It cannot not keep going on like this, I said this to myself every week as I filled the car up with gas on my way back home. I had been making that five hour trip from Toronto to Ottawa, every week or so for two years but the last few weeks had been the worst. Tempers were short. Nerves frayed. He almost went down for the count several times, a priest would be called and we’d all hop in the car and drive down to say good-bye. The last crisis had him hiccuping for ten days straight and they didn’t let up. It was excruciating to watch his diminished body be wracked with paroxysms. After he was admitted to hospital the priest was called and then he rallied, again and again and again.

          In the movies, death beds look noble. People make their peace and say some loving things to their friends and family. But in real life people linger. And the ones sitting vigil get exhausted and become upset at the wrong things. 

    At least that was the way it was with my family. There were seven people. A dad that was long dead. A mother very much alive with her six kids. I was the oldest. At the end of my brother’s life we were stuck in a room making small talk, asking each other inane questions like why did Starbucks make their coffee so bitter. And what about the price of hospital parking. Can you believe how they ding you? I’m going to write to somebody

We expanded our hatred to the hospital system, the Church, and people who brought us casseroles. We can’t eat one more President’s Choice lasagna. How much money is that guy from President’s Choice making from people with cancer? During one of our visits we spent over an hour trying to figure out President Choice’s lasagna profit margins. There are 20 people on this wing of the hospital.  There are four wings to a floor and there are 18 floors in this hospital so if only fifty percent of these people buy only one lasagna per household during a two-year illness well that is…. a lot of lasagna. Give me your phone, I need to use your calculator. 

           We were always in the process of telling somebody off. We should sue. By the time we bitched about something for a couple of hours we would have lost our head of steam and end up doing nothing.

           The hose in gas tank clicked. I paid and I drove away from the gas station I realized this visit was the worst yet. By the time I left I felt like my skin had been gone over with a wire brush. I could barely keep my eyes open

           I should’ve stopped to rest but at the halfway point between the hospital and my home in Toronto I decided to take a detour through the count. This was a beautiful part of Southern Ontario, full of rolling fields and home to the well-known Sandbanks Provincial Park.

          I had always found sitting by Lake Ontario comforting. It was the place to ponder the deeper things of life and on this cold bright winter day it did not disappoint me. 

             As I gazed out at the water with my dog Gus tucked inside my coat; my breath and the heaving ice breaking up beneath the surface were only two sounds I could hear.

             Two years prior, I’d been standing next to the same lake, on another beach west of here teaching a writing class. It had been a glorious September day, the sun was hot, and the water was like grey glass so smooth you could’ve skated across it. I was wrapped in my mile-long wisdom multi-coloured scarf women my age buy after the age of fifty. The kind of scarf that covers the neck waddle and pulls focus away from the winged arms and disappearing eyebrows and comes with an instruction video on how to tie it. The scarf that is worn by women like me, at art gallery openings and in the lobbies of matinees at the theatre. A scarf that is supposed to liven up our pasty gray pallor in a unique way but is so ubiquitous it is more like a neon sign on a broken-down Motel on the Vegas strip. I don’t think that men leave us because we are old. They leave us because of the scarf: for they too are in decline, their fingers arthritic and their patience nil. They just don’t want someone they have to unwrap. 

My students are gathered around me. I had just taught a lesson that a good story begins when you hear the word “Suddenly.” I got the idea from a play I saw many years ago, at night, in a time when I could stay awake past seven. The play was called Lots of Suddenlies, with the premise being that all good stories have a lot of suddenlies. I loved that idea and so I stole it using it as a teaching point for my writing classes. I told the writers that when they heard the word “suddenly” they knew something big was about to happen. That one could be going along having a perfectly normal day when suddenly a boat floats to shore with a man calling for help. Suddenly, pirates take over the beach. Suddenly, God burps and creates a new universe.

As they went off in all directions to put a suddenly into their story, I breathed in and thought how blessed I was to get to do this class. How lucky I am to be in this beautiful location, teaching what I love to do. And all those years of trying to understand my craft, that my work had paid off so I could finally own the things I knew. I knew how to break down the creative process, and meet each student where they were at and with a series of prompts and right brain exercises show them how to access their stories. Then suddenly, my phone started pinging. Ping. Ping. One text after another from my brother Vernon. I looked down, and it said, “Call me!” Exclamation point. “Are you there?” Question mark. “Are YOU there?” Two question marks. “CALL ME.” All caps! Finally he just called, and it was news about my brother Kevin. “They got the results of the biopsy back, and it’s not good.” Kevin, third in the birth order. Kevin. One of my three brothers. Kevin – the healthiest one of the bunch – had been diagnosed with a Stage 4 glioblastoma. I hung up, and numbers rolled around in my head like a Bingo machine. Did Vernon say there was a seven percent chance of survival? Or a 97 percent chance he’d live if he made it past a year? My body divides in two. The brain is doing math, but my mouth carries on with the class. Yes, I continued with the class.

I was on fire. Inspiration poured out of me.“When a suddenly hits people, they are asked to go on a journey they hadn’t planned. And they will likely fight it, deny it, bargain with it, and maybe accept it.”

             The five stages of Suddenly. Yes, I came up with that idea right at that moment. Apparently impending tragedy grants me diamond-sharp clarity. By day’s end, I was like I’d been a participant at a Tony Robbins revival. I could’ve walked barefoot on fire and not got burnt. 

