Pill-Sorting for Dummies

Judy McFarlane

First Night

Jack tilts back on his chair, balancing on two legs. A circle of smoke drifts up from a saucer beside him. “Need a big purple job,” he says. Kenny, your younger brother, slings a monster purple pill across the kitchen table. Jack slots the pill into a bright pink container. “Blood regulator,” he says. He flicks two yellow minis across to Kenny, who uses his soft belly like a bumper pad. “Blood pressure.” Kenny has his own container, milky white. Two days’ worth is what they try to have ready, Jack’s told you. In case things get busy.

“Green gel caps, three.” Jack squishes these into a slot. “Wards off—” he sings his next word—“Con-sti-pa-tion.” He picks up a small brown pill between his thumb and forefinger. “And these,” he whispers, “are the real magic. Morphine.” Jack’s voice flattens. “Two now. One more than last week.”

Jack takes a drag, exhales a perfect circle and smashes the stub against the saucer. Kenny swats the circle out of existence. “Christ,” he says, his plaid shirt popping open mid-belly. “She always hated that.”


The same twin beds they’ve had for years. Except now your mother’s is an electric hospital model, here on loan. She’s propped up by several pillows, her still dark hair fanned out around her head. Eyes closed. You listen. When it’s close, her breathing will change. Deepen. Spread out. There’ll be gaps as wide as a continent between breaths. At least that’s how Jack described it to you.

Your father pads in, clutching the waist of his blue-striped pyjamas, as if they might fall down any moment. From his other hand, a half-empty mug of tea dangles. He gives you a nod, polite, as if he knows he’s seen you before, and looks at your mother.

“Katie?” His voice soft. “How are you?” He smoothes her hair away from her face, a splash of tea missing her by inches. “Katie?”

Yesterday her eyes flicked open twice. Today, so far, nothing. A red mottle forms along one side of your father’s neck. “Katie.” His voice tight. Menacing. You step toward him, but Jack is there, out of nowhere, grabbing your father’s arm.

“Hey,” he says, stepping in front of him and shoving him back hard with the flat of his hand. “None of that old crap, you hear me?” Your father stumbles, muttering as he shuffles out of the room.

“What’d he say?”

Jack shrugs. “Useless twit. Maybe useless tit. Either way,” he says, turning to you now with bright eyes, “the same fucking no-good son he’s always had.”


Pill-sorting again. Jack dumps out the pills that didn’t get used, and starts to separate them by colour. As he pushes a mound of big purple ones towards you, the phone rings.

“For you,” says Jack. A saucer beside him, the same lazy drift of smoke.

“Yeah,” Kenny agrees. “My family forgets I’m alive.”


“Mum?” It’s your eight-year old daughter, Jessie. “Mum, Mum,” she starts. Your cue to pay close attention. “I got the lead. I’m Harriet!”


“Mum.” There’s no faking with this girl. “The play my class is doing. ‘Harriet the Hamburger.’”

“You’re a hamburger?” Jack lifts an eyebrow at Kenny.

Jessie’s already mastered jaded teenager. “Mum. It’s about the human digestive system. I get eaten and then—”

“Is this a speaking part?”

“Mum. I talk all the way to the end.”

You wince.

Jessie sighs. “You have to make Harriet. So she can fit on my hand and talk.”

“Like a real talking hamburger,” you say. Almost identical smiles flit across your brothers’ faces.

Despite her flashes of disdain, your daughter still thinks you can do anything. Your heart sinks. “Jessie,” you begin. “I can’t do that right now.” Silence. She’s waiting you out. “But,” you try again, your voice pitching up into an unnatural perkiness, “your father is a whiz with a glue gun.” Jack grins down at the table.

“Dad hates stuff like that.” The truth of her words renders you momentarily silent. Across from you, your brothers have filled both pill boxes, and are half-heartedly flicking the leftover pills back and forth across the table.

“You’re going to have to ask him, Sweetie.” You can almost hear your daughter saying, as she will soon enough, “Don’t ‘Sweetie’ me,” but instead, she starts to cry. It starts like a low static on the line and builds quickly to distinct sobs. You want to remind Jessie why you’re here, that her grandmother needs you, that you don’t know when you’ll be back. But you say nothing. Just listen to her breath become ragged, and finally, in a lull between sobs, you say again, “Ask your father,” and she whispers, “Okay.”


Your mother’s young doctor arrives. Jack’s told you she’s new in town, just set up her office, and he’s heard some people don’t think there’s any place for a damn lesbian doctor here. She takes off her rain jacket and nods at you. “Karen Paul,” she says, already walking down the hallway.

