The proverb that nothing is certain but death and taxes is one that I think we’ve all heard and agree with, begrudgingly. Certainly I recall how much I hated filing my taxes when I was a freelancer, not because I resented having to pay income tax but because it just seemed so damn complicated to gather all the numbers in order to fulfill one of my civic duties. That period of my worklife left such a bad taste in my mouth that it took me years to settle my situation (i.e., finally filing retroactively) even though I was only a regular worker with a few simple tax slips.
Now I’m the total opposite of how I used to be. As of December 23, I downloaded the Studio Tax application and prepared my 2017 return because I already know all the numbers to fill in except one or two which will be confirmed when I get all my tax slips. In the meantime, I entered educated guesses for those few unconfirmed numbers based on my last three previous filings, and the one certainty I do have is that the final result won’t be wildly different once I get the accurate figures in late-January or early-February.
My thinking has changed a little since the last of my eight-post series last year on how to get out and stay out of debt. In that post, I explained how, once out of debt, I distributed my savings so that I could live well before retirement yet be assured of having a comfortable retirement starting at 60. Then, in the “Counting My Blessings” section of my “disjointed thoughts” post last October, I wrote that “it’s not like I’m deferring toward retirement every dollar I save like a zealot praying to a skybound entity in the hope of gaining entry into a blissful afterlife.”
Sometime after that post, however, I stared at the numbers in my spreadsheets and began wondering two things:
Will I really have enough when I retire?
If I did max out my RRSP contributions, would I be cutting too close to the bone?
So I made copies of my spreadsheets and used them to work out alternate scenarios. If I didn’t like how the numbers played out, I would toss out those copies and not think about it again. But I did like what I saw, I would alter my originals to reflect the new scheme I came up with.
Although the last year at work has been challenging, there’s one thing I can safely count on: I’ll still be there by this time next year. That’s an important point because one principle of my financial strategy has been to ensure not only that I don’t live paycheque to paycheque or month to month but also that I should have access to at least six months’ net salary should the unthinkable (being dismissed from my job) happen. Thus I made a few styling adjustments to one sheet of my workbooks in order to highlight how often and how long I would:
be under that 6-month minimum figure, and
have less than $2,500 unsheltered, easily accessible cash on hand for emergencies and unplanned incidentals.
It turns out that, under my new distribution scheme, the former would only happen twice (from January to mid-July 2018 and from September 2020 to early-May 2021) and the latter would only happen twice as well (from January to late-June 2018 and two of five two-week periods from January to mid-March 2019) — and that’s all based on very conservative income estimations and the continuation of ultra low interest rates. Then, thinking back to the 23 months (November 2011 to October 2013) during which I held the reigns so very tightly in order to get out of debt, I realized that this new scenario is not only bearable but in fact infinitely better than when I was struggling out of debt since the two conditions are at least partially met right through retirement in late-2025.
How lucky I am! I can max out both my RRSP and TFSA by late September 2018 and still live well. There are definitely perks to being single and having a decent job.
Pensions and Savings
The other way in which I’m lucky is that I’m among the last ones at work who has a defined benefits pension, meaning that I already have firm figures on how much I’ll receive from it per year if I retire at 60. It would obviously be a much nicer amount if I stayed until 65, but by now I can’t countenance the thought. The last estimate I could get my hands on dates back to a year ago and is likely slightly better now. Then, one morning this December, the Québec government pension plan sent me a statement showing me how much I would get at 60 or 65 if all remains roughly equal. And, starting at 65, I would get Old Age Security from the federal government, which is currently just under $584 a month and will likely be a bit more by the time I retire since it’s indexed to the Canadian Consumer Price index.
All these amounts are taxable, but even if I add up the raw numbers, I wouldn’t have nearly enough to get through a year at the level to which I’ve become accustomed.
Remember that unlike a lot of people, I won’t need a pre-retirement period to get used to earning less since I already know exactly how much I need per year to sustain my current (comfortable but not outrageous) lifestyle. That’s where the retirement savings will need to kick in, but I couldn’t help wondering, “How long would they last?”
