“How are you feeling? Are you getting a lot of rest?” my mother asks my grandmother.
Grandma talks slowly, deliberately. “Oh yes. I was just having a nap.”
“You’re talking very well. We heard you had a few strokes.”
“Oh yes… just a small one, last… I can’t remember if it was May or June.”
“But Tom said you had a few strokes.”
“Oh, maybe one or two… I can’t remember. They were very small.”
“Well, you’re talking very well. Do you take speech therapy?”
“No. They tried to get me to take it, but I said, ‘No way!’”
“Well, it’s amazing how much progress you’ve made on your own.”
“I have a nurse who comes to the house every day, and I talk to her.”
Grandma squints at me. She had an eye operation last year to stop the blindness, but her vision is fuzzy. “You’re so tall!”
I smile. “Oh yeah, I guess I am…”
“How tall are you now?”
“Six foot zero. Just made it.”
“And you have curly hair!”
“Ha, yeah, yeah, that kicked in sometime around… grade nine, I think?”
“It’s just like the hair I used to have.”
“Well, that’s not all. If you look carefully, you’ll see I’m starting to get some flecks of grey.”
“Are you now?”
“Yeah. The barber said I look like George Clooney, but I think he was being sarcastic.”
“Your hair is so curly…” Grandma slowly points at me and looks at Mom. “Who does he look like?”
“Well…” Mom is silent. “He’s a mixture of everybody.” A longer pause. “He looks a lot like Tom, actually.”
Grandma smiles. “Oh, that’s wonderful.”
It’s strange to see her like this: frail, hair frazzled, IV line and oxygen tubes connected. She always seemed so big, so forceful, so in control. It’s strange, too, to see her in a hospital bed, or anywhere away from her house in Weston, her domain for decades.
She looks so old. She’ll be 89 in December. Time flies. We haven’t seen her in ten years.
• • •
“That’s quite a cast you’ve got,” says Mom. “I see you paid the extra money and got the purple one.”
“When I broke my ankle I just went with the white plaster.” Mom laughs. “Saved me fifty bucks!”
“That’s right, you did have a cast, didn’t you?”
“And it hurt. You broke your arm going down the stairs, right?
“Yes, just a few steps from the bottom.”
“You must really be feeling it.”
Grandma shrugs. “No… I can hardly feel a thing.”
“Really? Because the first two weeks really hurt for me. Don’t you feel it in the night?”
Grandma shrugs again. “No… There really isn’t much pain at all.”
“You must be on some nice painkillers,” I say. “I know how you feel. I actually had my wisdom teeth taken out last August…”
“Oh dear, that’s awful…”
“Yeah, but they had me on some really nice codeine and stuff, so, y’know, I got through it.” I laugh slightly.
“He had the operation on Tuesday, and was back in Toronto by Friday,” says Mom.
“Yeah. Actually, Grandma, I’ll tell you something that’s kinda neat. On that Friday after the operation, I did an interview with Adam West. Y’know, from the old Batman show?”
“Batman? Oh, gosh…”
“Yeah, remember I used to watch that at your house? Every day, at three o’clock.”
• • •
Superficially, Weston is a neighbourhood, located at Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue, just north of Eglinton, and part of the former City of York, but for as long as I’ve known it, it’s been a town unto itself. It had everything a small city needed: a “downtown” (right at Weston and Lawrence) with shops and offices and franchise restaurants; residential streets that functioned as suburbs; an arena, a Santa Claus Parade, big parks, local celebrities, a country club, and giant bridges over the Humber River you had to cross to get in and out.
It was also where I spent much of my childhood. My parents were born in Weston, one day apart in the same hospital, and lived just blocks away from each other when they started dating. It was also where they decided to start a family, and for a time in the early ‘90s we lived on William Street, a few blocks away from both sets of grandparents.
Then one day, Weston started showing some cracks: a few too many drug dealers, a few too many prostitutes, a few too many shootings. We moved to Etobicoke when I was three, but Mom started her law practice in Weston, and we remained part of the community. Mom was in the Weston Lions Club, and I was in the Weston Minor Hockey League. We went to Weston Little Theatre, I wore my hockey gear in the Santa Claus Parade, and every year we went to the Weston End-of-Summer Blast, where there was face painting and cotton candy and plenty of inflatable bouncy castles.
And there was Grandma, in her little house on Holley Avenue. Every Sunday we would see the extended family there for dinner, and until about second grade, I went there every day after school.
