By Hillary Carr | Dec 18, 2010

It was 2 a.m. when the phone woke me. It is the Toronto General Hospital calling on behalf of Andree. Andree? I asked? What has happened to her? Come as soon as you can, the voice urged. She doesn’t have much time.

Who the hell is calling and waking us up at this hour, my husband John growled.

It’s about Andree. I didn’t ask for details. The nurse said she is very sick. I have to figure out a way to see her.

I tossed and turned trying to take in this news. Now I couldn’t sleep. It sounded like my Andree was dying. I got up, confused and frightened, and went down to the kitchen. I’ll fix the girls’ lunches. I’ll make a spaghetti sauce for supper. I’ll be quiet. I need to think. Who can I get to come in so I can visit her? Maybe my neighbor would watch the babies for an hour or so, while the girls were at school. Maybe John would come home early. No, I couldn’t ask him. He did not understand my connection to Andree. He didn’t really even like her. Her stories are too far-fetched, he insisted. He was right. They were pretty outrageous. But it was your own senior law partner Dennis who loved and recommended her to us, I always reminded him.

Dennis trusts Andree completely with his kids and has left her in charge of his family for weeks at a time. Besides, she makes so much fun for our girls. Oh Andree, not now, please. I don’t think that I can go on without you. I think I am drowning. I am way over my head. I need your help. I spread the mayonnaise on the bread and parceled out the rounds of bologna, dabbed on a bit of mustard and added a slice of cheese. Add an apple and some cookies, fill three thermoses with chocolate milk and they are set. Done! We were in the dog days of late March, damp and bitter cold, no signs of spring yet.

Now I remembered her talking about the pain in her jaw, worried. How could it have gone this bad so fast? Our family had been operating in survival mode since the twins had come home from the hospital in late December, finally out of the incubators.  Andree had come to help out that first week. We’d never really worked together before. Usually she came in for an overnight or to give John and me a weekend away. But with the unexpected arrival of twins, she came back to bail me out. Then we became a team, dividing by two, the baths, the feedings, the lunches and suppers, the bruised knees, the hurt feelings, the new jealousies, story times. She had saved me those first crazy days, in the icy darkness of early January through the blur of bottles, formulas and diapers, sleeplessness, day after day, night after night. Then she’d complained of jaw pain and disappeared as fast as she’d arrived. I hadn’t called her to see if she was OK. Now this.

I was shaking as I pulled up a chair, sat down beside her and held her hand. She lay motionless in the hospital bed. My old companion was not recognizable. The nurse said she’d been here for three weeks.

What is it? I asked.

Cancer, she whispered.  It has spread everywhere. It is eating her up. There is nothing we can do to stop it. Andrée has been calling your name. She asked me to find you.

The hospital room was stark. The antiseptic whiff of Lysol could not cover the smells of decaying bodies, Andrée’s body. My stomach heaved and turned. It was the bodily fluids draining through plastic tubes into glass jars beneath the bed that terrified me. It always had, even as a nurse’s aide one summer long ago when I thought I’d wanted to become a nurse. Now the fluids belonged to someone I knew and loved. It smelled like death. I was careful not to knock the jars. I was scared.

Andree looked tiny, a shriveled shadow of the energetic dervish I had known. She was curled up in her hospital Johnny shirt, floating in and out of consciousness. The small dark eyes were closed. Her sharp French nose stood out, more beak-like now, prominent against the sheets, her mouth drawn in to a tiny “o." Her dentures floated in a glass of water on the bedside table. Her breath was labored. I was shocked to see her like this.

Where is everyone, I wondered frantically, all the people she’d spoken of over the years? Where are the flowers, the get well cards, the photos of a family member or a friend? There was not a single remnant of her life, the rich life she’d spoken of so many times in her famous stories; a lone pair of paper slippers stood empty under the bed. I couldn’t put it all together. Andree, speak to me, open your eyes, and tell me you’ll be alright again.

This frail wisp of a woman had been so wiry and tough. She had reminded me of a small hawk. A mere five feet, her plumage was a wild grab-bag of tastes and colors, flouncy flowered skirts, scarves, like the outrageous clothes she rummaged for the girls, costumes for make believe and plays. Andrée never walked, she flitted, darted. Her hands were quick and nimble. Where was the fiery energy of the woman who would put an end to my kids' foul language by washing their mouths out with soap…just once!?!

What kind of cake would you like for your birthday? she’d ask the girls. An elephant? A rabbit? A blue heron? Why not! When John and I had returned from a weekend away at a wedding, we came home to find Andree and the children having a pajama party in the garden, eating green dinosaur-shaped pancakes, the kids squealing with delight. My neighbors looked askance at all this, as did John. But I devoured Andree’s magic. She was the unpredictable fun, the manna that fed my yearning for something new, different from the grinding sameness and predictability of my life. I was 30 with five babies. I could see the years rolling out in front of me and had a sense of what they’d look like for years to come. Those Toronto days were laden with the proper way to do things. I knew I didn’t fit and neither did Andree. She was my ticket to another planet.

The prior September, before the arrival of the twins, she asked me to help support her artist friend Henry. He needs to display his wonderful oils, sell some, make a bit of money to go to Spain. Maybe we could ask in your neighbors, she offered. What about a neighborhood dessert party to showcase his art? Now she had me curious.

What’s his work like?  I’d asked her. Tell me about him.

Oh, he is one of a kind, a great talent, she told me. He paints bold landscapes, like the revered Group of Seven, northern Ontario, Lake Huron. But few Canadians have been exposed to his work. He needs exposure.

