stepping back

I’m in the Old Port of Montreal, standing under a blue sky on a scorcher of a summer day, looking up at a man patting chalk on his head. The man’s name is Max, and he stands twelve feet in the air on stilts fixed to the ground and secured by stage rigging. He is a circus porter. In front of him, on the ground about fifteen feet away, are three men. Two of the men lock their hands to the wrists and create a woven square at the end of their arms. In one fluid motion, the third man steps onto their locked hands, and they thrust him into the air. He stretches out his arms and flies toward Max. His name is Briscoe. He is a circus flyer.

The two of them are performing as part of a circus spectacle happening on the waterfront docks in a tourist part of the city. I have been lucky enough to witness this particular act a few times over the past few of years. However, this was the first time I have seen them launch Briscoe up into Max’s waiting hands to start the show. An elegant touch, I say to myself.

Briscoe flies

I know both of these men, Max and Briscoe. But I know Briscoe not by his performing name, but as Nathan. That is the name given to him at birth by his mom. By Susan.

It has been three years since Susan died. It seems a distant memory on some days, and vivid and familiar on others. But mostly it has settled into being an extraordinary part of my life. I keep in random contact with Susan’s two sons. Often it is by way of text messages or social media. I manage to see Oliver, Nathan’s brother, two or three times a year. We’ll meet up for a coffee or a breakfast. Lately, that has meant outdoor get-togethers in all kinds of weather.

I saw Nathan last summer when he invited me to train with him in his back alley gym. It was a steamy July heat wave and I arrived at around 7 am. Nathan pulled out a homemade apparatus and I brought some weights. Working out with a circus performer is humbling and inspiring. I worked up quite a sweat just watching him do handstand push-ups on concrete cinder blocks. We finished off our training with a sparring session with boxing gloves (also a humbling experience!). Then we had a coffee, talked a bit about life during covid for a performer and how he was training each day with his circus cohort. Nathan was living with Oliver at Susan’s house, and we were sitting in her backyard. It had changed, like all of us since her death.  It was filled with workout gear and some construction materials from a project that Oliver had started. In the corner was an electric scooter. It was Nathan’s mode of transport, and he noted it was not working. I offered to take a look. Turns out there was a short in the battery cable, and it needed a new connector. Nathan was pretty happy to hear that it was a simple and affordable repair. I was happy that I could diagnose it so easily. I felt a bit like a dad at that moment.

Max  hurls Nathan into the air. Nathan twists and somersaults, then reaches out to Max’s grabbing hands. I stand with my arm around Wrenna, my new partner, looking up with awe at Susan’s son. There is nothing awkward about any of this. When I fell in love with Wrenna, Susan’s sons were some of the first people I shared the news with. They were both happy and, for Oliver’s part, maybe a bit relieved. It meant I was okay. I continue to marvel at the precision and strength and trust that the two performers display. I notice that they have built different breaks in between tricks. The costumes are different and so is the music. Gone is the pumping beat, replaced by a soulful melancholic moaning. I am happy and smiling and feeling so lucky and so blessed.

Max and Briscoe

Then Max chalks up his hands and pats some onto his head and hair. Oh, I think. I know what’s coming. Nathan is going to do a one-armed handstand on top of Max’s head. And that’s when my eyes start to fill up with water.

I met Nathan when he was fourteen. He was in a really hard period in his life, which made for a challenging time for Susan. A tumultuous year and a half. Nathan has always been really open about his issues with addiction, and he was fine with Susan writing about their struggles as they navigated those difficult times. I was witness to those struggles and I can say that Susan, even with all her capacity, was at a loss from time to time. She would sometimes cry in despair, frustrated at her inability to help him.  She tried lots of different strategies and would chase after him if he was hanging out with a rough crowd, or go looking for him in the night, but always with love and compassion.  Life turned a corner when Nathan entered rehab. The journey to get him there started out with some deception, of which I was an accomplice, and ended up with me taking a bus home from Cornwall, Ontario. The details of that adventure on the 401 were something that the three of us shared. And now it is just Nathan and me left with the memory.

While he was in rehab he auditioned for the circus school. He hadn’t done any circus or gymnastics training during those months, but he impressed the teachers and was invited to the school in Montreal that autumn. In June, he came home to Susan after a nine-month stay in rehab. He was different, older, more mature, and capable. Susan was still very cautious and careful with him. She had moved out of the neighbourhood to avoid any chances of Nathan meeting up with his old crowd. Over the summer he took some gymnastics classes and began training. In August, he started circus school. He threw himself into the work. Twelve, sometimes fourteen hours days, going to school, training, working out at home. Gradually he earned more and more of Susan’s trust and he, like his older brother Oliver had, moved out of her house at age eighteen. So much life lived in such a short period of time, it seems.

