Excerpt from ‘Advocate’


By Darren Greer

I was nineteen when I first stepped off the path that had been laid out for me. It seemed at the time, like most major decisions in life, arbitrary—coincidental even. I had no idea that one decision would colour the rest of my life, and move me away from my chosen field, mathematics, towards something far more difficult and less precise.


That decision came in the form of a course selection at the beginning of my second year of university. I was flipping through the course calendar in my tiny apartment on Brunswick Street in the Annex in Toronto, looking for an elective, something to round out my complement of courses and that was not related to mathematics. Most students took an art history course, something they could breeze through. For some reason, I found myself in the biology section and came across Virology 201.

I knew nothing about virology.

I knew nothing about biology.

I knew algebra, calculus, quadratic equations, and trigonometry.

But this course, virology, struck me as something that might be interesting. I did not realize at the time what my motivations were. I had been in the city for a year, and though I had come with the intention to study and explore, I had yet to meet anyone. Among the community I was nominally a part of, an epidemic was raging.

I was afraid. But I was also fascinated.

I registered for the course. It was a second year biology credit and I had not the prerequisites to get in. I had to obtain special permission from the instructor, who asked why a second year math student was interested in virology. His name was van Denker, a sixty-year-old balding Dutch man in a white lab coat. He had dirty fingernails, which I found out later were stained because of a dye used in the isolation of bacteria and other microbes in a Petri dish. He was sitting behind his desk when he asked me this question.

“I’m interested,” I said. “I know it’s not math, but I can’t help thinking that a working knowledge of microbiology couldn’t harm anyone.”

“No,” van Denker said, looking up at me. “But it usually doesn’t interest anyone either, besides microbiologists and medical students. Is there some aspect of the class that attracts you specifically?”

I didn’t answer him, though I’m sure he knew.

He gave me permission to take the course, though he warned me I would need a basic grasp of first year biology in order to excel. “Cellular theory, genetics, homeostasis,” he told me. “Are you prepared to learn all this in addition to the course material?”

I told him I was.

And I did.

I studied hard for that course, not so much to pass, but to understand. Van Denker took a personal interest in me. After class he’d sometimes stop by my desk to ask how “the mathematician” was doing. I gave myself away during the two classes we spent learning about HIV by asking more questions than the other students. When he first put a drawing of the virus on the wall with the mini-projector I held my breath. It was shaped like a dodecahedron and coloured green, with small barnacles all over it. It looked like a child’s toy, or a badly made Christmas ornament. That something so small could cause such significant trouble seemed almost a miracle in reverse.

“There you are,” I whispered, under my breath.

At the end of the year, van Denker asked if I had learned what I needed from the course.

“Very much,” I said.

“Your mark is excellent,” he said. “You can see it posted outside my office. Perhaps you’ll think about switching majors.”

“I don’t think so,” I told him.

Van Denker smiled. He knew, I believe, exactly where I was headed, and why, though he refrained from asking details. We said our goodbyes, and I never saw him again. But I never forgot his course, or his passion. To van Denker, viruses, which he often called the “antithesis of symbiosis,” were a puzzle, an intellectual pursuit of the grandest order. He saw nothing personal in them.

To me they were the enemy.

“I think you should come home,” my mother says when she calls the first Thursday evening in July. “The doctors think your grandmother is dying.”

My mother says this practically every time she calls now. She is not being alarmist. My grandmother is so often sick that the doctors are always predicting this week or that will be her last. She is ninety-one. She has congestive heart failure, a buildup of fluid around her heart. She feels weak and tired all the time. She sometimes finds it difficult to breathe. There are days she does not get out of bed. Her eyes are too weak to read or knit, and she is too tired to go anywhere. She does not have Alzheimer’s; she is spared that final indignity of having to be spoon-fed while her mind unravels like an untamed thread from a spool. What she does have is mild old-age dementia. She forgets names and faces, dates, and sometimes her own family. The last time I was home she did not know who I was. When I kissed her cheek, wrinkled and dry as parchment, and stood back, she looked up at me slyly, but without recognition, as if to ask who was this strange man taking liberties with her?

I ask my mother what makes this time different from all the other times the doctors were prognosticating death.

