O Susan! My Susan!

Below are the words I read at Susan’s funeral service on Saturday, September 8, 2018. As with most things we wrote, we invited each other to read drafts and offer comments. This piece was no different. I started this particular remembrance about 4-5 months ago and showed a draft to Susan at the time. She offered her first impression, made a few literary suggestions, cried a little, and noted a sentence with four prepositional phrases that I might want to revisit. 🙂 This draft has revisions that she did not see because I finished it after she died. I could feel her arms around me as I read it aloud in the church.

O Susan! My Susan!

Susan and I were sitting on her front balcony on Marlowe Street. Both of us had our laptops open and were working on something. We had been together for over a year, and I guess I felt secure in our relationship. Secure enough to make a confession. I am not sure what prompted it. “Susan,” I said. “Hmm-mm,” she mumbled, still fixed on her writing. I cleared my throat. “I have read Stephen King novels.” She looked up from her screen. “Really?” I nodded. “About two dozen.” Then she looked away for a second or two as she did when she needed to be alone, and then back at me and said with her trademark smile: “I still love you.” She returned to her laptop screen and continued working. After another few seconds, without looking up, she said: “Just don’t tell any of my literary friends.”

Susan’s sense of humour was quite odd, often dark, and sometimes just weird. She would recount something to me and laugh and laugh out loud as she shared the anecdote. At first I just looked at her and thought maybe it was nervous laughter but it turns out she just found humour in odd things, and enjoyed laughing almost as a gift to herself. Sometime in the last year, she made a blueberry crumble cake. As the crumble baked, the blueberries would secrete juice and it would collect on the bottom of the pan. So as to avoid a soggy crumble she poured out from the pan about one-half cup of pure, undiluted blueberry juice left over, which she put into a mason jar in the fridge. No lid on the jar. That evening we were in the kitchen with Oliver and Lauren, and we were going to have the crumble. She went into the fridge to get some cream, which was behind the jar of blueberry juice. She took out the jar of juice, and I think the door may have bumped her a little and she dropped the jar, the one without the lid. The jar fell perfectly perpendicular to the wooden floor. It hit with a smack between Susan’s feet. The jar didn’t break but the blueberry juice exploded like a geyser right out of the top and splattered Susan from head to foot, and ceiling, and across the room, and into the fridge, and well, everywhere. She looked like Sissy Spacek at the end of the movie Carrie (which, ironically, is a movie based on a novel by a writer whose name I won’t mention again). But in the kitchen in Montreal, Susan is laughing. Laughing and laughing. She said: “I must look like I’m in a horror movie.” I nodded but didn’t mention the movie by you know who. Her face and arms were freckled with blueberry juice, her long dress spattered everywhere, her bare legs and feet too. And still she was laughing. The rest of us, I believe, were only thinking about the mess we would need to clean up, and how this was going to slow down getting to eat the crumble, but Susan was in the moment, laughing at the absurdity, at the mess, at her humanity. Her laughter made it easy to relax, to laugh with her, to share with her what became silliness. “I still love you,” I said, as I went to fill a wash basin.

Aside from loving her sense of humour I also came to love flowers, and to understand the meaning of compassion, partly through her own love of flowers. Wild flowers mostly, the kind that grow where they want, without boxes or pots or any type of restraints. It was so beautiful to see them expand across her yard as summer moved along. “Don’t step there, that’s a young bee-balm, watch out for the forget-me-nots.” And on the occasion that we brought flowers into the house, we were both very mindful of cutting them. It was almost a sacred act: we quietly gave thanks to the flowers before cutting them, and then took good care of them once inside the house. She had such great love and compassion for all living things.

Such compassion. I’ve had some struggles with anxiety and depression, and while I am highly functional most of the time, I often slip and fall into shadowy states of being. Of late not so much, ironically, but over our nearly seven years together I’d stumble along the way, and swirl into some vortex that made me dark and distant. Susan had an admitted impatient streak; it’s a family trait, so she came by it honestly. But I never felt that she was impatient with my emotional slumps. On the contrary, she was kind and caring towards me. Compassionate. Susan always looked for ways to help me, to listen, to back up, to come closer, to be there for me; she offered comfort in many ways. Sometimes it would take hours or days for me to feel ready to express what was happening. She waited, patiently. One time, after a few days of a dark mood, I expressed a completely irrational fear of some kind, that type that leaves a non-worrying person rolling their eyes. But ours was such a trusting love that we could confide anything to each other. Susan took my face in her hands and said: “You really are fucked up… but I still love you.”

