The Bright Hour

I’m reading Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour. I can’t quite bring myself to finish it. I’ve been turning the last few pages and pausing, not sure what emotions lay waiting for me when I finish, but sensing there will be something hard. I’m quite certain this is why I am hesitating. Yes, I am savouring the pages, knowing there are only a few left. Taking in each sentence and thought and the lyricism, admiring it all. I now think that this is much like my time with Susan. The pages in a book. So finite. I am doing my best to drink in the minutes and hours. I don’t dwell on a future without Susan, much. In some ways, I just imagine myself turning older, becoming monastic-like with my teaching, and my writing, and image-making and parenting.

There were days, a few years ago, when I was making weekly or nearly weekly trips to see my therapist that I had this type of hesitation. Driving to his office, feeling or maybe knowing that something hard was probably approaching, knowing that I would most likely cough up something about my past that would hurt coming out. I knew that I’d feel better after, but that didn’t make the drive any calmer. I am also reminded of the time, when at age 15, my older sister’s friend Chuck, seeing that I had overdosed on alcohol, stuck his two thick fingers down my throat to trigger a vomit session. Barfing was a miserable experience but oh so good after. Thanks Chuck.

But now, after a few more days of hesitating to finish the book, I think I am dreading the sadness that will fall over me. Nina’s book is wonderfully written, and she shares many similarities with Susan. They are both intelligent women, published poets, loving mothers, reflective and gifted writers. And both were handed a terminal diagnosis. And so, I’ve been reading Nina slowly. In the act of reading, I go back in time, to sit with Nina as she writes. She is still alive as I read. And I think that when I finish the book I will realise that Nina is dead. There won’t be any more words to read. And I will miss her. And that reminds me that I’ll miss Susan.

I’ve been telling myself that I need to find the right place to sit and finish the book. Like when I get a letter in the mail, I wait and find a special place to sit and read it. I haven’t cried for a while and I guess I’ve forgotten that after the hurt, after the grief, there comes joy and relief.  So, tonight before I go to sleep, I’ll say goodbye to Nina.

Phlox, from Susan’s garden. (pinhole photograph)

The wind took it

Light pours, light falls, light spills, light leaks. I’m floating and rising to the top of something. I open my eyes and surface to meet the world around me. I see Susan’s silhouette, standing next to the bed. It is an early morning in summer and I am waking to watch Susan as she pulls the cable that raises the window blind. It looks like she is hoisting a sail.

I have always liked the wind. Growing up in a small prairie city, which was more like a large town, I had numerous opportunities to immerse myself in the wind. I could ride my bicycle from my home on the western edge to the drive-in cinema on the eastern edge in about 20 minutes had I needed to. Beyond the drive-in was a farmer’s field. It was a fifteen-minute ride to the man-made beach on the northern edge of the city.  The fair grounds were a two-minute bike ride from my house. It was very easy for me to fine prairie solitude.

van Gogh’s Vento

Without really knowing it, the wind was a constant friend. It was great when riding home with a stiff breeze at my back and a pain in the ass when riding head first into it.  Springtime meant kite flying. My kites were usually of the black winged bat type, with yellow stick-on-eyes bought for about $3.99 at Zeller’s. There were usually lots of places to fly a kite. The school yard down the street from my house was huge. It had a soccer pitch and a ball diamond and then room beyond that. And only a few lilac trees around the edges. Perfect for kite flying. Of course, I usually chose to fly it in my back yard or on the street near large trees and power lines. If I was lucky the balsa wood stick acting as the spine for the kite would snap before it became entangled in a tree.  Then I would spend my time looking for a suitable substitute only to get airborne and then crash into a power pole or the ground. Sometimes the string would break and the kite would enjoy a few seconds of true freedom before vanishing over roof tops. After a few hours I’d announce myself in the house with a rolled up, knotted ball of string. My mom would ask what happened to the kite.

The wind took it.

yup, a bat kite.

I think the wind was a mischievous player in my youth, part teacher, part companion, a bit high maintenance as a friend, sometimes wanting attention; it was quiet when I deserved it, and loud when I took it for granted.