“She has a lung infection,” says my mother. “And her heart has slowed down. She’s on oxygen. She’s rarely awake. Dr. Willis says her body is shutting down.”

“Is she in the hospital?”

“She’s home,” says my mother. “By the time we caught the infection she was too weak to move. And Dr. Willis believes if she is going to die, she would rather be at home than anywhere else. Jeanette’s taken some time off work to be with her, and a VON nurse comes every day. I really think you should come home and say your goodbyes.”

I have a lot of resentment against my grandmother. We all do. And although old age and her condition make it harder to express, it’s still there, like a subcutaneous wound. But this has never stopped me from going home before. I go at Christmas, and sometimes during the summer. I am not like my Uncle David, who left in 1969 before I was born and did not come home until 1984.

I have never discussed my work with my grandmother. Not once has she asked me about it, though she knows from my mother and Aunt Jeanette what I do. She also knows about my personal life, that I have turned out different, that I have become what she sometimes refers to as “a man of questionable demeanour.” This euphemism of my grandmother’s has made its way around my office, as I once told a colleague about it. He was delighted, and though that was years ago I still hear men in my office refer to themselves and their co-workers this way. At the outreach centre, we are all, for the most part, “men of questionable demeanour.” A few of the women have demeanour issues of their own.

My grandmother would no more ask me about this than she would my bowel movements. She was raised in a culture of denial and ignorance, and she did her best to instill those values in the generations who followed.

She failed.

In the work I do we do our best to smash denial, to root out ignorance.

I make absolutely no promises about going home to see my grandmother on her deathbed. My mother asks me to give one good reason why.

“You keep saying she’s going to die,” I say. “But she keeps hanging on. I suspect she isn’t as sick as you said.”

This is a lie, and my mother knows it.

“It’s a miracle she’s still alive. Stop dithering. You’ll have to come home sometime. Even if it’s after she dies, for the funeral.”

“But my work …” I start to say, but my mother cuts me off.

“Don’t give me that, Jacob. You can get a week or two off work. I bet you have six weeks of vacation don’t you?”

Seven, I could tell her.

Normally my mother and I don’t discuss my job. I am bound by codes of confidentiality. My mother finds it difficult to discuss. I am a counsellor at a men’s outreach centre in the city.

My mathematics degree is a running joke among my colleagues. I can explain Fermat’s Last Theorem and deal with radicals and imaginary numbers. But my education does not make me a better counsellor. The language of the psyche is so much more inexact than the language of the material universe. When our office receives copies of the epidemiological reports on sexually transmitted diseases, they are given to me to decipher and present to the staff in plain language. For this reason alone I am a valuable employee, which is good, for I frequently wonder about my abilities as a counsellor. My words and advice seem so feeble in relation to what these men are going through. Some use drugs. Some live on the streets. They have no idea how to protect themselves from the machinations of the world they live in.

I have never lived in this world. I grew up sheltered. I’ve always had a home. I went to university. How can I know what it is like for these men, who every day wake up to face another nightmare?

Men have died on my watch.

I watch them, growing thinner and sicker with every visit to my office, until one day they don’t come at all and we hunt them down on the streets or in hospitals, eventually to go to their funerals. The courses I took at community college were at what I used to think of as the fuzzy end of the social sciences. Like most science students, I had a well-rounded contempt for anything that didn’t resolve. But I set aside this prejudice for the sake of my studies, and by my third year I had decided that, though I would get the math degree, I would likely work in the counselling field. I studied addictions, family abuse, and disease management. I took part in mock sessions, suicide prevention courses, and youth sensitivity training. Our studies were hands-on, our instructors both passionate and practical. We were being trained to make a difference. In the final year of my math degree I already had a part time job on a suicide hotline. By the time I finished I would work at a youth shelter for two years before finally getting this position at the outreach for men living with HIV.

My mother was proud of me, though confused. She couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the serious, solemn boy who was going to be a mathematician.

I could have told her I was still serious and solemn. Only the mathematician had been lost. By day I was trying to help others. At night I came home and tried to make sense of my life.

“That’s about par for the course,” my mother said. She worked at a diner in Advocate and had since I was a child. “Did you think I wanted to be a waitress for the rest of my days?”