The Certainty of Taxes
The idea behind an RRSP is that you will have to pay income taxes when withdrawing from it, but given how one would be at a much lower tax bracket by that time (aided as well by extra breaks from age 65 and older), the amount of taxes paid will be much less than it would be now. And while any interest on savings in a non-registered account is also taxed, those in a TFSA never are since contributions to it are made after tax. The best situation, if it can be achieved, would be not to touch the RRSP until forced to convert it to a RRIF at 71 and withdraw a certain percentage every year as shown below.
But the need to convert to a RRIF would be 11 years into my planned retirement date, so could I pull off waiting until 2037 before starting to withdraw from it?
Enter my 2017 tax return, my geekiness, and my almost infinite patience to work out a long and complicated idea.
After carefully studying the forms for several years of tax filing in Studio Tax, I noticed that as much as there are some changes over time — new taxes or breaks, an ever-increasing personal deduction amount, and varying maximum deductions amounts and percentages of allowable deductions — the calculation from year to year is eerily similar and some changes are easily predictable. For example, the annual factor applied to the personal deduction amount is 1.013 federally and 1.0109 provincially.
So, I added a new sheet in one of my two financial workbooks and replicated all the formulas that would summarize exactly my 2017 return in Excel, simplifying it by entering only the lines that I would ever be likely to use and ignoring all the others. Then, since I have worksheets predicting my income for every pay period until my retirement and what will likely be my allowable contribution room in my RRSP, I calculated the likely results of all my filings up to and including 2025, highlighting the cells that will likely require an edit to a different amount or percentage when that time would come. As a result, any change in future calculations — major or minor —
can easily be integrated into that sheet. The only variable that’s up in the air right now is tax on dividends, as I’ve put off joining my employer’s shares savings program to 2018, meaning I don’t yet know the impact of that at tax time.
Still, when that all seemed to work well and make sense, I added the rows that would be applicable when my income would consist of pensions or would become applicable once I reached 65. My goal is to have $42.5K per year of spendable cash plus whatever income tax I would need to pay for the previous fiscal year. As expected, as I started plugging the numbers, since no deduction would be taken at the source from that point, I would have to start paying taxes rather than receiving returns from 2026 onwards. That being said, I got to see with my own eyes the veracity of Québec government officials’ assertion that a sizeable percentage of people here don’t pay any income tax because there’s not only an age-based deduction but one for people who live alone year-round and earn little. (That’s about the only tax break singles get given politicans’ constant emphasis on “middle-class families.”) In fact, it would seem that Québec will only be wanting its pound of flesh from me once I reach 71.
I then entered the percentages in the second table above to my RRSP worksheet and added another sheet to that workbook to replicate the first table above for each year in order to see how much I would need to take from general or TFSA savings and find out if indeed I could hold off to 71 before touching my RRSP/RRIF, and how long would my TFSA and other savings would last. All my predictions on interest earnings were based on today’s historically low rates of return and my legendary low-risk appetite when investing. However, since most experts agree that the currently low interest rates won’t be staying that way for much longer, I’m confident that my estimate on that front is very low-balled, which is consistent with my approach of underestimating income and overestimating expenses.
Just so you know, I didn’t grab that figure of $42.5K/year plus the previous year’s tax bill out of thin air. I have three projected revenue figures in one of my spreadsheets: all sources of income including interest (taxable and non-taxable), take-home pay if I don’t participate in my employer’s share savings program, and take-home pay if I do. I also know from another spreadsheet how much I spend on average each year, which excludes what I sock away in savings, not to mention the percentage of all income I tend to save on a normal year (i.e., 27-30 percent, which I gather is higher than the average Canadian). So that $42.5K figure is based on my projected 2025 take-home pay and is roughly the median between if I were and I weren’t to participate in my employer’s program. In other words, it should be an amount far greater than what I’d be accustomed to spending each year.
