Authors: Douglas Coupland
Afterward Lois decided that we should all celebrate the birth, and through some sick contortion of fate, she chose the restaurant at the top of Grouse Mountain, only a snowball's throw away from where my daughter had been conceived. "Has it really been just nine months?" I asked my mother in hushed tones as the gondola lilted over the center tower, my first time up the mountain since the previous December.
"It feels like nine years."
"Can you believe it?" I asked. I looked at the small lights that were our houses below. "It is wonderful, isn't it? It's going to be such fun," my mom said.
We surveyed Cleveland Dam and the cool black reservoir behind it. Once more I searched for our house amid the seine of amber twinklings below. Mom asked me quietly so that the others couldn't hear, "Do you ever miss Karen, Richard?" "Yeah. Always."
"I thought so. Oh, look, there's our house."
A tinny squawk on the PA system informed us we were set to berth at the top station. Once inside the restaurant, the high altitude and a glass of contraband white wine made me muzzy. At dinner I felt more like a fertility totem than a father; my role as father seemed a mere footnote. The baby was toasted, but I was not; to have made too big a deal of
would also be making too big a deal of unspoken issues such as teenage sex and illegitimacy.
Dad asked, "Has anybody thought about names yet?"
I blurted out, "Megan. I mean, I think Megan's a good name."
Lois looked at me, smiled, and said, "Yes, I think Megan is a perfect name," then she gave me the first genuinely warm smile I'd everhad from her. Later, when she'd gone to the ladies' room, George told us, "We had a miscarriage about ten years ago. It was a girl. Lois had already decided on Megan. Did you know that, Richard?" "No. The name came to me in a ... dream last night." Best not to mention the word "vision."
"Well, it's a happy coincidence. A beautiful Welsh name it is. A toast!" And so our daughter became Megan Karen McNeil.
The first few months with Megan flew by for me, but not for Lois, who endured almost continuous crying, shrieking, wailing, and bawling without, to her credit, any complaint. Mom said that Megan must have come as a godsend to a decidedly anal woman with not much else to do other than collect owl knickknacks and play unchallenging mind games with her bichon frise.
Sperm donor though I was, I was also a proud papa, though limited in my ways to express this pride. I resisted the impulse to tout her doubtlessly infinite wonderfulness until we had completed at least a one-year embargo on "the news."
Every so often Lois wheeled Megan up to our house, where Megan gurgled, plopped, squelched, and shrieked like any baby. Thus my own mother was able to experience the flush of grandmotherhood dauntingly early and always seemed a tad relieved when Megan's stroller was wheeled away.
That September I enrolled in a business program at Capilano College, still muddybrained about Megan and Karen and glad to have a productive way to occupy my waking hours. Our adult lives, good or bad, chugged ahead full-steam. No more traipsing through wilderness whenever we wanted. No classes to cut. Instead, there was rent, utilities, and taxes. Adolescent wishes of jobs in Hawaii or becoming a professional ski bum were replaced by newer, glossier pictures of giddy unregulated sex and adventurous metropolitan living. Wendy, to nobody's surprise, was intent on becoming a doctor, and off she went across town to the University of British Columbia. Pam continued hermodeling work. Linus wanted to mess around with sparks, gases, and liquids, and he did this at the University of Toronto. Hamilton and I were the ones without goals. "Imagine you're a forty-year-old, Richard," Hamilton said to me around this time, while working as a salesman at a Radio Shack in Lynn Valley, "and suddenly somebody comes up to you saying, 'Hi, I'd like you to meet Kevin. Kevin is eighteen and will be making all of your career decisions for you.'
be flipped out. Wouldn't you? But that's what life is all about some eighteen-year-old kid making your big decisions for you that stick for a lifetime." He shuddered.
Shortly before Christmas, the five of us we were dressed for rainy day hiking and exploring around the train tracks above Eagle Harbour. Track-walking was an activity we all enjoyed, as it combined the thrill of law-breaking with the beauty of the natural ocean views around us. An added bonus was the possible pulp-fiction thrill of finding a corpse hidden in the bordering shrubs.