• • •
“So, how have they been treating you here, Grandma?”
“Oh, you know. There are so many bad nurses. And the doctors here can be such… goofs!”
“Now grandma, be nice…”
“I’ve never had any problems with doctors,” says Mom. “I mean, sometimes they have to have their backs up against the wall to figure something out, but they’ve always come through for me. Like when I was at Toronto General.”
“Oh yes, I heard about that,” says Grandma. “What was it that happened?”
“Well… Basically, I came in and was about to drop dead in front of them…” — Mom laughs — “…and under pressure, they figured out that what was really wrong with me was I had adrenal insufficiency. So, they knew about the very rare primary pulmonary hypertension, but they didn’t realize I had an adrenal problem until I was gonna die, and that you can treat it with two pills!” They both laugh slightly, then silence.
“I have this wonderful nurse named Josephine, who comes to the house and takes care of me every day, and she’s the best nurse I’ve ever had,” says Grandma. “She’s Filipino, you know.”
“Well…” Mom looks down.
“Tom mentioned you’ve had a lot of nurses coming to the house, right?” I say.
“Yes. I’ve had a lot of them, and if they don’t do what they’re told, they’re fired.”
“Still ruling the place with an iron fist, eh?” I say.
“Well, Tom is very good to keep hiring all of them, isn’t he?” says Mom.
“Oh, your brother has been so good to me,” says Grandma.
“Yes, well, Tom is the best,” says Mom, looking down.
“Yes… yes, he is…”
• • •
“Oh, hello Ted, come on in,” says Grandma, looking at the door. Mom and I turn around, then look at each other, then look down.
“Mum, I don’t think that was Ted,” says Mom.
“Oh… I thought it might be Ted…”
“He’ll probably come. He might still come.”
“I had a dream yesterday night that all my children were together in England. Isn’t that strange?”
“Mm-hmm,” says Mom.
“Nobody ever seems to come for that old woman in the other bed. Thank God that hasn’t happened to me. I have people who visit me.”
Mom and I look at the ground. “That’s right, Grandma, we’re here.”
• • •
“Ca$h Converters.” “Cheques Cashed.” “We Buy Gold.” “Money Mart.” “Tax-Stop Financial Services.” “InstaLoan.” So many of these, side-by-side at Weston and Lawrence. When did they spring up? I don’t know. When was the last time I’ve been here? High school, maybe? Things have changed.
A lot of dollar stores. A lot of little supermarkets. A lot of donut shops. There’s a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits where the Burger King used to be. The Central Restaurant is under new management, and now they have Karaoke Thursdays.
“Omely’s Nails.” “Shalom Beauty Supply.” “Ola Hair Spa.” “Lori Hair & Nail Spa.” “Ira’s Beauty Salon & Spa.” “Supreme Beauty Centre.” So much beauty. So many faded Farrah hairdos in the windows.
What do I recognize? There’s the big Hakim Optical sign above the “Weston Mini Mall.” Big, ‘80s eyeglasses. There’s Ward’s Funeral Home, where I saw my Grandpa for the last time. Here is the ratty building where Mom started her law practice. The hallway still smells the same. She was across the hall from a “Manicure Boutique,” quote-unquote, and sometimes helped the girls get bank accounts and birth certificates. At least that place is gone. Now it’s another law office. Weston has a lot of law offices.
I walk to Holley Avenue and go to the playground. I was never allowed to play here — too dangerous, Mom said. There’s an overflowing garbage can, and a lot of litter, and some scattered bits of clothing; no one else is here. I walk further along Holley, and I see it: Grandma’s house. It’s smaller than I remember. That gate used to tower over me. It used to feel like the backyard went on for miles.
Why did I come here? What did I think I would find? I hate being here. I hate this place. I want to go home.
• • •
“Well, we should probably be leaving you to rest.”
“Oh…” says Grandma. “We did a lot of catching up, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, it was nice seeing you, Grandma. I gotta get back downtown to finish an essay.”
“Oh, okay. Do you live downtown?
“Yeah, actually, I live in an apartment near Trinity Bellwoods Park.”
“Yes, they don’t seem to stay in residence after second year,” says Mom.
“Around that time we all figure it’s time to start growing up, y’know?”
“Do you have a nice apartment?” asks Grandma.
“Well, it’s kinda small, but, y’know, it’s home. Anyway, we really have to get going.”
“Okay,” says Grandma. “Bye.”