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Authors: M.T. Dohaney

Fit Month for Dying

BOOK: Fit Month for Dying
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Praise for M.T. Dohaney

“Her ear for both spoken and internal dialogue is stunning.” —
The New Brunswick Telegraph Journal

“In its rich and sometimes violent emotional texture,
The Corrigan Women
belongs in a class with such works as Alistair MacLeod's
Lost Salt Gift of Blood
.”
— New Maritimes

Tess Corrigan seems to be living the good life. She is a popular politician, the first female Member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly. Originally from a tiny coastal village, she now lives in St. John's with her husband and their son, a hockey-mad twelve-year-old.

Growing up in a religious community, Tess has suffered the shame of being the child of a bigamous marriage. She decides to track down her father, an American charmer who wed her mother without revealing that he already had a wife. Preoccupied with this quest and her work, Tess has no inkling of trouble until a revelation by an acquaintance sets into motion a series of betrayals, recriminations and admissions that shake her life to its foundations.

That this heart-wrenching story is told with laughter as well as tears is a tribute to M.T. Dohaney's gift for storytelling and her irrepressible laughter in the face of disaster. She is the author of three previous novels,
The Corrigan Women
,
To Scatter Stones
, and
A Marriage of Masks
, which won the 1996 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize.

Other fiction by M.T. DOHANEY

The Corrigan Women

To Scatter Stones

A Marriage of Masks

Copyright © 2000, 2014 by M.T. Dohaney.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any requests for photocopying of any part of this book should be directed in writing to the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency.

A Fit Month for Dying is a work of fiction. All characters and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is entirely coincidental.

Edited by Laurel Boone.

Cover photograph by Frank Scott, Spectrum Stock.

Author photograph by Noel Chenier.

Cover design by Julie Scriver.

Book design by Ryan Astle.

eBook development:
WildElement.ca

Cataloguing data available from Library and Archives Canada.

ISBN 9780864928238

Goose Lane Editions acknowledges the generous support of the Canada

Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the

Canada Book Fund (CBF), and the Government of New Brunswick

through the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture.

Goose Lane Editions

500 Beaverbrook Court, Suite 330

Fredericton, New Brunswick

CANADA E3B 5X4

www.gooselane.com

for Anke, my friend

Prologue

My grandmother
, who died long before this story took root, was fond of parcelling out prophecies, especially ones with calamitous endings. Because her credo was “forewarned is forearmed,” forecasting the inevitable was probably her way of lessening the sting of destiny. She always told me that if you're born in Newfoundland, sooner or later life will break the heart of you.

“Yes, my dear,” she would say ominously, rubbing her thumb and fingers together as if she were sprinkling turnip seed over freshly dampened soil, “if yer born upon this Rock, sooner or later life'll break the heart of ye. It'll break the heart of ye into pieces smaller than the putty mounds of a tinker's dam.”

And if at the time of this foretelling she happened to be standing in the kitchen stoking the fire — a chore she spent a lot of her time doing, ramming in lengths of wood through the small damper openings of the cast iron stove — she would always add, “Yes, girl, it'll break the heart of ye into pieces even finer than the ashes from this junk of old wet spruce.”

But not all of her prophecies were so dour, nor did they limit themselves to a vague and distant future. Indeed, many of her prophecies held more imminent and specific outcomes:
Laugh before dawn, weep before dark
was her most constant. I have no idea why she considered this prediction to be so apocalyptic and so worthy of frequent repetition, other than to teach me that happiness is both fleeting and capricious. She repeated this prophecy so often that after a while I heard only the words, not their message. Being young and invincible, I felt I had no need to listen to the maunders and mumbles of a prophecy-prone old woman.

However, when she predicted an upgrading in my physical attributes — I would come into my own in my early twenties — I was more than willing to listen to her maunders and mumbles. Coming into my own, I was certain, meant bigger eyes, thinner cheeks, longer legs and redder hair. Above all, redder hair. In short, just enough refashioning to make Dennis Walsh regret he had ever chosen the priesthood over me. Actually, the redder hair had nothing to do with Dennis Walsh or, for that matter, with my perception of upgraded beauty. I wanted the red hair because it was a strong Corrigan trait. My black hair was the legacy of my American progenitor, a
persona non grata
in the Corrigan household for as far back as my memory serves me.