During my first months living in Montreal I had been struggling with the writing of an older film script, one that I started while still living out west. It was a story that took place mostly on empty prairie highways, with a few characters intersecting from time to time. It was a road film and it was important to me. I would sit in a café and hammer away at the script and always I seemed to be looking for money, and ways to get back out to Saskatchewan to shoot it. What was ridiculously frustrating is that the story seemed to be slipping further away from me rather than coming closer. On most projects, the writing brings me closer to my own intentions and desires, and the story becomes clearer. This prairie road film was elusive. I distinctly recall packing up my notes and drafts (no laptop in those days for me) after a long and unsatisfying writing session from a downtown café. It was May. I had been living and studying for my master’s degree in Montreal about nine months.  I walked out of that café and immediately a powerful wind swarmed around my face. It blew my hair back, I had to squint, it ruffled my papers, pulled my coat, and glued my pants to my legs. I was being scolded and in that moment I realized that my head and heart were back on the prairies but my feet were on the ground in Montreal. Where I is, is where I is. The wind was telling me to write a story that took place here. Perhaps at some point, when the money and time was available, I could return to writing the prairie film. So I wrote and directed an urban road film that takes place all within forgotten and abandoned places in Montreal. And the prairie script? Well, I still hope to make that film but for the now, the story is missing. I think the wind took it.

I’ve mentioned somewhere before that of all the many things that Susan loves in the natural world, wind is her least favourite. However, there seems to be an exception. Sailing. Susan was an accomplished sailor in her early days. Her mom proudly recalled watching Susan in a regatta (that’s sailor lingo for a race) from the shore. She saw Susan sitting in her boat, sail flapping, arms at her side, not moving, and looking out of place while the other kids were navigating the course. She felt really bad for her. Then someone told her that Susan had already won the race and the other kids were still trying to finish! Her mom went on to inform me that she was the first young woman to win a solo regatta at her sailing club on Brome Lake!

Laser sail boat, like the one Susan sailed. (I grabbed this from a sailing site and don’t have the photographer’s name)

I had taken a few sailing lessons once before, near my home on the West Island, but it was a tawdry affair, where the adults in the class were more concerned with the rhum afterward. But a few years ago Susan and I went sailing. We stopped by her old sailing club in the Eastern Townships, on the same Brome Lake. We had arranged to take out a boat not being used by current students. A young instructor asked if we needed help rigging the boat. Susan smiled and shook her head. The guy was relieved I think. The Laser sailboat is generally a one-person craft but large enough for two. Susan had not sailed in over 25 years but she went about installing the mast, setting up the ropes, rigging the sail, and mounting the rudder and tiller. I essentially stayed out of the way. Within a short time the boat was ready. We zipped up our life jackets and launched the boat into knee deep water. Susan instructed me where to sit, and then with a slight push we were off. The sail rippled and flapped but once Susan was settled she let out the mainsheet and the wind filled the material and quieted the racket. The boat was being pulled out to the middle of the lake. Susan looked at me and smiled her smile. The boat cut through the water and she had one hand on the tiller and the other on the mainsheet. I am a full passenger. She scootched over a bit, finding her spot. I watched as her wet shorts wrap around her shapely thighs and her strong arms held fast the line. And just like that we were sailing! Susan grinned at the moment, and between the feeling of being pulled along and her beaming smile I had to smile too. I imagined her back in her early teenage years sailing against and beating all the boys in the regattas. I was retroactively proud of her.

Time to tack and come about, tiller, rudder, boom swings, I duck, and the sail fills again. We both move to the other side of the boat. We shimmy out and tuck our feet under the toe straps and hike our butts out over the the side. I watch Susan ride the edge of the wind, water splashing over the gunnels; we are wet but safe and sailing.

We drift into irons and switch places so I have my hands on the tiller and the mainsheet. I’m clumsy, I can’t manage the articulated arm of the tiller any more than I can I comprehend a double negative when it comes up in a conversation.  Pull this way to go the other way. Huh? And the wind. I can’t find the wind. How is that possible? My oldest companion betrays me. It seems to be coming from everywhere like an echo in a canyon.  Susan teaches me to move slowly, wait for the boat to respond. I let out the mainsheet, I feel the wind now. We are pulled along. I am sailing with Susan! The wind takes us.

She is a good teacher. My confidence grows and I am happy to be out on the water with her. On my very first tack I turn the wrong way and we capsize, turtling, in sailing terms.  The water is not so cold. Susan laughs and laughs. I think capsizing is funny but she thinks it’s even more funny. Susan begins looking for something. The dagger board has come out. She finds it and slaps it back into place and we prepare to right ourselves.  I see that my bulk and weight has a tangible benefit for this part of sailing. Ballast. We right the ship and settle back in. We sail some more. I’m a little better but we still capsize one more time. She finds it just as funny the second time even as I am a bit embarrassed. We sail for a few hours although the number of times I put us in irons I don’t think counts as sailing (‘in irons’ is sailor talk for pointing the boat directly into the wind and not moving anywhere, except maybe backwards). Thoroughly soaked, I ask Susan to take over the tiller. We sail. I love feeling the power of the wind and I love watching her so free and at ease.