Susan and Nathan, May 2017

Nathan climbs up on Max’s shoulder and places his hand on Max’s head. In an instant the soles of his feet are skyward. A one-armed handstand is impressive, but especially so when it’s being performed on top of someone’s head eighteen feet above the ground. And the water keeps flowing from my eyes, and then I begin to tremble and shake. Nathan pushes himself off, flips around, and into Max’s grasp for another series of somersaulting tricks. My body is vibrating, I am sobbing and trying to catch my breath. Something is coming out of me or passing through me or waking up. Wrenna tightens her grip on me. I am filled with sorrow and sadness. Deep, forgotten grief. Not neglected, merely left alone. Nathan and Max finish their act, descend and drift off from the stage with other performers who have come to escort them away. They vanish, the music stops and the show is over. My sobbing has subsided and I am smiling again. Wrenna looks at me. I am not sure how she might feel with me getting lost in my grief for those moments. She smiles and holds me tight.

I wait a few minutes for Nathan and Max to return to tear down their equipment. I see Max first and give him a big hug. Then Nathan. I tell him he made me cry and we embrace. I can feel his powerful back and muscles, and then I just start crying. I’m holding him tight and he holds me. We are both crying in each other’s arms. I tell him I am so proud of him and so happy for him. I didn’t mention Susan, that I missed her, that I was sad she had to die, that she could not be here to see him fly, that he couldn’t look out into the crowd and see her beaming face, that the two of them couldn’t laugh and reminisce about the hard days, that he didn’t have his mom to call in a moment of need. I said none of that out loud, but it’s what my body was saying. I think Nathan felt all of that, and with his own tears he told me he missed her. And maybe he was allowing some of his own grief to resurface, and by inviting that deep loss to bubble up, it reminded him just how much she loved him. I told him I loved him and he responded in kind. And all the while, Wrenna stands nearby, watching me lost in an intimate moment with the son of my dead lover. And when I release Nathan, she is there to be with me. She glows and smiles, with her own wet eyes. Her actions allow me to recall my love for Susan without apology, to spill into grief and sorrow without shame.

I watch Nathan move with grace and purpose as he and Max wrap the equipment from the show. He smiles and jokes around with the riggers, a few other performers drift by to chat. One never knows when love will show up and rumble through the heart. Watching him perform and then during our embrace I stepped back into being the Roy who loved Susan, the man who walked with her as she moved toward her death.  Briscoe stepped back into being Nathan, the boy whose mom died. And the love between the two of us brought Susan back into our lives for a few precious, sad and beautiful moments.

Black eyed Susans and morning coffee

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dark times

Somewhere in March 2019, I landed softly in dark times. Perhaps that is the way most people find themselves hanging out with the black dog, I’m not sure. I know that I was managing my affairs at school, showing up for class and navigating the corridors of the university without any catastrophes.

A few months prior, I went to see my doctor, who had been helping me with some medication for sleep and anxiety in the weeks following Susan’s death. Sleeping had normalized and the anxiety was not nearly as fierce as before. However, I was quite listless. I felt like I was treading water. Not swimming, not drowning, but I was concerned a bit because sooner or later even the strongest swimmers tire out.

falling backward

My doctor wanted to get me off the Benzedrine drugs. The “benzos” are an effective anti-anxiety drug category but they are dependence-forming. She suggested I try zoloft, an SSRI antidepressant drug that is often used to manage anxiety. I started off at what she called a geriatric dose and pretty much remained there. It seems to help, it might even be a placebo effect, the dosage is so small. I had tried a litany of SSRI cocktails for depression about 8 years ago with no appreciable results and abandoned them. But the zoloft seemed to take a bit of the edge off things. And then my dearest friend (thanks Dan) began praising the merits of apple cider vinegar so I started drinking that kool-aid every morning. Zoloft at night, apple cider vinegar in the morning, meditation and gym workouts slotted in around the rest of my life.

my face of grief, image made shortly following Susan’s death

I was, however, horribly tired most of the time. Reading Week arrived near the end of February. Reading Week is a break in the university term, in which there are no classes and students can catch up on essays, homework and reading. Sardonically, when I did my undergraduate degree, it was known amongst students as Suicide Week. Meaning that it was the point in one’s academic year when the realization came that one had fucked up so badly, skipped too many classes, and was so miserably behind that all hope was lost as far as passing courses was concerned. I was briefly released from class preparation. I took a meeting with a research colleague in an effort to kindle my new project. That was all I managed. I had neglected to take notes and within a few days I had forgotten what we had discussed. By the start of classes the following week I was slipping. I know the low end of my mood has almost bottomed out when I start spending my evenings surfing vintage motorcycle sites. That’s been my go-to porn for the past 10 years, and it’s my tell on the state of my mental health. I spent my free time combing over images of pre-1969 BMW Airheads, Japanese muscle inline fours from the 70s, the coveted mid-70s Ducati 860 GTS, and of course The Vincent HRD. Once I have exhausted my usual browsing sites I drift into obscure stuff, like pre-WWII European engineering. Ooh la la!