I was often reminded of van Denker and his passionate descriptions of viral replication and DNA incorporation by integrase enzymes. He would explain something to us in the most technical of terms and then turn around and face the class — an auditorium full of students with neutral or bored expressions — and say, “Don’t you see how amazing this all is?”

I think one of the reasons van Denker liked me is that I reminded him of himself. I wasn’t there to fulfill a course requirement, or ace a credit. He sensed passion in me, even if it was perverse, or misguided. Sometimes, when he asked “Don’t you see?”, he would look at me, and I would nod as if I did.

I didn’t.

The miracle of cellular function and pathogens escaped me. I wanted only to know the how and why. I was studying the virus not because it fascinated me but because I was frightened of it. Whenever I picture the virus swimming in the bloodstreams of my clients, I think of millions of those little dodecahedrons as I saw them in van Denker’s class, waiting to swarm and overcome the first T cell to cross their path. I can’t help but think of his words: “A virus is the opposite of symbiosis.” I thought, by learning about it, I would conquer my fear. All learning about it did was clarify my fear. It is knowledge that has undone me.

“So just tell me,” my mother says finally. “Why aren’t you coming?”

There is silence on the phone while my mother waits. I decide to tell her part of the truth. “If I came home,” I say, “I’d be afraid I’d tell Grandnan what I thought. I’m afraid I’d ruin her last days on earth.”

“Is that all?” says my mother. “We’ve been telling her the truth for years, and she doesn’t pay any attention. It’s unlikely she’d start now, particularly as she’s asleep most of the time.”

“Well, you wanted a reason,” I say. “I gave you one.”

“It’s a bad one,” says my mother. “I want you to talk to your boss tomorrow and book your flight home.”

I relent. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

When I explain to Anne, my supervisor, in her office at the end of the next day that I am leaving, she asks if I am close to my grandmother.

“I grew up in her house,” I say. Which is not exactly a direct answer.

“You must be very sad,” she says.

I surprise myself, by telling the truth. “Not really,” I say. “She was a difficult woman, and I hold a lot of things against her.”

Anne shouldn’t be surprised. She deals with counsellors all day, and we have a tendency to practise what we preach. We spill our guts at the slightest provocation. But I am not normally one of these.

“Well, I hope this visit resolves some of those issues,” Anne says. “Death has a way of healing, whether we want it to or not.”

“Thanks,” I say, leaving her office and heading home. I make dinner, read a book, think about Advocate. At ten o’clock the phone rings and I can see by the display it is my mother. I answer and give her my flight information.

“Aunt Jeanette will pick you up,” she says. “I have to work.”

“Fine,” I say.

“And don’t think,” says my mother, as if we were still having the conversation of the evening before, “I don’t know what it is you want to tell your grandmother. I’ve been wanting to say the same thing for years.”

“And have you?” I ask.

“No,” my mother admits. “It’s too painful. And she has never mentioned it.”

“You understand why I might have to,” I say. “My job. What I do. It’s affected my whole life.”

“That was a terrible time,” my mother says absently. “I don’t like to think about it.”

“None of us do,” I say. “That’s the problem. That’s how they got away with it for so long. But someone should hold them accountable.”

“By ‘they,’” asks my mother, “who do you mean?”

“All of them,” I say. “The whole town.”

“You’re going to speak to the whole town? What are you going to do? Hold a public meeting? No one would come.”

“I know, but someone should try.”

“My son,” says my mother wistfully. “My marvellous son. Where did you get the idea you have to save the whole world?”

This excerpt is taken from the novel Advocate by Darren Greer and published by Cormorant Books, Toronto. Copyright © 2016 Darren Greer. Used with the permission of the publisher.

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Darren Greer

Darren Greer grew up in several towns in Nova Scotia, including Greenfield and Liverpool. He studied literature at the University of King's College, Halifax, as well as Carleton University, Ottawa. His first novel, Tyler’s Cape, was published in March 2001 to critical acclaim and was on the bestseller list of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Still Life with June was nominated for the Pearson Readers’ Choice Award at The Word On The Street, Toronto, in 2003 and is the Winner of the 2004 ReLit Award. His novel Just Beneath My Skin was nominated for the Dartmouth Book Award and won the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize.