Eddie lived on the family farm,, across the road from the family pier, from where he had piloted the family fishing boat for many years. Eddie was a bachelor, the last male in his family. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer. It had started as pain, was thought to be cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis, but the battery of tests showed that it was full-blown metastasized cancer.
Meena had called me. I didn’t know Eddie. I knew the farm, with its covey of coops, ricks, and sties . It was a massive, gloomy Victorian monstrosity, gone to seed and windblown. The attached barn, with its labyrinth of sheds, garages and bays was an unpainted hazard waiting for a loose spark and a gale.
Meena had owned a fish shop at the pier for a couple of decades. Eddie sold fish to her. They got to be friends. Meena was our youth minister, my assistant at confirmation classes, a creative genius at crafts, and one of my best friends on the parish. She befriended everyone. Even shy, stammering Eddie.
I went to see Eddie in the hospital. He was in pain, yellow with jaundice, and he slowly told me his medical history. Never sick a day in his life. Then this wicked pain. Then he was vomiting, with bile in it, and he took a stitch that doubled him up. His appetite failed. He couldn’t work anymore.
How could it be cirrhosis? he muttered, pronouncing it shirr-hosis. He never drank, never took a drop. Uncle Fidd, who had raised him, was a wicked drinker. Eddie had promised his Aunt Meg he would never drink. He never had.
Cirrhosis can be hereditary, but cancer was so prevalent in the downshore stretch of the Bay that I spent a lot of time visiting in the hospital and conducting funerals. It was no wonder that shore dwellers contracted cancer and auto-immune diseases. A major smelter sat upshore at Dalhousie, discharging heavy metals and toxins into the water and air. My parishioners had spent their whole lives eating fish and lobster from the Bay, and breathing the downwind fumes. Many of them had worked in a paper and pulp factory, exposed to dioxins.
Eddie was sent home. A nurse would stop in once a day to check on his meds and give him an IV of fluids. I started visiting at least once a week. The house was unchanged since Uncle Fidd and Aunt Meg had died. The kitchen had a large black wood-burning stove, a narrow pantry with both a hand-pump and a tap, a refrigerator purchased about 1954. The big round table in the middle of the kitchen was covered with clashing plastic tablecloths. The necessities of a bachelor’s meals crowded the center of the table: Ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, HP sauce, Worcestershire sauce, strawberry jam, butter. Three cats, of varying degrees of fitness and age, slept in armchairs and rockers by the bay window. An old yellow dog peered in through the screen door from the wood shed.
“Who took care of the animals when you were in hospital?” I asked. Eddie seemed to be the only tenant of the greying old house.
“Meena and her man.” Her man was Young Stan, Meena’s husband. There was an Old Stan, no kin, in the community. Overlapping names and identifying adjectives were as common as bad teeth.
I set the wooden box I carried on the table. “Would you like communion today?”
“I’ve never had communion.”
“What do you mean?”
“I ain’t never had communion.”
I rested my hands on the table top and looked across at him. “Are you baptized?”
“Yah, but never had the communion, the old father wouldn’t give it to me.”
“Why ever not?”
“I was cutting up in them religion classes to be confirmed, and he sent me out and told me not to come back.”
“so you weren’t confirmed?”
“Naw, so I couldn’t have the communion. I just sat at the back and never went forward. Then I started fishing the next year, so’s I stopped going to church.”
Most of the men my age and older had dropped out of school before grade eight. Many were completely illiterate. Most were functionally illiterate. Eddie had been taught to read by Aunt Meg, although he had left school at twelve to work on the farm, and then on the fishing boat.
“You can have communion today.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, I’m the priest here and I can say who gets communion.”
“I don’t have to be confirmed?”
“No, we don’t worry about that anymore.” And, I thought to myself, God forbid I should deny the sacraments to a dying man because of some impatient words Father Nonesuch said thirty years ago.
Eddie was re-admitted to the hospital, to the hospice unit. I met his sister there. I didn’t know he had a sister. Eddie insisted he was in hospice only because there weren’t any beds in oncology.