I had been hitting the gym hard, less yoga, but I was eating well, consuming lots of protein and carbs. I think I had managed 8 days in a row of heavy lifting. But I wasn’t smiling. I recall training with Susan, sometimes at home, or the gym, or out at the high school track, and she was always, I mean always smiling. Sometimes the workout would be so intense that I would have to stop. And then I would watch her. She would be completing these strength exercises that I’m sure most MMA fighters couldn’t manage, and she would be smiling. She would smile at me, at her effort, at the beauty of being able to do the things she was doing. Marvel. It was something to marvel. But during my long stretch of physical training, I would catch my look in the mirror and I wasn’t smiling. I was the opposite of smiling. What is the opposite of smiling? Frowning? Grimacing? Sadness? Whatever it was, I was full of it. My mouth was tense, lines in my forehead pronounced, jaw clenched. My body was doing its best to respond to the effort I was demanding. But I felt and looked like I might explode into a million particles of dust. That’s a “tell”. I told myself to smile because the act of smiling can actually change how one feels. I smiled. Oh the horrors of that smile! I looked like the clown from the Stephen King movie.

Alone in my hobbit’s 4 ½, I could see I wasn’t doing so well. I could see it in the mirror and I could feel it from the inside. My internal awareness of such dark matter is quite sharp, but all the strategies I had for coping didn’t seem to alleviate anything. And when I couldn’t get it together, I began scolding myself. And self-scolding is another tell.

my left hand

Then the naps started.

Everyone loves a good nap. For me, I need to nap when my brain and my anxiety consume me and I become drained. One nap is probably healthy and everyone should take one. Five a day is not, which is where I was hovering. Five a day is a sign that some type of funk is not just coming, but has arrived. Being able to recognize the meaning of the naps is a good start, but it is often difficult to change directions. By this point the inertia glued my body and mind to the floor. Knowing one needs to address something is different than having the ability to actually carry it out. If you were ever addicted to anything, nicotine, alcohol, gambling, heroin, then you know of what I speak. Wanting to quit smoking cigarettes is about 1% of the effort required to actually pull that task off!

Saphira naps beside me at Susan’s.

Aware that the naps meant I had sunk further, I decided to ramp up the self-scolding for not being able to get my shit together. Always helpful to top up the inertia and depression with a bit of shaming.

While Susan was living while dying I developed a reflex of clenching my left hand, tight into a fist. Sometimes my forearm would be aching so deeply and only when looking at it would I realize I was clenching. I would release my fist and rub my forearm, unknotting the energy stored in those tight muscles. I suppose there are many interpretations as to what the clenched fist represented. For me it was a response to a fear of the moment, of my future sans Susan, some anger in there as well, but mostly a desire to hold onto Susan, a refusal to let her go, to let her die. After she died, this habit continued. My awareness of it was much quicker. But still, I was upset and curious about this. My body was reacting to things that were bubbling subconsciously. I was grieving as openly and as completely as I could, learning how to grieve as I went along. Grieving is a process of many things, and I felt I was coming to a point where I needed to do something important.

Otto Walker, board-track racer, photographer unknown (but thanks for the pic)

Then one night I descended deep into internet distraction. By now I was snooping around vintage board tracker motorcycles. That’s a fascinating period of motorcycle racing, circa 1915, in which large, oval, steep banked tracks made of wood were raced on. The motorcycles had only a throttle and a kill switch. No brakes. It must have been thrilling to ride and watch in spite of the fact that people died on those tracks. The need to connect and interact with others is a tendency of mine (and most others I imagine) and so I started emailing strangers on motorcycle auction sites to tell them I liked their bike. Not to buy it, but rather to start a conversation with them about something of theirs that I desired. I wasn’t doing any creative writing, I wasn’t living in the moment, I was just looking for distractions from my own imbalance and state of being.

And so, what’s wrong with distraction? Not much, except in my case, I found myself regressing into old patterns. Ways of thinking that included bitterness, anger, resentment, cynicism. And all the beautiful things Susan taught me about being in a moment and the joy of living were fading into the deep dark. As were all the gains I had achieved with my own hard work. Not quite the bottom, but I could see it from where I was falling.

The next day, Sunday, I was shaking with loneliness. I drove in from my suburban flat and attended a service at the Unitarian church where Susan had her memorial. I had not been back there since that day in September. The minister smiled at me, and I ended up sitting near a colleague from school. The theme of the sermon from that day was not particularly inspiring but the act of doing, of going to interact with others made me feel better. I spent some time afterwards speaking with my colleague and his partner, who told me they had started attending the church after Susan’s service. I stayed for lunch, spoke to a few retired humanities teachers, then climbed into my car and drove home.

