The middle of the night, and I am lying in the emergency ward of the Ottawa Civic Hospital, a video monitor indicating my blood pressure and the speed and regularity of my heartbeat -- irregularity in this case. What I am experiencing has been quickly recognized as atrial fibrillation, an uncoordinated twitching in the upper chambers that causes the heart to move in a fast and uneven rhythm. Not life-threatening, I’m told, though if allowed to continue, it can lead to the formation of blood clots and the threat of a stroke, and as I lie here the medical staff administer various intravenous drugs in an attempt to stabilize the heart’s action.
I am sixty-five years old, mortal. My daughter Maggie, who sits in a chair at the foot of the bed, keeps me company. In the morning, the cardiac rhythm having been converted to what’s normal by electroshock, I will leave the hospital and pick up two companions for the drive back to Prince Edward Island.
At home in the big frame house in an Island village, Judy is asleep in our bed, knowing nothing of this. I have been in Ontario and Quebec for over a week, a meeting in Ottawa providing an excuse to visit family and old friends. Two days ago, I had lunch with John Metcalf in his wife Myrna’s lively restaurant, the Elgin Street Diner, and one of the things we talked about was John’s suggestion, made by letter a few months before, that I should write a memoir. His argument is that we have lived through a significant period in the story of Canadian writing, and that if we don’t put it down while we’re still here, it will all be lost.
The video monitor continues to inscribe jagged white lines, faster, slower, instead of the second-by-second ticking away of a normal heartbeat; the blood pressure cuff on my arm inflates and deflates and new values are recorded on the screen. Doctors have asked me questions, searching for a possible cause for this sudden agitation in the heart muscle. The only ones that sound likely are coffee and stress. For a week I’ve been moving from city to city, meeting with men and women I love, making connections to earlier lives, examining the chain of circumstance that is my life, and that has its own kind of urgency. Accosted by the past, face to face, perhaps I grow over-excited.
At the beginning of the trip, in Montreal, I had lunch with an old pal from university days, Bill Davis, who is now famous as the Cigarette Smoking Man from X-Files, and I watched him, tall and intense, but with that familiar wide smile, give a fine performance as Niels Bohr in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. He told me, with some annoyance, about a book on Canadian theatre which insisted there had been no summer theatre in Peterborough, Ontario, during the very years when he and I and Jackie Burroughs and Gordon Pinsent and Tiff Findley and many others were there doing it. History is whatever gets written down; John Metcalf’s point, I suppose.
The minutes of the slow night go by. From my dim corner, I can see one end of the nursing station, can observe some of the activities of the emergency ward. The doctor who is treating me -- his name, astonishingly, is Dr Heavens (‘Just sign this form and we’ll take you to the other side,’ they said before putting me in his care) -- appears to be in charge of most of the ward. He passes by in his white coat, a medical student trailing behind looking uncertain why he’s there or what he ought to do. Announcements are made on the public address system, one of them requesting the preparation of restraints. It’s late on Saturday night, well past closing time for the bars. A case of dementia, a man imprisoned in his nightmares. Various police and paramedics appear and vanish.
Life is distant and abstract, my own life, the lives of the strangers who are being treated here, the nurses and doctors who spend the night shift looking after them. No matter how thorough and kindly the doctor, each of us is one case among many. Tomorrow a whole new set of problems, tonight’s patients forgotten. In such a busy, populous world we are atomic, fragments of a vast whole. If I tell my story can I salvage a few memories, give my little span of years a certain permanence? A few sums before zero.
My irregular heart beats on. Jagged uneven lines. I haven’t had much sickness in my life, but I can recall, though dimly, pneumonia when I was four years old. We lived in an apartment in Hamilton, Ontario, where my father was working in a factory, and some neighbour gave me a jigsaw puzzle. Soup and Fish it was called. The image I see through sixty years of time is a cat about to snatch a goldfish from its bowl. I think there must have been more to the picture, invisible to me now, outside the lens of memory. The owners of the cat are seen in formal evening dress, wearing their ‘soup and fish’. My mother explained the metaphoric expression to me, and my interest in the odd turn of phrase is the reason the jigsaw stayed in my mind. I also remember a sense of physical distress from that illness, a feeling of oppression, as if one were struggling to rise but too much weighted down to do it.