Capsizing Laser. Sailors get tossed out of the boat! (I took this from a sailing site and do not have the photographer’s name)

I mark the moment with a cerebral snapshot as I don’t have a camera with me. I am going to learn from Susan’s sense of adventure and play and laughter. I am going to embrace her perspectives and the way she chooses to see the world. Because, as I’ve learned from her, perspectives are choices. She often reminded me that she chooses the way she wants to see the world. She can choose to be negative or positive. I always thought I was an unfortunate player in life in that regard and was envious of the people who seemed to always be grinning or happy or positive. And then I learned from Susan that she wasn’t given positive thinking rather she worked hard to catch herself in negative spaces and then change her outlook. When I look at Susan I see the result of her hard work even though she had hard times too. A single parent of two young boys without a lot of resources. I’m certain she had times of loneliness and bitterness and anger. And finding a way through all that to let her loving self emerge is truly inspiring. I still struggle with making the positive choice in my outlook. It’s hard work and sometimes like many of us, I get caught up in my own life and more hard work just seems like too much. I love how Susan chooses to see the day. And even now with her shitty diagnosis I continue to marvel at her abilities. Her outlook is familiar yet it never seems old watching her practice it. When I see how she approaches her day, her thinking, the way she embraces everything, it helps me move forward. But I admit it’s a struggle. I strive like most people to be positive but depression and anxiety sure complicates the effort.

Susan and I never went sailing again after that outing. Lots of reasons I suppose: time, desire, no wind. I live a ten-minute walk to the St. Lawrence river where two yacht clubs are within stone throwing distance. I wonder why I haven’t. I wonder if I am afraid of the time it will take me to get good at it. I wonder if I am afraid of looking silly out on the water. And why with an experienced sailor so close to me didn’t I take advantage of her knowledge?

Lately, I’ve been looking at online ads for a sailboat. I am not sure if I am looking for distractions from my own periods of depression or if I want to get back out in the water and face that devilish wind whom I once called old friend. And would getting into a boat like the one we sailed bring me closer to Susan or make me sad? I have enough sadness simmering below the surface at the moment. Perhaps I am worried that any other sailing experience will diminish that only outing with her. I guess I’ll ask the universe for a little bit of guidance on that and keep my eyes open for any clues. And I’ll choose to be positive that something will present itself to help me decide.

But I’d like to go back out on the water. I’d like to take my positive choices and be the kind of person who can, with greater ease, choose my own perspective. Maybe sailing can be my metaphor for shedding negative thinking. Sail out to the middle of the lake and drop all that nasty anxiety and negative worry overboard, or better yet, toss it into the air and

let the wind take it.


The eye

The eye

I can recall my mother’s repeated warning to us kids to beware of a certain type of storm cloud in the prairie sky, and if we saw one on the horizon, we were to make tracks for home, and if not home then into someone’s basement. She had grown up with some horrible storms as a child in the 30s, and her fear of them made us cautious and respectful of the fierceness and speed at which a storm can arise.

The weather has been in the news a lot of late. First the terrible hurricanes that ripped through the Caribbean and then this wonderful off-season summer weather that most of us in central Canada are enjoying. Coinciding with the nice weather has been a string of days and even weeks in which Susan has been feeling her best ever this year.

Polaroid of Susan and her first bike ride of the summer!

The side effects of the chemotherapy seem to have fully dissipated and she has found some of her former energy. In addition to her usual cheerfulness and positivity now resides some energy to do things she loves, like walking in the woods, strolling about Montreal neighbourhoods, or riding her bike.



excited to find a hidden ruelle!





Her hair has grown back to a stage where it looks like she made a stylistic choice to have it short rather than from the chemo fallout. Most days it is hard to imagine that she is not well or that she will grow even less well. And this type of bounce that she is experiencing has been quite a boost to all of us in her life. It has reduced some of the sadness and allowed us to let our lives take on some of their former normalcy.


A few weeks ago, I recall seeing a storm chaser somewhere in Florida doing a video report. The footage began with horrific winds and driving walls of rain. Then as the eye of the storm passed over the area, there was a sudden calm about the scene, and the once bending palm trees were still and the rain had stopped. Aside from the flooded streets the scene appeared quite normal. The storm chaser was informing the viewer that within a few minutes the sky would darken, the rain would return, the wind would rise, and giant waves would crash onto the beach as the back end of the storm swirled along.

I now feel as though we are in the eye of a hurricane. We have passed through the front end of the storm of Susan’s illness; her early symptoms, which led to worsening ones, the surgery, the diagnosis, and the post-op treatment. And this return to some semblance of her former self, almost her normal self, reminds me of the eye of that hurricane. However, unlike the meteorologist predicting the speed of that storm, none of us can predict when Susan’s symptoms will return and with what type of ferocity. So day by day, moment by moment, we take what we are given, sensing that all seems fairly normal. Yet, coming up behind us is the back end of this shitty diagnosis. We do our best to resume regular programming but like most experienced storm chasers, and my mom, we know that we best keep within eyeshot of the cellar door; for as calm as it may seem now, we know we are going to face stormy weather sometime soon.