It didn’t have to be a church, it just so happened that Sunday was the day after my online digression. Getting out of my place was helpful, and that it was to a gathering of people coming together in a sense of community was also beneficial. In my state of grief, decisions were difficult to make and actions equally challenging. And it just so happened that attending a non-denominational church service was the easiest decision to take, the easiest verb to embrace. But going to church, godless or otherwise, is a desperate act to my way of thinking.  Somehow just the act of following up on a decision was a big part of feeling better. I haven’t been back to the church yet.

Connecting the dots of my thinking is confusing and I can’t really say how or where I arrived with my thoughts on that day. I do recall reading some Buddhist texts about letting go. That term gets tossed around to the point where it almost means nothing. But the simple idea behind the writing was that if one is carrying an object, or holding someone’s hand, or a coin found on the street, the only way to let go of that desirable object is to open the hand. My clenched fist was not helping me, it was creating aches in my body. The important thing I needed to do? It was time to open my hand, to let go. Let go of Susan.

The following days, I spoke to a travel agent and booked an all-inclusive beach trip for my son and me. At mid-week, my best new friend, Jackie, called and told me she had spotted an upper duplex for rent in a wonderful neighbourhood, had called the number and booked a visit for me. Two days after visiting the place I signed a one-year lease, and the next day left for the Dominican Republic. I returned home with change on the horizon. The past few months have been remarkable. Moving to a new neighbourhood I am engaged with my city once again. I am immersed in my research, and turning on the tap when I teach. Holding my sons and loving them from a near state of grace has been so welcomed!

It still happens, but rarely, that I find myself with a clenched hand. What I feel was most important in all this dancing with dark times was my own awareness of my state of being. Having a great therapist over the years is a big part of that awareness (thanks Jerry). Reading and informing myself about trauma and emotions, talking to family (thanks Betty Lou and Susan) and yoga (thanks Marianne), and eating well (thanks Vitamix), and meditation were all helpful. And once again, I got lucky. I had Susan. I couldn’t go to her for the much desired physical comfort, I couldn’t go to her for soothing whispers in my ear, I couldn’t ask her for reassurance, but I could see her smile when I closed my eyes, I could feel her nudging me toward the things I was afraid of, and somehow that helped me get closer to my own self, and to invite those fears in. That is not a very just description of how she helped me but maybe there are no words to express it. And while I have done my best to be transparent with everything I write here, perhaps I am meant to keep the nature of our love after her death solely to myself.

And so here I am. Hands open.

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and kisses on the mouth


I like kissing. It’s one of the things I am not particularly good at, yet don’t mind displaying my lack of technique with a lover.

Susan was an extremely accomplished kisser. She had an eclectic range of kissing subtleties. I appreciated her awareness and tempo. We employed kissing for many things, like most people. Hello, goodbye, come closer, I love you, you irritate me but I still love you, I missed you, here is some comfort. Come closer, much closer, closer still.

Thank you.

Susan was generous with a particular kiss. She would tippy toe and pepper my neck with pecks of her mouth and it felt like a wren fluttering between my shoulder and my ear. I would try to replicate this technique on her and she would giggle and wipe the slobber off her neck.

She was generous with her other kisses too. And I loved them all. Sometimes the desire to kiss was secondary to other forms of affection and that was fine too.

While Susan was in chemo treatment for her cancer, it would often affect her taste and the desire in her to be kissed or kiss was diminished. In general though we were fortunate that the side effects of her chemo were minimal in all kinds of ways.

Until the end.

The effective chemo had run its course and she was convinced to try another, more aggressive one. In hindsight, she said it was a dumb idea. We discovered it is easy to get caught up in a moment and lose sight of the big picture and so it was like that for Susan. The aggressive chemo burned her throat, her mouth, her lips. She couldn’t speak or eat. Swallowing ice water was difficult. Her lips and mouth blistered. It was dreadful. We 86’d that fucking chemo. But even after quitting the treatment the poison was still running its course and it was almost two weeks before her lips healed. She died about four or five days after. Our kissing consisted of my lips lightly brushing her forehead or cheeks. When we said goodbye she would bow and I would kiss her head.

Today is July 20th, the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. And while not to the exact day, it is one full year since Susan and I last kissed each other on the mouth. I have not been kissed like that since. It is one of the many things I truly miss. Montreal is a good place for kissing because a two-cheek kiss is as common as a handshake when meeting someone, even for the first time. But a peck on the cheek is to kissing what walking on a beach is to walking on the moon.

Susan and I discussed a little my kissing days after she would die (she offered to help write my dating site profile!). She was gracious and reminded me not to deprive myself of love or affection. She noted that being loyal to our love and forsaking all others was, in her word, silly.

