Authors: Christopher Canniff
Tags: #Fiction, #downsyndrome, #family, #abortion, #drama, #truth, #General Fiction
Abundance of the Infinite
Copyright Â© Christopher Canniff and Quattro Books Inc., 2012
The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise stored in an electronic retrieval system without the prior consent (as applicable) of the individual author or the designer, is an infringement of the copyright law.
The publication of
Abundance of the Infinite
has been generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.
Cover design: Sean Poling
Editor: Luciano Iacobelli
Typography: Grey Wolf Typography
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Abundance of the infinite / Christopher Canniff.
Issued also in a print format.
PS8605.A574A78 2012 C813'.6 C2012-903892-X
Published by Quattro Books Inc.
382 College Street
Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1S8
What is man â¦ Doesn't he lack power just when he needs it most? Whether he is uplifted by joy or engulfed by suffering, is he not stopped in both conditions and brought back to dull, cold consciousness just when he is ready to lose himself in the abundance of the infinite?
Yelena and her doctor had terrible news. The ultrasound and the blood test done at eleven weeks had revealed both Down syndrome and a possible heart defect in the fetus. More conclusive testing could be done, but the results were fairly certain. Atypical cell division in either the sperm or the egg meant this was either my fault or hers, our individual culpability impossible to discern. The child, a girl, would have some degree of mental retardation, the possibility of childhood leukemia, and the possibility of abnormalities in the immune and gastrointestinal systems, dementia, and seizures. She would develop a flattened face, a small head and a short neck. A team of professionals would be required, among them a pediatric cardiologist, a developmental pediatrician, physical and occupational therapists and neurologists. All of this, as explained by the doctor and through subsequent research, for a child which, with Yelena over forty years old and both of us only one year into our marriage, was unplanned. Yelena declared that she might want the pregnancy terminated as her doctor has encouraged her to do.
This announcement came on the same day that my mother called to inform me of what should have been, by comparison, the almost inconsequential news that my father, who I had not seen since I was a child, has died of cancer in Ecuadorâa pronouncement that made me feel more of a sense of loss than I should have, and more than I imagined I was capable of feeling for this man who I have not seen in decades, who abandoned me from an early age and who left my mother early on in their marriage before the onset of her constant drinking, for reasons largely unknown to my mother and, by extension, myself.
“Giving a child up for adoption is easy,” I explain one evening during a candle-lit dinner of
confit de canard
, roasted potatoes with garlic, and dark Pommard wineâa wine Yelena drank, but as I do not drink, I never touch, a wine smelling fruity and floral and, she says, tasting of minerals that are heady on the tongue. I have no experience with adoption and therefore have no justification to make my claim. Additionally, I could never imagine myself giving my child away to anyone. But still, I am of the opinion that I need to convince her of its veracity in order to see our child born into the world.
She looks down and shakes her head sullenly. “I will become too attached,” she say
s in her characteristically slow and strained, but still forceful, Russian-inflected English. Lowering her fork onto her plate, she adds: “I will not be able to just hand it over to a stranger when it's born.”
“That doesn't make any sense,” I reply, without explaining the
the announcement she had made earlier. “Let yourself be attached to it.”
At that moment, I realize that the last sentence she spoke was uttered with an odd, even slightly vigorous conviction.
I plead further but she will not listen, choosing instead to rationalize and justify, finishing her wine and then rolling the dark stained cork around on the table as she alludes to the mediocre and inferior life the child will have, and the burden the child will place upon us for the duration of our lives. She speaks of the special schools in which the child will need to be enrolled, and the ongoing cost of institutions once the child becomes an adult. She feels pressured by her doctor to decide now, in order to avoid medical risks that he said will be associated with a late termination.
“But still,” Yelena says, perhaps sensing the desperation in my facial expressions and in my voice, despite my attempts at concealing my apprehension, and perhaps because of my earlier assertion that I want to attend my father's burial in Ecuador, “whatever my doctor says, maybe I can hold off the decision for a short time.”
