[previous chapter] [start from the beginning] “I don’t know, Dad,” Nathalie hadn’t stopped crying since her father had called her at 8:15 that morning with the grim news. He’d called her half a dozen times since then, and it wasn’t lunch time yet. She knew she had to go to the residence to comfort her father but she had to arrange for her children to be taken care of, and this was proving difficult. Her own partner wasn’t in a position to leave work without warning. He was a cop who happened to be on exercise in northern Quebec that week. She’d emailed him with the news and he’d said he would find a way to come home early, but she told him not to bother since he was scheduled to be back the next day anyway. “It’s not worth the trouble, love,” she wrote him. “I’ll manage.”

Nathalie Toussignant had never been all that close to her mother, despite a fairly decent start 42 years ago. She was the cutest little thing you’d ever seen. Amanda had so wanted a girl. She’d been quite disappointed when Jean-François was born a few years earlier. She didn’t like baby boy clothes as much. In fact, she hadn’t really bought any, since she was convinced she was bearing a girl. Baby Jeff spent his first few months in frilly onesies until his dad put his foot down and went to the store by himself to fetch gender-appropriate attire. So when Nathalie came along, woo-hoo! Serious doll playtime. Baby Nathalie was never seen in public in anything but immaculate matching outfits. Amanda always took great care to maintain those outfits looking like new, for as long as possible. When Nathalie grew some hair, at about nine months, it made her mother so happy because she could finally use ribbons and clips and hair bands.

By that point, Jeff was a busy toddler boy who could get dirty just looking at pebbles, and his mother didn’t want to spend as much effort keeping him pretty-looking so there he romped in indifferently-matched hand-me-downs. Not that the kid cared. He would have gotten equally filthy in fancy clothes. So, Amanda figured, it wasn’t worth putting in the effort to make him look handsome.

But you know, it’s a funny thing. All this fuss and care and attention to Nathalie’s appearance kind of got lost somewhere because the memories Nathalie had of growing up weren’t quite this affectionate. For reasons that will become clearer later (at least, it will be clearer to her), while Nathalie was shocked by her mother’s death, she was uncomfortably aware that deep down she wasn’t really all that devastated.

“Did Jeff call you, Dad? I asked him to go see you today, to make sure you’re not alone. I’m getting Sylvie to look after the kids this afternoon and evening so I can come and be with you, but she can’t take them until four o’clock. I thought Jeff could take the day off pretty easily…”

Marcel had talked with his son a few times already but he was so confused and distraught, and Jeff had been so imprecise in his response to the news of his mother’s passing, that he wasn’t entirely sure what the gist of all those conversations had been. “I don’t know. I think so. There are people here looking after me. I’ll be fine.”

“OK, Dad. I’ll come as soon as I can.”

**** Jean-François Toussignant was not the kind to display strong emotions in public. When he arrived at Résidence des Érables, he went straight for his dad. His face looked like stone. And by that I mean that he looked like hell.

“Did you go see your mother?” his father asked. They’d already dispensed with the need to wish each other bonjour, seeing as it was, all things considered, a pretty rotten one.

“I’ll go later,” Jeff lied. Death was not something he wanted to get particularly close to if it could be avoided, and this one in particular he really didn’t want to see.

Jean-François gave his dad a hug, which he almost never did. In fact he couldn’t remember the last one. But that’s what you’re supposed to do when people die, right?

“I’m so sorry, Dad. Are you gonna be OK?”

He knew the answer to that one, and felt funny asking it. Of course he wasn’t going to be OK! His wife had just died! But Jean-François, who could be perfectly accurate and literate in his descriptions when he wrote his poems, had become singularly ill at ease when faced with the death of his mother and the necessary task of comforting his grieving father.

Death does funny things to people. But in this case it should be noted that the situation was somewhat different given that it had been Jeff himself who’d arranged for his mother’s demise and was planning a very similar scenario for his father. So as you can probably imagine, he wasn’t the most comforting person to have around just now.

“Here you go, Mr. Toussignant, I brought you some… Oh! I hadn’t seen you come in…” The poor nurse almost spilled Marcel’s tea, but managed to recover in time. “I’m sorry for your loss, sir,” she said to Jean-François, having no clue who this man was but assuming he must be a relative given the situation. She’d only been working at the residence for a week and a half; she still had to consult her list to remember which names went with which patients. I mean, residents. “Can I bring you something: tea, coffee, anything?”

“Thank you,” Jeff stammered, “I’m fine.”

“OK. If you change your mind, or if you need anything at all, please don’t hesitate to pull on the rope. We’re all so very sorry for what happened…”

She made a quick exit to hide her snuffling. She was still new in that career, having only worked with old folks for a few months at three previous residences, and she still felt bad whenever one died. She’d gone into nursing to help people, not to clean up after their demise so that a new resident could be promoted from the waiting list. If you call living in an old folks home a promotion. Many people actually did, believe it or not. These days the government expected them to have the room clean and ready for a new resident in 48 hours or less. There were so many old folks waiting in hospitals because they could no longer live at home and they didn’t have family members willing to take them in, it was imperative to ensure they could go to a proper facility, like La Résidence des Érables, as quickly as humanly possible. Which made it not very humanely, as you no doubt realize.

The state can sure be cold when it cares for you in your time of need. But for a great many old person, the cold state was still better - and, sadly, warmer - than an indifferent family.

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