Our feet crunched on the stones beneath the trestles. Linus was dawdling, discussing creosote molecules with Wendy. Hamilton barked orders for them to hurry: "Come on, kids, Pammie wore flats instead of heels for today. We don't want to make her regret that choice." We were about to walk through a two-mile-long tunnel; the prospect was always seductively frightening, even with nine-volt flashlights. Once inside the tunnel, the silence roared; I've sometimes wondered why silence seems so loud. About a mile inside, Hamilton said, "Stop and turn out your lights," and we did. We stood and inhaled the darkness. Our only light source became a Bic lighter held by Pam, at which point Hamilton said, "One, two, three . . .
kids." Instantly, the four of them semi-circled around me, arms folded, lopsided stances with pursed lips betraying frostiness indeed. Only Wendy looked tentative; she'd known all along.
"Okay, pops," said Pam, "What's going on? You could have told
at least. We're pissed at you. Richard . . .
Hamilton said, "Don't try to weasel out of this one, Dickie."
Even Linus was in on the anger: "We, uh, saw the kid, Richard.Megan, I mean. We ran into Lois at Park Royal. It was just so obvious. Unless you've been fooling around with Lois, that is, which I doubt. So what happened?"
I was caught. Fair enough. "Okay,
So I'll fess up,
it's Karen's and my kid."
("We knew it, we knew it!")
"Megan's birthday's September second Karen's birthday, too. She's fully normal, but Karen's the same. She didn't wake up or anything during the birth. She probably never will."
The five of us breathing sounded as though we were in a bathyscaphe thousands of feet beneath the ocean surface, looking for those jewels Karen had once thrown from the ocean liner's deck. I sighed then the truth just coughed out of me like a bubble jellyfishing upward from the deep sea, flattened by extreme pressures, but becoming larger and more full as it nears the surface. I'd been worrying so much about the press and about not wanting Karen to be a freak show. And the family had its own way of trying me: Lois's bossiness and George's lack of interest in Megan. The relief for me was great, as though I had been choking and then Heimlich'ed up a drumstick. My chest relaxed; my muscles slackened. To be able to discuss what I felt for Karen and Megan to people who would listen. My friends didn't speak until I was finished.
"You know, Megan looks so much like you it's scary, Richard," said Pam. "She's you in a wig."
"As if I don't know."
"She's cute," said Pam. "I held her. Linus did, too."
"Yeah," said Linus. "She's sweet. I think I nearly dropped her. She spewed chuck all over my calculator, my TI-55 - I'm very sentimental about that machine." We were all sitting on the rails. Hamilton lit a cigarette. He said, "Well, let's have a bit of pity on her. Fancy having Richard's face and Lois as a substitute mother. Life
I wanted to make amends: Godparents?
"Does that mean diapers?" asked Hamilton, scrunching his face. I replied, "Yes, Hamilton, it does. Acres and acres of shit. It's the deal." We sat and talked a bit, just our five voices surrounded byblack. There was a quiet patch. Then Linus leaned down, stuck his ear to the track, and whispered,
There was no way we could run to the entrance; the five of us hit the ground and rolled into the stony ditches on either side, willing ourselves to shrink. Within seconds, a Pacific Great Western train exploded above in an H-bomb roar - 108 freight cars loaded with plywood supernova'ed up above us inside the granite walls. The train radiated intermittent light from which I was able to see directly in front of my nose, pressed to the ground, an empty wine bottle, a six-year-old yellowed newspaper, a sock, and a balled-up Huggies diaper. These objects flashed briefly and vanished like fleeting shivers of shame that are soon forgotten, never again to see the light of day. It felt strange to see these castaway things deep inside the Earth, never to return to the surface.
The train passed above us for five minutes. What if we were to die right there? What had our lives been? What had our ambitions been? What had we been seeking? Money? No - none of us seemed financially motivated. Happiness? We were so young that we didn't even know what unhappiness could be. Freedom? Perhaps. An overriding principle of our lives then was that infinite freedom creates a society of unique, fascinating individuals. Failure at this would mean failure of our societal duty. We were young; obviously we wanted meaning from life. I felt a craving for duty, but to what?
Meanwhile, the creosote on the railway ties stank and burned my nose, and my elbow rested in dirt. Small tornadoes of litter scraped my face and I closed my eyes. I tried to curl up and close my body to protect myself from the train's roar - the noise of the center of the Earth.
Dreams have no negative. This is to say that if, during the day, you think about how much you
want to visit Mexico, your dreams at night will promptly take you to Mexico City. Your body will ignore the "no" and only pay attention to the main subject. I think we thought daily of avoiding tribulations - and of avoiding loss.
The train passed. Our ears throbbed with the silence. We stood up and somberly walked out to the tunnel's entrance and into the rain.We climbed into Linus's van and drove over to see Megan. I hoped Lois would be gracious and permit four new godparents to share in Megan's adoration.
