“It’s beautiful,” I said, even though it wasn’t my style. It was cut glass and silver. Something a movie star might wear. Is this what my boy thought of me? I wondered as he fastened it around my neck. He called me Elizabeth Taylor and I laughed and laughed. I wore that necklace throughout the rest of the day. In spite of its garishness, I was surprised by how I felt: glamourous, special. I was out of my element amidst my kitchen cupboards and self-hemmed curtains. I almost believed in a version of myself that had long since faded away.
--From Natural Order by Brian Francis
Joyce Sparks has lived the whole of her 86 years in the small community of Balsden, Ontario. “There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find your own backyard,” her mother used to say, and Joyce has structured her life accordingly. Today, she occupies a bed in what she knows will be her final home, a shared room at Chestnut Park Nursing Home where she contemplates the bland streetscape through her window and tries not to be too gruff with the nurses.
This is not at all how Joyce expected her life to turn out. As a girl, she’d allowed herself to imagine a future of adventure in the arms of her friend Freddy Pender, whose chin bore a Kirk Douglas cleft and who danced the cha-cha divinely. Though troubled by the whispered assertions of her sister and friends that he was “fruity,” Joyce adored Freddy for all that was un-Balsden in his flamboyant ways. When Freddy led the homecoming parade down the main street , his expertly twirled baton and outrageous white suit gleaming in the sun, Joyce fell head over heels in unrequited love.
Years later, after Freddy had left Balsden for an acting career in New York, Joyce married Charlie, a kind and reserved man who could hardly be less like Freddy. They married with little fanfare and she bore one son, John. Though she did love Charlie, Joyce often caught herself thinking about Freddy, buying Hollywood gossip magazines in hopes of catching a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, she was growing increasingly alarmed about John’s preference for dolls and kitchen sets. She concealed the mounting signs that John was not a “normal” boy, even buying him a coveted doll if he promised to keep it a secret from Charlie.
News of Freddy finally arrived, and it was horrifying: he had killed himself, throwing himself into the sea from a cruise ship. “A mother always knows when something isn’t right with her son,” was Mrs. Pender’s steely utterance when Joyce paid her respects, cryptically alleging that Freddy’s homosexuality had led to his destruction. That night, Joyce threatened to take away John’s doll if he did not join the softball team. Convinced she had to protect John from himself, she set her small family on a narrow path bounded by secrecy and shame, which ultimately led to unimaginable loss.
Today, as her life ebbs away at Chestnut Park, Joyce ponders the terrible choices she made as a mother and wife and doubts that she can be forgiven, or that she deserves to be. Then a young nursing home volunteer named Timothy appears, so much like her long lost John. Might there be some grace ahead in Joyce’s life after all?
Voiced by an unforgettable and heartbreakingly flawed narrator, Natural Order is a masterpiece of empathy, a wry and tender depiction of the end-of-life remembrances and reconciliations that one might undertake when there is nothing more to lose, and no time to waste.
About the author
BRIAN FRANCIS is the author of two previous novels. His most recent, Natural Order, was selected by The Toronto Star, Kobo, and The Georgia Straight as a Best Book of the Year. His first novel, Fruit, was a Canada Reads finalist and was selected as one of Amazon and 49th Shelf’s “100 Canadian Books to Read in a Lifetime”. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: Natural Order (by (author) Brian Francis)
The buzzers keep me awake at night. That’s one thing that hasn’t gone—my hearing. Most everything else has faded. My taste. Vision. Even my voice, which comes out sounding like a scratch in the air.
The buzzers bleat in the hallway like robot sheep. We keep our strings close to us so they’re easy to reach and pull. Mine is attached to my purse. Before I go to bed, I always set my purse on my night table. During the day, when I’m in my room, I keep it on my bed. I always have it near. Sometimes, at night, when the sounds wake me, I’ll stare at my purse until I fall asleep again. It’s not a particularly nice purse. I don’t even think it’s real leather.