Now, just because the story that unfolds on these pages contains reminiscences of my grandmother, it does not follow that it will be a story about her. No indeed. The story that is going to unfold has being dredged from the heart of a family and, therefore, it cannot be expected to move either forwards or backwards in a straight line; it will not follow the King's advice to Alice to begin at the beginning and go on from there until she came to the end, then stop. No. Not at all. The story I am going to tell will twist and turn. Bend and curve. Dart around corners. It will even fork without warning. Sometimes it will become so snarled and tangled it will double back upon itself, encircling some people from the past, one of whom will be Bertha Corrigan, my grandmother.

Chapter One

Hubert slade is dying. Imminently dying. In all likelihood he won't see another daybreak. His family accepts this. Greg, his sober and serious-minded lawyer son, accepts it. Danny, his come day, go day, the devil take Sunday son, accepts it. Even Philomena, his wide-shouldered, indomitable wife of fifty years accepts it. Indeed, just this morning she admitted to me that for all the good her fervent and feverish praying has done Hubert, for all the good her rosaries and litanies have done him, she might as well have been beseeching the slop bucket beside his bed instead of the saints in heaven. If anything, Hubert's condition worsened during the course of her praying.

Yet despite her gloomy outlook and on the off-chance a miracle might still be pulled off, she has, in the face of ridiculous odds, continued throughout the day to intercede for his recovery. In fact, around noon, when Hubert's fitful sleeping turned into a peaceful slumber — the kind of slumber that eventually slides into death — she redoubled her efforts. More Hail Marys, more litanies, more rosaries.

However, now that evening is here and Hubert has begun drowning in his own breath, she has given up all hope of a miracle and has informed us that the strangling, watery noise coming from Hubert's throat is the death rattle. She says this rattle, which sounds like stones in a drainpipe and which is setting everyone's nerves on edge, is a sure sign of the beginning of the end. This rasping, nerve-tearing noise can be heard in every room in the house, but especially in the kitchen, directly below Hubert's bedroom. It is loud enough to be heard over the ferocious late spring storm that is scourging Hubert's wood-framed house, slamming gusts of wind up against the clapboards and threatening to pry the windowpanes loose from their puttied moorings.

The family is gathered in the kitchen because it is the warmest room in the house and because it is suppertime. The four of us, Greg, Danny, Philomena and myself, along with Paddy Flynn, a neighbour who came over to keep the death watch with us, sit around the table to eat the fish chowder I have cobbled together in between making a dozen or more trips up to my father-in-law's room to tend to his needs. By now, though, Hubert has no needs. At least, he has no earthly needs, and as far as spiritual ones are concerned, Philomena considers these to be solely her domain. The strain of Hubert's sickness can be seen in her face. She looks as weather-beaten as the clapboards on the house.

“You're worn out, Mom,” Greg coaxes. “Why don't you take one of the sleeping pills the doctor left for you and go to bed?”

“Let me alone!” she snaps. “I'm not closing an eye until yer father reaches the other side. Even if I have to use matchsticks to keep the lids open.” She bores her eyes into Greg and lets her soup spoon drop heavily into her almost untouched bowl of chowder. “I'm staying up until the bitter end because I wants to make sure he gets a Catholic death, and that's not something I can depend upon any of ye people to do for him. I knows that as well as...”

“Hell, Mom, Dad's not even Catholic,” Danny interjects. “You're the Catholic in this house. And besides, what in the hell do you mean by a Catholic death? As far as I'm concerned, death is death, whether you're Catholic, Hutterite or Doukhobor.” He tempers his voice. “But if you'll go to bed I'll see to it that he gets whatever kind of death you want.”

“He's right, Missus Phil,” Paddy says, placing a compassionate hand on her arm. “Ye needs yer sleep. Ye needs yer sleep to give you strength for the funeral and the wake that's coming right up.”

Paddy's hair is still dripping from the rainstorm savaging the Cove. Although his house is close to Philomena's — in fact, they share the same lane — he was drenched when he came in, so drenched he had to shake the rain from his jacket before hanging it up on a nail in the porch. And he had to brush off the frothy patches of foam that blew over the beach and pelted him as he took the short cut across his meadow.

