More and more every day I find myself drawn into the puzzle of her speech, determined to unravel meaning in each sentence, because now I’m sure it’s there, if I only listen to her in a way I have failed to listen for thirty years. – From Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt
After thirty years of marriage, producing three now-grown children, Mike and Anna have settled into entrenched domesticity. She is skillful and poised and still beautiful, an instructor of English at the city college. He is a successful graphic artist on the verge of retirement, his awards and ambitions and accomplishments largely behind him. Though the couple’s erotic life has dimmed somewhat, he still considers her ravishing.
But their apparent balance is thrown asunder when Anna breaks the normal silence of their breakfast table with uncontrollable babble about hummingbirds. After an emergency consultation with a neurologist, they have a diagnosis: confabulation, or the scrambling of time, memories and language due to a dangerous aneurysm in Anna’s brain that could burst at any moment.
Not knowing how much time they have left with the beloved Anna, Mike and the kids rally together to support her through the terror of her disintegrating mind. But the unbearable strain of the situation is worsened by another worry that is haunting Mike: he suspects that his two eldest children, Charlotte and Fred, know of his past infidelity.
Several years ago, Anna and Mike took a trip to Egypt, hoping the shared adventure would thwart their mid-life marriage blues. Instead, the trip deepened the chasm, his sexual jealousy and insecurities swamping her attempts at intimacy. Their estrangement worsened when they returned home to discover that their youngest daughter, Sasha, was in hospital, having overdosed on drugs. Anna was furious with Mike for his cool response at the time, which she interpreted as unfeeling.
Two weeks later Mike began his affair, with a much younger woman dissimilar to Anna in all respects. He persisted in the romance for three years, feeling young and vital and once again in control, at least for a time.
The affair is long over but today, as Anna disappears into a terrifying collapse of time and language, Mike is wracked by his dilemma: should he keep his silence about the affair and spare his family more pain, or should he seize the opportunity to be wholly honest with the woman he loves, possibly in the last days of her life? Perhaps the answer lies in his drawings, the means of communication with which he is most comfortable. Can he codify his emotions into pictures? Can he articulate his love and regret and sorrow to his wife – and to himself – without having to say the heart-rending words out loud?
Narrated by a terrified male protagonist whose deep yearning for forgiveness might only be granted by a woman in the grips of dementia, Tessa McWatt’s Vital Signs is a thought-provoking and mesmerizing literary accomplishment – a compassionate and visceral study of a marriage at the brink of catastrophe.
About the authors
Tessa McWatt is an acclaimed author whose work includes novels for adults and young people. Her fiction has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the City of Toronto Book Awards and the OCM Bocas Prize. Most recently, she published the novel Higher Ed and co-edited Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada with Rabindranath Maharj and Dionne Brand. She is the author of the forthcoming Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging, an analysis of the race debate from a personal perspective. She is also a librettist and professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Where Are You, Agnes? is her first picture book.
Excerpt: Vital Signs (by (author) Tessa McWatt; illustrated by Aleksandar Macasev)
It has come to me like a dog comes to its master: tail curled between hind legs, wet muzzle nudging to be forgiven for its very existence. This thought has come: I am not worthy of her.
Anna is wearing an electrode cap. Eighteen ultrasensitive electrodes are listening to her brain, translating the signals of the synapses to numerical pulp for Dr. Mead’s diagnosis. He stands before a terminal and monitors the tiny shocks of meaning. He ticks off boxes on a chart. I am slain by the look on Anna’s face that says that this is how we end up, this is how the rakes of decades gather the scatterings of a single being: poorly.
“The hummingbird is nursing,” Anna says, and Dr. Mead nods, taking more notes. When he asks her how many children she has, her answer is, “Thirty-four,” and I try to decipher if she means three or four, perhaps counting the one that she miscarried after Fred, but I think this is reaching on my part. She has said thirty-four.
Dr. Mead makes more markings on his chart. When he finally releases Anna from the grips of the machinery, his face is sombre.
“If you see the receptionist, she’ll line you up with a few appointments.”
“What kind of appointments?” I ask.
“A range of different tests. I deal with the neuropsychology of these kinds of speech patterns, but . . .” He hesitates.
“I’m going to refer her. We’ll send you some details. If you take a seat for a moment, Theresa will come and get you.”
Dr. Mead is the type of man who can smell rain approaching.
Afterwards, in a café on Bloor Street, Anna’s hands tremble with a will to order, as if to hold a sentence in them and lay it out flat along a plane of reason. This is not impossible, but she doesn’t know that. Instead she picks up her glass of lemonade and drinks.