How These Calculations Led to a Little Realignment
Many financial planners out there seem to agree that you need to prepare to have 70 percent of your income at the time retirement. Some say it can be a bit less since some of your expenses will disappear upon retirement, like work clothes and transportation, not to mention that your days of setting money aside for retirement will be over. Others try to come up with a more firm number along with a reminder among all of them that you have to plan on living 30 years into retirement.
Frankly, what I was never able to understand in that piece of advice is whether they were saying that you needed 70 percent of your pre-tax or after-tax income. It seemed to me it should be the latter since that’s what you’ve always had to work with (assuming you didn’t foolishly spend your tax return instead of reinvesting it), not to mention you’re supposed to be in a lower tax bracket by then, which is said to be the benefit of having saved into an RRSP. But having spent so much time figuring out exactly how much cash I could have spent actually ended up in savings, I realized, as I just stated, that I’m already shaving off nearly a third of any net income each year that I could have spent elsewhere if I didn’t pay as much attention as I do.
How Much “Paying Attention”
Precisely $76.75 of all my revenues in 2017 (or 0.16%) can’t be traced, but much of that is probably change I used to feed the clothes dryer, and the remainder of that are nickels and dimes that I just throw into a jar. (I have remarkably few nickels and dimes in there.) That goes to show why I’m better not handling actual cash and relying on paying everything electronically or from my debit or credit card which I consistently pay off well before the 21-day grace period on purchases.
The other thing financial planners go on about (almost to the point of scaring you) is how inflation will affect your savings. There’s a valid point there, but only to a certain extent. As I explained in my “Get Out of Debt” series last year, taking a yearly approach to your budget provides a lot of absorbency when prices do go up. In fact, that’s the reason why I don’t think my most recent number crunching was a fool’s errand in any way. I know that prices will go up by the time I retire, but I will have gradually adapted to them already and thus they’ll be buffered in. What’s more, when one of the financial institutions I use increased the return on savings by a tiny bit (0.15 percent, to be precise), the positive impact was surprisingly noticeable, just like when the Québec government decreased the tax rate by 1 percent for the first slice of one’s earnings. So even if rates go up only 2 percent by 2025, which I suspect is a conservative estimate, my savings pot by that year will be considerably greater than what I’m now predicting it will be. Plus, if you followed my logic for selecting that $42.5K/year target, that gives me a HUGE buffer for inflation right there.
So in the end, what I found is that, based on my current savings projections, my TFSA would dry up in 2040 (the year I would turn 80) and I would have used nearly $55K more than the amount I invested into it, while my RIFF, from which I would need to start withdrawing a minimum percentage in 2037 (the January 1st I will have turned 71), would dry up by 2055 (the year I would turn 90) and I would have used more than $150K than what I invested into it. Given my bad health habits and the genetic predisposition on both sides of my family, I seriously doubt I’ll reach 90, but this calculation nevertheless demonstates that I could live quite well for 30 years into retirement.
That being said, it’ll be interesting to see what will be the effect of rising interest rates in the coming years. The first three of eight announcements from the Bank of Canada in 2018 will be on January 17, March 7 and April 18, and I expect at least one 0.25 percent increase by April at the latest, and most analysts expect a total increase of at least 0.5 percent by the end of 2018, meaning two increases in that year alone. I plugged in a single 0.15 percent increase as of January 24 and that alone would extend my TFSA by a year, so all the signs are pointing to my having more than enough to retire at 60.
The bottom line is that I’m no longer in the least bit worried about retirement, if everything else stays relatively constant. This little realignment will be a minor short-term adjustment or “sacrifice” that will yield a major long-term gain — not to mention, complete peace of mind.
Now that I’m well into my early 50s, I often find myself thinking about things in the context of being older. I suspect that’s perfectly natural, yet it’s not as though I thought myself immortal when I was in my 20s or 30s, nor is it that I’m nostalgic about my days of old. It might just be the unsettling realization that I have more time behind me than I have before me.
* * * * * * *
A “Friend” Who Never Was a Friend
About a month ago, someone from my childhood asked permission to communicate with me through Facebook. He was one of the many guys who tormented me and called me a faggot at every opportunity, except that this guy was among the worst. Then again, I remember feeling as much contempt for him one day in sixth grade when I spied that he had misspelt his own name on a test that was returned to us. (I’m not making this up.)