Palpitations: that Victorian-sounding word is used by one of the medical people to describe what I’m going through. It was just after going to bed that I noticed the oddity in my pulse. The evening had been spent at the Saturday night dinner of the Writers’ Union annual gathering. I skipped most of the business sessions: meetings drive me mad. I was at the founding session in Ottawa thirty years ago, in 1973, at the peak of the excitement about new possibilities in Canadian writing and publishing, and I have felt some kind of loyalty to the organization, but many of those who were on hand in the early days have left the union or seldom attend meetings. Some -- Margaret Laurence, Marian Engel, Matt Cohen, Tiff Findley -- have died. Still, especially since I moved to Prince Edward Island, far from my old haunts, I sometimes turn up in the hope of running into friends and acquaintances. Tonight I was surrounded by familiar faces, old cronies.
‘I’ll see you in another ten years,’ one of them said to me as I was leaving that dining room at the National Arts Centre. Yes, it was probably that long since Catherine and I had met, sometime when I was living in Montreal. Catherine was once, in another time and place, my lover. Her glittering and marmoreal beauty prompted poems thirty and more years ago, back before the first of her three marriages. I can reread the poems and recall the past. She has a son starting university.
Marian Hebb, the Union’s lawyer, sat at the same table. Though she began to work for the Union only after it was up and going, we have known each other longer than most people in the room, and she is a reminder of the high spirits and idealism of the early days when every year a journalist from one of the Toronto papers would come to the meeting and report that the Union was about to fall apart over some contentious issue, but somehow it never did. I don’t think the meetings get in the papers any more.
And Maggie was there, my first-born child, eleven years old at the time of that first meeting, and now the mother of my granddaughter Simone. One of the earliest of the poems I’ve kept in print is about Maggie, not yet three as the poem says, on an autumn day in a deserted lakeside park in Kingston, everything being taken by the wind. Her second novel was recently bought by Chatto and Windus in England and Knopf in Canada, and I know she came to the meeting, in part, because she felt she ought to do the things that writers do, and in part to visit with me, since I wasn’t getting to Toronto on this trip.
On my right at dinner was Isabel Huggan, in Canada from her home in France for the launch of Belonging, her collection of memoirs. I published Isabel’s fine story, ‘Sorrows of the Flesh’ in the Oberon Best Stories collection in 1983, and excited by it and the previous stories of hers that I’d seen, I suggested to Oberon that she probably had a collection ready, and that led to the publication of The Elizabeth Stories, which, in its various editions, created for her a substantial reputation.
The last time we spoke was 1984, the year of the publication of that book. On that occasion too I was in Ottawa for a Writers’ Union meeting. Ken Adachi, who was covering the meeting in his capacity as book columnist for the Toronto Star and had recently written a highly favourable review of The Elizabeth Stories, was looking bored, and I proposed to him that we skip out for long enough to have lunch with Isabel if she was free. So I phoned her and we did that. Five years later, Ken Adachi, to my mind the most intelligent and literate book reviewer in the country, was accused of plagiarizing part of a column, was fired by the Toronto Star and committed suicide. How could that happen? I have only the tiniest, most meagre, unconvincing clues. The other world -- chaos, hopelessness -- is nearby, close as the other side of the coin. I might have died tonight.
Also at that big table was Hugh MacDonald, who drove up from PEI with me and is to drive back with me the next day. I have a firm arrangement to pick him up at eleven in the morning, and he is staying in one of the residences at Carleton University where he is inaccessible by telephone. As Maggie and I sit through the night, first waiting to see if the heart will convert to a regular rhythm, then waiting for an anaesthesiologist to be found so they can convert it by electroshock, we invent various complex and intricate plans for notifying him or getting the car to him, since Maggie doesn’t drive.
Finally, as the morning shift comes on, someone is found to administer the anaesthetic. I am shocked, converted, quickly come back to consciousness. My ECG is, they tell me, 100 percent, and so we walk out into daylight and take a cab back to Hull, where we’re both staying in my daughter Kate’s house while she and her family are away at a conference of art conservators on the west coast. Cleaned up, packed, the cat safely locked in the house, I drive to Carleton where Hugh is waiting for us, and after dropping Maggie at the train and picking up Joe Sherman, who’s been attending a meeting of the League of Canadian Poets, we set off east through Quebec, spending the night in a motel on the south shore of the St Lawrence.
At breakfast I’m delighted to learn a new French idiom, miroir for ‘sunny side up’. We roll past the odd rock formations near Kamouraska, bits of the Appalachian chain rearing up out of the alluvial flatlands, and on through the hills and forests of New Brunswick and across the long Confederation Bridge to the Island, and when I get back home in the evening, Judy throws her arms around me and says, ‘Did you do anything I wouldn’t do?’
‘Well,’ I say, ‘there was the night in hospital.’
The little island of red earth has become my home. Odd how these things come about, life we call it, decisions, accidents, you’re one place then another, you’re a sick child then a grandfather whose heart is acting up. Is it possible to say how it all happened?