Street art, just off The Main.

What to say or not to say

What to say or not to say to someone who tells you that a loved one is dying of cancer or some other terrible affliction.

When Susan was diagnosed with her wickedly ruthless cancer I knew I needed to tell as many people as I could as a way to avoid isolating myself. Many of my close friends and all my siblings are far, far away so I made a lot of phone calls to start. I used the words like cancer, dying, no cure, months not years to live. I used those words because they were true but also expedient. In the first few weeks and months, telling people was emotionally draining. Hearing myself say those words was hard times.

Some people knew that Susan was not well, going in for surgery, but no one expected such terrible news. As we live in a death-phobic culture it is hard to react to such news. Most of us don’t rehearse or practice what to say, nor are we taught what to say or do when someone shares their sad news.

Susan has written on what to say to someone who has the terrible disease on her blog but I thought I might offer some ideas on what to say to someone whose loved one is afflicted. Here are a few thoughts of my own that might be helpful to others.

A few things that really helped me when I told people the news:

“What! That’s horrible news. I’m so sorry.”

“WTF? That sucks. How is she?”

“Oh my, I’m so sorry to hear that. How are you doing?”

Those are all things that let the person telling you the news know that you are concerned about them, or their loved one, and your comments are directed toward them and their well being. Depending on who the person is, you may find the need to touch their shoulder or give them a hug. Crying is fine too.

On the other side, there are some things that just didn’t feel good. But first, a photographic interlude!

Some public art that someone left on a bench. They must have read Susan’s post about giving their gifts and making art!

Up until a few years ago I wasn’t able to process someone’s sad news that quickly. I am certain that I said things to people in their times of sadness that were not helpful. They weren’t necessarily hurtful, most likely just benign. I know that my intentions were good and I meant to be kind but I just didn’t have a good model to follow until recently. I forgive myself for not knowing the best thing to say, and so should everyone else. Please don’t feel the need to apologize to me if you think you misspoke, just pass it along for the next time. With forgiveness comes a chance to learn, and here are some things I’ve definitely said in the past or heard from other people recently. I’ve included a comment on why I felt it was maybe not the best thing to say.

“Oh damn. My uncle had cancer last year and so did his dog and that was a really hard time for me and my aunt.”

I think some people need to say that they know someone who had cancer as if it demonstrates that they have an understanding of what you might be going through.  And that very well might be true, but anytime you draw attention away from the person telling the news and place the focus on yourself, it creates a disconnect. People have said something like to me and I feel like they couldn’t sit with me and my news for a minute, that it was too awkward.

“Oh jesus, seems like I everybody I know is getting cancer these days.”

Same as above, draws attention to your own life rather than the person telling you the news.

“Holy smokes, how long does she/he have to live?”

That feels like morbid curiosity.

“Oh my, I don’t know what to say.”

Again, this is about you, not the person sharing the news. When you say this, it puts pressure on the other person to comfort you.

“Oh, that is so unfair!”

Uh, life is unfair. Saying that doesn’t make me feel better.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Not everyone believes that. I don’t. And saying this makes it seem like I don’t have a right to feel sad or angry about the news.

Advice. Keep it. Unless otherwise asked. Susan has written a good succinct response to people with advice on her blog.

A few months ago I went out with some people to see a bar band. It was a casual affair. A friend arranged it and got a few other people to come as well. I went because getting out was part of my strategies to take care of myself. One of the guys in the group, Arthur, I had not seen in a few years. To be honest, I don’t really know him all that well. I‘ve never been to his house, I can’t recall his kids’ or spouse’s name. I know he knew about Susan because he is good friends with my buddy who arranged the outing. So, we’ve checked our coats, grabbed a cocktail, and the two of us are standing apart from the others. Conversation goes something like this:

Arthur: “So, how are things?”

Me: “Well, my girlfriend is dying of a rare, incurable cancer.”

He nods. I shrug.

Me: “Other than that…”

I squeeze the lime into my soda water. He nods again.

Arthur: “Other than that… how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

That cracks me up. And we both chuckle.

For me, humour is okay. I guess it depends on how well you know the person sharing their news with you. It had been a few months since Susan’s diagnosis when Arthur dropped that line on me. It wouldn’t have worked if it had been the day after we had received her news!

The really good thing is that, in general, you don’t have to say a lot. Just let the person telling you the sad news know that you heard them and echo your concern for the situation and for them. Offering help is a nice way to end the conversation. I really appreciate all the kind words and actions of so many people. The news is hard to fathom and it’s even harder to tell someone, so it is most appreciated when people show their care by offering simple but kind words and gestures.