Andrée agreed to help me bake peach pies for the occasion. As we sprinkled the counters and rolled out the pie-dough she taught me bawdy French songs, war songs she declared. She could belt them out like a sailor. Her voice was raspy and hoarse, the tenor of a lifelong Galois smoker. Suddenly she grabbed my arm and wrapped her red and orange scarf around me, swinging me round the island counter, forward and backward, in reels, dusting me with flour, clicking her heels, me, enormous in pregnancy, her the lean wire. We had howled laughing.  She regaled me from her library of tall tales. Yes, sure, it was possible that she’d worked in the French Resistance during World War II, risking life and limb, skiing people to safe hiding near Chamonix. I could feel myself skiing right beside her, swooping, down steep slopes to caves, to hiding places, to safety with daring and speed. She shaped the crusts with the same determined energy needed to shepherd the rescues that she described.  Her fierce Nordic heritage stirred with her fiery French blood, brought it all to life.  I, at 29, was full with baby. She, at 62, was full with stories. I was enthralled, transported. Between us we had produced 15 peach pies.

I convinced John of the value of all this though he was skeptical from the beginning.

What if Henry is a fraud? What if his work is terrible? Do we trust Andrée’s word in all this? We hardly know our new neighbors and this could be really embarrassing.

I trust her, I told him. What can go wrong? I mused, the pie and the coffee will be great and maybe his work will be, too.

Now she sputtered and gurgled as she struggled for breath, coughing a hacking cough.  Occasionally I offered her some ice chips to moisten her parched lips. I sat with her for a while knowing I had to go back to my babies soon. There were times she seemed to stop breathing completely. She never spoke a word, but occasionally squeezed my hand. I could feel her slipping away. I put my head down beside her and began to sob.

I remembered how nervous I was before the night of the art exhibit at our house. Those initial trips to Henry’s studio had proved daunting. It turned out that the pie-baking was the easy part. There were many moments when I believed that John was right. Maybe the plan was full of holes. Maybe it would be a complete fiasco. Maybe Andree had over-embellished Henry’s talents. His “studio” sounded the first alarm. Thomas Street was a seedy dead-end peopled with homeless junkies and drunks lying in doorways, littered with papers and empties of Caribou and Thunderbird. Eventually, Henry staggered up behind us.

“Oh God”, I thought, “What have we got here? He can hardly walk. He looks a mess and he smells even worse.”

He had opened the padlock on his door with a key he had hidden behind a loose brick on the side of the building. Inside it was lightless, dank and moldy, a single room with one moth-eaten chair that oozed stuffing. The low ceiling bulb revealed a small hotplate with a saucepan and a soup can on the table in the far corner a stained mattress on the floor. It smelled rank of turpentine and stale urine. A flop house. This was a flop house. I doubted myself and Andrée and Henry.

“Oh God”, I thought. “This is a complete disaster. What have I gotten us into? It’s disgusting. I can hardly breath. I have to get out of here. John was right to be suspicious. Why didn’t I see this coming?”

Andrée got to work fast. She pulled out a number of canvasses that she found stashed on one side of the room. Here are 10 that have a lot of promise, she encouraged. They’ll need cleaning. But they’ll do well. And just as quickly she wrapped them in the blankets we’d brought from home, loaded the car and we sped off, leaving Henry behind.

“Andrée, you’ll have to get him to clean up. Do you think that he can be sober? Should we bring him into this at all? What happened to him? He is a drunk, Andrée!”  My insides twisted and turned imagining John’s reaction to Henry and his studio. He’ll be furious if he knows how bad this is!”

Andrée promised to deliver Henry at his best for the party. I had to believe her. What if he didn’t show up? Or, even worse, what if he did, smelly and drunk? John sensed my hesitation and was furious with me for having entered into such a crazy scheme.

The big night arrived. Neighbors came, eager and curious. They perused and scrutinized. Eventually Henry showed up, not sober, but not drunk either. He hovered around the edges, looking just strange enough to pass as an artist, strange enough to keep our friends from asking him too many questions. Instead neighborhood news was exchanged, pie was eaten and a good number of paintings sold.

And then it was over. A sizeable purse was gathered. It was even more than he needed to launch a new life in Spain. He could begin again. Henry bought his airline ticket, said his goodbyes and within days he was off and gone. Then the wild card! Two weeks after his arrival, news reached Andrée that Henry was struck by a car and killed instantly as he crossed a Madrid street. Andrée was sunk. That was the early October. I did not see her again until the twins were born in December.

Now she opened her eyes. I saw tears trickle down her cheek. I dabbed her eyes with a tissue, choking back some of my own. Then she closed her eyes and drifted away again.

Later that day, after she died, the nurse gave me her address, the keys to her apartment and her thin silver wedding ring.

“You are it,” she said. “She is penniless and claims no kin. How do you want to arrange for her body, her burial?”

Hand in hand, John and I buried her remains in Toronto’s Paupers Field on a cold and rainy April morning. We laid Andree to rest in a simple pine box. We cleared out her small apartment, a meager collection of furnishings, some of which had once lived in our home. It did not reveal a lot about Andrée. We did discover that she’d been born on farm in Levis, Quebec, had left with a man named Gustafson and ended up alone in Toronto living by her wits and hard work, babysitting. Her stories, true or not, became part of our family lore. Her orange and red scarf goes warms me still.  Thanks to Andrée, John and I stood together in a new landscape.

Hilary Carr comes to Maine via New York, Toronto and Montreal. Her love of stories is fed by a large Irish family and a lifetime listening to stories as a social worker, therapist, mother and grandmother. She and her husband, David Jones, live in Camden.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Bridget & Richard Qualey/Stetson | Jan 20, 2011 12:43

What a beautifully written story, Hillary.  Thank you.

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