Most of the buzzers you hear aren’t for what you’d call real emergencies. Usually, someone needs an extra blanket. Or someone had a bad dream. More often than not, I think people pull the buzzer just to see how long it takes for someone to come to their room. I did that, the first few months after I came here. I’d pull the string and count the seconds, panic building.
17, 18, 19
What if I’d fallen out of bed? What if I was having a heart attack?
What if I’d broken my hip?
What if I was dead?
My name is on the wall outside my room next to a straw hat with a yellow ribbon and a couple of glued-on daisies. The hat reminds me of my sister, Helen, although it isn’t hers. The social coordinator had us make our own hats for a tea party last spring. I don’t know why someone decided to hang my hat outside the door. I didn’t do a nice job of it. I’ve never been good at crafts. I don’t have the patience.
Ruth Schueller is the name on the other side of the door. She’s my roommate. She doesn’t have a hat next to her name because she wasn’t at the home in the spring. Instead, there’s a black-and-white photograph beside Ruth’s name, taken during her younger years. I hardly recognize her. Frightening how much damage time does to a face. Ruth is eighty-two. I turned eighty-six in July.
Ruth snores something awful. Not at night, usually. But during her daytime naps, she makes the most horrific sounds. She’ll fall asleep in her wheelchair and her head will fl op down like a dead weight. That’s when the snoring starts. Some days, it’s so loud I can’t concentrate on the television, even when the volume is turned up all the way—which it usually is. I’ll have to throw the Yellow Pages at her. (Never at her head, although I’ve been tempted. Only at her feet.) Then I’ll watch her out of the corner of my eye as she tries to sort things out. What was that noise? Where did this Yellow Pages come from?
Last week, I wheeled into the bathroom and found my hairbrush on the back of the toilet tank. This bothered me because I always keep my brush next to the faucet. I wheeled out of the bathroom, carrying my brush like a miniature sword.
“RUTH, DID YOU TOUCH THIS?”
She blinked back at me like I was talking another language.
“IT’S NOT RIGHT!” I said. “YOU CAN’T DO THINGS LIKE THAT!”
I don’t know why they can’t give me a roommate who can talk. Ruth is the second mute person I’ve had in the past year. She replaced Margaret, who was also soft in the head. She’d sit in her chair, knuckle deep inside a nostril for most of the day.
“If you find an escape route up there, let me know,” I’d say to her. Then Margaret’s liver shut down and she turned bronze. She lay in her bed, day after day, while a string of family members I’d never seen before came in and out of our room. They stood at her bedside, joisted fingers over their bellies, looking down at Margaret and shaking their heads as though this was one of the greatest tragedies they’d ever witnessed.
It’s not nice having someone die in your room. I’ll say that much. I woke up in the middle of the night, the sheep bleating in the distance, and even though I couldn’t see her, I knew Margaret was gone. There was a stillness in the air, a cold pocket. I thought about reaching for my purse, but then wondered if it mattered. I didn’t want to deal with the commotion that would follow: the lights turning on, whispers, white sheets. So I lay there with my hands at my sides and said a short prayer for Margaret. Although she couldn’t talk, I could tell by her eyes that she’d been a good person. Kind. Gentle.
She hadn’t deserved her fate. After a while, I fell back asleep. One week later, Ruth moved in. She’d been living on the second floor where the other soft-headed people are, but her family wanted her on my floor, the fourth. Did they think she’d be more stimulated up here?
I suppose it could be worse. There’s Mae MacKenzie down the hall, trapped with that horrible Dorothy Dawson. Dorothy keeps the divider curtains shut so the room is cut in half. She even safety-pinned the flaps together. She means business.
“She trapped herself in once,” Mae told me. “Kept pawing her way around, trying to find the opening. It was the best entertainment I’ve had here yet.”
Dorothy doesn’t talk to anyone. Mae says she’s a bitter woman. There’s been some talk of a husband who had wandering hands. A daughter into drugs.
