I was putting together a collection of essays about the “good ol’ days of journalism,” and Charles gave me the name of a woman he said was a prize.
I sent her a boilerplate email I had been using to solicit contributions, adding that Charles was never wrong. Her response was joyful, funny, appreciative, vivacious -- her personality in a sentence. She was enthusiastic, locked and loaded. I liked her already.
After a few notes flew back and forth between my home in the Laurentians and hers in Toronto, she wrote she was coming to Montreal the weekend I had a show at a café in the big city. She suggested we introduce each other over dinner. And she’d like to see the show.
It was friends at first bite. After an hour it was as if we’d been sharing confidences for years.
She relayed she had been married nine times -- the real number was half that, give or take a man. She’d worked overseas in Paris, had worked for TorStar, was living a life quieter than she was used to and was looking for a man to take dancing. Her lust for life was happily stuck in overdrive.
She thought the book would be brilliant and her confidence jacked up mine.
At the café, I did my thing in front of maybe a dozen or so mostly friends and colleagues and she made herself right at home.
From the stage I saw her in between my friends as if she knew them forever and I sang for her, worried she’d change her opinion of me. But, the show worked and we hung out after. She impressed everyone. The old Yamaha guitar had saved my ego and friendships. A good time was had by all.
The book came out but the email conversations continued and we met with a few others for a drink in Toronto. She liked to party and any excuse would do.
When I started a blog with my friend and former colleague, Earl, she happily contributed. She thought it was all brilliant.
Titled You’re Going to Die. Live With It, a title that encapsulated the inherent existential dilemma of existence – we intended to poke the bear. Yes, we all had an expiry date. Ha, ha, ha.
She and Earl were the best reads, she always writing from the high wire without a safety net, twisting and turning phrases and meanings upside down, confident and fearless in the mastery of the art, always funny, always pertinent, her words doorways to still more fascinating corridors of a remarkable mind.
And every time a new piece was published, she sent joyful notes of congratulations and appreciation to the author. She befriended our entire band of ink-stained, aged wretches. She loved to be part of it all and thanked me often though we needed her more than she needed us.
She made our humble blog worth reading. Mostly, our little band of keyboard addicts drew between 30 and 75 readers per piece, sometimes something would reach a hundred or more. Her pieces drew 300-400 readers and deserved 10 times that.
And then, months later, we met for a drink in Toronto and parts of her had disappeared. The enviable joy of everyday life was MIA as were a few pounds and the effervescent smile.
Her contributions to the blog slowed and stopped, yet she volunteered to edit a manuscript of mine. My queries about her health were politely parried. Then came the note. She had been seeing doctors. The diagnosis was, she said, “Icky.”
Fearing the worst, the prognosis was worse than I feared. She had a ruthless disease. The last days promised to be torturous; this illness took no prisoners.
We lived 600 km apart, hardly insurmountable, but she had good days and bad days, unpredictable procedures and hospital visits, understandable changes of mood and mind. Visits were encouraged, planned, postponed.
But the clock was ticking and we made it work. We visited. Had coffee provided by a warm, hospitable 24/7 caregiver, gentle but almost invisible.
My shrinking adopted sister was fading but still talked politics; was vexed about Ford and Poilievre, self-conscious she drooled, words came out mangled. It didn’t matter except to her battered pride.
As her slide accelerated, visits seemed imperative but almost impossible. Finally, I sold her on an idea for what I feared would be a last goodbye. I would come with Reisa and sing her a few songs, like the night we met and leave her in peace. She wouldn’t have to say a word.
In reality, unbeknownst to her, behind the guitar I wasn’t her helpless friend. I was the cowardly minstrel, letting my lyrics and right hand do the talking. Performing seals do not weep.
We arrived, me clumsy with guitar in hand, Reisa fearlessly wrapping her in her arms, my friend’s slim fingers clinging to Reisa’s back. Reisa understanding her need. Maybe they needed the same thing -- assurances, a stubborn resistance to accept the inevitable.
My friend was now frail and elderly, addicted to a breathing machine for a prescribed number of hours.
I put my arms around what was left of her. I felt clumsy and useless. But there was safety behind the guitar.
I sang my songs, conversing in scripted verse, hoping inanely I could offer a few moments of relief. She politely applauded but it exhausted her. After a half-dozen or more tunes, she was fading. Turns out we had interrupted her necessary time on the machine which pushed oxygen into her lungs through a mask she was too self-conscious to wear I front of us.
We said our goodbyes, knowing too well this might be the last goodbye. I scurried back to retrieve a forgotten whatever and caught her struggling with her caregiver to get the breathing mask on, to get life mechanically pushed into her lungs.
I kept writing her, absolving her of the need to reply. She could only use one thumb to type now, keyboard more obstacle than life-long ally. Often, she replied with more emojis than words, still a thrill, a few hearts always thrown in.
Once, she admitted she was pissed off and feeling sorry for herself. I told her she had every right. It was all wrong and I was pissed off, too. We were old enough to know there was no such thing as fairness in the allotment of life and time but one could, one should rage.
Who was more full of life? Who deserved a better fate? No one deserved this but especially not the woman I addressed as Sis, who called me Brudder.
I sent an email and said I was at her disposal. I could visit anytime. The breathing mask did not intimidate me.
She replied with emojis of hearts and stars and suggested soon would be best. She was “regressing.”
Two days later her son wrote she had died.
The first and the last times we saw each other the guitar had been between us. It had been a bridge, a safety net, a lifeless primer of the pump of life.
Today, it sits where it always does, on its stand in the living room. I have not touched it since she died. I don’t know why. I have been using it to celebrate and dry tears, play and entertain for 40 years or more but I can’t pick it up. When I think of grabbing it, I see her. And, I leave it alone.
Maybe next week.