At Pine Beach, August 2017

Susan Time

This is a guest post by Miriam Schleifer McCormick. Miriam has been Susan’s dear friend since they were still in their teens at college. Though Miriam grew up in Montreal, she now lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is a philosophy professor.

A lot of life has been happening these last five months. My daughter got married, I got married, my husband’s beloved mother died, we sold our house, we moved to an apartment, we bought cottages from my friend, I had (not serious) surgery and underwent general anesthetic for the first time, I found out that (if all goes well) I will be a grandmother in February. I have also been quite steady in my work: a couple of talks, an article published, another submitted to a collection, I am coming up for promotion. And, as always, enjoying Montreal summer, and the lake, and friends. But throughout all this life, what I feel most constantly in my heart, my chest, my throat, the space between my eyes is Susan. What does that mean to say I feel Susan? Images, thoughts, memories, words all wrapped up in sadness and love. Whatever else I am doing, I am just a breath away from Susan and the fact that she will be leaving soon for good.

Jackie, Miriam, and Susan, 1991, from Miriam’s wedding.

I try, as Susan does, to be open and honest about challenging times, and so I told everyone about Susan’s diagnosis and who Susan is – my dear, close friend of more than thirty years. I was on a train from Seattle to Portland when Roy called me to tell me the news. We had been texting with updates about how the surgery was going, and it seemed to be going on a long time. As soon as I heard his voice I knew it was bad. But part of me knew already. When we had last skyped, I had seen a look on Susan’s face that gave me a sick feeling that she was actually really sick. I tried to convince myself that this was my way of protecting or readying myself for the news if it were bad but that, in all likelihood, it was just a big fibroid. Even that did not seem like just anything since she was having a hysterectomy which at the time seemed very serious and scary.

So I told everyone – my friends, my colleagues, even my students. I wanted them to know that my attempt to reschedule our final exam was not just to suit my narrow self-interest. I have noticed though that people forget about it, or they forget about how central and significant it is to me. I sometimes think it is harder to process or categorize because Susan is just my friend, not a lover or a close relative. If I told people my sister was dying I think they would remember and ask about it the next time I saw them. When I was talking to someone recently about my relationship with Susan, she said “So she’s like a sister?” And I said no, not at all. She is a true friend. True, deep friendships are not like anything else; they are special, rare and maybe the most important relationships in one’s life. Unfortunately, I have experienced the death of some good friends. I know what that absence feels like. But I have never experienced the absence of someone who knows me like Susan does, who knew me before I was a mother, who has known me though so many relationships, both mine and hers. We have both listened to each other patiently on the phone describing the angst of an unhealthy relationship, knowing what would be best for the other, but also knowing we needed to figure this out for ourselves. There was even a time when the misogyny of my ex-husband was so toxic that she was wise enough to know that only a little distance would see us through. Susan’s wisdom is something I continuously benefit from. A few years ago she visited me in Richmond and I was describing the different guys I was dating or interested in. She would gently say “I think Lance sounds great…I like Lance.” Before I even knew that he was the love of my life and the first opportunity I would have for a healthy romantic relationship, she somehow could see it.

Some people do remember and they ask “How is Susan doing?” I am never sure how to respond. If they mean how is she doing physically, I give them the latest report, explain that she is still able to live a fairly normal life. If they mean how is SHE doing, I tell them she is continuing to face this time in her life with strength, beauty, love and integrity; she is offering a glimpse of what is possible in the face of death. And then I send them her blog address. Many people have read it, and are gripped and amazed. In their reactions, and in all those who have had a chance to read it, I see that Susan succeeded in fulfilling a desire she expressed to me back in April. She told me through her tears, that her hope was that something other than loss can come from this experience. And so much more has come. Susan’s words have been a gift; they have allowed us to think, talk and feel differently about dying and death, to see it as a part of life that perhaps need not be feared as much as we all tend to. They have also served as vivid reminders of what we all know already: love one another and cherish every moment.

It is even more rare for people to ask how I am doing, and in some ways even harder for me to know what to say if they do. I arrived in Montreal at the end of April. I am leaving now near the end of August. When I arrived I didn’t know if Susan would be alive when I left; I didn’t know what her life would be like throughout the summer or how much time we would spend together. All I knew is I wanted to be close to her, to be with her as much as I could. In some ways, this isn’t that different from past summers. Since we don’t see each other through much of the year, when I come to Québec in the summer, I always crave my Susan times and am like a little kid constantly asking “Will you come play with me?” We always both have work to get done, need to balance our time in the country and city, and the summer always ends with me feeling like I didn’t get enough time. And I have always been consciously appreciative of our time together. Conversations with Susan could cover a larger range than with any other person in my life, from the extremely quotidian to the highly abstract. I could talk to her about my work without her eyes glazing over, and also in the course of a conversation we could talk about our kids, books, sex, politics, food, weight gain, aging, parents, weather.

