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Always Late - Deanna McFadden

Pressure hummed throughout their days, an oven too hot or too cold, a child sleeping late or refusing to get into their winter gear, a phone alarm set incorrectly. Often, the wagon mysteriously at the back door instead of the front where Lindy knew she’d left it, then she would have to troop the kids around the house even before they could leave for kindergarten and daycare. Three-to-five minutes made a difference. She created elaborate plans, wrote lists, recanted her to-dos like mantras and, still, they were regularly last to arrive at the school doors. Her husband waltzed out the door at seven forty-five each morning to make his nine-am-standup, a permanent excuse to never do morning drop offs or pickups, kissing each of them, his have a great day lingering beside the messy counter or the haphazard front hallway.


Lindy worked from home. Isn’t it great, he said, often, How our lives just worked out. As if it didn’t take the pressure of a hundred over-boiled pots to get it that way. She could not fault him for not noticing. She would not.


The weekends were the same but different. They didn’t have the hard deadline of school, but they did have skating lessons, tae-kwon-do, swimming, shopping, errands, naps and baths and bedtimes, and, if everyone behaved, family movie night where her two-year-old would collapse on her before the opening credits. This morning, Marcus had made breakfast while Lindy stayed in bed allowing herself the luxury of listening to the news on the radio. She had felt a twinge this morning. A tickle. And didn’t want to get up. He kissed her on the top of the head as if to say I’ve got this as the kids sleepily came into their room to announce their presence.


Lindy waited until the last possible moment before they had to leave to join the day, a long shower, braiding her hair, choosing an outfit carefully. The kitchen was pristine. If she had attempted pancakes, even on the weekend, there would be detritus littering the counters and the kitchen island would be mysteriously sticky even after a solid wipe down.


She could hear her toddler, Sean, fighting against his snowsuit. The wails shook the walls and it was an instant before Marcus yelled for her, tired already of the fight. He worried about the kids in the cold and being dressed appropriately but she would have let this one go, carried his snowsuit out under her arm and tucked him into the car without it. Her husband fretted about them all that way—made sure Lindy had proper boots and snow gear when she came into the relationship with an old pair of Blundstones and a twelve-year-old thrift store tweed coat that needed ample padding. The front door closed; the wailing sated for now. She was, consistently, the last one out the door, laden by the diaper bag, extra sets of clothes, snacks, slippers, spare mittens. Dozens and dozens of mismatched pairs.


They were going to her in-laws for lunch.


When Lindsey got out to the driveway, she noticed Marcus hadn’t cleared the windshield or the top of the car of last night’s storm. He had the heat on high, habitually hoping that would do the trick. She opened her car door and said, “The snow might fall on someone else’s car.”


“The boys are buckled in. We’re late,” Marcus said, revving the engine to warm up the icicle-like temperature in the vehicle.


“It won’t take me long. It’s not the light snow, it’s the heavy stuff. You know how annoying that is when you’re driving. We’ll use up all the washer fluid.”


“We’re only going to my parents. We won’t even be on the highway.”


“Still . . .”


After depositing the bags in hand except one in the trunk, Lindy picked up the snowbrush. Meticulously, she cleared the car, the sun winter-warm despite the weather. Tapping the glass as she travelled her way across the back through the exhaust, she said a quick hello to the Sean, in the car seat, and Noah, in the booster.


Almost done, she mouthed to her husband as she reached the driver’s side, swiping, swiping to clear the pile atop of the car. The very snow that would most likely be windswept onto someone else’s vehicle causing a momentary panic when visibility is low and the machine fast.


Marcus changed the radio changing station, humming from one song to another she couldn’t hear, muffled by the glass.


“There,” she said after tucking the brush into the backseat under her Sean’s feet, “that didn’t take long.”


Even before she was belted in, Marcus reversed out of their small, tight, city driveway. Mere inches divided their house and the neighbors’, which is why she never drove—the fear of taking off the mirror or denting the car in some way—terrifying. The bell dinged and her husband’s hands gripped the steering wheel. Before she clicked her seatbelt, she reached back and handed her toddler a granola bar from her bag and watched as her elder child put on his giant, red headphones. The radio hummed on the classic rock station.


