I’d only been at my parents’ house in England for fifteen minutes when my father took me aside, as though he didn’t want to embarrass me, and asked why I was spelling my name with a z instead of an s. His emails to me had been bouncing back. I noticed a hollowness in his torso which had shrunk his frame, so that we were now the same height. He cocked his head to one side as he waited for my answer—a favourite posture of his.
“I haven’t changed the spelling; it’s always been a z.” I said.
“No, it’s with an s I think.”
Behind his reasonable, fatherly voice, a question mark etched itself in my breastbone. Then a familiar childhood slipping sensation that I’d done something idiotic, that somehow I’d been writing my name wrong for over half a century, that my father was, in his usual understated way, putting me right.
“All my documents have a z. That’s the normal spelling of Elizabeth in English.”
“Oh,“ he blinked his frank blue eyes, sounding wistful, “I thought it was s.”
Two thoughts kicked through my jetlag from the transatlantic flight. One: his cognitive decline has sped up since my visit for his ninetieth birthday last year. Two: what if I were Elisabeth, the way it’s spelled and said in French?
E-LEE-sa-bet. Yes, this name suggests elegance and liveliness, a sophistication I’d never had with a z. Alternative pronunciation—another person. Disconcerted that my father might have wished for a different child, I searched within for that daughter’s supple grace, but found only the zings of someone trying too hard.
The next day, as I swung into eldercare cleaning and organizing, I day-dreamed other childhoods. Parisian Elisabeth wore perfectly fitting jeans with the insouciance of a runway model. Swiss Elisabeth skied down sparkling slopes, blonde hair flying under a multicoloured toque. Vivacious Italian Elisabeta perched on her red Vespa in a tight skirt and heels and sped off to meet her boyfriend in the piazza.
Teenage Elisabeth sashayed through life like a salsa dancer. She did not cycle to school four days out of five in the driving English rain or struggle to tame her frizzy hair. The beaches she basked on were sandy, not pebbly. Boiled cabbage never appeared on her dinner plate. The friends of Elisabeth called her Lisa or Lise or Bella instead of Liz or Lizzy or Bess; names with a rise to them, not a heavy English plod.
My parents wanted everyone to call me Elizabeth when I was growing up but couldn’t stop my friends using diminutives. In fact, they had chosen a name with multiple variations. Bess, Bessy, Beth, Bettina, Betty, Elise, Ellie, Eliza, Elsa, Elsbeth, Lilibet, Lise, Lisa, Liz, Lizbeth, Lizzie—it’s a long list.
“No one by that name lives here.” My father would bark when he answered the telephone and a schoolmate asked for Liz. “Ah, you mean is Elizabeth in?” was my mother’s gentler version of the same conversation. My father’s spelling confusion forty years on had highlighted the dichotomy between childhood Elizabeth at home and Liz outside it. With people who called me Liz, I was what the name sounds like: dependable, friendly, uncomplicated, doesn’t take up too much room. At home as Elizabeth, my longer name bore greater expectations.
Growing up, I’d basked in my father’s loving attention on the rare occasions he was available to give it to me. He was in the Navy and away for long periods. But now I recall a hum of tension when he was home, how my desire to be perfect for him often tripped me into imperfection. I only ever dropped dishes when he was present, only fell off my bike when he was riding with me, only fumbled my piano recital when he was in the audience. Though never articulated, a shake of the head, exasperated tut or sigh spoke of his love as well as his disappointment. I believe he wanted awkward child Elizabeth to become suave Elisabeth for my sake, not his.
“Elizabeth! How lovely to see you.” My father stood on the front doorstep next to a blushing red azalea bush and held out his arms in welcome. I knew he was expecting me because he was wearing a Nova Scotia tartan tie in my honour. The four evenly spaced syllables of my name were as broad and comforting as his embrace.
A flush of relief that he’d remembered my visit warmed through me. I hadn’t been sure. Communication from Canada had been shaky in the last year as navigating telephones and technology became difficult for him. My mother had lost the knack years before, her short-term memory decline gradually pushing her into ‘now’ or ‘long ago’, the recent past evaporating after a few minutes.
My siblings and I were trying to ensure our parents could stay in their own home and be as independent as possible, which was their wish. My father was experiencing physical and cognitive decline at an exponential rate. There was little time—or capacity on my parents’ part—to have meaningful dialogue while I was in England. In the daytime I researched, organized, liaised, requested, persuaded, using my communication skills to get things done. In the funerial fall evenings, I mourned the loss of conversation.
I missed my father telling stories of his adventurous career, debating population control with him, or getting him to explain how hydrofoils work. Although some discussions had become bizarre in the past few years, last visit we had explored the phenomenon of quantum entanglement in physics. Now, my father lived in emotion rather than thought. He got upset easily, sometimes with the caregivers, sometimes with himself, often because he had forgotten something, or was anxious he would.
The Elisabeth email situation from the year before still bothered him, and he pulled me over to his old desktop computer to see if I could magically keep the spelling he wanted, s instead of z, but not have his emails to me bounce back. A lot was riding on that s for my father, so I bent over the keyboard and said yes while doing no. Oh, so this is how it goes, I thought. This is what experts suggest you do with people with dementia; never disagree. He leant over my shoulder as I pretended to correct the problem, his weight slumped onto blue-veined knuckles. Crumbs from his tea biscuit clung to his sweater. He huffed out a stale breath of disappointment.