Although she has given me reason not to trust her beforeâgoing after another man she met at her library job after agreeing to marry me, returning the engagement ring and then coming back when the other man leftâthis time is different. There was a certain tone of maternal defiance in her voice when she declared how she would not give her child to a stranger at an adoption agency; and, if she would not, then it could be extrapolated that she would not provide the fetus to a doctor whose intent was prenatal homicide, especially when she had promised her husband to postpone any such resolution. And as my consolation has always been to run, to escape from inexorable circumstances and to thereby flee the source of my own obsessive thoughts, my anxiety, my panic attacks and tormenting dreams, attending my father's burial in Ecuador seems not only logical but rational. I additionally conclude that if I am not here, she cannot convince me of anything other than that to which we have already agreed.
I stand before the sprawling office window of my clinical psychology practice at dusk, high above the Toronto city streets. The noises of buses and car tires resound on the street below. A news truck is parked nearby. The coppery image on an adjacent building's mirrored glass oscillates between reflections of melting ice and the unsteady wavering of skaters whose blades will soon turn to wheels crushing the discarded flower petals of spring. The lake a hundred metres away is flecked with ice, moving steadily on: white-grey corpuscles of static water parading beneath the nylon flapping of a Canadian flag.
As I see these images beneath the sky's pink and blue-grey hues of sunset, I think of the way Yelena kissed me for the last time in the back of a taxicab, the windows rolled down as I brought her home after our final dinner together, consumed at our favourite restaurant nestled between narrow buildings in a brick back alley in Little Italy. She kissed me forcibly, abruptly, with an artful passion somehow obscure in meaning. The baby seemed to be all we talked about when we were together, but on that night we had no such discussions, and the touch of her moist lips, the smell of jasmine and patchouli oil on her skin, and the brisk evening air all seemed to exude consent at the conferred recognition that the time we would spend apart was not only necessary, but would be somehow beneficial.
“Do not stay away long,” Yelena said into my ear, softly, abruptly adding after a time: “Love cannot last in a void.” The tinge of her voice was foreboding, at the same time formal, as though she was at a wedding, reading from a variation on First Corinthians at a church podium. She continued speaking, if not in actuality, at least in my remembrance of that moment: “Love can never perpetuate in absence, except in our unreliable memories, memories that capture short spans of time and later distort them.”
Memories of her expressions, facial features and physical touches in those instants, I knew, would remain with me intact. I can still feel her ghostly fingers wrapped around mine, their curvature and moisture still retained in my mind. I expected her to say goodbye, but instead, our hands locked in a sweaty and tired embrace, she said that she missed me already.
Before leaving, she made a gesture that startled and surprised me. The gestureâa simple motion of her hand away from mine, minutes before she stepped toward the front door of our house, which was, for now, temporarily hersâseemed perhaps her way of alleviating any indebtedness she felt toward the promise she had made.
I stay in my office for a few days, referring any patients who call to a colleague, my own therapist named Richard with whom I maintain contact, all the time contemplating whether I should return to the house and ask Yelena if the motion of her hand in the cab was, in fact, a release from her obligation to me. But then, I finally conclude that she would think me obsessing again, such a statement being the manifestation of days of worthless fixation on a meaningless action, Richard having convinced me that she would be right. And so I go nowhere, gathering a few of my belongings together into a backpack and stopping frequently to watch the street below.
My separation from Yelena and our unborn child, and the news of my father who I should have by all means forgotten, smells of Bombay Gin, imbibed by a man who professes not to drink, and chana masala, butter chicken and tapas, spiced olives, spicy potatoes, garlic shrimp and ham croquettes, all consumed as I watch dull depictions of random architecture and wandering Toronto crowds seeming like sad people living workaday lives.
I try not to think about Yelena, our unborn daughter I had tentatively named Annabelle, my father's neglect, or about love, regret, or indebtedness as I purchase a ticket to return to Manta, a small coastal fishing town in Ecuador.
I visited my father in Manta a few times when I was a child, in the place he lived for almost forty years before his death. I have only been to Ecuador and briefly to Spain. I've always had the longing to move out into the world so I could travel and see more of what different cultures and histories and natural environments have to offer. But apart from Spain, because of my lifelong desire to see that country, I've simply never known where else I should go. I sit down and write a letter to Yelena, a letter detailing how long I will stay, a month, perhaps two, and the reason why, so she can have the time to contemplate the irrationality of wanting an end to our daughter's life.
