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.
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!
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.
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.