Marcus liked a quiet car. The radio was the only sound he allowed; at first, it was a rule to keep the kids calm during drives, the routine often growing weary for them after a solid five minutes of being buckled in. They’d start to fight, pushing one another, Noah complaining that Sean was sprawled too much on his side. Soon they’d be shouting, pinching, even punching, both ending up in tears. These grievances occurred only in the car. When the two were snuggled into their snowsuits and blankets in the wagon with fruit snacks in hand, neither complained. The four wheels with a metal lid created a different kind of imbalance that was left uncontained in the wagon. There, they had the freedom of the open air, the sky.


Lindy appreciated her husband’s ability to maintain order. His rules. The balance he imposed on the household carrying over to all aspects of their family life. The car. On vacation. In other people’s houses. Sometimes, it made their friends uncomfortable. But Lindy enjoyed his control because she knew it stemmed in part from her chaos. You’re lucky I love you so much, he teased her last weekend. You’re so messy. They laughed, fell onto their bed laden with clothes she was reorganizing, quietly, not alerting the kids. It was nice. Familiar. Noah hummed the theme song to Octonauts. They had seventeen episodes on the iPad and he watched them all on repeat. Marcus planned all outings around Sean’s naptime, Lindy looked back to see him dozing in his car seat already, his head tipped awkwardly to the side, the granola bar half eaten, crumbs stuck to his chubby, toddler hands. Those same crumbs would end up on the floor of the car, and the next time Marcus strapped him in, he’d look down and notice them or the wrapper on the floor, raise his eyebrows to her in the front seat. She made a mental note to not forget to pick it up when they arrived. Soon, both boys were out, heads on jagged angles, lulled by the start and stop of traffic, the hum of the car under their feet. For the next half-hour she didn’t have to worry about them needing her, needing something. She could spend a few moments luxuriously bored, looking out the winter-grimy window. Marcus put his hand on her knee and squeezed. They threaded their hands together in solidarity for the silence. Marcus let go and tuned the radio to the CBC, where a science show was discussing how whales never choked on their food.


The tires slushed through the messy Queensway. It was that moment in January when everything was dirty. A huge snowstorm from three days ago had been plowed into oblivion, and the snow was now the same depressing grey as the sky. Lindy had been obsessing over the weather app on her phone, knowing they were due for another huge dump this afternoon, right when they’d be finishing up the mandatory monthly lunch/early dinner at her in-laws. Their presence wasn’t as necessary before they’d had kids. Now, it was out of the question for them to miss a dedicated Saturday. She’d straightened her hair for the occasion, could feel its length tugging down her back. It was too long but who had time to get a haircut. Thin, grey streaks had begun to appear. When they were lying, after, in the mess of the clothes, Marcus ran his fingers through her tangles and said he liked it, the grey. Lindy hadn’t made up her mind.


Before they’d had Noah, she’d had an opportunity to move overseas to the UK, to live somewhere other than Toronto. A new world, a new experience. No kids, Marcus had a job he hated at the time and wouldn’t mind leaving, and she was teed up to become the head of international sales for a small UK-based publisher. Their visas were approved. Their bags were mentally packed, organized; their modest house cleaned up and ready to sublet. Then, she missed her period, and put off buying the plane tickets, unable to press the “buy now” button until she knew what the test would say. Another kind of punctuation to pause this stage of their lives.


“We can’t move now,” Marcus said, cradling the test in his hand, looking at the two blue lines that formed a very different kind of road.


There had been one previous scare. And that resulted in a conversation where they had decided they didn’t want kids—not that they didn’t love the idea, they just loved the idea of freedom more.


“Why not?” she asked. The question was rhetorical. She knew.


“Because it’s an actual baby, Lin.” He replied. “Both our families are here.” His family was here, forty minutes down the road if there was no traffic. Hers were a two-hour drive away in Peterborough, and they had never been close. She hadn’t even told her mother about their plans to move to the UK. About her fantastic new job. They wouldn’t have gotten it any way; they had no clue what she did or how she turned her love of reading into a fulfilling career.


She rolled the window down for a moment, a splash of icy air shocking the inside of the car. Hoped it would help her not fall asleep, her body tranquilized into a false sense of rest.


“What’s your column about this week?” Marcus broke the silence.


“Inflation and its impact on working women.”