Sister – Sissy – and I had coffee in the hospital caff. She filled in the details. “Eddie didn’t ever marry. I did, got divorced. We only got each other. Mama was a single mother. I guess she and our dad never married. We thought he was dead, but it was just that he run off with someone and went to Manitoba. So we all moved in with Uncle Fidd and Aunt Meg. Aunt Meg would be my daddy’s sister. So they wasn’t real relatives. Mama did die young, too, I think her heart broke. Eddie and me stayed on at the farm. I went out to clean and wash, mind children. Eddie worked the farm and then the boat. Uncle Fidd was wicked hard on him, wicked hard. That boy couldn’t sit to his supper some nights for the whippings he took.”
I inwardly flinched. I tried to imagine the stammering, shy, animal-loving Eddie deserving a whipping. I could imagine an Uncle Fidd, small but farmer-strong, lashing an awkward boy with a birch switch, out in the woodshed.
“He’s dying, ain’t he?”
“He don’t want to believe it. But he knows. He called me last week, wanted me to get him a bottle of some strong liquor, thought he could drink himself to death. I didn’t, though.”
“He can’t drink himself to death. He’s never been a drinker, he’d just throw it up.”
I was concerned enough to leave a note for his doctor, though Eddie didn’t have long to wait. He died on Sunday morning, while I was in church, celebrating the eucharist.
Sissy had everything planned. She paid for the funeral. I went in to help arrange the wake, the service at the funeral chapel, and the burial.
The next morning I got a call from the funeral director.
“Mac won’t open that grave.”
“What is it now?”
“The old burial map shows that that grave has been used, and he’s sounded all over that plot that Fidd bought back in 1940, and it is full.”
“Well, who is buried next to Eddie’s mother?”
“It looks like an infant burial, back in the fifties. Yeah, we thought they’d be plenty of space, but we sounded everywehere and can’t find a spot. Mac is pretty upset.”
“Why this time?”
“He fell through into a grave.”
I met Mac at the cemetery. There was collapsed turf over the grave in question. “I went straight through. I went over to Carl’s, got the old map, and sure enough, some babies were buried here.”
I got out my mobile and called Sissy at home. “We have a problem. Mac says there are babies buried next to your mother.”
“Oh yeah, so that’s where they were buried. I remember now, they was premature, stillborn, before Eddie. They was just tiny, weren’t even buried in proper coffins, just little pine boxes. You tell Mac I want Eddie next to Mama.”
I told Mac. He grumbled, “What if I bring up bones or something?”
“Then you call me right away, and I’ll come out and we’ll rebury them. I doubt you’ll find anything after forty years gone. Babies that young, and stillborn – they are mostly cartilage and there was no embalming. They are all dust now.”
The real mystery was who else was buried in the plot. There was just the one stone, with the few family names on it. Fidd and Meg had no children of their own. It was a double plot, room for eight burials. And as far as we knew, there should be only three – now four – burials in it. I went to Hank’s house with Tim Horton’s coffee and doughnuts. He was the oldest member of that parish, andhad been the cemetery warden back in the war years. He had known old Fidd.
“Mmm, hmm, yes, indeed, my girl,” he started. “Oh, yes, old Fidd, he was wicked wayward. He would get those orphans in to help on the farm, besides Eddie and Sissy. He would go up to the rail depot and bring back hobos and bums, or pick up sailors coming off the ships, load them into an old wagon, and promise them room and board and a couple of dollars. He made the poteen himself, kept them drunk most evenings. Yeah, that’s what he did, and some of them died there. I don’t know how many. Fidd would nail together a coffin, take ‘im down the road to Sand Hill, and bury them. Never called the priest or nothing. He was tight as a haddock’s ars…bumhole.”
Sissy and I stood over Eddie’s grave after everyone else had left for the funeral lunch. “I expected we would both be buried with Mama,” she said. “But no, it’s fine that Eddie is. I’ll get myself a little plot down a way. It’s right. It was the only love he ever knew.”