Although he addresses only Philomena, he lets his eyes roam the table to include the rest of us. “Like I jest finished telling Brendan, jest before I came over here,” he says, referring to Greg's and my almost-eleven-year-old son, whom Bridey, his wife, had earlier taken home with her to get him away from a house that is filling up with death, “if he wants to get up early in the morning to help Bridey milk the cow, he better go to bed early and get some sleep. And yer no different from him, Missus. Ye needs yer sleep.”

Philomena makes no response. She absently finger-combs her hair, which is straggling around her face. She usually keeps her hair tightly curled in parallel rows, like hay raked into windrows, but for the past several days she has barely combed it, much less curled it. Danny picks up one of the drooping curls, stretches it out full length and then lets it spring back against her head. It sags around her ear like a misshapen corkscrew.

“Look, Mom,” he says, picking the curl back up and surveying it. “It's coming unsprung, like my bedspring back in the bunk-house. It's time it went back to the factory for a recoiling job.”

Philomena swats his hand impatiently. “Is that all ye have to say, me son? With yer father at death's door? With him ready to meet his Maker? It's that kind of foolishness that forces me to stay up.”

“Aw, come on, Mom,” Danny cajoles as only Danny can. “Just trying to cheer you up.”

“Tormenting me isn't cheering me up. Is it now? Telling me I haven't the sense to know when to go to bed isn't cheering me up. And when I asked ye to come home, I thought ye'd be a help to me. Not a nuisance.”

“I have been a help to you,” he replies, holding his voice even, refusing to take offence. “You haven't had to bring in a stick of wood or a bucket of coal since I got here. Have you?” He refrains from reminding her that Greg has been pestering her to go to bed, not him.

However, seeing the weariness on his mother's face, he, too, tries to coax her. “You're so worn out you look like a fugitive from the undertaker. And if the only thing that's keeping you up is that you're worried about Dad not getting a Catholic death, don't give it another thought. I'll do that for you. I promise you. But like I said, first you'll have to tell me whatever in the hell a Catholic death is.”

“That's jest what I means,” Philomena retorts, vindicated in her long-held belief that her backslider of a son is non-redeemable. “You spends yer life in the lumber woods in British Columbia and then comes home here to make smart remarks while your poor father is at death's door. No respect for the dead and dying.”

Danny lets the subject drop. He lights up a cigarette and begins blowing perfectly round smoke rings. He allows a ring to soar almost all the way across the table before he reaches up and pokes his finger through it, breaking it open. In the draft from the leaky window casings, the smoke quickly disappears.

Greg finishes his chowder and then reaches across the table and helps himself to a piece of partridgeberry pie. Before taking a bite of it, however, he makes another attempt to get his mother to go to bed, repeating Paddy's warning that she'll be needing her strength in the morning for the wake and still later for the funeral.

“Lay out what you want done, Mom,” he promises, “and I'll do it. Rosaries, litanies whatever it is you want. I've never been around a dying Catholic before, or a dying anyone for that matter, so I've no idea what you have in mind.”

Philomena acts as if she doesn't hear him. After a few minutes of silence, she says to the room at large, “I have me reasons for staying awake. I can't expect ye people to understand why I can't go to bed — why I can't be grogged on sleeping pills when Hubert is trying to die.”

She absently moves the spoon around in her chowder, as if contemplating whether it is worth her effort to try to make us understand. After a few seconds, she tests the waters. “If I was to go to sleep, I couldn't depend upon any of ye to wake me up for Hubert's last breath. Could I? Ye'd say, ‘Let her sleep.' Wouldn't ye? Ye'd say, ‘There's nothing she can do.' I know ye fellows well enough for that. And I have to be there for his last breath. I wants to make certain he has a lighted candle placed in his hand during his last few seconds of life.” Her eyes sweep the table, indicting us out of hand. “Ye thinks a lighted candle is just a bunch of foolishness. Like I said, I knows ye well enough for that. Too well, perhaps.”

Greg forgets that if he wants her to go to bed he has to cater to her perverseness and irascibility. “What in the name of God are you talking about, Mom? You're so tired you're raving. Surely you don't intend to place a lighted candle in Dad's dying hand!”

“See! I knew it! But that's exactly what I intends to do! And that's why I have to stay awake. And that's jest what I expected ye fellows to say.”