In broken French — he now lives in Calgary and doesn’t get to use it much — he wrote: “Bonjour Maurice it’s been more than 35 years I wasn’t nice in my youth toward you I’m sorry I’m a man now as you are I would be proud to have you as friend.”
You’ll recall how, six years ago when I took time off work, I realized with the help of my therapist, Lucy, just how much the taunting I endured as a kid shaped the adult I am now. In a strange way, upon reading his little profession of contrition, the remaining child in me felt at once vindicated and suspicious of his advance. However, at the same time, the adult Me remembered all the things I thought or said or did as a kid that still make me cringe even though they were perfectly coherent or understandable, coming from a kid. Therefore, why would it be any different for him?
We couldn’t be any more different, he and I. He’s a blue-collar worker; I’m a white-collar worker. He’s into physical training and boxing; I can go days without stepping outside my apartment and can’t think of a single sport I would enjoy. He’s married and has a small child; I’m divorced and the kid thing was never going to happen regardless of my …hummmm …propensities.
About a week ago, he put a thumbs up on a Facebook post about how it is incomprehensible that a parent could renege a transgender child. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
* * * * * * *
GenXers No Longer Up and Coming
Statistics Canada has been releasing in bits the results of the 2016 census. It turns outs that my cohort — those between the age of 50 and 54 — was 2,678,075 people strong and the largest single group by 5-year slice. A sign of the aging of the population: The projection for 2017 is that the 55 to 59 slice is expected to be the largest.
However, in a team of six individuals at my job, only two of us are GenXers; the others are Millennials and, unfortunately for me, three of those four are prototypes of every bad trait people decry about that generation. I know that individual personalities outweigh generational trends, and I can think of several Millennials who aren’t horrible people — a former colleague and my own nephew come immediately to mind. Nevertheless, I have grown so disgusted with their antics — which include but is not limited to entitlement, judgmentalism, selfishness, “what’s in it for me” attitude, laziness, inability to admit mistakes, unwillingness to have a colleague’s back if there’s no apparent gain for them, and, worse of all, an all-too-easy readiness to throw colleagues under the bus — that I often find myself fantasizing about retiring.
But I can’t afford to retire now. I need to stick it out until 2025. December 22, 2025, to be precise. I just keep saying to myself, as guise of encouragement, that “This, too, shall pass” even though I don’t really believe it. Careerists that they are, they will likely move on to another job soon enough while I plan to stick to this one until the end, but in all likelihood their replacements will be just another bunch of Millennials because we, GenXers, are yesterday’s news in the workforce. What really keeps me going, aside from necessity, is the knowledge that my flexibility and empathy make me better at the task at hand than they could even dream of becoming.
* * * * * * *
Counting My Blessings
While these days I might give serious thought to giving away my right nut to be able to retire by this coming Christmas, I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to have a realistic plan to retire in eight years. But that’s not the only thing for which I have to be thankful. I don’t make money hand over fist, but I’m doing very well for a single guy with no dependent. Combined with my uncanny financial discipline, I’m constantly amazed at the choices I can make now and every day.
Indeed, it’s not like I’m deferring toward retirement every dollar I save like a zealot praying to a skybound entity in the hope of gaining entry into a blissful afterlife. Quite the contrary, in fact. It’s true I’ve never been much of an impulse buyer. To this day, my idea of being impulsive is to get a beer or a glass of wine when I’m dining out! Or spontaneously buying some socks and underwear while walking through my local WalMart as I think about those three hole-filled pairs I finally threw out the other day. (Since it seems I have become a solosexual in recent years, I’m clearly not worried about who will see my underwear!)