“Lenore,” you say to her back. At your mother’s bedside, Dr. Paul warms a stethoscope with her breath, places it against your mother’s neck, and listens. You hold your breath as all sound goes out of the room. You sense Jack and Kenny behind you, your father padding around in the kitchen.

Dr. Paul lets the stethoscope fall. “Her pulse is weak and slow.” You all wait. What next? How long? Dr. Paul looks at each of you, as if assessing your combined abilities to absorb what she knows.

“At the end of life,” she begins, and then she talks in a low voice about organ failure, how there’s a sequence, a shut-down procedure the body has worked out over the centuries. You hear it and you don’t, the names flitting into your head and out. Kidneys, liver, lungs, heart. But you hear her last words. “Soon,” she says, “your mother won’t be able to swallow pills.” She scribbles something on a pad, rips it off, and pushes it into your hands. “Liquid morphine,” she says. “So you can top up when the pain spikes out of control.”


Advanced pill-sorting. Your brothers now trust you with two mounds. Green gel caps and yellow minis. You push your mounds into lines, green-yellowgreen, play with them like beads. Jack goes to the fridge and takes out six Kokanees, landing them like a six-pack in the middle of the table. He pulls a bottle-opener from his vest and starts uncapping. “Glass?” You shake your head, take a brown bottle, and the three of you clink together.

“Fuck,” says Kenny, “What is the point?” He flicks a few pills across the table.

Jack stares at his beer, picking the label, his face unreadable. Then he glances up with that look that never failed to grab you as a girl. Eyes bright, glistening almost, mouth slightly open, ready. A look that says anything can happen now. He glances at you, at Kenny, and starts to fire pills across the room. Kenny grins. Bends his head and flicks a curved finger. You join in. Pills ping off the stove, the fridge, a hailstorm of high-priced Smarties. In seconds, it’s over. Kenny squeezes his eyes shut and tears roll down his cheeks. You start to stand when he opens his eyes and you see he’s laughing. Jack fishes in his pocket and pulls out a rumpled Kleenex. “Here,” he says, shoving it at Kenny, “wipe the snot, Man.”

The phone rings. Jack and Kenny both turn to you. “Harriet calls,” sings Jack.

You pick up.

“Mum, Mum.” Jessie’s voice low, like she doesn’t want anyone to hear. “Sweetie, what are you doing up? It’s so late.”

“Dad can’t do it. He doesn’t know how.” Your brothers are padding around on their hands and knees, capturing pills.

“Well,” you say, stalling. “What about Lynn? Or Carmen?” You name friends who like to sew—imagine, they do it for fun—friends who are the kind of crafty mother you will never be. The low static starts. You talk over it. “It doesn’t matter who makes Harriet.”

Jack bumps your knee with his shoulder and mouths up at you, “Oh, yes it does.”

You turn away from him. Jessie’s breathing becomes ragged and in a lull between sobs, you say, “Just ask Dad, okay?” Jessie makes a small sound, one you want to believe is agreement and before she can say anything else, you hang up.


You sit on a chair pulled up to the side of your mother’s bed, holding her hand, bony and cool now. You talk in a soft voice, tell her about pill-sorting at night with Jack and Kenny, about Jessie and her phone calls, about Harriet. You don’t know yet that when you’re finally home, you’ll find Harriet on your daughter’s floor under a layer of bunched-up clothes, that you’ll pick her up, put your hand into her, and marvel at how your husband has crafted felt ketchup and mustard tongues and a hinged pantyhose bun. That you’ll hold Harriet up to your face, stare at her lolling tongues, her perpetually surprised black permanent marker eyebrows, and think about saying, “So Harriet, where the hell were you when I needed you?”

But instead, you set her on your daughter’s pillow, where she stares back at you, as if she might say, “About time you showed up.”

You watch your mother’s eyelids, looking for movement, but there’s nothing. Your father wanders in, clutching his pyjama bottoms and dangling yet another cup of tea. He stands at the foot of the bed, staring, and then pads out. Kenny comes in and slides down the wall, sitting with his head tilted back, studying the stucco ceiling. Jack appears with a pot of coffee and a fistful of mugs. He sets them on the dresser and starts to pour when your father reappears, stark naked. You stare, as if you’re seeing him for the first time. He’s small and pale, his knees like misshapen growths on his skinny legs. Eyes red-rimmed. “What’s going to become of me now?” he asks.