He nodded, kept his eyes on the road. And then didn’t say anything else. Lindy wanted to tell him that everything about a women’s life was coping to stave off inflation, making do with less, less time, less sleep, less balance even when the cost rose constantly and the news banged on about how moms should be the first to practice wellness, try meditation, to sleep when the fucking baby sleeps. But that wasn’t what she had planned for her column. She would include practical tips to buy in bulk, to explore fixed rate mortgages, and to give yourself plenty of time take public transit with little ones.


During her first maternity leave, she’d started a personal finance blog. That led to a column in a monthly parenting magazine and a weekly stint on the local morning show. Her modest income grew in the years between her babies. This allowed her to not go back to work and gave them enough leeway to send Sean to daycare three days a week so she could get all the other stuff done around the house. Perfect. Marcus constantly reminded her, it’s so perfect. He found her second career astounding. She missed being out in the world, wearing a suit, and speaking powerfully to her accounts about books. Oh, to be at a book event with stale wine and even worse cheese. Lindy rolled the window back up.


They turned off the Queensway and drove north on Islington, heading toward Etobicoke, and the spacious house where Marcus had grown up with his two other brothers. The entire family came for these long, catered lunches. Themed cuisine that his mother demanded praised as if she’d been the one to don the apron and labor for hours. Marcus’s mother was a VP at a bank, and his father ran a small mutual fund company. They’d had housekeepers for the entirety of his childhood, all three boys went to private school, and then onto Queen’s, McGill, and Trinity. Two of them played on varsity hockey teams, and Marcus played varsity basketball. They skied in Collingwood, cottaged in Muskoka, and travelled at least once a year to various European destinations that Marcus described as “culture”—always using air quotes when telling Lindy the stories. He loved her being home. He revelled in being more involved in the boys’ lives. There was a distance in his youth that he didn’t want repeated in his own family.


That closeness he demanded became her responsibility. Homemade meals. Thoughtful celebrations. Always being late because she had jobs on top of jobs on top of jobs on top of jobs. Still, when he looked at her across the dinner table with glee when Sean was covered in spaghetti sauce and Noah had complimented her on the meatballs for the four hundredth time, her heart, it seized. And he loved her by always doing the dishes, wiping down the table, letting her get the kids to bed, and never complaining about what she made for dinner. There was balance, but there were days when the swing felt weighted in her direction. It could be worse, he could never notice—but he did, and he worked hard to make sure she didn’t have to worry about car payments, overdraft, grocery shopping.


The kids woke up when Marcus put the car into park. Sean immediately burst into tears because every time he unexpectedly came back to consciousness, he needed to be centered back down to earth. Lindy shh-shh-shh-ed from the front seat, her arm reaching back to hold her hand directly on his chest, and he calmed down. “Let’s go boys,” he said. “And see what kind of spread Granny Carol has for lunch. Noah, I bet Granny got you Kinder eggs.”


Her eldest was already unbuckled and halfway out the door, the headphones tangled around both him and the iPad, Marcus getting there just in time to stop both from tumbling onto the wet driveway and breaking yet another gadget they would never admit they desperately relied upon. Lindy had Sean in her arms, his head buried deep into her downy coat. Her stomach ached. And she ignored it like she had been doing for the last couple weeks.


Her mother-in-law was already out the door with her arms outstretched for Sean, who was the youngest of all the cousins. The baby of the baby, she had him undressed and back in her arms even before Lindy had her boots and coat off. The house was boisterous, filled with her husband’s brothers, their respective wives, all their kids. Marcus’s siblings had all followed their parents into finance in some way—they had high paying jobs the rest of the family understood. Marcus did not. He ran a machine learning division for a startup that was just about to go public. They had stopped trying to explain their careers to everyone sixteen lunches ago.


“I read your last column,” her sister-in-law Martie said. “It was cute.”


“Thanks.”


“I keep meaning to cancel my subscription to Parent Today,” she continued. “The boys are just too old, there isn’t really anything useful in it for us anymore.”


Lindy set her perma-smile. The one that said, of course, I understand. I mean, it would never occur to you to keep the subscription to support my work. Lindy found a corner of the living room to sit down and took the wine glass that her father-in-law offered. She knew she shouldn’t be drinking. But until she took the test, she also knew that the heaviness in her belly wasn’t real, could be anything. Indigestion from the Chinese food they’d ordered last night after feeding the kids organic mac ’n’ cheese and getting them both to bed early so they could eat in the family room on the floor and watch Game of Thrones. The fact that she hadn’t had any breakfast. An endless stomach bug from Sean’s daycare.