For a long time kissing seemed as far away as the moon. It has been interesting to see how my own desire has rounded a swooping orbital curve. For all of these months, almost a year in fact, I feel as though I have been passing in orbit around the dark side of the moon. And as I emerge I am now coming into contact, not with sight of the earth, but with a readiness for comfort, affection, and desire.

And kisses on the mouth.

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a year whose days are long

And so here it is. One year since Susan died. Significant only in that one marks the passing of time in seconds, hours, days, months, years. We create anniversaries to mark those passages of time. My mourning boots are scuffed and ragged from me grieving the polish right off them.

I am out camping in a nature preserve that I discovered last month. It’s the perfect Susan and Roy place. Rolling hills, wild flowers, towering spruce trees, the sun piercing through deciduous leaves, trails with sparking light, and mossy patches that invite bare feet, all for Susan. And in the middle is a clear, deep blue lake with wind blowing over the top for Roy.

The sky is a late August blue but I almost think that tomorrow I’ll wake up and see red and orange. On this particular morning a cloud settled over the lake, which I have never seen the likes of before. I awoke late, but the sun had not climbed the hills and tree tops so the lake was still covered in its night-time blanket. If I didn’t have this photo I might have thought I dreamt it.

Lac Ernest, Qc.

I came here to mark the death of Susan. It is a place where I can easily access her spirit and charm. She is mischievous and I expect to see her dancing with wood fairies and other nymphs as I explore the forest. My hair is kind of ratty and straggly and smells like campfire. It is long and the breeze blows it around so that sometimes out the corner of my eye it tricks me into thinking someone is sneaking around. Or maybe it’s just Susan.

It does not make me sad to be here. Some think it might be hard. I can feel Susan’s playful smile and her “come on, keep up!” wave.

a path in the woods

People ask me how long it has been since Susan died. Almost a year, I say. And sometimes a look comes over their face that says: “Oh, you must be over it now?” A year is a long time, sometimes. Getting over something suggests that one has cleared a hurdle of some kind. I suppose in my case that is true. I have cleared some hurdles. Near the end of April (a despairingly dark month for me), my sorrow changed, my grieving changed, into a happy sadness. I asked myself: does this sense of a healing wound mean that I will forget Susan now? I had a few moments where I was ashamed to feel as though the horizon was not just a line, but a point of promises to come.

Time heals all wounds. Maybe. People would remind that in time I would feel better, more like myself, more normal, more something. These comments were well intended but offered no comfort in the throws of mourning. I think gratitude is what helped me the most. I grieved the hell out of Susan’s death. I took months off work. I closed my world down to a manageable pace. I took care of my body. I went to therapy, I went to yoga, I meditated. I listened to music, I wrote, I spent time with my sons. I cried everywhere, in the car, in cafes, on the street, in my office, with my sons while watching a movie, at the kitchen sink, at the grocery store. Whenever grief rattled through my body I stopped and let it shake its way out. In the year since she died, Susan was everywhere I turned. Yearning and longing for her, and missing her, and celebrating her, and thanking her was my full-time job. I did it well. With deep gratitude came the knowing of how great the loss. And in a circular fashion the deep grief meant infinite thankfulness for having her in my life. All the tears and sobbing and aches of loss just added to the stacks of gratitude. And as the sobbing subsided and the tower of gratitude rose, I could see my good fortune for knowing her.

Each morning I am grateful to be vertical. I give thanks to the universe and to Susan and I recall her mantra: love, compassion, and kindness always. I hardly cry at all anymore. On the days I feel blissful I am no longer ashamed for letting go of sorrow. I move forward into each day and do my best to give my gifts to the world. After all, I am still here.

Does that mean I am forgetting Susan?

No. It means that gratitude and grief are waters drawn from the same well. The healing power of those waters closed the wound of this great loss, and so I might not forget her it left behind a scar. It reminds me of my journey with her, of my good luck to have been her beloved, and that it is okay to be happy, to be well. The scar will forever be a part of me and that means Susan will as well.


In the still of the night, at Lac Ernest, Susan sent a loon to serenade me.

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December 2017. I arrived in London early in the morning after an overnight flight. I found my way to the train and then to Paddington Station where I hopped in a taxi. Susan had flown over days before to see her son, Nathan, perform in a wildly successful circus spectacle. My taxi driver took me to Susan’s hotel, situated on a side street in the West End. The driver let me off and pointed down an alley. I texted Susan along the way, and she came to the lobby of the hotel to greet me. I was so excited to see her. Goddamn, she was beautiful. Her eyes bright, her smile big. I guess she was happy to see me too.

Susan, at the Aldwych Theatre before one of Nathan’s shows.

We took the lift up to the 5th floor and meandered through a corridor that took us inside and outside and finally inside again. Susan opened the door to her room. The door swung only halfway open as it struck the bed. She led me in and closed the door. The bed touched three walls of the room! At the end of the bed was an opening to the toilet and shower. There was a tiny writing desk with a pull-out stool. Susan had stowed her luggage under the bed. I did the same with mine. The room itself was perhaps 10 feet by 8 feet. The wall at the end of the bed was plexiglas and light from the only window spilled into the room. I hung up my coat on the back of the door. We embraced and kissed.