“Cold eating child,” she says and grimaces, knowing from the expression on my face that it didn’t come out right. I nod and doodle on my napkin with the marker I use when reaching for an image, and so I draw a figure of a child on a seesaw. I know she means that the lemonade reminds her of something in her childhood, and I smile to try to reassure her that I’ve understood. Lemonade is her favourite refreshment, and she likes hers sweetened with the darkest of demerara sugars. I sip my beer, knowing that she won’t challenge me over this early drink for fear that nonsense will spew forth from her mouth. These little advantages I now take, and my vileness bounds over fields, ears and leash flapping in spring breeze.
The drive up Highway 400 toward home is filled with a silent hum of regret, but I believe it’s only mine. Anna seems calm, staring out at the sprawling commercial complexes that make all of this area between the downtown we have just left and our farmhouse an hour away seem like part of the same, flabby city that cannot seem to contain itself.
A shoulder bone. It was the empty curve that did it—her blondeness and the bones, nothing more, I swear.
“Did you call Sasha back?” I ask. Our youngest is the one who makes her laugh the most. Sasha’s mere presence is like a promise that the universe has balance.
“No,” she says, and shakes her head, but smiles at her daughter’s name.
I wish that I had access to a sketch pad and my pen. I vow to carry them with me from here on in. There is an obvious sign for Sasha—for the poise with which she stirs the air, on stage and off. Sasha is our wind whistling in trees. I step on the accelerator, signal and pass the slow truck in front of us.
The other two are more problematic, graphically speaking. Fred, the eldest—more like my father than even his name suggests—would be something that evokes a job never quite finished or a race perpetually run. There’s a glitch in his stride. Whatever it is he’s running toward, his efforts seem more like duty than fulfilment. Charlotte, middle child and the most difficult, is the one I know the least but suspect I am most like. She is selfish and proud, like a statue, but she too has a contour I must work out. I’ve done this secretly in my time—fangled signs for everyone I know. I wonder, if Anna loses all her linguistic abilities, whether this kind of expression might be a way forward or, rather, a way back—to small, quiet moments of clarity between us. But I would have to work faster than I ever have before.
In my years as a partner in the design firm, I had the leisure of being my own boss¸ and knowing that good design took time. How I enjoyed the slowness of creating shapes, even when computer programmes took over. For there is still deliberation in digital imagery. The manipulation of individual pixels is not dissimilar to the slow, exact marking of pen on paper. Eventually, though, the business ran faster than I could, and so I sold my share of the company and went freelance. Then I had to work harder to make a living, and as I worked, my family morphed into fat, vacant shadows. Lately, the work has slowed, so most of my time is now my own. In six short years I turn sixty-five (am I really only a blink away from the pasture?) and I will stop altogether. And then what?
I had envisioned us travelling. For years Anna and I denied ourselves, saved for all the eventualities that have indeed arrived, and invested everything in our children. Even so, Fred—have I unconsciously pressured him into being more successful than I was?—has a medical degree that is of little use in solving the malfunction in his mother’s wiring.
“An aneurysm,” Fred said, flatly, in the composed tone all doctors learn in their final years of study. “She has an aneurysm,” he repeated, as though he had diagnosed her himself, ignoring the fact that Dr. Mead had already explained the condition using the same word. But then Fred is not a neurologist. I put my foot down at financing advanced degrees for any of them, so Fred is a general practitioner, and bitter, I sense, that he isn’t better able to help his mother now.
Still, expert or not, Fred has reaffirmed what in all likelihood is happening to Anna: a strained and seeping aneurysm in the anterior communicating artery. It’s possible that the arterial wall has always been defective, but at some moment in the last few months, blood started to drip into her frontal lobes. It’s that moment I wish I could return to, to catch her, to stand stalwart against the leak—or at least to crawl inside her now and press my hands against that arterial wall to shore it up against further damage.
There, behind the office building, she whispered that I didn’t need to be afraid.
“Sweet keys of sun in the dusk of the toaster,” Anna said one morning at breakfast. I looked up at her, briefly, but made nothing of it, distracted as I was with the morning paper. The day continued quietly as we went about our routines, and other things she said didn’t cause concern. But in the afternoon, as she came in from the garden and wiped her shoes on the mat, she said, without looking up,
“Fissures on the hummingbird’s feet.” Although I reasoned with myself that she might be puzzling something out, I felt a quiet alarm. “Turn up the jet trails; there are steam engines and poor magpies; useless to try to do anything about them,” she blurted out that evening, as she sat at the table while I took the roast chicken out of the oven.
I looked up then, feeling the heat through my oven mitts. She put her hand over her mouth.