Conversation floated around, the news from the month just passed, updates on the older kids’ university applications, the extra-math tutoring her brother-in-law said was making all the difference to his son’s momentary difficulties. They were not a family pressed by adversity in any real measure. Lindy’s mind rolled back to her own childhood, the two times Children’s Aid Society had been involved, the manic time until her father gave up drinking for good and her mom found the right meds.


She took another sip of the crisp, white wine and the smell of lunch almost threatened to overpower her. Marcus sat for a minute on the edge of her chair, kissed the top of her head, and then joined his mother downstairs in the playroom they had retrofitted for all the grandkids. Noah loved it down there. He loved his older cousins and the rambunctious games they’d play, loved it when they tossed him around like a football, loved it when they called him “Noah-Noah-Bo-Boah” and “No-No-No-man”—the kind of masculinity that she had always assumed was nurture, not nature, and finding it much different when she had boys of her own.


#


They were almost through dessert. A sticky toffee pudding that her toddler got in his hair and all over his booster seat, much to Grandma Carol’s delight. She carted him away from the table to give him a bath, which would mix up Lindy’s own bedtime routine but after a headshake from Marcus, she stopped herself from saying anything. The twinge had become more of a radiating pain muddled in the center of her body roiling from back to front in waves. The luncheon had been French, steak and frites, grilled vegetables, a delicious onion soup that Lindy was surprised she enjoyed as much as she did. A salad dressed so delicately that it made the decidedly out of season lettuce melt in her mouth. In those moments, she felt guilty for not appreciating the effort more.


“If you’ll excuse me,” she said as the caterers brought out the coffee. She set her napkin down on her chair and made her way upstairs to the guest bathroom at the other end of the house where no one could hear her. Her underwear felt damp, too damp, and the pain wasn’t twinging so much as broadening now. She cursed her body for letting this happen at the absolute worst possible moment. But it’s not like there’s an ideal time to lose a baby. It’s not like bodies can be controlled.


The guest bathroom was a pale grey with white tile everywhere, brass fittings, and shower stall that had only a floating glass wall between it and the rest of the room. Lindy envied her mother-in-law’s rainfall showerhead, its square centered perfectly in the middle of the dusty grey tile that lined the shower section. It was all so tasteful. She sat down and felt the familiar pressure of the pregnancy ending. This was the third time in the past two years it had happened. The discomfort was familiar but heartbreaking, and whether she was four or seven weeks along, it didn’t matter. This was the earliest one yet. She had barely begun to hope.


Lindy sat for a while unable to move. She couldn’t look down and flushed quickly. Jamming a wad of toilet paper into her underwear, she stood up and tried to steady herself. Put her forehead on the cold marble of the sink for a moment to feel the cool, cold rock. Opening every cabinet in the room she searched for any kind of sanitary protection. The thought of whatever remained in her uterus leaking into Carol’s expensive toilet paper made her want to burst into tears. Thankfully, the housekeeper was thoughtful, and in the final cupboard underneath and to the bottom right, she found what she was looking for, a heavy-duty pad that would suffice until she could get home.


She hadn’t even told Marcus she suspected she was pregnant. And the guilt that accompanied both wanting and not wanting another child inevitably crept into the crevices of her mind that she only ever explored late at night when everyone else was asleep. Marcus did, he did want a third; he was desperate for one, hoped against all the odds that they’d make a girl and complete their family. He knew about the first miscarriage because she had taken a test and shown him, and he brought her, thoughtfully, carefully, tenderly, even, to Mount Sinai when she started spotting in the seventh week. The second time she didn’t tell him. The third, now, she knew she wouldn’t either. She’d get through today and call the clinic on Monday. Have an ultrasound and schedule any procedure if there were complications—and then, and only then, would she tell him.


#


Carol made as big a show of goodbyes as she did hellos. Her tween, preteen, and teenage grandchildren barely tolerated it, whipped out a ‘bye granny’ as quickly as they whipped out their phones, halfway out the door before their shoes were even on straight. Marcus and Lindy hung back because they knew how much Carol liked to fuss over Noah and Sean, getting them snuggly into their snowsuits, tucking their chins up carefully when she did up the zippers. The glory of small grandchildren—Carol was never in a rush.