All kidding aside, though… Even if I physically could clean my own apartment, I pay someone to do that every two weeks. Even though I physically could shovel my own driveway, I pay someone to do that every time at least 3 centimetres of snow falls. Even if there’s a hose in my garage and I own a bucket, I still go to the car wash. Although I seldom go out, I still choose to spend $400 on a bottle of perfume and wear it at home. While I could probably find free articles online to relearn PHP/MySQL, I didn’t think twice about spending $100 on two books on the topic. I didn’t need to buy a (vinyl) record player so that I could haul out my 100+ vinyl records from storage, but it seemed fun to get it since I do spend so much time at home. I do go on vacations and don’t always rely on friends’ sofas. Yet despite having made these choices that were by no means necessary, I still managed to save $1,600 in the last three months so that I can either make more such choices …or retire.
So yes, I consider myself a very lucky man to have such means, but I’m also a man with a plan. I just accused Millennials of being judgmental, but if there’s one way in which I’m judgmental, it’s toward those who, when given an opportunity to get ahead, just piss it away. About a year-and-a-half ago, the guy who cleans my apartment inherited about $10K. In that time, he’s been twice to the Dominican Republic and he just came back from three weeks in Greece, and he said himself that the $10K is now long gone. Oh, and by the way, he’s on welfare and he’s always talking about how it’s unfair that some people are just born with a talent that earns them millions and millons of dollars. Now I understand that $10K isn’t much these days but I’m judgmental in this case because I simply can’t understand how he couldn’t see it as a cushion that he could have stretched out to top up so many more months. Then again, I believe there have been studies on poverty that explain this type of behaviour.
* * * * * * *
Thoughts of My Demise
Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about my mother. Sometimes I see her, mouth ajar, drawing her last breath. (I remember thinking at the time how the proud and dignified woman she was would have probably liked us to gently close her mouth.) Other times I picture her at home, talking to me on Skype. (“Hold on, let me turn down the sound on the TV.”) Most times, my memories of her bring a smile to my face and a pang in my chest. Thankfully, I still remember the sound of her voice, and probably always will.
Ever since she died, I’ve thought a lot about my own passing and that of my siblings — not so much the physicality or circumstances of our death, but the practicalities that will follow. On the one hand, while I hope I will get to enjoy several years of retirement, I realize that the choices I’m making to indulge in some simple pleasures today is because I don’t want to be that guy who sacrified everything for retirement and dropped dead the week after his retirement date. On the other hand, whether my passing occurs sooner or later, I want to make sure, as my parents did, that mopping up behind me will be easy for those who survive me.
Several years ago, my friend Da Big Goof got on my case about getting my will done. Actually, that was six years ago, around the time of my leave from work. What was funny is that, back then, he got on everyone’s case about that but didn’t have a will of his own. However, he confirmed when I visited him in Yarmouth this summer than he now does.
One thing I mentioned as a concern was, “Who’s going to clear my apartment if I were to die suddenly,” to which he replied in his typical gruff manner, “Don’t worry about that! At worse, your landlord will just haul everything out to the curb and find another tenant.” Of course he’s right on that point, although my mind did wander to what I might be mortified to have strangers (or family) wade through in my stuff, although it’s kind of hard to be mortified if you’re already dead.
I guess that, when it comes down to it, I have two preoccupations. First, and after giving this much thought, I would like my ashes to be disposed of at the place I have loved the most: the Atlantic Ocean, off the moors of Crystal Crescent. I don’t know who would be left and able to do that, but I’ve come to realize that is my most fervent wish. And second, I want to be sure that even though I won’t be leaving behind a fortune, I want it to be clearly mapped out, easily accessible, and divided in three equal parts to my siblings and their family, just as my parents did.
About a year after my father died, my mother arranged to sell the family house to us (in four equal parts) for a dollar. I remember how frustrated she was when her lawyer kept stalling the transaction. “Things get messy after someone dies,” her lawyer would say to her. “It’s never that easy.” But without hesitation, my mom retorted, “But it will be with MY kids!” And she was absolutely right. When we were going through the house, we didn’t fight over a single item. In her will, Mom had asked that everything be liquidated and divided in four equal parts, except for her jewelery, china, and kitchen battery that she earmarked for my sister. “I object!” I said in feigned outrage. “I want her rings!” We laughed because we imagined Mom laughing along with us, but later that day when we found my father’s wedding band on a cup hook in the kitchen, my older brother and executor of the will suggested, “Well since you’re the only one who’s not married, I think you should get his ring. Everybody else agree?”
