I’d never seen a man dig a grave in golf shoes before.
But there uncle Bertrand was, in our backyard, planting the spade deeper with his white leather cleats. After a few stabs into the clay, he removed his polo shirt and really went to work.
Uncle Richard, the brains of the operation, stood next to him in his beige slacks, nodding at the progress. Patrice, the enforcer, paced about on his cellphone, presumably negotiating a better price on some paving contract.
Sylvain stood at a distance, trying (unsuccessfully) to wrangle his dog Izzie. Sylvain, the wild card, the oldest and most fierce of my uncles. Roaming. Always roaming.
The younger three had been out golfing that morning and decided it would be a good day to bury their parents: sunny and warm but with a breeze coming off the lake. It was also a rare instance where all five siblings were in Quebec at the same time. My mother, the glue, happened to be at the house helping me paint our spare room.
Neither of us was dressed for a burial but at least we still had our shirts on.
One year ago, my grandfather Arthur died in the home I now live in with Marie-Pier and our daughter Wednesday. He lived here with Sylvain because his eldest son has schizophrenia. Now his remains sit in an urn, next to his wife’s ashes, buried on a hill that overlooks the lake.
I couldn’t help but think maybe this was the last time we’d all be together; the uncles rambling around outside, mom keeping everything together, aunt Janet stealing away with the baby and dad, the peacemaker, scrounging for snacks in the fridge.
A month earlier we had a proper memorial service for the grandparents. It was a warm, rainy day by the water. His 27 great grandchildren played on a bouncy castle we greased with so much dish soap it sent them flying into the neighbour’s hedges. I did edibles with Janet and assorted cousins I won’t incriminate in these pages.
Wednesday was still nestled in her mother’s amniotic fluid. She’ll be three months old on Christmas.
Maybe these morbid feelings were just leftovers from a psychedelic funeral. But it also dawned on me that as my child’s world grows with every moment, Sylvain’s recedes.
Arthur moved in with my uncle after grand-mère Jacqueline died eight years ago.
They took care of each other, Sylvain maintaining a perfect lawn and garden, Arthur reheating boxes of frozen Chinese food and trafficking contraband tobacco by the crate just for the hell of it. Outlaws with arthritis.
Towards the end, Sylvain carried his father out of the bath and into bed every night. And until his last day on this earth, Arthur played chess against his eldest son after each meal, sipping burnt coffee between drags of his cigarette. They exchanged moves and countermoves, queens and clergymen over slices of pie. The crust would inevitably wind up in Izzie’s stomach.
They spoke in fragments, a few words about the coming winter mixed in with exclamations of “Oui monsieur!” Sylvain’s catchphrase.
When Arthur died, I moved in and took over where he left off. Most days, I feel inadequate but we get by. It’s been harder since Wednesday was born.
Two months ago, she was just flesh and feces. Now Wednesday’s developing the traits that will form her personality. Every day she sees farther, her muscles grow stronger, she coos and furrows her brow at the new sounds that come from her mouth. Lately, the spark of recognition flashes in her eyes when she sees one of us. Oui monsieur!
When I see my uncle, that same spark seems to burn less bright.
The pauses between his thoughts are longer but when he picks up on the awkwardness he’ll just smile and exclaim, “The most magical life, oui monsieur!” or “Beautiful Marie-Pier, oui monsieur!” It’s a cunning trick, to hide the confusion behind lovely words. I fall for it more often than I care to admit. We all do. It’s easier that way.
No doubt he learned this tactic from my grand-mère, who would mask her Alzheimer’s disease with weaponized kindness. Her dying words, spoken to my brother, were as follows: “We must say nice things.”
As Sylvain gets older, it’s not as easy for him to trick us. Or maybe we can’t justify allowing ourselves to be tricked anymore.
My grandmother, while w'e’re on the subject, was the kind of person who kept a mental list of the folks she needed to pray for — the children of Afghanistan, the mailman’s ailing wife, cousin Andrew and his broken nose. Oui Monsieur.
Schizophrenia is all-consuming.
Thoughts break off from each other like a beer bottle hurled against the pavement. If you stand over the shattered glass and foam, you can make out what it once was. But over time the brew dries, the shards dissipate and it all returns to dust.
That process is faster when someone refuses treatment.
He gets by on muscle memory. Sylvain isn’t medicated but he’s drilled survival mechanisms into himself. He keeps his car keys on a necklace made of shoelace, he repurposes clothes to avoid shopping and drives under the speed limit, when he does drive, which is rare.
Perhaps most importantly, he keeps his world small.
To the south, there is the firepit, the canoe, cousin Etienne, his partner Amélie, their four beautiful children and the bay. When we were kids, it felt like an ocean teeming with monsters ready to eat our toes if we tipped the canoe or didn’t finish our vegetables.
To the north, he takes Izzie for walks in a maple forest overlooking the highway. It smells like melted snow and sap boiling over an iron stove, in the spring. But when syrup season is over, the manure thaws and geese flock to the empty cornfields below, shouting obscenities into the sky at dusk. It smells and sounds like home. I can’t wait for Wednesday to experience it.