“Some people get a rough ride in life,” Mae said with a slow shake of her head.
I held my tongue.
The room that Ruth and I share is small, but big enough for two beds, two dressers and two wheelchairs, which I suppose is all the space that a couple of old ladies need. We’re on the south side of the building, so we don’t have the nice view of the lake. Instead, we face the street. I guess I can’t afford the lakeside setting. I’m guessing because I don’t know for certain. My niece, Marianne, handles my finances. She lives in Brampton. I call her once a month or so, but we don’t talk for more than five minutes. It always seems like someone is pulling on her arm. The last time I saw her was January. She showed up in my doorway wearing a dark brown blouse. She’d put on weight.
“Happy belated New Year, Aunt Joyce,” she said and sat down on the edge of my bed.
She looked like a bonbon left out on a hot day.
I shouldn’t be critical. That was Helen’s problem—always after Marianne and her son, Mark, to live up to some idea of perfection. Now look at them. Marianne is fat and divorced and Mark had a heart bypass two years ago. But I was grateful for Marianne’s company that day. I don’t have visitors, and living here makes you feel removed from the simplest things. I don’t remember the last time I went grocery shopping. Or to Sears. Or ate in a restaurant. Or visited the cemetery.
Sometimes, when I look around my room, I think, “This is the last place I’ll live.” When I go, they’ll be able to pack all my belongings in a cardboard box. I like to think I’m simplifying my life. Maybe it’s the other way around.
I’ve been here at Chestnut Park for six years. Marianne pressured me into it. I’d fallen in the bedroom in my senior’s apartment. I couldn’t be trusted on my own anymore.
“You’ve always taken care of others, Aunt Joyce,” she said to me. “Now it’s time to let people take care of you.”
I hadn’t taken care of anyone in my life. If anything, the opposite was true. But I was too tired and frightened to argue. My arm was stained with bruises and my ankle was swollen like a cantaloupe. I’d lain there, sprawled out between the bed and my dresser, for what seemed a lifetime. (They figured it was close to a day before the superintendent let himself in. Imagine my relief—and my shame when he found me on the floor, my legs wide open.)
I don’t remember much of the time in between. What I mean is, the time between my fall and the superintendent coming in. I was in and out of consciousness. I know I tried to reach for the telephone on the night table. And I remember seeing how dusty the floor was under my bed. Cobwebs everywhere. I was mortified. I wondered if these were the kinds of thoughts people had while they waited to die: the embarrassment of filth and the fear of discovery.
Mostly, I thought of my son.
There aren’t many bright spots in our days, but Hilda, the social coordinator, tries to keep us entertained. Every now and then, she brings in a children’s choir. Other times, there’s a tea social that only leaves us nostalgic for the lives we used to live. Once, Hilda brought in a dog. A black and brown beagle with a tail like a flagpole. I didn’t like the way it looked at me with its rheumy eyes and twitching snout. I refused to pet it.
“I didn’t know you were afraid of dogs,” Hilda said.
“I’m not,” I said. Then, because I knew that answer would likely lead to more questions, I said, “I’m not good with animals.”
I sit with three other people during meals: Irene, Henry and Jim. We don’t talk much. Mainly nudge and point to the things we need. Irene chews with her mouth open. Half the food tumbles out and down her bib and onto the table. It’s nauseating, and if I don’t keep my eyes down at all times, I lose my appetite. I told one of the nurses that I wanted to move to another table and she said she’d look into it, but I know that nothing will come of it. Nothing comes of anything in this place. The staff don’t listen to you. They bully you into taking your pills or making your poops or eating your food so that they can leave for home. I watch them tear across the parking lot towards their cars, a blur of uniform.
