Seismic shifts in my life have occurred as result of the Quebec courts, where for over a decade my parents battled for, and sometimes against one another due to my mother’s schizophrenia. In elementary school, my father initiated divorce proceedings when her violent mood swings and blatant disregard for others jeopardized our family’s future. While they ultimately reconciled, the increasing toxicity of the personalities at play within her meant that the ground beneath our feet was never truly solid. There was the creeping horror of realizing your mother has spent nearly fifty thousand dollars, money set aside for retirement, on shoes and clothes and jewelry. Dozens of unpaid parking tickets, a hit-and-run, destroyed relationships with extended family and friends- and all at the hands of a figure who swayed when she spoke and lacked any facial expression. In high school, as a hedge against future calamity, my father enlisted the aid of the Public Curator, a government agency dedicated to managing the resources of those deemed too ill or incapacitated to do it themselves. However, those entrusted with the reins of my mother’s stake in the Majumdar clan grew drunk with power. In 2005, it came to light that they had initiated the sale of our house to retain her 50% of the proceeds- without either of my parents having approved the decision beforehand. With the threat of ruin looming once more on the horizon, my father headed back into court to have her rights reinstated and find a win amidst such pervasive loss. Approximately 18 months from the time I’d sever ties with my life in Montreal and start over in New York, I was called in to serve as a character witness on his behalf.
Dad’s sitting on a bench outside a courtroom in Old Montreal. He wears a grey suit and yellow tie. His salt-and-pepper hair is thinning but neatly combed. Upon noticing me, he smiles in a way that doesn’t quite manage to erase the worry.
“Did you have trouble finding the place?”
I shake my head. “It was a short metro ride from the apartment.” I don’t mention the fact that I’m two months behind on rent and had to walk to the courthouse to save money. I don’t tell him that a hundred dollars would literally change my life. He’s bailed me out far too many times already and just this once, I want to do something in return.
Dad watches the lawyers and administrators and assorted broken and outraged that pass in front of us. After so many years in their midst, he gives off the feel of a grizzled veteran preparing to head back into the fray one last time. “They’re going to ask you some questions about me. Personal questions. You can be honest.”
I’d meant it as a joke, but he doesn’t respond that way. “Good honest,” he says with a wince. I can’t even count the number of times my mother has broken promises made to him, and yet he’s never developed a protective coat of cynicism. Every betrayal, every incident of someone not acting in a decent and straightforward manner still cuts as deeply as ever.
He looks to me and blinks.
“Do you ever wonder how things would be if they were…different?”
I try to come up with an answer but can’t. A dozen possible happier endings present themselves, but I understand in that moment that he’s never truly considered any of them. She’s his wife. If she’s sick, he has to care for her. No matter what the cost, financial, psychological or otherwise, it was his duty to be there.
A runner comes out of the courtroom and hails my father. He rises and extends a hand to me. “Ready?”
The next few minutes pass in a blur. My father takes a seat at a table on one side of the courtroom. Directly opposite are the Public Curator’s minions, a minor army of rumpled suits and muttered conversation. At center is the judge, a man who looks to be in his late sixties and praying for a recess. A large woman with aggressively short, bottle-red hair rises from the opposing side and motions for me to step forward to the podium. As soon as I reach it, a volley of questions: is my father really a good man? Isn’t it true that he’s really a controlling, borderline-abusive spouse? Isn’t it true that he routinely lies on his taxes, had in fact lied during every one of his dealings with the Public Curator to-date? It was a slapshod affair devoid of any real strategy- judging by the stacks of files on the Public Curator’s table it wasn’t hard to surmise that it was largely a numbers game for them anyway. How many of their wards lacked a family member who cared enough to even show up to dispute their actions? Not that I blamed them- in fact, I completely sympathized. To make a public display in such a fashion was to open yourself up once again to the disappointment that comes part and parcel with loving someone who’s sick. It meant ripping open a wound that would never entirely heal, and face the awful truth one more time: that the person you loved was gone, and all that remained were hawks scavenging for the leftovers. As the woman kept circling around to the same questions, a crazy idea began to form in my head. Why not do a complete 180 and admit to the accusations begin levied against my father? Yes, he’s a terrible person. Yes, he’s unfit to care for my mother, and would only look for further opportunities to disenfranchise her if given the chance. Yes to all of it. Maybe my father would disown me. He would certainly despise me for a time. But in betraying him in this forum, I would free him from a life sentence as her caretaker. Let them take what they wanted- she would be their problem now. Behind the podium, my fingers itched with the desire to do it.
But in the end, I couldn’t.
The judge dismisses me. My father walks me out of the courtroom. He’s nodding to himself; I must have done well.
“I saw a coffee house across the street,” I say. “Want to go?”
“Oh, I don’t want to keep you.”
I want to tell him that few things had ever meant so much as spending time with him. That the unabashed love of life he carried in his DNA was the greatest gift he could have ever given me, and one which I had vowed not to squander. The distance which had crept between us in recent years was a side effect of a darkness beyond our control. In that way, we were both casualties of her illness. But the difference was that I would not accept it as a necessary burden to be carried. As much as I admired him, there would be no peace until I had pulled the knife out of my chest and found an existence that wasn’t affected by her endless relapses and recoveries.
“It’s no problem,” I tell him. “Fifteen minutes.”
He looks back towards the courtroom. The collar of his dress shirt is ringed with dried sweat.
“I don’t think I can leave,” he says.