The ache had dulled now. The Tylenol she had snuck from the kitchen had kicked in and a cup of strong coffee had settled her nerves. Marcus’s father slapped him on the back and reminded him they were going to Florida for the rest of January until April, suspending monthly lunches until they returned with the better weather. They said their goodbyes, and after the initial struggle to get the kids back into their seats, they reversed out the driveway, Lindy shifting in her seat, the pad deeply wet and uncomfortable.

The kids were too excited to settle down. Marcus gave in and put on a Raffi CD so everyone could singalong. “Down by the Bay” came alive in the car, Noah screaming every lyric, and Sean giggling every time Raffi repeated the line about polka-dot tails. Marcus laughed as the kids did, whooping up the chorus again and making up even sillier rhymes than the song. Lindy’s heart contained the emotion tight to her chest. She sang along, and then said, “Oh, the snow’s started.”


And it had, giant, messy flakes fell fast all around them. The weather worsened as they drove home, and by the time the car was back in their tight driveway, the city was blanketed in crisp white.


“What do you say,” Marcus laughed as he turned off the engine, “let’s get the sleds and go across the street to the park. It’s a perfect day for it.”


“I’ll make the hot chocolate,” Lindy said. “Can you get the boys to the bathroom?” “I can indeed,” Marcus said. “Team Robertson into the house to prepare for epic sledding adventure.”

The boys shouted yeah, and Sean giggled as Marcus whooped him out of his carseat.


Once inside the front hallway, boots already dripping on the floor, Marcus asked if she was okay. “You look pale?”

“I’m good. The food didn’t quite agree with me.”

“We don’t have to go,” he said.

“No,” she insisted. “The weather is perfect. We should get to the hill before it turns into the icy deathtrap.”


Marcus laughed, hugged her tightly. They scrambled to get all the necessary supplies together, hot chocolate, snacks, extra mittens, fresh hats for when the ones they wore got wet.


“I’ll be right back,” she explained. “Bathroom.”


As Marcus wrangled the kids, Lindy changed her pad upstairs, carefully wrapping up the one from earlier and placing it at the bottom of the garbage pail. Their tiles were old, from the eighties, a remnant of the hundred-year-old house, and that last bits of renovating they hadn’t gotten to yet. She hated her bathroom, wished for a moment she was back in Carol’s. Still, she allowed herself to cry, hands pressed hard against her face so no one could hear. The cold air outside would mask the redness, hide the puffiness. The real sadness would come later, be heavier, weigh her down deep into the night for weeks to come. There was no time for it now.


By the time Lindy came back downstairs, the kids were already outside with Marcus, retrieving the sleds out of the shed in their tiny backyard, the old wooden one the family favorite because they could all fit with the boys being so small. She put on her navy snow pants and wrapped a scarf tightly around her jacket. Pulled her toque down over her ears. Outside, the snow was beautiful and clean. The park was just across the street from their house, a lovely bucket in the middle of the city that made for perfect tobogganing.


“We’re all going together for the first run,” Marcus insisted. He held the toboggan tight at the top of the hill as Lindy sat down with Sean tight between her legs and Noah tucked right up front. When they were secure, Marcus sat down in a vee shape, his long strength containing them all and let go, the kids’ thrilled squeals echoing through the park as cold snow sprayed them in their faces. Lindy closed her eyes and forgot about the pain in her stomach, about the wrapper she left in the backseat of the car, about it all as she enjoyed the rush to the bottom where they landed in a tumble, atop another, laughing as hard as they ever had before.

 

Deanna McFadden is the Executive Publishing Director at Wattpad WEBTOON Studios. She started her career in publishing seventeen years ago as a Digital Marketer with Random House of Canada. She spent a decade working in various departments at HarperCollins Canada, and rose to Senior Director, Digital Product. In her role as Associate Publisher with Joe Books, she managed a robust licensed publishing program in partnership with Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and NBCUniversal. The author of over 20 abridged classics for kids, her stories and poems have appeared in Taddle Creek, among other places. Her essay, "The Girl on the Subway," appeared in The M Word, Conversations About Motherhood (Goose Lane, 2014). Follow her everywhere online as @Tragicrighthip.

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