Jack stares for a moment, then slowly puts the coffee pot down, as if it’s become a fragile thing in his hands. His mouth pulls sideways, and you wonder if he’s going to erupt in some way. But he turns to your father and says in an even tone, “You’re going to get bloody cold like that.” He pulls off his vest and drapes it around your father’s shoulders, pulling it close. Against the wall, Kenny’s face is red, scrunched tight. You squeeze your mother’s hand, almost without realizing what you’re doing.

Jack takes your father’s cup and sits it on the dresser. “So where’s those fancy blue-striped PJs of yours?” he asks.

“Oh,” your father says, his face brightening, “They’re around somewhere. I didn’t lose them.”

Your mother interrupts with a deep raspy breath. You all turn. Your father sits down on the side of the bed and pulls an edge of quilt over his bare legs. In a moment, you sense a new stillness. No air left in the room. You stare at your mother. Her mouth open, eyes fixed. You wait, unable to breathe. Seconds pass, become minutes. Nothing.

Kenny covers his eyes. Jack leans back against the wall, looking nowhere, his face unreadable. You haven’t seen him cry since he was eight and your father chased him upstairs, belt in hand. Your father pulls the quilt around himself and stands up, moving to your mother’s head and bending down, dropping a kiss on her forehead. “Katie,” he says, his voice low, “Girl of my dreams.” He pushes a strand of dark hair back from her face, letting his hand rest along her cheek. “She’s tired now,” he says. He unwraps himself and lays the bunched quilt on your mother, missing her thin legs and bony feet altogether.


You stumble into the kitchen to find Jack and Kenny already at the table, halfempty coffee mugs beside them. Your father is nowhere to be seen.

“Hey,” Jack looks at you and picks up his cigarette. He sweeps a hand across the piles of colour-sorted pills. “Trying to decide what to do with all this shit.”

Kenny raises his mug to you as he wraps both hands around it. “Flush it,” he says.

Jack looks up sharply at him. “You nuts?” There’s stuff here—” His hand floats over the piles, stopping on the morphine. “These,” he says, smoke rising from the saucer, “these are like gold. Whatever gold is worth these days.”

You stare at him, at Kenny, at the piles of pills. You never want to see any of it again. You hope no one, not your daughter or anyone else, has to sort pills for you. But Jack keeps staring at you in that way he has, like he won’t take no for an answer and you’ve never been able to resist that look.

“So,” you say, sitting down, “we’re going to just split up the morphine, right? Junk the rest?”

Jack smiles, moves a deft hand. “Twelve,” he announces. “Four each.”

Kenny stands up. “Forget it,” he says, scooping up the pile and leaving the kitchen. A moment later, a flush. Jack looks at you, shrugs. Kenny reappears, sits down without a word.

“Good work, Scout,” says Jack.

“Shut up, Asshole.” Kenny smiles, opening one hand to reveal four brown pills cradled in his palm. “One each,” he says. “Including him. For tonight.”

Your father shuffles in. He picks up the kettle, gives it a measuring heft and sets it on the stove. “Anyone see Katie leave this morning?” He looks at the three of you. He’s forgotten the black-suited men from the funeral home who arrived late last night, the way they closed the bedroom door and spent an hour with your mother, before exiting with her on a looselydraped stretcher.

You stare at him. One of you will have to tell him. You will try to ease him into the truth, but he’ll ask again and again until you finally blurt out, “She’s dead.”

“Oh,” he’ll say, sitting down like he’s been knocked backwards. He’ll take a moment, turn to you, his eyes suspicious. “How did that happen?” he’ll ask.

Weeks Later

Jessie curls in an armchair beside you, her head on your shoulder in her still occasional little girl mode. She chews a strand of her long dark hair, twirls another around her fingers.

“You’re never going to die, right, Mum?” The end of Jessie’s long dark hair falls out as she talks.

Without warning, you’re back with your mother, remembering how you bent close to her face and whispered like there was no tomorrow, I love you. How she whispered back as if saying one long word, I love you I love you I love you. How you jerked away, not believing what you’d just heard, didn’t tell your brothers for fear the telling would confirm you’d only imagined it.

You pull the wet strand back from Jessie’s face. “Never’s a long time.”

Jessie sits up now and turns to face you. “Never, never, never,” she sings, taking your face in both hands and squeezing hard, so your lips push together until you’re a human fish. “You look funny,” she says, and then she leans in, nose to nose, so close you catch a faint whiff of peanut butter. “You,” she commands, her dark eyes holding you, “you will live forever.”

Judy McFarlane's non-fiction has appeared in The Globe and MailThe Vancouver Sun, and on CBC. She has an MFA from UBC and is a writer-in-residence working with students who write plays about issues in their lives.

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