TESSA MCWATT Vital Signs

ISBN 13: 9780099538295

Vital Signs

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9780099538295: Vital Signs

"Vital Signs" is a novel that takes us deep inside a marriage in crisis, teasing out the unspoken rules that run - or ruin - love relationships. So much is taken for granted in a long marriage, so much is relied upon, so much is resented, so much is never spoken. But when Anna, Mike's beautiful and self-possessed wife, begins to mangle her sentences as a result of a brain aneurysm that could kill her at any moment, it's as if Mike has woken from a long dream in which he was only thinking about himself. Or is he still only thinking about himself? In his panic to show his wife that she has been his entire universe, will he finally confess all the ways in which he rebelled against her power over him, the way he betrayed her? Incoherent with guilt, he uses his talent as a graphic artist to draw his way closer to his wife, trying to communicate with her, and himself too, through signs and symbols. Mike is deeply flawed, hovering on the knife-edge of a confession, selfishly looking to the woman he loves for absolution even as she faces the possibility of her own death. And through this portrait of a marriage in crisis, Tessa McWatt leads us deftly and deeply into the workings of a relationship that blooms and withers and reblooms over time, and into the lies and the truths necessary to sustain it.

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About the Author:

Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana, and moved to Canada with her family when she was three. She is the author of five earlier novels; her second, Dragons Cry, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the City of Toronto Book Award. She developed and leads the MA in Writing: Imaginative Practice programme at the University of East London. She divides her time between London and Toronto.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

It has come to me like a dog comes to its master: tail curled between hind legs, wet muzzle nudging to be forgiven for its very existence. This thought has come: I am not worthy of her.
 
Anna is wearing an electrode cap. Eighteen ultrasensitive electrodes are listening to her brain, translating the signals of the synapses to numerical pulp for Dr. Mead’s diagnosis. He stands before a terminal and monitors the tiny shocks of meaning. He ticks off boxes on a chart. I am slain by the look on Anna’s face that says that this is how we end up, this is how the rakes of decades gather the scatterings of a single being: poorly.
 
 “The hummingbird is nursing,” Anna says, and Dr. Mead nods, taking more notes. When he asks her how many children she has, her answer is, “Thirty-four,” and I try to decipher if she means three or four, perhaps counting the one that she miscarried after Fred, but I think this is reaching on my part. She has said thirty-four.
 
Dr. Mead makes more markings on his chart. When he finally releases Anna from the grips of the machinery, his face is sombre.
 
“If you see the receptionist, she’ll line you up with a few appointments.”
 
“What kind of appointments?” I ask.
 
“A range of different tests. I deal with the neuropsychology of these kinds of speech patterns, but . . .” He hesitates.
 
“I’m going to refer her. We’ll send you some details. If you take a seat for a moment, Theresa will come and get you.”
 
Dr. Mead is the type of man who can smell rain approaching.
 
Afterwards, in a café on Bloor Street, Anna’s hands tremble with a will to order, as if to hold a sentence in them and lay it out flat along a plane of reason. This is not impossible, but she doesn’t know that. Instead she picks up her glass of lemonade and drinks.
 
“Cold eating child,” she says and grimaces, knowing from the expression on my face that it didn’t come out right. I nod and doodle on my napkin with the marker I use when reaching for an image, and so I draw a figure of a child on a seesaw. I know she means that the lemonade reminds her of something in her childhood, and I smile to try to reassure her that I’ve understood. Lemonade is her favourite refreshment, and she likes hers sweetened with the darkest of demerara sugars. I sip my beer, knowing that she won’t challenge me over this early drink for fear that nonsense will spew forth from her mouth. These little advantages I now take, and my vileness bounds over fields, ears and leash flapping in spring breeze.
 
The drive up Highway 400 toward home is filled with a silent hum of regret, but I believe it’s only mine. Anna seems calm, staring out at the sprawling commercial complexes that make all of this area between the downtown we have just left and our farmhouse an hour away seem like part of the same, flabby city that cannot seem to contain itself.
 
A shoulder bone. It was the empty curve that did it—her blondeness and the bones, nothing more, I swear.
 
“Did you call Sasha back?” I ask. Our youngest is the one who makes her laugh the most. Sasha’s mere presence is like a promise that the universe has balance.
 
“No,” she says, and shakes her head, but smiles at her daughter’s name.
 
I wish that I had access to a sketch pad and my pen. I vow to carry them with me from here on in. There is an obvious sign for Sasha—for the poise with which she stirs the air, on stage and off. Sasha is our wind whistling in trees. I step on the accelerator, signal and pass the slow truck in front of us.
 