I told Susan earlier in her diagnosis that if she should slip into a deep sleep, she need not doubt where my love was. It was still here, in the room, in my heart. And I promised Susan in a love letter last year that wherever I go I will plant wild flowers for her. And that she can nourish them, and I can talk to her through them. Hopefully I’ll receive some comfort from those flowers through the sad times and worry. And while I can’t be certain, I’d like to think that those flowers will look back at me with Susan’s big smiley smile and I’ll hear her voice saying: “I still love you … I still love you … I still love you”.

On Susan’s Death

The Death Project

Susan Jeanne Briscoe
November 13, 1966 – August 31, 2018

It is with great sorrow that we announce the death of Susan on Friday, August 31, 2018 in Montreal at the Montreal University Health Centre (Glen) palliative ward. Her sons, Oliver and Nathan, and her beloved partner, Roy Cross, were by her side. Susan also leaves to mourn her parents Bob and Raye Briscoe, sisters Lorraine and Tracey, brother Rob, nine nieces and nephews, and numerous dear friends.

Susan was born and raised in Montreal. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at McGill University, Susan moved to Vancouver and worked at a women’s shelter before returning home to Montreal, where her sons were born. Susan’s greatest joy in life were her two sons: Oliver and Nathan. She moved from Montreal to Sutton when her boys were young to give them freedom to roam, explore, and blossom. She…

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Let’s dance

If I could only have one record, this it it.

Not long ago, Susan and I spent the night playing old records. We got up to dance. Bowie’s Five Years came on. We held each other and swayed. Bowie’s voice was close, our bodies were close. The lyrics poured out: “we’ve got five years, that’s all we got, we’ve got five years,” and I could feel Susan tremble, crying in my arms. We hadn’t been a couple for much more than five years, and it was a beautifully tragic moment and there we were, dancing together.

One of my favourite photos of Susan.

I fell in love with Susan at a party at her friend’s place. It was near the end of June, 2012, and the promised pleasures that summer offers were beginning to pop up everywhere. It was a warm evening in an urban backyard with trees and plants and grass. I was only just meeting many of her friends that summer. Our exclusive dating was fairly recent and I didn’t really know anyone so I just played wallflower. I sipped from a bottle and watched. There were about a dozen people in the backyard, chatting and hanging out, as music drifted from the kitchen. I don’t recall the song, but someone turned it up and a couple of people started to dance. Susan watched them. I watched Susan. She started to move her hips, and her skirt swayed, while her long hair, draped over her neck, brushed across her back. As a filmmaker, I can recognise wonder and beauty in a moving image when I see it. And like most people when they are being watched, Susan sensed my gaze and turned my way. She caught me looking, but I didn’t make shy and I wasn’t going to look away. She continued to sway to the music, then she smiled at me. Susan has a million-dollar smile, but when I recall the moment, it’s her whole face, and especially her eyes locked to mine, that is the most vivid. And that was that. By the time she turned away I wasn’t the same.

As our campuses were situated downtown Susan and I would often meet on the corner near my school and walk somewhere to eat. If I happened to be early I could always see her coming, even at a distance. In a sea of people, her hair and head bopped from side to side, she had a bounce and a swing in her steps. If she wanted to rush along a little she would chassé for a moment. Lighter than air. And always smiling. I’d like to say the smile only came after she caught sight of me but that wasn’t the case. As for myself it was difficult to be anything but cheerful with that image coming toward me! I’d seen the same thing in the hallway at her school. Sometimes I’d stop by to see her, maybe bring her a coffee or something. And I’d wait by her office and catch her walking down the hall. Same dance, purposeful, happy, with speed and grace.

Susan at age 6?

As a child she had taken ballet lessons. She told me she was a dedicated pupil and had excellent form. She loved those classes. The one thing she wasn’t good at was remembering a series of steps. So in class she always made sure she had another student in front of her to follow. She recounted to me how at one recital she and her classmates had to dance across the stage to a choreographed sequence of steps. Susan, being the star student, was unexpectedly put at the front of the line. Her memory failed her, and without anyone going before her to follow she didn’t know the steps. She fumbled the recital, to the dismay of her teacher.

About two years ago, Susan informed me that she was going to take a ballet class. Okay, I said, not at all surprised. She told me she couldn’t decide between three different classes. One was a classical class, another was a floor class, and well I can’t recall what the other was. She couldn’t decide between them so she took all three. Susan went to her dance classes that winter, every evening, Monday to Thursday. Never missed a class. She’d practice pirouettes and other steps in the kitchen. I’d watch. She wore tights and a skirt most winter days so when she practiced she kind of looked like a ballerina. Sometimes I’d straighten my leg, point my toe, and try to turn. Humorous to say the least. Susan had great flexibility and strength. She could stand facing me, and lift one straightened leg off the ground and point her toes in my face. She was Bruce Lee. She would have made a hell of a prima ballerina, or kung-fu master!