Linus asked, "Three months old - does she speak yet?"
"No, goofball," said Hamilton, "she's too busy generating random numbers to speak." I nodded. "I
hate to say this, but poor little Megan really is going to grow up to resemble me wearing a Bumhead wig."
"I didn't know you and Karen were, uh,
said Hamilton. "I mean, if you were, it was one heckuva secret."
"Go figure," I said, then we drove off, everybody yacking and except for me catching up on life. I was remembering Karen saying,
"Are we gonna do it or what?"
Remembering the delicate birds and butterflies and flowers that passed between our bodies. I was remembering her determination that last day that she was awake. Would she have been like that always? Or had she known time was running out? Was she trying to squish as much into a day as she could?
That month I had read a science fiction story,
In it, the children of Earth conglomerate to form a master race that dreams together, that collectively moves planets. This made me wonder, what if the children of Earth instead fragmented, checked out, had their dreams erased and became vacant? What if instead of unity there was atomization and amnesia and comas? This was the picture posited by Karen: She saw something in her mind - in between the smaller bikini and the itty-bitty bits of Valium, in between putting on a down coat or a ski boot one cold winter day, or maybe turning a TV channel or rounding a corner in her Honda. She saw a picture, however fragmentary, that told her that tomorrow was not a place she wanted to visit - that the future is not a place in which to be. This is what haunted me - the thought that maybe she was right.
9 Even More Real Than You
Half a year after giving birth to Megan, Karen was moved permanently to a room of her own in a local nursing home then called Inglewood Lodge. On her bedside table sat moisturizers, costume jewelry, a wooden hair brush, Kleenex in a pink ruffled box, birthday cards rigorously kept up to date, framed family photos, stuffed animals (one Garfield cat, two teddy bears, one polar bear), books for visitors
The Best of Life
- plus a dieffenbachia vine that eventually colonized the entire room. Her radio was frequently left on for hours at a time. Karen's "day" would technically begin near midnight when her body would be turned over by lifting her up from her "intermittent pressure" anti-bedsore mattress. At this same time, her garments would be inspected to see if they required changing. Karen would be rolled over two more times between midnight and 6:00 A.M.; as well, her mouth would be brushed with a soft toothbrush then swabbed with a flavored sponge; Vaseline would be applied to her lips.
Twice a week in the morning Karen would have a proper bath, during which time she would have "range of motion" exercises shoulder, arm, extensors, abductors, and all joints flexed by a nurse's aide. On other days she had sponge baths and motion exercises.
During Karen's awake cycles, food from inside a suspended bag would be gravity-fed into her stomach through a J-tube (jiugiostomy tube) that was permanently attached to a valve near her belly button.
After being clothed in special front-only garments, Karen would be placed into a geriatric wheelchair with a buttocks pad and a device to hold her head up straight. She would attend all breakfasts, lunches, and dinners held at the lodge, as well as special events such as films and birthday parties and even a church service that was usually, but not always, held on Sunday. In between meals Karen sat in her chair in her room, and her position was frequently moved by staff.
Karen was atypical in that she had few of the normal afflictions of the comatose: pneumonias, bowel obstructions from lack of fiber, urinary tract infections, blood clots in the legs, seizures, ruptured stomach, skin breakdowns, and skin infections from lack of blood circulation.
With Karen there was no "plug to pull," as the common expression goes. There were only degrees of heroics through which the family would be willing to go through in order to hang on to life. An example of this might be antibiotics to help with pneumonia. George wanted full heroics, but Lois refused to have an opinion on the issue. Many parents of coma patients divorce after years of anguish, selfrecrimination, lawyers, social workers, family meetings, doctors, nurses, and bills. George and Lois remained together.
"Comas are rare phenomena," Linus told me once. "They're a byproduct of modern living, with almost no known coma patients existing prior to World War Two. People simply died. Comas are as modern as polyester, jet travel, and microchips."In the years since the incident, Karen had withered and shrunk to skin and bones, and her body appeared more like a yellow leather hide stretched over bone drums. To an outsider, Karen could seem awfully gruesome. Her hair had thinned and had begun graying by age twenty-three. She was breathing without a respirator and her almost inaudible air intake was the only evidence of life-force. Sturdy splints and rods were in place to keep her body from contracting fetally into itself, yet the one medical oddity about her case was that instead of "going fetal," as her leg braces anticipated, she remained supple and relaxed. Not a few research doctors and students from UBC had come to study Karen in her permanently relaxed state.