Though I intended that day to be the start of my new life, little did I know the way it would shape my future. It was a sunny June morning. The den’s bay window wrapped around the sofa. The tree cast a shadow on my bare feet as they lay on the sofa cushion. I moved them over a few inches into the sunlight. The warmth felt good on my skin.
I always sat there to write my papers. My legs stretched across the sofa. My laptop resting on me. I loved being surrounded by the natural light.
It had long been my dream to be a writer. When the time came, I imagined the words would come easily, as they always had. There would be a continuous pecking on the keyboard as the story flowed. The creativity wasn’t as I hoped it would be that morning. It had been almost a half hour since I powered up. Nothing came. No ideas. No words. This wasn’t just another essay for school, as I used to write in this spot. This was supposed to be the launch of my career as a writer.
Easily distracted, I starred at the mosaic pattern of the clear beveled glass window as the sunlight refracted into the room. If you looked straight at the window, you weren’t quite able to make out what was on the other side, but if you moved your head at the right angles, you could make out different features—even create them.
I could see the kite my seven-year-old son managed to get caught in the tree at the back of our yard. With a tilt of the head and a little imagination with some of the branches I could transform it into the giant squid from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
I was thirty-one when I decided to return to university. My life wasn’t what I hoped it would be. I wanted more, not more stuff. Even though society would say I, James Ramsden, had become successful, it wasn’t working for me. I was an architect about to be offered a junior partnership. I had the comfortable home, the sporty sedan, the understanding loving wife, and the two perfect children. Yet, architecture didn’t bring me the sense of fulfilment I longed for. I thought writing would. I wanted my hours spent at the drafting board to be an extension of who I was, not an interruption.
I wanted to write stories that moved people, not design buildings for people.
Though I enjoyed the financial rewards that came with my work, I felt guilty about putting aside my passion for writing. I had let too many distractions get in the way. We were doing well financially. Sandra had just become regional sales manager for the pharma company she had been with for the five years. We were in a good position to give this writing thing a chance.
Four years earlier, I decided to get a degree in English to help me become a writer to do what I had loved doing since I was a teenager. Whether it was for my diary, for short stories, for the high school paper, or for a blog I started a few years ago, I loved writing. I wanted to spend my days writing, not sitting uninspired at an architect’s table.
When I first spoke to my boss, Mr. Nakoneshny, about going back to school, he seemed supportive. To my surprise, instead of accepting my resignation, he suggested I work for the firm a few hours a week and full-time during the summer months. It was only after my graduation that I discovered his motive. He thought it was simply a phase, and when I had worked my way through it, I would return to the firm unencumbered by dreams of a different path.
The room, also known in the family as Dad’s Den, had been my sanctuary. My book collection had always made me feel at peace. I felt a connection to the books I had acquired over the years. I had loved writing my school papers on that sofa. I could always draw on the room’s spirit for inspiration. A spirit I imagined made up of the many characters and stories in the books I treasured.
Dad’s Den had the distinctive James Ramsden touch. Everything in its proper place. I had designed and built the wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling bookcase with painstaking detail. The books were all in their designated places, nothing as simple as an alphabetical listing. It was an intricate classification system according to genres, themes, authors, authors’ nationality, and of course, preference. There was one prerequisite for any book to be placed in my bookcase: it had to be what I considered true literary fiction. There was no place for the Danielle Steels or Nicholas Sparks of the world.
I remembered overhearing part of Sandra’s phone conversation with a friend.
“James is in his den. He’s retreated to his mountain for inspiration.”
I hadn’t been offended or hurt by the remark. In fact, I liked hearing it. I loved my den.
That morning was different. There was no inspiration.
I couldn’t write. Though everything seemed the same as when I used to write essays for school, the screen remained blank. That piece of writing was supposed to be the start of something exciting. I wasn’t trying to write a literary theory paper or an examination of tragic heroes in Shakespeare. That day I had been trying, with little success, to create my own art. I wanted to give birth to my own Elizabeth Bennett, Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch, or Holden Caulfield. I didn’t want to write about someone else’s.
That Saturday morning there were no distractions. There weren’t suppose to be any interruptions to my creative process. Sandra had left earlier with the kids to visit her parents for the weekend. She knew I would need a few quiet days as I officially began to pursue what I felt called to.
We had joked about it being official now. I was a writer.
Despite the stillness of the den, I couldn’t write. The room itself had become a distraction. My eyes panned across it, examining every detail. To my right was my bookcase. The wall to my left had an antique roll-top desk given to me by my grandfather when I graduated—the first time.
My two sons liked it, especially the drawers’ hanging brass handles. They’d always lift them up and clang them. My youngest, Kyle, the five-year-old, would bring his friends to the den to show them the desk. He liked opening and closing the roll-top for them. My seven-year-old, Nathan, once told me how cool my desk was. He wanted to sit at it do his schoolwork. I’d let him if he agreed to clean it for me now and then. I remembered how he’d always say, with excitement,
“Dad, can I clean your desk for you?” He’d smile in wait for my response. When I’d say, ok, he’d get straight to it with the enthusiasm only a seven-year-old could have for such a chore. After, I’d enjoy watching him do his schoolwork there. He was so proud of himself sitting at the big desk.
On the wall, above the desk, there was a new family portrait Sandra had hung earlier in the week. We had posed for it after our return from Disney World a few weeks prior. Everyone looked healthy, happy, and tanned. We had gone on a well-deserved holiday after I graduated Summa Cum Laude with my English degree. They all sacrificed a great deal during my time in school. The trip had been a treat each of us would surely remember for a long time. The week had been filled with laughter, screams on rollercoasters, swimming in the hotel pool, late night pizza in our room after a great day at the park, and the boys first airplane flights.