The day ended with final hugs and gratitude from my students.  I thanked the woman who hosted the day-long workshop, gathered up my stuff, and hurried to the car because I had to call people -someone-anyone of my friends could help.. But before I could decide who to tell, Simon, a student who had taken every one of my classes and had written ten thousand words about his cat, knocked on my car window. 

“Can I buy a ride back to the subway?” 

“Yes, Simon, hop in.” If Simon was in the car, I couldn’t tell anyone the bad news. If I didn’t say the bad news out loud, I couldn’t cry, and if I wasn’t crying then suddenly it wouldn’t be true.

You can never trust the weather regarding ‘a suddenly’. A good suddenly can happen on a rainy day, and a bad one can happen on a sunny day. And the sudden is always a surprise. No matter how much you think you are ready for it, it comes as a shock. That is what we were talking about: death. It was not one of those tumors. Not a ‘my second cousin twice-removed had a tumour and drank sheep urine and got it cut out and now she’s fine’ tumours. Kevin, the good Catholic who never windowshopped for God, had a glioblastoma tumor. A GB tumor is aggressive. It doesn’t care about your spiritual credentials. It’s as if your landlord has given you notice and developers are moving in and tearing your building down, and you can beg and plead and say you’ve been a good tenant, but that tumor doesn’t care. The wrecking ball was coming. Kevin had less than a year to live.

 But it wasn’t a year, was it? It had been over two.

 Two years later I was standing by that same lake, a little further east. It was now December and despite the fact temperatures were low the bright sun had forced me to take off my coat, my face red with sun and wind burn. After an hour of sitting on the shore I felt almost human again. I got back in the car and began meandering down the provincial road to get to the main highway, cranking George Jones’ “The Race is On,”Since I was a little girl, I had loved country music – my secret obsession was to be like Loretta Lynn, or Tanya Tucker. Charley Pride. Oh, how I loved Charley Pride. If only I could sing.

 I pulled up to the stop sign just outside town, and I was so busy thinking of country music, I accidentally let my foot off the brake and hit the car in front of me. I was sure it was only a light tap, but before I knew it a nice woman got out of her vehicle and said she better call her husband and then there was a cop pulling up and at this point I was still thinking that I hadn’t done anything wrong. At this point, I thought we were just three women who had each other’s backs in a sisters of the traveling pants sort of way. But then the woman in the dinged car drove off and I was told to stay behind because the cop said she has to charge me. “I hate to have to do this but what can I do?” You could let me off. That’s what you could do.  But because I was completely exhausted, running on empty and I just wanted to get home I ended up apologizing to the cop for making her day harder. Apologizing as she issued me a $400-ticket that also said I had lost six points. “Don’t worry you can take it to court and fight it.” Or you could just not give me the ticket in the first place you silly twat

I pulled back on the highway, thinking this day couldn’t get much worse. But I was wrong. There is no quota on garbage things that can happen to one person in one day.

About an hour outside of Toronto, I realized I had missed my pit stop and needed to pee. It was rush hour and the westbound traffic had slowed down to a crawl. I inched along, ten kilometers an hour trying to remember how to do kegels. I was having a hard time holding on. I looked at my dog Gus, sitting next to me in the car. He’d be absorbent. But no. No.

I began reciting repeatedly in my head, I’m not going to pee my pants. I am not going to pee my pants. My bladder will not defeat me. I have survived divorce, a premature baby, teenagers. I can do this. I can control my bladder. 

I yelled at my smartphone, “Siri! Where is the nearest coffee shop?!”

“Sorry, I do not understand.” Of course not. 

In the rear-view mirror I saw a turkey roasting pan in the back seat. It was still there from Thanksgiving but as I put my arm over the seat trying to slap at the way a mother tries to get her kids to quit squirming,I couldn’t reach it. 

“Siri, throw the roasting pan into the front.” 

Siri shot back, “I do not understand. ” 

Would it not be a useful skill set if Siri could throw me the items I needed? Now that would be a smartphone. 

My exit was 500 meters ahead.

I gripped the steering wheel and I slowly edged onto the off-ramp. There was a Harvey’s Hamburgers sign flashing up ahead and with clenched buttocks, and teeth. I sang their theme song: It’s a beautiful thing. I was going to make it. Nope. Nope. I am not going to make it.

Traffic wouldn’t allow me to get even close to the hamburger joint, so I was forced to pull over on a side street. I covered myself with my coat, then pulled down my pants and placed the turkey pan in its proper place underneath my haunches. 

There was a slow, gentle rain. Oh, a soft, heavenly, Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah” kind of rain. It was the worst and best thing all at once. 

Then suddenly, a horrible thing happened. The angle of my dangle wasn’t quite right. When I was younger, I was like an assault rifle. Now, I was like a sawed-off shotgun. It was spraying everywhere. I was going to have to detail my car.

Eventually, when I got back to my apartment, I called my friend and told her of my day. And she said, “Next time…”

“Next time?” I cut her off. “ There isn’t going to be a ‘next time.’” Did she think I was going to make a habit of peeing my pants?

“Next time, fold up a diaper and put it in the glove compartment.”

“I think you are missing the point. Everything is just going so wrong.”

To which she replied, “What do you think the universe is trying to teach you?”

My first thought was to say, “To not call you.”

I’d been running back and forth from Toronto to Ottawa for two years, trying to be a good sister, trying to wring out every drop of meaning from our relationship all the time knowing the whole thing was a losing proposition and how did I get rewarded. I lost six points and wet my pants?  So, no,I don’t think the universe is teaching me a God-damn thing.

My eyes were exhausted from trying to see the future. I climbed into bed and slept for two days.