It had been about eight months since Susan had her surgery and her diagnosis. She had managed 4 1/2 rounds of chemo before stopping in mid-July. The chemo halted the disease progression. Her hair had started to grow back. She had about one or perhaps one and a half centimetres of hair. And oh my, it was as soft as the down on chicks. And her hair had this tiny white speckle on the tips. During our embrace I recall putting my hand on the back of her neck and holding her, running my hand up to her head. She curled into me, I felt like I was her nest. It was morning, so she took me to her special breakfast location. A five-minute walk from the hotel room along streets and turns and a corner where five or six streets met, we entered a courtyard. Organic, vegan, vegetarian, bakeries, perhaps four or five places to choose from. I ordered porridge. And oh my, do the Brits know how to do a porridge!

Susan and Roy, and the purple scarf Susan knit for me.

Our intimate time in London was splendid and reminiscent of olden days. Susan was in stable health and not only had her hair grown back a little, but her entire body had recovered to a familiar form and certain strength. We walked streets, and were happy that Londoners like to sit outside as much as Montrealers, as there were numerous coffee stops at tiny outdoor tables and lovely tea-time cakes to eat. We visited museums and art galleries and saw a choir sing in an old church. But it was the time spent in the hotel room that we cherished. Our intimate hours in that bed were dreamy and chimerical. We wrapped and curled our bodies into each other and Susan felt strong enough to surrender into those moments without protecting her tummy. It made me cry a little, such beauty, such wonder. And for those days, there wasn’t any cancer, any terminal diagnosis, any ticking clock. Just Susan and Roy and the afternoon light drifting in through the window. Two lovers on a bed in a tiny room in London, December 2017.

This was penned earlier this year (2019) from my diary notes.

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This was written on January 1, 2019.

Susan and I were having a picnic out in the woods to the south of her house in the summer of 2016. She often took me on little trips behind her house, into the woodlands and often to a small brook or stream. We were enjoying the afternoon when I received a phone call. I had my cell, like everyone does these days. It was my old friend Neil calling to tell me that another old friend, Joe, had died suddenly. There I was, sitting with Susan, talking to Neil about Joe. Collectively those three people knew a lot about me and within 2 1/2 years all of them would be dead.

Susan leads me upstream

There’s a statement that gets used often in gatherings where anecdotal stories are shared: “You had to be there”. Joe lived in my home town and during the four years between the end of high school and me going to university, we hung out a fair bit. Neil had been one of my closet friends in high school but he married his sweetheart not long after graduation and started a family. I gravitated to hanging out with Joe. Neither of us were in romantic relationships so it made it easy to indulge in camaraderie, of which usually included alcohol, narcotics, sarcasm, and sometimes ended with conversations with law enforcement. Even after I went to university he came to visit and we made one memorable road trip to catch a rock band. He also came to visit me when I lived in Banff. I did my best to meet up with him on my trips back home and he seemed to have not changed much. I guess I took his friendship for granted as at the time of his death I had not seen him in over two years despite making it back home to Saskatchewan. As I was processing Joe’s death I thought of all the stupid shit we did and the laughs we had. And as is often the case, when we did meet up we would bring up some old memory and laugh all over again, or thank the universe that we were still alive and better yet, not incarcerated!

Joe (Bruin’s fan) and Neil. Red eyes, ice cream, beer & smokes at my mom’s kitchen table, circa 1981.

Neil died just before Christmas 2018, a not unexpected death thanks to cancer. I had spent some meaningful time with him over the past few years as he sought treatment. We reminisced and spoke about our paths and how we became friends. As with Joe, those memories are exclusively mine now. I’ve lost the potential to indulge in nostalgia in a very particular way. The you-had-to-be-there way. All the memories are still with me, I just don’t have the friend to relive them with. That solitude makes them precious but also diminishes their fun. Part of nostalgia is having someone who shared the experience validate its value and to recognize the bond.

With Susan, I faced a similar situation. She had been a confidante, a lover, a friend, an advisor, and a teacher to me over the past six years. We shared stories and fears and memories. We have also shared moments when we felt shame in our lives and the not prideful times. We knew things about each other that no one else knew. And these knowings, this knowledge between us, our intimate relationship allowed me to grow and evolve in countless ways. She afforded me a place to go when I was struggling and knew enough of my history to offer comfort and solace.


More time.