Two kilometres west, the gas station doubles as a minimart that sells Coaticook ice cream by the gallon. There are also geese waddling across from the parking lot during in the fall and spring.
The eastern border of my uncle’s kingdom is a narrow patch of road that leads to his brothers Richard and Patrice’s homes and, on a good day, to my older brother Vincent’s house.
Whenever Vince brings the kids to Sylvain’s, they fight over who gets to play chess with him.
Until recently, my uncle had little use for a doctor because he’s in such tremendous shape and Arthur, a physician who had no qualms about treating family, kept watch over him. But with Arthur gone, Syl’s age is starting to show.
My mother found him lying on our old couch in the basement on Saturday, writhing in pain.
His knee was the size of a volleyball and it appeared to be covered in dry blood. Luckily, the red substance was actually barbecue sauce. As he often does, Sylvain had tried to cook up a home remedy but this time it wouldn’t work. He smelled delicious though.
Out my own failures as a nephew and housemate, my mother picked up the pieces and did the impossible — she got Sylvain to a doctor.
Our uncle has rheumatoid arthritis in his knee and he’s struggling with a particularly nasty case of gout. When you eat enough tubs of pistachio ice cream for supper, urate crystals accumulate in your joints and I’m told the pain is unbearable.
One summer, when Sylvain gave me $40 to bail hay with him, I saw him take a grappling hook to the bridge of his nose. It bled like an open faucet but he just took off his shirt, sopped up the mess and kept on bailing.
Christ, just four months ago, when I felled a tree onto our house by accident, Sylvain climbed the oak with a Stihl saw between his teeth and carved it into firewood. At least that’s how I chose to remember it.
The mayor of our village likes to say, of the Lefebvres, that we’re “people who get up in the morning.” For the first time in the 36 years I’ve known him, Sylvain can’t live up to his reputation. Sylvain — who taught me how to use a chainsaw and start a fire, who built stone walls with his hands and invited strangers to punch him in the stomach — is showing signs of age.
I can still hear him cackling from a gut punch. His abdomen was like woven armour. It still is.
But this morning, when I helped him up the stairs, I heard him wince in pain for the first time. He may be a Lefebvre but he’s human just like the rest of us.
So my mind drifts back to the day we buried my grandparents.
Bertrand quickly gave up on the shovel and switched to a pickaxe. By now, Patrice had closed the deal or maybe just hung up as a negotiating tactic. You cannot out bargain that man. Richard looked satisfied with the turn of events and my mother made a note of where the hole was.
Years ago, they had buried grand-mère’s ashes in the garden. When they tried to unearth them, years later, they forgot exactly where the hole was. I would have paid good money to be there that afternoon, watching the uncles curse each other out as Sylvain shouted for Izzie to come back.
They placed their parents’ urns in a wooden chest and lowered it into the grave — which is exactly 15 paces from the tree that dangles over the heart-shaped garden, right next to the spot we park our tractor in the summer.
Somewhere beyond Etienne’s shed, near the dying tree that bends into the water, lies another grave. This is where Sylvain buried Benji after he was hit by a car on Route 344. My mom took us to see him the next morning. His hands were still caked in dirt.
Benji may have been Sylvain’s only sane dog. He was not long for this world.
With any luck, this is where my uncle gets to live out the rest of his days. Surrounded by three nieces and nephews, nine of their children and the assorted wildlife one finds on the eastern edge of Mohawk territory. I forgot to mention my cousin Natasha is moving onto the property. (Welcome, Natasha, there may be a dog skeleton or (more likely) dog skeletons in your backyard. We apologize.)
With any luck, we’ll be digging his grave as our children watch and laugh at us trying to find Arthur and Jacqueline’s remains. Izzie, by then, will have learned to come when we call her. Wishful thinking.
I don’t know how these things end but for the first time I’m forced to seriously contemplate it. I’m grateful Wednesday has felt the warmth of her great uncle’s calloused hands, grateful Marie-Pier got to lose to him at chess and grateful my friends always take the time to ask how old Syl’s been.
But he isn’t dead yet and we owe it to him not to speak of Sylvain in the past tense. People do that when you struggle with mental illness.
I write these words from inside Sylvain’s house, awaiting his return from a hospital visit with my mom. Izzie wandered off but got bored and now she’s snoring in the spare room.
The place feels empty without Sylvain. Oui monsieur.
I’d just like to take a moment to thank my mom and dad, aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins and everyone who cares so much about Sylvain. His life is still full of laughter and though he isn’t feeling well these days, I know we’ll get through this as a family. With any luck, he’ll by skating the on the lake when it’s good and frozen.
I’d also like to say thanks to our subscriber Mike Carpini, who was the only one of Sylvain’s old friends to stop by and pay his respects after Arthur died. He brought along a bottle of handmade vodka and a case of Coors Light so we’d all have something to drink by the fire.
“People say Sylvain doesn’t talk much but, you know me, I can talk for hours all on my own,” Mike said over the crackling flames. I’ll always be grateful for that visit, Mike.
Thank you for memorializing a special guy and reminding us that he is still very much our Sylvain and still around to enjoy his company.
C'est vraiment touchant. Bravo Chris.