Creative Nonfiction: Sleepovers by Mark Foss

In our house trailer at the cottage, my father had fashioned a wooden guardrail for the top bunk that wobbled whenever you brushed against it. During sleepovers with an older friend, she had the wall and I took the outside edge. I can’t remember whether I was a gallant eight-year-old or if she insisted I take the risk.

My father was the risk taker in the family. When I helped him rip odd-sized boards through the table saw, he never wore goggles or a face mask. There was certainly no guard to protect against the blade, which poked through the table like the fin of a shark. Instead, he would squint, pursing his lips to ward off sawdust and flying debris. Normally he would talk while he worked, and I would listen silently, feigning interest. The screech of the blade passing through wood was next to unbearable, but it gave me a rest from his monologues. 

My job was to receive the board passively at the other end of the saw, keeping it level. But too often I did not pay enough attention. If the board lifted from the table, the blade would sink out of sight, jamming inside the guts of the wood. The engine would then whine and overheat. “It’s binding!” he would yell, as if I hadn’t noticed. With his fingers inches from the sunken blade, he would pry the two halves of the wood apart so the blade could start spinning freely again. Then he would pull the board out so he could get it reset. As I watched, I tensed my muscles, as if this could make up for my mistake and somehow protect him. 

Michka and I lay on the bottom half of her bunk beds in Paris, facing up to the emotional risks that accompany a new relationship. Three months before, I had interviewed her for an article about francophone artists from the Maghreb who settled in Quebec. A month later she came to see me in Ottawa. On that first encounter, she brought extra meds, intending to hide her tremors. Instead, in a gesture of trust I did not appreciate immediately, she shared her secret on our first evening together. Typically, she lied about her Sickness—a word I heard with a capital “S”—to protect herself from gossip. She rarely spoke the name out loud because she believed that gave it too much power. Even her neurologist in Paris guarded against divulging too much, lest the mention of future symptoms become self-fulfilling. Years later, after Michka reluctantly named the disease during a hospital triage, the nurse asked if she had any other illnesses. Isn’t this enough? she answered. Nothing says you can’t have more than one thing, the nurse said.

A month after she came to Ottawa, I went to Paris where she lived part-time. Her two-room apartment was on the ground floor in an alley not far from her ex-husband’s place. He was unhappy that she had left him and often tapped on her bedroom window unannounced. She put up with the intrusion because she did not want to antagonize him. As a Canadian citizen, she needed his French health card to see her neurologist and buy medication. When she decided we should stay at a boutique hotel to avoid her ex, I did not protest. I was beginning to understand how much the Sickness shaped all aspects of her life. 

Her bottom bunk allowed access from either side. A solid, custom-built ladder led to the top bunk, where she stored overflow from her life. With her Sickness, stairs or steps of any kind could be difficult, depending on the effect of her medications. Unlike Michka, who stood about five-four, I was tall enough to tip her overnight bag into my arms. There was no guardrail.

At the stairs to the Gambetta metro, I took her outer arm as she gripped the handrail. Was I also trembling? My father had once mused that life was difficult enough without marrying someone with a problem. Is that why I withdrew emotionally once we got to the hotel? I bought an early ticket home and then tore it up the next day. I wanted so much not to have feelings for her, but it was already too late.

My parents had a King-size mattress on a box spring. The bed was high enough from the floor that my mother broke her hip when she fell out of bed en route to the bathroom. She told my father to leave her on the carpet and go back to sleep. This was so like her. A doctor had once given her ten years before she died of myeloma, but it took her five years to tell us. After dozing for another hour, my father pushed the emergency button on his wrist. He had only used it once before, sending for an ambulance because of the itch on his back.   

My sister and I used our power of attorney to place my mother in a nursing home after she was discharged from the hospital. I had let my father believe her stay was temporary, while easing him toward the acceptance I feared would never come. On one visit to their house in town, I found him building a welcome back gift in the unfinished basement—a clothesline strung from the rafters for all her old dresses that had been stored in boxes. Maybe he thought he could turn back time. He had other plans as well that involved us retrieving the table saw from the cottage.

“You wouldn’t be able to work on your projects if Mom came back,” I said. “She needs round-the-clock care.”

“I could always tie her to a chair,” he said.

His words were so matter-of-fact they almost made sense. He also had an alternative to the safety rails and alarm on the bed in the nursing home. He would push their bedroom mattress at home against the wall and take the outside edge.

My mother lasted less than a year in the nursing home before contracting pneumonia. I brought my father to see her in the hospital without pretending she would ever leave. In the end, her heart failed when they moved her to change the sheets. 

Michka and I were living together in Ottawa by then, but she was working on a film in Paris, lamenting that all the important people in her life died while she was somewhere else. Three years later she broke this pattern with my father. He had been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and other symptoms that suggested cancer. He was ninety years old. I didn’t hesitate to turn down further tests. Michka and I were at his side in the nursing home when he slipped away quietly. It was so unlike him.

Our Queen-size mattress was so high that Michka had to launch herself into bed. At night, even if she managed to get off the bed safely, I worried about how she would navigate the alley between our mattress and the wall. Our room was so small that we hung Indian beads in place of a door. When we passed through, they would rattle like a snake.

I cannot recall precisely why we married in 2014 after living together for nearly eight years. Probably it was a test. If I wasn’t willing to marry her, she said once, then I must love her less than I did my first wife. Her words had been defiant rather than tearful, born from the resilience of surviving an abusive childhood. She always said I could drown in a glass of water. Maybe we married so I could soak up her courage.

In the summer of 2017, Michka was admitted to hospital in Montreal. A pneumonia-like chest infection was drowning her from the inside, a complication from having broken two ribs in a fall a month before. She also had signs of myeloma. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, her body refused three attempts at a biopsy, as if determined to prove she could not have more than one thing. 

Early on, when I still hoped she would recover and come home, I woke up on the guest couch and saw her on the floor. I called the nurse, who helped her to the bathroom. He apologized for not putting up the safety rails. But then, I hadn’t pushed the bed against the wall and taken the outside edge. She had not broken any bones or even cut herself from the fall, probably because she wasn’t fully conscious. I’ve heard that when you don’t brace for what’s coming it doesn’t hurt as much.

Mark Foss (he/him/his) s the author of two novels and a collection of short stories. His words have also appeared in Star 82 Review, Hobart, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. He is also the co-editor of The Book of Judith (New Village Press, 2022), an homage to the life of poet, writer, and teaching artist Judith Tannenbaum and her impact on incarcerated and marginalized students. He writes from Montreal, but you can visit at www.markfoss.ca.

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