Cancer treatment, no matter the type, offers the luxury or promise of providing more time. Susan lived in more time for quite a few months. I have to say we both did a fairly decent job of maximizing that time. We goofed off a bit, and never really completed the list of things we thought we wanted to do. We ate, walked, travelled and explored, and Susan stopped to enjoy so many things in a day. The light through a leafy tree, the intricate pattern inside a blossoming flower, tall grasses swaying, birds foraging, her pet snail. Yes, somehow a snail made its way into Susan’s house and to the second floor bathroom where it had been living in a tiny potted plant all last winter. The plant did not fair so well, having fed the snail for many months, but the snail seemed to be hanging around. And so, befriending a snail is one of the many things Susan had done these past months.

I had some bigger ambitions; I wanted to record more of Susan reading her posts, and conversations with her over morning coffee, and perhaps to shoot some more diary footage. I wanted to write more. But as it happens, I often found myself wanting to just be there. I tired of the documenting project. And so, just being around Susan was what felt important. Her symptoms returned and she was not well. I had some regret for not having the energy to push ahead with some of the other things I wanted to do. If only there was some more time.

I realize now that more time is every day. All of us are living in more time. Each day is more time. For all of us, whether we have a terminal diagnosis or not.

With Neil’s death I am preparing to fly out to Saskatchewan to be with his family and friends for his funeral. I attended Joe’s as well. Both represent little pieces of my life that are now gone. But I have to admit, I do not think I will miss them. And this got me thinking about why that might be. It’s quite simple. Neil and Joe were dear old friends who knew me well, but I rarely confided in them. I did not turn to them for assurances or comfort in times of strife or dilemma. I enjoyed telling stories with them, liked to laugh at their humour and intelligent take on the world. But at some point long ago we stopped making stories together, and our growth was no longer connected by a common road.

With Susan I was laid bare. Stripped of any pretence. I evolved and grew as our relationship blossomed. We ventured together as a couple into the years we had. Those journeys through the trials of parenthood, numerous creative pursuits or frustrations, our academic careers, emotional growth, and most of all I think, knowing what love felt like as a couple. We judged not. Secrets were safe with each other. We were safe to be both frail or proud at any moment. These are things to be cherished. To be honoured. To be missed.

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the bed

After Susan died I spent a week at her house, mostly to facilitate preparations for her funeral. The day after her service I returned to my flat in Dorval, a suburb of Montreal. Returning to my apartment was a little bit like what I imagine people experience when they open their summer cottage for the first time in the spring. My apartment was stale and stuffy. I hadn’t really been there in months. But it was now my full time home. I left my belongings at Susan’s house. There wasn’t any pressure by her family to vacate and I didn’t have the energy to move.

I returned to work in November. I spent Thursday night at Susan’s as I taught an 8:45 class on Friday morning and it eliminated an early commute from the suburbs. As those few Thursdays came and went, the energy in Susan’s house changed. Each time I went and she was not there created a different feeling for me. I was particularly attentive to make sure I left the house exactly the way she like to. And so when I came back it looked the same, but her hand in things was missing. However, our bedroom and our bed felt the same. Somehow that energy and intimacy remained, and I cherished crawling into bed on those Thursday nights and sleeping on her side.

wood frame, purple sheets, blue blanket

As my term ended, I felt a need to consolidate my things. I had kept all my analogue filmmaking equipment there as well as all my research and film processing apparatus, not to mention clothes and books and notes. With the school term over and the reason to sleep in the city over as well I returned to Susan’s late one afternoon. I spoke with Susan’s son, Oliver who was there. He was considering a move into the house while his apartment underwent some noisy and messy renovations. Plus, it would facilitate his task of sifting through and archiving Susan’s writing and belongings as he had promised her he would. Susan would be thrilled to know her son was moving in! I began mapping out my schedule to pack and then move my things. Oliver was very kind and reminded me there wasn’t any pressure to vacate. In my heart I felt it was time. With some idea of my schedule Oliver could now make his own plans to occupy the space.

I left Susan’s and walked toward the train station. Daylight was fading and I was tired from a busy week. However, I felt a calling to return to the house, to our bedroom. I had not changed the bedding since Susan died, not since we slept our last night together. I called Oliver and told him I was coming back. I entered the bedroom and paused to feel the space. The window, the blind, the wonderful antique wall light. Then I removed the pillows and began folding the top blankets. I trembled. Then I wept. Folding blankets and recalling nothing specific, but feelings of intimacy and tenderness, and Susan’s kindness and love, I enacted this final lover’s ritual. I became weak in my legs, and I knelt at Susan’s side of the bed and draped my body over the spot where she had lain. I cried and cried, wanting to feel her pass through the sheets and into my body. My sobbing subsided and at some point I rose and peeled away the last of the bedding. And then I cried some more as I folded everything. I left the naked bed and went to ask Oliver, who was cooking in the kitchen, to come up and we could lift the mattress. He came upstairs, took one look at me, put a hand on my shoulder and told me that he thought that was enough for today. Dismantling the bed could wait. He said that I didn’t need more hardship at the moment. I couldn’t argue.

