Non-Fiction Finalist Meghan Davidson Ladly

Jan 29, 2018 by

Non-Fiction Finalist Meghan Davidson Ladly

The Iles

The wax was immovable. It was an opaque smooth splash, long hardened and utterly refusing to yield to my efforts. I fetched a bigger knife.

The morning of August Aug. 27th I awoke in my childhood bed, stressed. I had flown back to my parents’ house the night before so that today I could fly with my mum and sister to les Iles de la Madeleine, a tiny Quebec archipelago in the Gulf of Saint Laurence. It was a trip I had been making annually with my parents for the last seven years, but this year would be a departure from the ordinary routine.

The kitchen that morning was its usual hive of activity. I had grown accustomed over the last year to eating breakfast in my boxers in a house already filled with people who didn’t live there. Today there were two caregivers and my aunt meticulously measuring out medications and second guessing articles of clothing, footwear, and of course the appropriate scarf options. As I ate porridge, my aunt, a nurse—in charge of my mum’s care, went through the pages of handwritten notes in which she had detailed my mother’s rigorous medication and supplement regime. This was in addition to the fact that my mum was currently on a puréed diet due to a dental infection that, if not healed properly, would prevent her from flying. The very trip itself was tenuous until last night, as she had been vomiting only a few days before—the complications of a very compromised immune system. But as of today my sister was meeting us at the airport and we were off. I was worried, but took some small consolation in the knowledge that if my mum weren’t to die at home, the Iles would probably be her next choice.

With all of this focus on my mum, we almost left without my dad. As the morning wore on and we became rushed, I realized that while much attention was being given to packing my mother, no thought had gone into packing him. He had died earlier that year and one of the reasons we were going on this trip was to scatter his ashes, but I had not considered the practicalities of this operation. And now in the kitchen I couldn’t even open the urn, furiously hacking away at the wax seal with no results. As was so often the case, our caretaker second family solved this problem, deftly slicing through the wax with a precisely placed cut and loosening the lid.

It was then I realized we needed a transport vessel. A tupperware was undignified. A wooden box could not guarantee a spillage-free journey. My thoughts turned. We didn’t have any film canisters. And then I noticed in the drying rack, a jam jar. My father liked jam and it had a tightly sealable lid; we were set. I carefully spooned the slate-coloured granules out until the jar was full and then a caretaker whisked it away, and returned with what looked like a very small party bag, complete with tissue paper poking out the top. Presentation is everything. I packed it in my suitcase and we departed.

When you fly into the Iles de la Madeleine, it looks as if you are landing on water. The islands are a slip of landmasses in the shape of a fishhook. A geological base of salt domes, covered by Permian sandstone, supports the archipelago; the buoyancy of the salt pushes up the malleable crust of vivid red and grey-green argillaceous rock into sculptural cliffs. The plane flies low over a strip of sand that looks like it would be swallowed by high tide. Squint hard enough in Cap-aux-Meules on a clear day and you might see Cape Breton. Once, centuries ago there were walruses.

My parents started coming here together over a decade ago. They marveled at the soft air, French maritime cuisine, and affable locals. It was enough to make the multiple flights—and tiny Dash 8 planes—seem inconsequential. They stayed at the same small bed and breakfast, and ate both simple and epicurean meals prepared by people who would recognize them year after year.

And now they were back, and looking a little worse for wear. My mother had brain cancer and my father, or part of him, was in a jam jar; the year had been unkind.

And yet, we were here. And that itself felt like a victory.

It was late afternoon, mid-trip, when we decided to take our walk down to the beach. We drove out past the lighthouse, parked the car, and began the slow steep descent down to the sea. My sister held one arm, I held the other, as we guided my mother over the rocks, towards the dark sand and receding waves. There were dense clouds, but also patches where the sun filtered down and caught the water, turning it from steel grey to lapis.

My mum didn’t want to scatter the ashes herself. She wanted us to do it. But collectively we unwrapped the jar. I wondered if she had envisioned this day, she must have many times, but never this scenario where her own mortality was so on display. I remain grateful that he died first. She had spent decades building up the strength to now hold the jar containing his remains. It would have killed him to be in her place.

My mum watched from the shore, as my sister and I waded out into the Gulf. Her sunglasses were on, one hand secured her hat, while the other waved, urging us out. Her coral scarf whipped around her face like the flags we saw waved on Jean-Baptiste day.

The water is bitterly cold in the Iles, even in summer. A swim there usually means running in and running out, and staying is like submerging in an ice bath. I had rolled my shorts up, but even then the tops of them got soaked. My sister and I held the jar together, making for an awkward procession out into the waves. And then the bickering began.

There are many things that go unexplained around death, maybe because death is so often a private affair. People talk in the abstract about grief and how to process the loss of a loved one, but are less open about the concrete visceral details. I had no idea ashes were less than straightforward to scatter.

It was freezing, but I pushed us to keep wading further out, so that the ashes would not be quickly carried back to shore. My sister was wet from her navel down and not impressed by my earlier suggestion that we not bother changing into bathing suits. This wave? No, that one looks better. That one is too flat. Fine, the next one then. One, two, three. We opened the lid and emptied the contents into the water. Except we didn’t, because the same wind that was twisting my hair into my eyes, also swept up granules and blew them back against me, before they could hit the wave. I watched the clump of ashes slowly spread underwater, becoming a grey-flecked stingray before dispersing with the current. And then as my sister went to toss away the jar, I found myself stopping her with the words, Wait, we could reuse it. For what? I wondered later, certainly not jam.

As we walked to shore, both of us aware that a substantial amount of dad was embedded in the folds of my shorts, we were still buoyed by a sense of accomplishment. The experience was a reminder that the whole messy composite of a life does not just disappear on the breeze, nor should it. We knew this was only the first round, for their were six of us daughters—even though only two were here today—and there would be more such scatterings, yet we congratulated ourselves. Well done, daughters five and six. Well done.

And we hugged our mum, and she hugged us as if we had just come back from a long journey, which in way we had. Then she turned away from the pale blue horizon line, and looking up at the ribbons of cliff behind us, said that she would like a cup of tea.

I managed to not wonder if that was the last time we would all gather on that beach, until after the fact.

That night we ate lobster risotto at a restaurant where faces were familiar. My mum ignored her puree diet restrictions, and ordered three courses of solid local fare, pairing it with wine she shouldn’t have been drinking. We smiled a lot. And I tried to notice, in the soft light, every shadow and line that made up her face, pleading with neurons to not forget. I tried not to cry. And as the three of us were leaving, a server I recognized leaned in to say hello. Dad is gone? He said it kindly. And I said: Yes, Dad is gone.

Meghan Davidson Ladly lives and writes in Toronto and Paris.

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