His mournful exhalation did it. Such a small thing—as small as one letter in a name—chock full of significance. Behind my ribcage a little teeter totter rocked up and down and finally rested on z. It had more heft because, despite my desire to fulfill my father’s hopes at the end of his life, I was—am—what is written on my birth certificate: Elizabeth.
With a few false starts, I’d grown into my full name successfully after I left home. For my first teaching job in France I decided to be Elizabeth. I was in my twenties and had a baby-face; I needed gravitas in front of students twice my age. This version of me would be confident and daring, would live in a foreign country and launch a career with assurance.
But Elizabeth is the wrong name to give a baby destined to be an English teacher to adults. What a tongue-twister for non-anglophones, with multiple syllables, many vowels, and a panic-inducing ‘th’ sound! “My name is Elizabeth,” I declared to my first class, “like the Queen.” Eight middle-aged Frenchmen shifted in their seats, crossed their arms, and swallowed in alarm. They knew the Queen of England’s name, they prayed they would never have to utter it in English. They called me ‘Mademoiselle’ thereafter. In Egypt, where I moved for my next teaching contract, my name emerged as a spluttering ‘Bisbis’, so I reverted to Liz.
Then my Egyptian boyfriend and I got married, emigrated to Canada, and I was Elizabeth. New country, new life, new name, non-negotiable.
“Do you go by—?”
“Mind if I call you Liz?”
“Yes, I do.”
My poor husband had to get his tongue around the pronunciation of Elizabeth while thinking of me as Liz. Sometimes he said “E-liz-a-beth” in a tone which implied I was putting on airs with that fancy name and could I please be normal Liz again.
There was no going back, however. I was stronger as Elizabeth, I could claim more space. The expansiveness of my name and of Canada allowed me to push outward as the wind presses into a sail, nosing into every crevice of limp sailcloth and nudging it to fullness. My given name gave me power to fulfil my own expectations.
Back in England, now a senior woman, I struggled to see myself through my father’s eyes. All I had was filaments of memories—slight threads veining a lifetime of interactions with this man. A brilliant inventor, engineer, adventurer, thinker, he had in common with his gawky daughter only a love of words dancing in poetry.
I saw his pursed lips as he tried and failed to help me pass my high school physics exam, his unspoken concern as I morphed from a slight, athletic girl into a lumpy, uncoordinated teenager. Recalled disappointment lurch into his expression when he offered to teach me to fly a hang glider, and I declined out of fear. Heard again his lecture on how to overcome my chronic adolescent shyness,
“We are social beings, Elizabeth. You must engage with other people. Ask them questions about themselves. That’s all they are interested in.”
He was right. Ultimately, we are all self-involved. So I decided, there at his desk, to give up exploring my father’s dissatisfaction—it wasn’t mine to worry about. All children, six or sixty, disappoint their parents. If I spent my life trying to be an s rather than a z for him, I would waste it.
In any case, the issue of spelling became irrelevant. Sometime in the two years between this visit and the next, my name would slip from my father’s mind altogether.
I rang the doorbell and heard the caregiver call out,
“Michael! They’re here. Come and open the door.”
Through the sitting room window I saw his stiffness as he rose from the chair, arms arched behind him. Between his shuffling the few feet down the hallway and opening the front door, I registered the brilliant soprano of a thrush singing in a nearby tree. A glorious sound alive with hope, it made me want to cry.
No greeting, no reaction when he opened the door to a daughter he hadn’t seen in two years. Gazing at me with those saturated sapphire eyes, as if waiting for instructions, my father did not call me by name then or in the following weeks.
Everyone had warned me:
“You’ll find him different.”
“There’s quite a change.”
“He’s sort of….absent.”
But that did not prevent the heartache of realizing that unless he addressed me as Elizabeth, I could not be sure he knew who I was. Please, I thought, a leadenness dropping through my spine, just say it once.
Shortly before the end of this visit, my father became agitated while waiting for a visitor. He flitted from door to window, repeatedly startling like a bird guarding its nest. To soothe him, I chose a favourite poem to read him. Only two verses into “The High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire, 1571” by Jean Ingelow, and he was quiet and engaged. It’s a tragic tale about a young wife, Elizabeth, and her children, drowned in a river flood while bringing the cows home for milking.
A rush of anticipation rose through me like the trill of a songbird as my father began to recite the last lines of each verse with me. He sat upright, one hand beating the rhythm of the words on his thigh. We came to “And sweeter woman ne’er drew breath/Than my sonne’s wife, Elizabeth,” and I listened to his still-sonorous voice and remembered how it was when my father spoke my name.
I have to pre-arrange calls to my parents with the caregiver, or the phone rings unanswered.
She goes to rouse my father, snoozing in his chair.
“Michael, phone call.”
He passes a hand over his face, yawns, then stares without comprehension at the phone.
“Talk to your daughter,” she brings the phone to his ear, “here.”
The caretaker is a young woman from India with a musical accent. When she says my name I become, if not the child my father desired, at least the daughter I would like to be.
“It’s E-lees-a-bet,” she tells my father, “Calling from Canada. Your daughter, Elisabeth.”
Elizabeth Collis grew up in England and now lives in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her creative writing has appeared in Ellipsis Zine, The Good Life Review, Progenitor Art and Literary Journal, Tangled Locks Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, The South Shore Review, and elsewhere. This year she won the Nova Writes H.R. Percy Short Creative Non-Fiction Prize. Find more online at http://www.elizabethcollis.com and on Twitter @ElizabethCollis