I do my best to finish my fish sticks, but they’re horrible. Soggy. The cooks bake them, which I know is healthier. But I’m eighty-six now. I’ll take my chances with trans fats. All around me, I hear the clatter of cutlery against plates and the occasional wet plop of something hitting the floor. Someone starts hacking (likely that woman from 405—she’s a smoker) and I think how sad that these are my final meals.
After lunch, I’m wheeled back to my room and positioned between the bed and the wall. I’ll usually try to nap in the afternoon as it helps to quicken the wait until dinner, but Ruth is already passed out in her chair. I press my eyes shut, willing myself to fall asleep before the snoring starts, but it’s a lost cause.
I look up to see Hilda coming into the room. She’s a tall woman, although everyone seems tall when you’re in a wheelchair. There’s a strand of chunky turquoise beads around her neck.
“How was lunch?” She sits down at the foot of my bed.
“Fine,” I say. “We had fish. Is it Friday?”
She nods. “Are you Catholic?”
“United,” I say.
“They have a service every Sunday downstairs.”
“Are you a religious woman?”
“Not particularly. But we’ll see what happens on my deathbed.”
“I have a new volunteer starting tonight. A young man. Do you mind if I send him to you?”
“What does he want?” Most of the volunteers are women.
“Nothing. He’s coming for conversation or errands or whatever you like.” She leans in and lowers her voice. “He goes by Timothy. Not Tim. He was quite firm about that.”
She waits for me to respond. I say nothing.
“A friend once told me that when a man goes by the long version of his name, chances are . . .” She laughs. “It’s nice, though, having a male volunteer for once.”
There are a handful of puffy women volunteers, running around before the bake sales or planting impatiens in the front garden, their eyeglass strings swaying this way and that. Well intentioned, I suppose, but intrusive. They make me uncomfortable when they come into my room, asking if my plants need watering or my pillows need fluffing or my water jug needs filling. No, no and no, I say, anxious for them to leave. I don’t need their short-breathed fussing. This is my room. I didn’t ask for their help, did I?
“Timothy will be coming in after dinner,” Hilda says, standing up from the bed. “Around seven.” She glances over at Ruth, who is now sucking back air like it’s food at a buffet.
“I think you’ll like him, Joyce.”
“The only thing I’d like . . .” I begin. Hilda leans towards me, waiting. She wants something from me. A surrender.
This will make her dogs and choirs worthwhile.
“The only thing I’d like is a nap,” I say.
For some reason, I never thought I’d spend my final years in Balsden, even though it’s the only place I’ve ever lived. I grew up on Shaw Street, and then spent my married life on Marian Street. After I sold the house, I moved into a seniors’ apartment building on Finch Avenue. Now I’m here. And while
Balsden is a small city of forty thousand, it’s only now that I realize how tiny my world has been. The four cornerstones of my life have been within a ten-minute drive of one another.
“There isn’t anything on earth you can’t find in your own backyard,” my mother used to say.
I remember as a girl standing on our back porch, contemplating the pine trees and the wire fence that circled the yard, the laundry poles and the ants whose grey-sugar castles sprang from the cracks in the concrete. I believed in these things and my mother’s words. Perhaps, in some ways, I still do. In other ways, I think they’re lies.
I was certain I’d end up in Andover, a much larger city, only forty minutes from Balsden via the double-lane highway or the old one with its winding single lane winding through towns and farmers’ fields. Life seemed better in Andover. People were cut from a different cloth. There was a university and a downtown park with a bandshell and a rink where people went skating in the winter. When we were young, my best friend, Fern, my older sister, Helen, and I would take the train to go shopping for back-to-school clothes. That seems so far back in the past, I question it. That’s the problem with getting old. Time bends and shifts. Memories spring up, uprooted. Sometimes, I’m not sure if my life happened the way I remember it, and there’s no one left to verify the facts. Fern moved to Andover after she sold her house. She had a cousin there and asked me to go with her.
“We’ll get an apartment,” she said. “Raise some hell.”