And so the appreciation I have felt this summer has not differed in kind from other summers but it has differed in degree and intensity. Every time we have made a plan for weeks or months in advance, it has been unclear if it will be possible, and then when the day comes and we are able to do what we planned I feel such gratitude. I felt this most acutely a couple of weeks ago when Susan and her boys came to spend the night at my cottage in St. Donat. Susan had mentioned, back in May, that Nathan said he wanted to come up. I had not expected this would be possible and was so thrilled by the prospect. But then with everyone’s schedules, and doctor appointments, and travel, it started to feel doubtful that it would happen. The day we had planned for them to come I went for a walk and I was surprised to find myself with an overwhelming desire for them to visit. I hadn’t wanted something so badly in a really long time. I tried to work on letting it go, telling myself if they wanted to and were able to that they would come. I suppressed my urges to text and bug the way one does when newly dating, and then the message was sent that they were on their way. Oliver cooked pizza, Susan sat on the dock with her feet in the lake, she and Nathan played ping pong, we had a fire, we were all together in a way we hadn’t been in many years. And all of these ordinary activities took on a beauty, a beauty that is always there but rarely noticed.

Miriam, Susan, Oliver (Susan’s son), and Jackie, 2017

Every laugh, every hug, every time I have seen the love in her eyes as she looks at her sons has felt precious; I have felt so lucky, even a little spoiled, that I get to have those moments. On one of the few first sunny days at the end of May, I met Susan in Westmount park where she had been lounging and picnicking with her kids. I sat on the blanket with her. She held Oliver’s hand while he read a book, and looked up at the sun shining through the leaves of a tree. Her faced beamed with joy. That is an expression that is sometimes used: beaming with joy. But when I say it of Susan, it is quite literal. There is light that radiates from her smiling face. It touches you, you can feel it. It is warm and comforting. I know in the years to come I will always see that face and feel that warmth.

Miriam Schleifer McCormick

Not alone

Not alone.

Susan had her surgery in Sherbrooke, Quebec. That is where she received the news and that is where she told me her diagnosis. It was March 8. Winter in Quebec. I made my way back to my hotel room, which thankfully was only a kilometer away from the hospital. Except for my teenage sons in Montreal, I don’t have any family within 3000 kilometers. I sat on my bed and I called my sisters, Betty and Susan (yes, I have 2 Susans in my life). I called them that night and explained as best I could what was happening. Both of them are experienced nurses and they knew what the language meant, knew the blunt force of the diagnosis. They asked me what I needed. Oddly enough I knew what I needed. I needed to be not alone.

Go figure.

Usually I’d wait a period of time before looking for help, spend days processing my needs. Almost instantly with Susan’s news I didn’t feel like I could or wanted to face this challenge on my own. When my sisters asked what I needed from them, I told them. Call me. Text me. Check in with me out of the blue. I might not respond right away, I might not answer the phone, but I will if I can. I told them both that I didn’t have many friends and I needed them to support me. That part made me cry. The not having many friends. I’m not proud or ashamed of that, it’s just a fact. That’s the way I am. But saying it out loud made feel alone and it made me realise that I was now going to lose a very dear friend. The next day, I called my brothers, Dale and Glen, and choked on my words as I shared my reality.

I think in those moments, those early phone calls to my family, I decided that I wasn’t going to leave people out of this part of my life. I was going to call as many people as I could, that I trusted to help me. And that’s what I did over the course of the next seven days in Sherbrooke. I called people and asked them to help me by randomly checking in with me. Each person I called, I had to share Susan’s terrible news. That was extremely tiring, hard, hard work. Partly because I felt I needed to help the other person with the news. Blindsiding people with her diagnosis seemed like a punch in the face so I went out of my way to help them process it, as well as telling them that I wanted them to check in on me from time to time. Often I needed a nap almost immediately after those calls in those first few days. It drained me. But it also started giving something back. By asking people to check in with me it meant I did not have to gather strength to call and ask them to lend me their ears. People would text or call. I could text back, or speak to them. It was not selfish. I thought it might be selfish but it wasn’t. People wanted to help, wanted to offer support. But I had to ask.