“What was that?” I asked. She shook her head and we sat down to a silent dinner. I thought she was angry with me, but when I asked her she smiled to reassure me.
Anna and I have always been comfortable with silence. The first time I acknowledged it to myself was one long afternoon, nearly thirty years ago, in my Clinton Street apartment. We had exhausted ourselves with each other, drinking one another’s breath, my hands and tongue probing the curves and crevices of her olive skin, my own body a starved, chalky spade digging, digging to be nearer to her until we lay still. On rising, we spent the rest of the day contentedly washing, reading, cooking— all without speaking.
When Sasha left home two years ago, we greeted the return of our solitude and its silences with some relief. It wasn’t unusual for us not to speak for long periods, and it was no different that day when Anna first uttered her involuntary riddles. She had gone to bed before me, slept soundly and risen silently to make breakfast for us both. But the dusk on the toaster, the fissures on the hummingbirds, and the poor magpies could not go unexamined.
“How are you feeling today, Anna?” Dr. Mead asked her on our first visit. The same question had been asked by our family doctor a few days earlier. Upon hearing Anna’s answer, he had made an emergency call to Toronto Western’s neurology unit.
“I’m fine, I’m fine, the tortoises have lain and are crawling slowly and singing the song for six trees that run through the garden, and we could have dinner on the lawn, but Mike has brought the car and if the teeth are cleaned then we all . . .” she paused, looking, I believe, at the astonishment on Dr. Mead’s face, and then turned towards me.
Everything went quiet. Dr. Mead reached for his ophthalmoscope; I looked into my lap, guiltily. Anna held her breath as though to cut off oxygen to the nonsense. Or rather, I thought it was nonsense at the time. More and more every day I find myself drawn into the puzzle of her speech, determined to unravel meaning in each sentence, because now I’m sure it’s there, if I only listen to her in a way I have failed to listen for thirty years.
According to Dr. Mead, what Anna has been doing, and continues to do with increasing intensity, is to compress all of her life moments into one when she speaks. Confabulation, he has told me, stems from a problem of self-definition in time. When she’s with me or the children she seems less scattered about the decades, but what I hear when she’s with Dr. Mead is language scrambled in a time machine. “What’s your name?” Dr. Mead asked her on our first visit. “Me? I’m Anna Tractor, of course,” and then she looked at me, wanting me to confirm that she hadn’t ever taken my name—she was not that kind of woman—and that she was indeed Anna who went by her maiden name. But that name is not Tractor.
Anna’s first name is really Aygül. Aygül—the rose of the moon, in Turkish. It became Anna somewhere along the journey as a baby from Istanbul to Toronto in the 1950s. She grew up as Anna Yilmaz in a row house in the west end of the city, near High Park, and was raised like many immigrant children to be obedient, grateful, humble. Anna told me when we first met that Yilmaz means “never give up.” This moon rose is nothing if not unyielding. She is a vibrant, eccentric and intelligent woman. She has nothing in common with a tractor. Undoubtedly the light of my life, she is, of course, the curse of it as well, because there have been many days over the last three decades when I believed that without her and the drone of married life and fatherhood I might have lived something magical. I know all the clichés of my “coulda been a contender” regret, but most days I sense that she was my last brilliant choice. Since then I have made choices that have diminished who I was meant to be and what I was meant to have.
Now I must count on Dr. Mead to perform magic: mend the tear in her brain and give my wife back to me, whole, linear, complete. But he is a theory man, not a surgeon, and confabulation is a tricky foe. From a Stayner library book called Brain Fiction, I know that confabulators have problems with context. While they appear to have a grasp on their autobiography, it’s a slippery one, like a driver’s control of a car on a snowy highway. Memories drift, swerve, and can skid into a pileup.
When Charlotte was fifteen and we let her go out to a movie with that boy who had teeth too big for his lips,“No!” I said to the teeth and the boy. “Gentle,” you said to the fifteen-year-old in me who had not known how to treat a girl. When she came home I hugged her, and asked if she’d enjoyed the movie. You— you arranged her nightclothes on her bed in an order that was like a sign I could not decipher, a configuration that said, from now on, she would sleep differently.
A Globe and Mail Best Book
“McWatt has a deft touch with evocative language.”
—The Georgia Straight
“McWatt has a stirring ability to echo the pull of tides and the tremors of the earth within the human body.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Part love story, part forensic examination of the psyche, Tessa McWatt digs deep into what makes us human in this disturbing portrait of family life.”
—Camilla Gibb, author of The Beauty of Humanity Movement
"A work of literature, criticism and philosophy all at once: A formidable intellectual hat trick. At the same time McWatt tells a sincere and simple tale, that...we wish would never end."