Before Susan got sick, we were hanging out at her flat in NDG. I can’t recall the context of our conversation, but I think it had something to do with CBC radio theme songs. I mentioned how I always liked Bob Kerr’s radio show because he closed it off with Pachelbel’s canon. I found the version online and played it through some speakers in her kitchen. We embraced and danced a slow one. It was a simple dance, nothing much more than a junior high school embrace. As the song ended, Susan was crying a little. She was crying at how beautiful the things are that we humans are capable of creating, of giving to the world. That is one of many instances in which Susan has shown me the wonder of being here. As someone preoccupied with life to a fault, often fueled by anxiety and worry, I miss a lot of things. I’ve seen them. I’ve heard them, but not fully. Not really even at all. That is one of the many gifts that Susan has given me – she taught me how to pause, how to get out of my mind, and to be in something, like a song, a painting, a forest, a sunset, a moment. It’s not always easy for me, not having had enough practice, but I’m better than I was.

And I think in a lot of ways, that frame of mind is what creates that lift in her walk, the lightness in her step, her cheerfulness, her positivity. Even as she faces death, she seems to always find a reason to be dancing.

On Travel

The Death Project

When I returned from London in December, I was unwell and sure I would not travel again. Yet here I am on a plane somewhere, perhaps over Florida, on my way to Costa Rica. Last year Roy and I had been planning this trip when it became suddenly apparent that I was too sick to go anywhere. We’d never taken a real vacation together before – nothing more than a weekend in Toronto or Ottawa. So I felt this was something we should do if I had the chance. And with him on reading week at the university and me on my week’s chemo break and relatively well, this was the chance, perhaps the last one.

I’m ambivalent, though, about traveling. I always have been. I’m a rooted sort of person, so something always feels wrong to me about flying around the globe. My parents and siblings are the opposite:…

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Courage

Courage.

That is often a one-word sentence that is used en français to remind someone to have courage, to be courageous, in the face of some type of struggle. Many people have said that to me over these past months as I talked about my journey with Susan. And other people have told me how they did not know how they would handle the situation if they were in my shoes, where they would find the courage or strength.

Susan and I have spoken about courage. About how people admire my courage to share what I’m experiencing with the blog writing. And they admire her courage for facing her terminal illness with such strength. When we speak about these comments, both of us are a little puzzled. Neither one of us feels particularly courageous. Susan has written that she isn’t afraid of dying, of her death. And that people need only to be courageous for things that they are afraid of. We don’t feel overly strong. We can’t quite fathom that what we are doing is heroic. It just feels, for the most part, normal for both of us. We feel true, and we can’t quite define it further than that.

The other night I was out for a supper and conversation with, Mike, a visiting filmmaker. Mike’s made a lot of films over the past 30 years, some of them focused on AIDS and HIV. He’s seen a lot of his friends die. We were catching up on the handful of years since we last saw each other. We shared thoughts with each other about health, disease, terminal diagnoses, teaching, yoga, and awareness. He asked thoughtful questions about my responses to Susan’s cancer and prognosis. It was a heartfelt dialogue and I was grateful. We were then joined by another filmmaker who happened to drop by. The conversation continued, but lost some of the intimacy, although none of the honesty. The new guy mentioned something about it taking a lot of courage and strength to go through what I am experiencing. And I paused, because here I was again, I just didn’t have a response, and part of me was a bit annoyed, not by what the guy was asking me, but that I didn’t have a response. I struggled a bit in that moment. Recalling what Susan said, I mentioned to the new guy at the table that I didn’t need courage to eat my supper, because I wasn’t afraid of it. But it still didn’t answer my own wondering about what it is that I am doing that seems so hard to convey. I said: it’s not courage, it’s not strength. I was looking into my hands hoping for some light, and both Mike and the new guy were quiet, letting me find my way through it. And in one of those rare moments when the universe offers an answer and I am there to catch it, I said: I think it’s love. I looked up and caught Mike’s eyes, and he nodded.

As I spoke with Susan some more, we wondered about love being an answer. And Susan reminded me that along with love, acceptance has been the foundation from which she moves forward. I too, have been fortunate to have acceptance (interrupted by the occasional wishful thought). Without acceptance we’d just be running from ourselves. I think it is possible to summon courage and strength, to reach deep into one’s stamina pool, and will oneself to persevere. But love? Well, maybe. I am not sure I can explain it, in fact I know I can’t, not yet anyway. But it feels like the right answer, so I’m riding that wave for now. I don’t feel heroic; courage and strength are the traits of heroes and super heroes. I’m just a guy walking alongside a dying woman, embraced by love.

Super Susan, out for a skate, 2015