After my siblings, the next person I called was the mother of my children, Cheryl Bellows. She was devastated like everyone else. She knows and likes Susan. Over the years she has had us over to her home for suppers and visits. So between us, we worked out a strategy to talk to our sons, so that we were transparent, and so that things were not weird. We both made sure that we created a safe place for our kids to ask questions or to talk about Susan’s anticipated death. However, I had to ask for more than a random phone call or a text message from Cheryl. I needed time. She was extremely generous and took on more parental duties as I wanted to be close to Susan in the early weeks and months after her surgery. That meant Cheryl was a single parent above our normal shared custody days. That meant more school lunches, more early mornings, more homework, more exam study time, more parenting for her. I feel incredibly lucky to have her as the mother of my boys. I am so grateful. Thank you, Cheryl.

Yes, it would be nice if I had my siblings living close by. Besides the phone calls and text messages it would be great to give and get those deep hugs to and from them. But those types of intimate interactions can be found elsewhere. I was recently in Los Angeles for a conference. An old friend that I hadn’t seen in 15 years picked me up from the airport. He’s a tough guy. He doesn’t do hugs. But he gave me one as soon as he saw me. And when I was leaving, his partner, took my face gently in her hands and told me to take good care of myself.

For those finding themselves in a position like mine, I encourage them to connect with any person they think will understand. In addition to my family I ended up contacting old high school friends, colleagues, and neighbours and sharing the news with them. I told a lot of people. Some were not able to respond and that’s okay. The ones that did have been most gracious and kind. I recently received a phone call from someone who I’ve known for a long time, though I wouldn’t have said we were close friends. It was such a kind and generous conversation that it made me reconsider my notion of just how few friends I have! It can be surprising who ends up being the person offering the kindest support. And the funny thing about asking for help? Accepting it becomes easier with every request and offer.

Go figure.

Being There

Being There

One of the most intimate interactions I have with Susan is being in her company when she processes her feelings, either profound sadness or joy. Witnessing joy is pretty easy.  When Susan walks out into her yard and puts her face into a large drooping flower (whose name I always forget) she derives such pleasure from looking, smelling, and touching it. And I mean blissful joy. Simple, easy, honest bliss. She smiles, her face glows, eyes sparkle, she looks at me to share the moment. I get some of it, some of the bliss, but I marvel and enjoy watching her come to such a state of beauty. Of late, in the back of my mind I feel a bit of sadness that these moments are now limited. Sometimes Susan does too, not often, as that distracts her from the present.

At the Mary Pratt exhibition, Ottawa 2015

I’ve seen her blissful self often, particularly out in nature or sometimes in an art gallery. One of the first times I visited her house in Sutton she took me around the yard. It is a property at the top of a steep hill and on the edge of the town. Much of the yard is impassable without a machete by July. There are small deer trails and paths that Susan created, but mostly it’s a matter of pushing bush to get around. She has been rewilding her yard since she acquired the old farm house some years ago. There are sumacs everywhere, oak trees shooting up, wild flowers and weeds, rose and raspberry bushes, tall grasses and countless coniferous and deciduous trees. She showed me a six-foot-tall pine tree that had seeded itself from a taller one nearby. The ends of the branches were sprinkled with tiny light green buds, new growth. She opened her arms and lightly wrapped them around the branches and moved in a way to let the tree caress her arms. She had such a delightful and playful look on her face (I made a mental note to do a tick check on myself after). I’ve known a few people who try really hard to connect with nature. Most often they come across as flakey. Susan connects.

Susan’s back yard, Sutton 2016

Susan always enjoys a blue sky, sunlight piercing through leaves, a sapling, a flower, tall grass caressing her bare legs, immersing herself in cool brooks and streams. For me, the thing I like the most is wind, which so happens to be the one thing that Susan doesn’t. So while I was never able to achieve a similar relationship with nature, or the universe for that matter, the way Susan has, I can still drink her joy and pleasure through witnessing her experiences. I have certainly gained a new level of appreciation for nature, its beauty, wonder, and complex connections to us humans.

from Susan’s yard, Sutton 2017
from Susan’s yard, Sutton 2017







One summer, I did some literary research on wood nymphs in an attempt to better understand Susan’s connection with nature. The wood nymphs are mischievous, playful, connected to all living things, and capable of receiving the gifts of nature. Susan would coax me out to take walks with her in the woods out her back door. I obliged, in part because it’s good boyfriend etiquette but also because there was pleasure in seeing her pleasure. Sometimes we would stroll through an area with a dense mossy floor. She would stop and slip off her sandals and walk across the spongy carpet. I’d pull off my boots, then my socks and do the same. Sometimes she would lay down on the moss and drink in the simple pleasure of a soft, natural bed. I’m not sure I was any closer to understanding the bliss that she derived or the connection she tapped into with nature but in those moments I certainly understood the satyrs’ attraction to the wood nymph from those mythological tales I read!