Just as my eyes returned to the keyboard, the doorbell rang.
I remember looking at my watch. It was ten-thirty, the usual time for the paperboy to collect his money. We were one of the few neighbourhoods I knew of that still had a paperboy who collected money every week. I took money from the jar on the desk and headed down the hall to the front door.
The door had the same glass pattern as the window in my den. It wasn’t the paperboy. The figure was too tall. As I came closer to the door, and tilted my head sideways, I was able to distinguish a hat—a policeman’s hat. My mind started to run through a list of possible reasons he might be at my front door: Did he have the right address? Had there been another robbery in the neighbourhood? I didn’t have any unpaid parking tickets. Or did I?
I opened the door. He was a tall slender policeman in his late-thirties, dark-brown freshly cut hair, with slight grey starting to come in on the sides, a clean shave, and a shiny gold-plated badge with his number, 451.
“Can I help you officer?”
“Yes, I’m officer Hendriks. Is James Ramsden here?”
There was no doubting it now. He had the right address. I don’t know why, but I imagined myself a criminal making a run for the back door.
“Yes, I’m James Ramsden.”
“Is your wife Sandra Ramsden?”
“Yes.” What could she possibly have done to get into trouble with the police? She wouldn’t throw litter on the floor at the movies, let alone break any law.
He didn’t say anything. We both stood in silence for a few seconds. It was awkward. For both of us.
I could see his hand shaking as he pulled out his small notepad from his shirt pocket. He rocked slightly from side to side to side, slowly. I saw the words move up from his Adam’s apple to his mouth.
He said, “I’m sadden to say, Mr. Ramsden, that your wife and children have been involved in a fatal accident.”
It wasn’t one of the scenarios I had imagined. Within milliseconds of hearing those words my stomach felt a wave of nausea. I felt weak. I put my hand up against the doorway to stabilize myself. I didn’t think I was going to faint, but I wanted to make sure.
I couldn’t think of what to say. I couldn’t move. For an instant I looked beyond him to the stillness one the street. It was empty. I remember thinking that odd for this time of day.
I said, “Pardon?” I don’t know why I said that. I had heard what he said. He repeated it. This time he emphasized that all three of them, as he looked down at his notepad,
Sandra. Nathan. Kyle.
Had succumbed to injuries from the accident.
In shock, I thought about the word succumbed. It was just a way to avoid saying they were dead. No one wants to have to say that to someone. I could tell he didn’t want to say it.
My entire body was getting warm. Sweat was forming on my brow. My thoughts were chaotic. Agony. Disbelief. Sandra’s face. I imagined all three of them covered in blood. A mangled car. Broken glass.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t. I didn’t.
I couldn’t move.
Alone. Vulnerable. Alone.
The officer stood awkwardly, not knowing what to say. His eyes watered. I could see how hard this was for him. I felt a connection to him, as if I had known him my whole life, old friends who had been through a lot together.
He saw what was happening to me. I could sense it in his eyes. He wasn’t looking away from me. He kept eye contact, even though he probably wanted to look away.
I wanted to cry in his arms.
I wanted to hold my family in my arms.
Sandra. Nathan. Kyle.
I wanted to be with them. I wanted to believe it wasn’t true. I wanted to ask him if he was sure—I knew better.
Even in the midst of my pain, I could see his. In a calm and assuring voice, he said, “Do you have anyone you want me to call for you?” He waited.
I said nothing.
I nodded, no.
Still overcome by the sadness and tragedy of the moment, he said, “I’ll need someone to come to the hospital to make an identification. If you’d like.” He paused. His eyes watered even more. I could see red quickly building in the white of his eyes. “It could be a neighbour or a friend. It doesn’t have to be you.”
The cold black reality of death seized me. I could see them in the morgue. All alone.
I wanted to be there.
I don’t recall getting into the policeman’s car. I only remember realizing I was in the back seat on the way to the hospital. The other cars on the highway seemed to be illusions. I imagined us driving through them and coming out alive—why didn’t they?
The hospital wasn’t far away. It should have been a short ride.
I sat staring out the car window down at the road, watching the white lines race by, believing I had wasted the last four years of my life. Why did I throw that time away? I thought of all the hours I had spent writing essays, reading Shakespeare, Austen, Ondaatje, Atwood. What could they possibly have to say that mattered more than the time I could have spent with my family?
I wanted to take it all back.
To relive those hours, spend time with Sandra, Nathan, and Kyle. I thought about earlier that morning when I couldn’t write. I had no talent, that’s why nothing was coming. I had been neglecting my family, pursuing a useless degree. I wanted to be playing in the backyard with my boys. I had no desire to ever be in my cell with my books, where I could only hear the giggles and gut-busting laughter as distant memories. I pictured myself breaking the windows in the den, jumping up on the sill wanting to scream, but not knowing what to scream. Knowing there were screams inside me.
I had tried to spend quality time with them. I knew there would be no time now—of any kind. I felt betrayed.
I felt like the betrayer.
It’s been six months since that Saturday morning. My memories about the funeral are too fresh, and too sacred, to write about. Sandra had always been a private person. I shall leave that time as ours—hers—mine. Nathan’s. Kyle’s.
Now, I sit here looking at my bookcase. I don’t have the same resentment towards my books as I did for months after that horrible day. I wonder what place my books will have in my life now. They’re definitely part of my past. Will they ever inspire me to write? Will I ever want to write anything else? Or is this it?
As I move the mouse to save the file, I realize there’s something missing in my bookcase. It’s in the small bookcase next to Sandra’s dresser. One of her books. I go get it.
I place it randomly on one of the shelves in my bookcase. Now everything is right.
The book, Nicholas Sparks’ The Longest Ride.