But I was grounded by fear, afraid that my money would run out in a larger, more expensive city. And I had to consider Helen. She’d been in and out of the hospital on account of her heart. When she died a year later, I reconsidered. There was nothing left for me in Balsden. I was alone. But then Fern was found dead one morning. And when her cousin called to tell me, I became aware of something I never thought possible: that solitude had another floor down.
No matter. Maybe I deserved it. No freedom for someone like me. No respite from guilt. Everything I ever did in life, I did wrong. Everything I touched, I destroyed.
I spend the rest of the afternoon trying to watch my soap opera. I wish I had a pair of earphones. Stupid Ruth. Oh, it doesn’t matter. My mind is fl uttering around like a distracted bird anyway. Timothy. Not Tim. I rub my hands, trying to loosen muscles that feel more like strips of jerky.
A while later, an attendant comes in with our afternoon snack. Today, I get two digestive cookies and a blood pressure pill.
“You’re looking well today, Mrs. Sparks,” I’m told. It’s the Filipina woman. I forget her name and I can’t read her badge. She’s just a wisp of a thing, a pink peppermint stick in her uniform. “How are you feeling?”
“My neck hurts,” I say, even though it’s no better or worse than usual. “My hands, too.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Filipina woman says, tipping the contents of the tiny white cup into my palm. She hands me a glass of apple juice with a straw bent like an elbow. I could’ve told her I was pregnant and she would’ve asked me if I wanted ice in my glass.
“Good, sharp, vivid writing.... When he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final sixty pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Natural Order is structurally complex, highly readable, and poses interesting questions about generational change and the divide between small-town and big city lifestyles. . . . Illuminating and moving.”
—Quill & Quire
“A remarkably honest and uniquely Canadian book. . . . and an emotional story skillfully drawn.”
—Fashion (Zoe Whittall)
“(Brian Francis’s) prose kept reminding me of Alice Munro, not only in its unfussy precision, but in its constant refusal of easy sentimentality. . . . Very affecting.”
—National Post (Scott MacDonald)
“Good, sharp, vivid writing . . . when he hits the emotional high notes, Francis never wavers. In fact, if you value your dignity, I implore you not to read the final 60 pages in a public place: You will cry, hard, probably more than once.”
—The Globe and Mail
“In this at once sad and uplifting story, Francis inhabits the mind of an elderly woman episodically remembering her life and coping with her son’s sexuality and early death. . . . The novel is smart enough to complicate Joyce’s dilemmas by addressing not just the constraints of small-town society in the ’50s and ’60s, but also the issues facing seniors today. In a quietly political gesture, Francis makes a compelling commentary on the way seniors are treated in our society.”
“Wonderful.... Francis nails every detail of a small-town mother’s love.”
—Kathleen Winter, author of Annabel
“Beautifully written, as affecting as it is convincing. At once funny, touching and fearless, the delicate strands woven between mothers and sons are powerful.”
—Anthony De Sa, author of Barnacle Love
“We need more books like this one: alive with a singular pulse, cheeky, honest, achingly tender. This book will syncopate your heart. Brian Francis reminds us to live, and love, bravely. I am still catching my breath.”
—Jessica Grant, author of Come, Thou Tortoise
“An extraordinary read. Francis is a master at creating vivid characters. Joyce Sparks is unforgettable. Her touching life story will leave you both hopeful and wiser.”
—Neil Smith, author of Bang Crunch
“In Natural Order, Brian Francis gets it all—the sharp, to-the-bone wit of people with no time left to waste, plus compassion for difficult characters who, out of love, misunderstanding and fear, have made each other’s lives harder to bear. A feat of humane literary empathy.”
—Joan Barfoot, author of Exit Lines
"Honest, tender and mesmerizing, Brian Francis' Natural Order is a must-read."
—Ami McKay, author of The Birth House
“I was much moved by Natural Order.... Here is a writer of quality, a storyteller with a deep sensitivity that challenges and enriches his readers."
—Wayson Choy, author of Not Yet