I walked down to the train. Cold air brushed my face and I could feel the tightness at the side of my eyes where my tears had dried. I was happy that I had answered the calling to return to the bed. Yet, I am not content with my telling. The experience calls for a song, or a poem as my words seem so thin in comparison to the experience. But the only poet in the room who shared the experience with me, who could write it, has put down her pen.


This was written in December 2018 on or around the solstice.

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I intend to write and publish some new work in the coming weeks. I wrote through winter but did not publish anything on this blog. I am not sure why except that in some ways publishing made me feel more lonely. I will publish some of the backlog of posts as a way of clearing things out. The posts to follow over the next few weeks were written a handful of months ago, and I am not nearly as fucked up now as I was then. If you were inclined to ask me how I was but didn’t lest you have to witness me melt before your eyes, these will give you some idea of where I have been with my grieving process. I will roll them out one at a time. If you were hoping to binge read to catch up you will be disappointed. The first one from the archive is: The Bed. Shine on!

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Desire (part 1)

Lately I have been having such intense periods of loneliness that seem to be triggered by my yearning for Susan, as well as a lot of physical desire for her. I am wondering if this is the loneliness speaking. I know we were very aware of the physical intimacy in our relationship, how we expressed our love, how we found our way back to each other from it after short periods of separation, how it soothed our hurts and heartache when one neglected the other in some way. And so I suppose that in my time of heartache, I am missing Susan’s gentle touch and loving embrace.

Desire arose in many ways between us. For me there were two predominant triggers. The first is what I will call a fairly classic male stereotype: visual pleasure. Something in the way Susan would move, or something she was wearing, a dress perhaps, or a ponytail. Watching her walk up stairs, the shape of her body, her curves, her eyes, her smile. They were all physical attributes connected to her that could bring on strong feelings of desire for her. Physical desire, which at times became sexual desire.

And then there was this other thing, something I’d not experienced before knowing Susan. If I disclosed something to her, perhaps something shameful, or something I was embarrassed about, I would become aroused by the trust I was placing in her. My disclosure laid bare my vulnerable side and in doing so I seemed to be saying, here is my heart, flawed, damaged, dark, or just silly. And because I knew she would never judge me, I always felt safe to disclose. This disclosure of my true self caused me to be so attracted to her, to be so in love with her, that I would experience this physical sensation running through my body that I can only describe as physical desire. At times it didn’t even feel like sexual desire, at other times it did. 🙂 And I think, or rather feel, that my body was responding to her deep love, our love, and was asking to be closer to her physically. Other times, it was not so much a disclosure but an apology. If I had done or said something hurtful, even something that didn’t elicit a reaction from her but I felt in my heart had been unkind, I would have the need to apologize. And her gratitude at my thoughtfulness was expressed by a smile or her words, or she’d reach out to touch me. This was also an intimate moment for me, and one that created a flood of physical desire through my whole body, but sometimes just in my loins. It was so incredible that I would often tell her that I had become aroused by the moment, to which she would be amused or touched. Sometimes it was appropriate to act on that physical desire, but most often it was not the right timing or location. And that would wait. And it would find its way into our lovemaking at some later point.

The past few days, I have experienced intense physical desire for Susan. Desire for pre-cancer Susan and cancer Susan. However, my desire is more so fuelled by memories of her before she was diagnosed. I see images of her, remembered or imagined, and her beauty draws me into these waves of physical desire, like the ones I experienced while disclosing truths to her. And I guess the paradox that is now happening is that I am picturing the image of her physical self, but the waves of desire are more similar to the type I experienced through intimate disclosure. It has been quite wonderful.

I haven’t felt the need to take these feelings any further than just my awareness of them, or felt a need for any physical intervention, for lack of a better word. I have been enjoying them as they come and go, much like a memory or an image of her. I suppose the one thing I am happy about is that I am feeling my body again. The last few weeks when Susan was in the hospital and then the days following her death and funeral I was physically numb.

So those visits by Susan as waves through my body have been a catalyst for me to reconnect. I started back at the gym, ever so lightly. I went to my first yoga class in a few months. It has also helped me see where the anxiety that manifested itself last week was residing in my body. And perhaps, oddly enough, it allowed me to immerse myself in the natural wonder of Susan’s yard in Sutton.

I wrote this post a few months ago but only recently published it. I have written further on the subject of desire, physical intimacy, and comfort. I will publish those thoughts a bit later.
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of Susan, seventeen syllables on first day of twenty nineteen

a morning listening to Bach
and shrugging off fears
of the new year

turn thoughts ‘round she says
embrace joy find pleasure
ah there, in my coffee

take this day as it is
let slip yesterday
don’t compare to ‘morrow

the sun poked out
pierced through my citrus tree leaves

the last blooming sweetpea of 2018


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