Richard encourages me to go, with the caveat that I keep a dream journal and a daily account of my life while I am away. I tell him I will.
Yelena calls the next day, after receiving my letter, angrily telling me not to go without giving a reason, as if we had never previously discussed my impending departure, calling my decision to leave both foolish and irresponsible. She leaves me incensed messages on my answering machine when I am out, or when I let the phone ring. When I do not return her calls for several days, the anger in her messages gradually turns to irritation, mild annoyance, and then finally to acceptance. She sends me a letter urging me to go and I finally pick up the phone. Many of our last conversations are at three or four o'clock in the morning, when her calls awaken me from a tumultuous slumber. Saying she cannot sleep either, she begins repeating some of the same advice I have given her over the past years I have known her, given before she went on trips to Europe where she met various friends and cousins, aunts and uncles. As I was doling out that largely pragmatic adviceânot only where to visit based upon my research into these areas, but also what she might expect based upon who she would be seeing, and how she could open herself up to the benefit of that experience (whether the gain was through suffering or through joy)âI thought she wasn't listening. But I suppose now that I was wrong.
In a recurring nightmare I have over the next few days, the type that, as a psychologist, I understand is due to my repeatedly missing the unconscious meaning of the dream, Yelena stands in a closet. I can't see her, but I know she is there. There is nothing more I can ever recall about this dream, even when I make the conscious choice before I fall asleep to remember all of its details.
When I awaken, sitting up, sweating, hyperventilating and struggling to catch my breath, I have an image of the closed closet door, and the remembrance that she was inside. She is not claustrophobic, so it is not a dream about her fear, although it is rooted in my own. The dream has no direct literal meaning. Freud tells me this may be an allusion to her life; not what it is to her, but what my subconscious mind perceives of it. She is closeted in. Trapped. But dreams, once dissected, often have the opposite meaning. Yelena is predictably linked, in my waking life, to my fear for Annabelle's life. I may have projected my own feelings onto Yelena and, in so doing, may be the one who is trapped inside that closet because of my regret over leaving her and Annabelle behind. Still, despite this apparent understanding, my subconscious will not let these visions and their associated thoughts go, and I continue to experience this dream.
I think of how ridiculous and devious my subconscious mind is. My dreamsâwhile often a source of pain, once analyzed, and a stream of never-ending absurdity while engulfed in themâhave always, especially now, been preferable to the futility and derisiveness of what encompasses and overwhelms my subconscious thoughts by day.
I sit drinking another contemptible Bombay Gin and tonic alone in my office, unable to sleep, looking out over the city streets at night with the sounds of reveling below. Certain that any attempt at sleep will result in the same recurring nightmare with accompanying thoughts of Yelena and Annabelle and, upon awakening, my father, I write a note to Richard. In the letter I detail, in my exhaustion, the thoughts I have of my fatherâthat, although he was not present throughout my childhood, the few visits I had to Ecuador to see him had a profound psychological effect. I was no longer the abandoned child but one interacting with his unknown father, who seemed, at least when we were together, to be kind and even somewhat loving toward me, which made our subsequent separation even more difficult and somehow, in my childish mind, unjustified.
I finally fall asleep on the couch and awaken just after midnight as if from a nightmare, rising suddenly, violently, falling not down but upwards, and I sit up straight with a panic accompanied by a sudden, intense moment of overwhelming terror. I try not to move but I tremble, locked in sweat, my chest and throat tight, adrenaline flowing through me, unable to catch my breath as though I have been running long and hard. I walk into the washroom and splash water on my face before I lie back down again. I am winded and exhausted but a long time passes as I attempt to calm myself, staring at the nighttime ceiling like Proust as a boy lying at his Aunt Leonie's home in Illiers, France in his insomnia. I frantically try to forget my fear borne of a nightmare I have not had, a nightmare that I certainly would have recollected had I woken so suddenly in the midst of it, a nightmare supplanted by what must be the worst nocturnal panic attack I've ever experienced. In the folds and crevices of the stucco ceiling I can see the light from the street flickering off of the uneven surface, shadows wavering and forming into different shapes and memories. I struggle to close my eyes so that I will not see any of this, trying now to think of whatever will relax me, getting up to open the windows outside the office and listening to the people drunkenly roaming the streets below, howling and singing.