The other two are more problematic, graphically speaking. Fred, the eldest—more like my father than even his name suggests—would be something that evokes a job never quite finished or a race perpetually run. There’s a glitch in his stride. Whatever it is he’s running toward, his efforts seem more like duty than fulfilment. Charlotte, middle child and the most difficult, is the one I know the least but suspect I am most like. She is selfish and proud, like a statue, but she too has a contour I must work out. I’ve done this secretly in my time—fangled signs for everyone I know. I wonder, if Anna loses all her linguistic abilities, whether this kind of expression might be a way forward or, rather, a way back—to small, quiet moments of clarity between us. But I would have to work faster than I ever have before.
 
In my years as a partner in the design firm, I had the leisure of being my own boss¸ and knowing that good design took time. How I enjoyed the slowness of creating shapes, even when computer programmes took over. For there is still deliberation in digital imagery. The manipulation of individual pixels is not dissimilar to the slow, exact marking of pen on paper. Eventually, though, the business ran faster than I could, and so I sold my share of the company and went freelance. Then I had to work harder to make a living, and as I worked, my family morphed into fat, vacant shadows. Lately, the work has slowed, so most of my time is now my own. In six short years I turn sixty-five (am I really only a blink away from the pasture?) and I will stop altogether. And then what?
 
I had envisioned us travelling. For years Anna and I denied ourselves, saved for all the eventualities that have indeed arrived, and invested everything in our children. Even so, Fred—have I unconsciously pressured him into being more successful than I was?—has a medical degree that is of little use in solving the malfunction in his mother’s wiring.
 
“An aneurysm,” Fred said, flatly, in the composed tone all doctors learn in their final years of study. “She has an aneurysm,” he repeated, as though he had diagnosed her himself, ignoring the fact that Dr. Mead had already explained the condition using the same word. But then Fred is not a neurologist. I put my foot down at financing advanced degrees for any of them, so Fred is a general practitioner, and bitter, I sense, that he isn’t better able to help his mother now.
 
Still, expert or not, Fred has reaffirmed what in all likelihood is happening to Anna: a strained and seeping aneurysm in the anterior communicating artery. It’s possible that the arterial wall has always been defective, but at some moment in the last few months, blood started to drip into her frontal lobes. It’s that moment I wish I could return to, to catch her, to stand stalwart against the leak—or at least to crawl inside her now and press my hands against that arterial wall to shore it up against further damage.
 
There, behind the office building, she whispered that I didn’t need to be afraid.
 
“Sweet keys of sun in the dusk of the toaster,” Anna said one morning at breakfast. I looked up at her, briefly, but made nothing of it, distracted as I was with the morning paper. The day continued quietly as we went about our routines, and other things she said didn’t cause concern. But in the afternoon, as she came in from the garden and wiped her shoes on the mat, she said, without looking up,
 
“Fissures on the hummingbird’s feet.” Although I reasoned with myself that she might be puzzling something out, I felt a quiet alarm. “Turn up the jet trails; there are steam engines and poor magpies; useless to try to do anything about them,” she blurted out that evening, as she sat at the table while I took the roast chicken out of the oven.
 
I looked up then, feeling the heat through my oven mitts. She put her hand over her mouth.
 
“What was that?” I asked. She shook her head and we sat down to a silent dinner. I thought she was angry with me, but when I asked her she smiled to reassure me.
 
Anna and I have always been comfortable with silence. The first time I acknowledged it to myself was one long afternoon, nearly thirty years ago, in my Clinton Street apartment. We had exhausted ourselves with each other, drinking one another’s breath, my hands and tongue probing the curves and crevices of her olive skin, my own body a starved, chalky spade digging, digging to be nearer to her until we lay still. On rising, we spent the rest of the day contentedly washing, reading, cooking— all without speaking.
 
When Sasha left home two years ago, we greeted the return of our solitude and its silences with some relief. It wasn’t unusual for us not to speak for long periods, and it was no different that day when Anna first uttered her involuntary riddles. She had gone to bed before me, slept soundly and risen silently to make breakfast for us both. But the dusk on the toaster, the fissures on the hummingbirds, and the poor magpies could not go unexamined.
 
“How are you feeling today, Anna?” Dr. Mead asked her on our first visit. The same question had been asked by our family doctor a few days earlier. Upon hearing Anna’s answer, he had made an emergency call to Toronto Western’s neurology unit.
 
“I’m fine, I’m fine, the tortoises have lain and are crawling slowly and singing the song for six trees that run through the garden, and we could have dinner on the lawn, but Mike has brought the car and if the teeth are cleaned then we all . . .” she paused, looking, I believe, at the astonishment on Dr. Mead’s face, and then turned towards me.
 