“But Mom,” Danny begins, “what in the hell...”

“Enough!” Philomena holds up her hand like a traffic cop. She has already dug out the candle. And the candleholder as well. “Five or ten minutes before it is needed,” she explains, “the candle has to be lit so there will be no scurrying around at the last moment. And 'tis no good putting it in his hand after his last breath. That's why I have to do it meself. To know fer sure. When I got that candle on Candlemas Day, I said to meself that it would be kept fer Hubert because I knew he was done fer even back then. I promised myself that even if the lights went out, I would stay in the dark rather than use it.”

She wearily pushes herself away from the table and walks to the centre of the kitchen. She stands there surveying us, once again deciding whether to ignore our ignorance or to waste her breath in an effort to educate us. Again she decides to waste her breath. “I knew it all along,” she says, stuffing wayward strands of hair behind her ear. “I said to meself that it would just be a waste of time to tell ye about the candle. But now at least ye can see why I can't go to bed even though I'm dead on me feet. If I goes to sleep and he dies, none of ye will place the lighted candle in his hand. I knows that as well as I'm standing here before ye.”

Danny's mouth drops open. He looks from me to Paddy to Greg. “What bloody foolishness is she going on with — ramming a flaming candle in Dad's hand!” He points to the kitchen ceiling, to Hubert lying in his room. “For the love of God, that man is so weak he couldn't hold a fart in his hand, much less a flaming candle. What's she trying to do, cremate him?” He darts each of us a challenging look. “Tell me I'm not hearing right. Tell me she hasn't turned into a lunatic.”

“Yer hearing right,” Philomena hotly confirms. “And I can tell ye meself that I'm no lunatic. And ye don't need to ask them whether I am one or not. I can speak fer meself. A lighted candle in yer father's hand. That's exactly what I said. And I'll make sure he gets one even if it takes the last breath out of me to do it.”

Greg cuts in quickly, partly to diffuse Danny's words. “Mom, that only disturbs the dying person. Besides that custom went out with Prince Albert tobacco. Hardly anyone does that anymore.”

“And you're getting as bad as that other fellow there. The Church's rituals are nothing but a bunch of foolishness to him. But I expected more of you.”

“I don't know what gives you...you've no right...you're dead wrong” Greg blusters, trying to navigate his way through a rebuttal that will contradict her comparison without affronting Danny.

Philomena tosses up her hands. She crosses the kitchen and pulls up a chair beside the stove and hauls her sweater tighter around her as another gust of wind rocks the house. “I'm goin' to sit here and warm me poor feet for a few minutes,” she announces, forestalling any more discussion. “And then I've got to get right back up there in case he goes faster than I think fer.”

She takes a look at the half-empty wood box beside her and closes the subject of the candle. “I swear to the Almighty we burnt a cord of wood today. I thinks the wood whips up the chimney whole, with jest a few sparks on it. I bet the roof is covered with junks of half-burnt spruce.”

Greg goes to the stove to wrestle another piece of wood into the fire and adds a shovel full of coal from a blackened bucket beside the wood box. When he sits back down, he reopens the subject of the candle.

“Like Danny said, Mom, Dad's not even Catholic.” His tone is calm, appeasing. “Besides, you must know it's not considered proper anymore to shove candles in a dying person's hand. Surely you must know that. Everyone knows that.”

Philomena, exhausted, wipes her hand across her forehead, wishing she could let Greg's remarks go by unchallenged. But she can't. “Don't take that high and mighty tone with me, me son. Don't tell me what I should know and shouldn't know and what is proper and what ent proper. Yer father's getting a blessed candle in his hand. And that's the end of that. Me mother got one. Me father got one. Even little Bridget got one. And the three of ye'll get one, too, if I'm still around when ye goes.” In the full awareness of his ignorance, her tone softens. “Don't ye know, me son, it brings peace to the dying person, that's why 'tis done. Surely ye knows that. 'Tis the last thing ye sees on this earth, a light pointing yer way to heaven. Ye must know that. You just
must
!”

She reads his answer in his blank stare. “Of course ye don't know. If it was something about a court case ye'd know. About getting some rowdy off the hook. Some Duckworth Street souse out of jail. Then ye'd have all the ins and outs at yer fingertips.”

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