I think one of the hardest aspects of being in love with someone who is dying is witnessing the emotional pain that flows through the body and out their face. When I cry I tend to immediately hold my face with my hands. As though my face might break open if I don’t, and like Humpty I might never get it together again. So I need to let things seep out slowly.

As Susan has processed her feelings about her diagnosis I have had the privilege of being with her. Her rapid acceptance of her disease has made the hard times bearable. I have not seen her angry face or her denial face or her desperate face. She continues to embrace the day, being cheerful, and finding ways to change her thinking if it turns away from positive. But I have seen anguish. It is anguish for things not ever to be seen or felt by her.

Not long after her surgery we walked across the street to a community centre that has a café. Susan was encouraged to walk each day as part of her recovery and it was a manageable distance, plus the coffee is decent. We have always enjoyed our morning coffee time together. It would start with coffee of course, then a conversation, perhaps prompted by a dream, a wish, a recalled image, a headline, and we would engage in a meaningful discussion, often in way that connected the topic to our personal investment in our art, our relationship, ourselves, our work. Then, without any intention we would drift into our day’s work. She’d open a laptop to follow a thread, I’d rummage for a list I had made, we’d write, investigate, work. It’s a lovely ritual.  As we sat and talked in the little community centre café, enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s company, we both cried a little. A few tears for moments like this one that were now (even more) finite.

A woman arrived in the café with her 10-month old baby and a mansplaining grandfather. The woman was very good at ignoring the man as he told the young mother how to teach her new child to walk. The baby was scrambling about on the floor and making some eye contact with us. We watched the young baby ramble about. The woman was very practiced at ignoring the know-it-all man, but we were not able to shut him out so we left.

One of Susan’s greatest gifts she wanted to give her sons was a safe place to leave their children. She would be the babysitter that didn’t need to be vetted. A grandmother who would protect and love them while their parents were away, for an hour, a day, a night, a weekend, whatever the need might require. We talked a lot about the damage that children suffer at the hands of people we think will care for them. These are mostly men; coaches, teachers, uncles, stepfathers, grandfathers, older cousins. And how we don’t seem to talk about these things, and how most of these predators are immune to punishment, and rarely suffer any consequence. And we talked about how the damage done to a child is so lasting and takes so much effort to undo, to heal, especially in a culture that doesn’t like to talk about it. And so, Susan was determined to be a safe place for her grandchildren. And seeing the baby in the café brought her to a place of knowing once again that she would not be able to give that gift to her sons, nor hold those babies.

On the way out of the café Susan began to cry. The grandchildren she will never know came calling to her in that moment. I saw her face. Her chin trembled, her bottom lip curled outward and tears streamed down her cheeks. That is the face of someone who is crying for a gift she cannot give. That’s the face that cuts through a person’s heart. I learned quickly that saying nothing is almost everything. And while it is hard to witness such profound anguish, and the urge to protect oneself by looking away is strong, I found her eyes with mine to let her know I was there, in the moment with her, then held her in my arms until the sobbing subsided and we walked home.

In the first few months there were numerous instances like that. At first, being there for those moments of anguish would create an urge in me to block things; I had a strong, protective impulse to shut down, to look away. But courage found me, or maybe it was kindness, or love, perhaps all three.  Sensing the moment at hand was the one to be present for, and not averting my gaze or attention from Susan, has allowed me into deeper places than ever before. As I see things, part of my role is to just be there, to be the one who sees and feels Susan’s joy, laughter, sorrow, grief, and sadness. I cannot ever ride the journey with her; I am not dying, and even if I were each of us dies alone. But I can offer her a trusting spot to place things, let her know that I am connecting with her and maybe even absorbing some of her anguish and tears as well as sharing the joyful, blissful times. I believe that it helps to ease her movement through those hard moments. It doesn’t diminish the incredible hardship of that moment, but it might make her feel less alone, and that makes everything less lonely, it brings us together.

Often, I need to call someone, usually my sisters, both who have been so helpful from so faraway. Telling them about the things I’ve been experiencing helps me to soften the painful bits, helps to dilute the hard stuff. And I guess they in turn tell someone else and that helps to diminish the painful parts even more. Then I take a nap. Or get to a yoga class. Or eat something healthy. Or get a hug from my sons. Or write, or take a photograph.

Being there is a tough job at times. But if one finds themselves in my position, letting go of stoicism or protective urges and opening one’s heart to the other, and to oneself, offers a grand view of life. It might not be your lover who is dying; it might be a friend, a family member, maybe a close colleague, and it might only be one instance of sharing and witnessing a profound moment with them; don’t be afraid. Be honest. The courage will find you. And if you cry along with them your tears will be a way to help you receive the gift of that moment.   Of all the many wonderful things I’ve learned from Susan these past few months, I think the most precious of them is that my face doesn’t break when I cry.
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