Everything went quiet. Dr. Mead reached for his ophthalmoscope; I looked into my lap, guiltily. Anna held her breath as though to cut off oxygen to the nonsense. Or rather, I thought it was nonsense at the time. More and more every day I find myself drawn into the puzzle of her speech, determined to unravel meaning in each sentence, because now I’m sure it’s there, if I only listen to her in a way I have failed to listen for thirty years.
 
According to Dr. Mead, what Anna has been doing, and continues to do with increasing intensity, is to compress all of her life moments into one when she speaks. Confabulation, he has told me, stems from a problem of self-definition in time. When she’s with me or the children she seems less scattered about the decades, but what I hear when she’s with Dr. Mead is language scrambled in a time machine. “What’s your name?” Dr. Mead asked her on our first visit. “Me? I’m Anna Tractor, of course,” and then she looked at me, wanting me to confirm that she hadn’t ever taken my name—she was not that kind of woman—and that she was indeed Anna who went by her maiden name. But that name is not Tractor.
 
Anna’s first name is really Aygül. Aygül—the rose of the moon, in Turkish. It became Anna somewhere along the journey as a baby from Istanbul to Toronto in the 1950s. She grew up as Anna Yilmaz in a row house in the west end of the city, near High Park, and was raised like many immigrant children to be obedient, grateful, humble. Anna told me when we first met that Yilmaz means “never give up.” This moon rose is nothing if not unyielding. She is a vibrant, eccentric and intelligent woman. She has nothing in common with a tractor. Undoubtedly the light of my life, she is, of course, the curse of it as well, because there have been many days over the last three decades when I believed that without her and the drone of married life and fatherhood I might have lived something magical. I know all the clichés of my “coulda been a contender” regret, but most days I sense that she was my last brilliant choice. Since then I have made choices that have diminished who I was meant to be and what I was meant to have.
 
Now I must count on Dr. Mead to perform magic: mend the tear in her brain and give my wife back to me, whole, linear, complete. But he is a theory man, not a surgeon, and confabulation is a tricky foe. From a Stayner library book called Brain Fiction, I know that confabulators have problems with context. While they appear to have a grasp on their autobiography, it’s a slippery one, like a driver’s control of a car on a snowy highway. Memories drift, swerve, and can skid into a pileup.
 
When Charlotte was fifteen and we let her go out to a movie with that boy who had teeth too big for his lips,“No!” I said to the teeth and the boy. “Gentle,” you said to the fifteen-year-old in me who had not known how to treat a girl. When she came home I hugged her, and asked if she’d enjoyed the movie. You— you arranged her nightclothes on her bed in an order that was like a sign I could not decipher, a configuration that said, from now on, she would sleep differently.

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Tessa McWatt
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Book Description Cornerstone, United Kingdom, 2013. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. I think I have found the way to talk to her in the present. The past takes too much language. So much is taken for granted in a long marriage, so much is relied upon, resented, and never spoken of. When Anna begins to mangle her sentences as a result of a brain aneurysm that could kill her at any moment, her husband Mike uses his talent as a graphic artist to draw his way closer to his wife. Trying to communicate with her, and himself too, through signs and symbols, he wants to show his wife that she has been his entire universe. But Mike is deeply flawed, hovering on the knife-edge of a confession, he selfishly looks to the woman he loves for absolution. Not knowing how much time they have left together and incoherent with guilt, will he finally confess all the ways in which he rebelled against her power over him, the way he betrayed her?. Bookseller Inventory # AB99780099538295

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Book Description Windmill Books. Book Condition: New. 2013. Paperback. When Anna begins to mangle her sentences as a result of a brain aneurysm that could kill her at any moment, her husband Mike uses his talent as a graphic artist to draw his way closer to his wife. Trying to communicate with her, and himself too, through signs and symbols, he wants to show his wife that she has been his entire universe. Num Pages: 176 pages. BIC Classification: FA. Category: (G) General (US: Trade). Dimension: 199 x 131 x 12. Weight in Grams: 132. . . . . . Books ship from the US and Ireland. Bookseller Inventory # V9780099538295

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Book Description Windmill Books, 2013. Book Condition: New. 2013. Paperback. When Anna begins to mangle her sentences as a result of a brain aneurysm that could kill her at any moment, her husband Mike uses his talent as a graphic artist to draw his way closer to his wife. Trying to communicate with her, and himself too, through signs and symbols, he wants to show his wife that she has been his entire universe. Num Pages: 176 pages. BIC Classification: FA. Category: (G) General (US: Trade). Dimension: 199 x 131 x 12. Weight in Grams: 132. . . . . . . Bookseller Inventory # V9780099538295

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