on his intelligence, but this smart man now felt so stupid. And other perhaps well-meaning folk could make him feel stupid too, talking about him in his presence as if he was deaf and blind too. And stupid. This man whose words had always swept Emily away had no words. And no Emily.
Except he could talk to Emily on the porch and ask her still what she would do.
Over months of therapy and exhausting efforts he learned how to write a bit with his left hand. He tapped his Blackberry to write some error-filled texts. He struggled to learn hand and arm signals. He could produce a guttural yes. Tears rolled down his craggy face more regularly.
While he might recover most of his capacity to walk, he felt it was over if he could not speak. He managed guttural sounds, words his kids guessed. They were certain they could make out his calling Emily. His wife’s name was one of the few words that passed his lips. Again, the kids, grown up as they were, could not understand. They talked about him in the same house and room, as if he had lost his hearing.
“I can’t speak! I can hear, you fools!” he silently screamed.
The brain worked fine for the most part. He still spoke to Emily on the porch. He made sense to her. He was thinking clearly, talking to himself all the time, talking to his love. He just couldn’t talk to anyone, about business, the price of bread, sports, his beloved Senators hockey team, the weather. He couldn’t even scream out loud about the damn mice any more. On the pillow that night, he remembered more about the day he had planned after having now to scrape the latest mouse from the kitchen cupboard. There would be that family meeting in the afternoon at another speech therapist’s office, a specialist a friend knew. The speech therapy so far had not produced any significant results. Today’s appointment would be pivotal. Big decisions. Life decisions. Could he hear in his silence the surgical snap of the mousetrap snaring him? Would never speaking be his own death chamber?
The meeting with the speech language pathologist includes two of his children, Ian and Rebecca, the only two who live in Ottawa. In the office downtown, Max is relieved that this doctor is not condescending. He is talking to Max directly, even though the doctor knows his new patient won’t be answering him directly. Max appreciates this. He abhors pity. The doctor wants to know if Max knows who Gabby Giffords is.
Max gets a barely recognizable “Yes,” out.
Inside that head of his, he has a longer answer. U.S. Congresswoman shot at a meet-and-greet Tucson Safeway Store in Arizona in 2011. The shooter killed six people and wounded many more. Giffords suffered a bullet wound in her head and took a long time to recover, eventually resigning her seat to concentrate on her recovery.
“Do you know she couldn’t speak for a long time because of the damage to her brain?” was the speech therapist’s next question.
Max’s “Yes” this time was stronger, clearer.
“But she did recover her speech. Do you know how?”
Now Max, in his head again, was in the courtroom, waving and recounting the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” music that the congresswoman joined her girlfriends singing in a hospital room after they sent the other staff packing to start their reunion and celebration. At some point, as her friends sang, Giffords started to sing along. The others stopped and the crying began as Gabby belted out the song.
This doctor wanted to try the music therapy with Max. He gave Max and his children the short tutorial on music therapy. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists have begun to map the brain’s many functions to specific regions. Whereas language is largely held in the left side of the brain, music activates visual, motor and coordination areas on both sides as well as areas deep in the brain involved in memory and emotion. The brain is this network of connections, super highways and smaller roads. Max had a major road block in the super highway we all use to speak. Now music and singing can get his words out via a brain detour. You have to find another way back to language. It is literally the road less traveled to get to the same destination. The brain’s ability to pave new pathways around damaged areas is called neuroplasticity. An adult might relearn to speak…with the right training and a lot of practice. And, yes, it doesn’t work for everyone.
This was a no-brainer for Max. He had laughed at his words. Never speechless, never at a loss for words. Sing, and you might speak, words that otherwise can’t come out. Pull the words out of you. Max was no singer. He hated when the kids dragged him to karaoke but changed his tune once there, whistling as Emily belted out their old love songs.
Cue the songs. Max was game. He would do anything to have his speech back. He gave thumbs up to the doctor. The kids guessed the songs for a playlist. The Be Not Afraid St. Louis Jesuit hymn he bellowed slightly off key a long time ago at church on Sundays, John Denver’s West Virginia, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, some Beatles no doubt, Van Morrison and more.
Again, at night, on the pillow, Max feared his own death chamber. His own Mouseland. The snap of the trap executing him. Emily on the porch definitely wanted him to try this. Your precious life, Max.
The music therapy was booked to happen a week Friday. The Friday appointments stretched into months. Futile. So little progress. For weeks he grunted, groaned and grew exasperated. He was singing the songs in his head. They weren’t finding the new highway. He felt as if he was boring through the deep granite of the Cambrian Shield. Then, it happened. The Friday past. How appropriate was it that the Jesuit hymn found the detour?
“You shall cross the barren desert. Wander far in safety, never lose your way…”
He had the verses all mixed up, but there he was, singing, speaking, words tumbling out of his mouth like a spring river gushing with the thawed, frozen winter water. The speech language pathologist was listening, smiling, and clapping. Fist pump too.
Only Adam, home for that weekend, heard his Dad singing that day in the office, heard his Dad’s barren tongue birthing words again. His eloquent, loquacious father, Lazarus now. Adam reached for his cell phone, so excited, contacting first Ian and then Rebecca instructing them to go to Dad’s home right after their work.
“Dad just swore,” laughed Adam.
“He told me to go to hell,” enthused Adam to his older siblings.
“Get home. He will tell you to go to hell too.”
Ian and Rebecca knew this was truth. It was a family joke, this fatherly affectionate “Go to hell.” Dad had started it, a phrase that would end a long, riveting story from anyone. Family speak for “You don’t say.” Dad’s Amen.
There would be months more of those Friday music therapy, bills Max now gladly paid. He remembered that first Friday singing, though. On the way home from the doctor’s office, he dropped into the basilica where Emily and he were married. He had not been there for years. He lit a candle. He liked the silence and aloneness of the cathedral, better than the services or the crowds. Max thought of Emily. He had been bitter to lose her, to have the kids gone, grown up, busy, too busy for him, no time for their father, exactly like he had been too busy for his parents. The bitterness stewed on Facebook, that he had grudgingly signed on to after badgering from Emily, a place he finally realized he could get his family news. However, his reading of family events for his siblings who had all their kids there, and their grandchildren, brothers and sisters still with their partners, only left him sad and jealous.
Max walked with the aid of a cane now. That day in the basilica, he fingered the cane like long ago he had fingered the rosary he would use to pray. He had stopped that long ago. Still a man of faith, but new prayers. Since Emily died, he had not been able to give thanks much for blessings others enjoyed. The bitterness choked. Now, this day, he tried to utter a word of thanks for the return of his speech, for the gift of his family, his siblings, their blessings. Real words whispered softly in the basilica that day. He was still surprised by the words finding their exit at his mouth. He had found his voice. He found a place of gratitude too for his kids, their busy lives, their own families. This was hard to do.
On the way home, he remembered that he needed more mouse traps. Max slipped into the neighbourhood Home Hardware. He managed to voice a simple question, asking where the mousetraps were.
A young clerk pointed him to Aisle 34.
He tried to speak some more. He wanted a live mouse trap, the ones that catch the mice but let Max release them. He decided he could carry the box to the woods without seeing or touching the damn critters. He figured that he would release the mouse in another neighbourhood, maybe the woods beside where a Crown Attorney friend who he enjoyed sparring with lived. Mouse parole. Max worked hard for parole for his clients. Why not the mice?
The young girl sales clerk smiled. “Yes. That’s nice. I will show you.”
Max looked at her. She had Emily’s hair.
“Have you ever had a mouse run across your face?”
It took time to say all those words but she understood what he was saying.
“Be not afraid,” Max smiled.