I wear it to this day, on my ring finger.
It certainly helped us a great deal that my brother is a chartered accountant and knew exactly what had to be done in terms of taxes and so on. But despite the fact it took him a year and several trips from Grand Falls to Edmundston to get back one tiny investment at another financial institution, he divided absolutely everything in four equal parts — just as my mother had predicted that he/we would. Hence I have the absolute certainty that the same thing will happen when I pass, whether or not I’m the first sibling to go.
* * * * * * *
Why Are You Being So Morbid?
I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about such things lately. What I can say is that it’s not because I’m having dark thoughts or have any kind of premonition about my pending doom, if that’s what you’re worried about.
The best explanation I’m able to offer is that I’ve been disgusted with work lately. While I’m an enviable position of having some choices financially, an early retirement is not one of those choices. I’ve often said that I would keep on working even if I won the lottery (which would be difficult since I never buy lottery tickets), but lately I’ve been thinking otherwise. I would quit today if I could. However, since I can’t, there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to the next eight years passing, but an equal part of me that doesn’t want time to go by any faster than it already is. I’m in the third year of my 50s but my mind hasn’t caught up to this fact; I still think of myself in my mid- to late-30s. So I certainly don’t want to rush hitting 60.
* * * * * * *
Anything You Could Do to Speed Things Up?
I suppose there is… Two options come to mind.
Seeking a promotion at work
Bringing my PHP/MySQL skills back up to speed and freelance on the side
The problem with the first option is that I have trouble imagining it could be done while retaining the ability to work from home. It might also bring the obligation of having to manage staff. As for the second option, the reason I dropped freelancing soon after starting my current job is that the latter is mentally exhausting. I was 11 years younger back then and I couldn’t do both, so what makes me believe that I could pull it off 11 years later?
However, as I mull over these options, I prefer the second and it could maybe accelerate my plan by a year, maybe two. The question is whether it would make me more reclusive than I already am, and that wouldn’t be a good thing.
Or I could simply accept that things are the way they are, that they could be a heck of a lot worse, and that my plan toward retirement is fundamentally sound, so just stick it out. After all, there are fewer years to go than I already banked in, pardon the pun. But if $250K suddenly dropped in my account — that’s all I ask! 🙂 — then this Christmas would be very merry indeed!
It was my second date with Momma Tee this summer while she was visiting her hometown of Montréal from Vancouver. We’d agreed that I’d pick her up late that afternoon from where she was staying in the West Island, take her to my place, walk down the street to dine at a nearby South Indian restaurant, and come back to my place to share a bottle of red. Our first date was some 10 days earlier in the Village, and that had been the first time we’d seen each other since 1988 — yes, 28 years before.
She wasn’t Momma Tee back then, at least not yet. We’d met at university in Halifax the previous fall when we found ourselves in the same American Literature class that was taught by The Grand Poobah of Culinary Delights, whom I didn’t call by that monicker at the time and who was still years away from becoming the life partner of my BFF, The Queen of Sheba, whom I hadn’t met yet.
In many ways, Momma Tee and I were the two most unlikely individuals to become friends, yet friends we did become. She returned to Montréal at the end of the Winter 1988 session, thinking initially that she would be coming back in the fall and be admitted to the PR program, but her plans changed that summer and she didn’t come back. But we kept in touch for many years afterwards, mostly by mail, for those were still the days when people wrote letters and avoided long-distance calls because they were prohibitively expensive. In that summer of ’88, her letters were filled with deliciously salicious details of her life back in Montreal, while mine waxed poetic as I was assuredly and absolutely falling in love with Hiker, whom I didn’t come to call by that monicker until many years later.
So back to that second date some 28 years later, I gave her the obligatory tour of my apartment. In the room I call my office, she noticed a picture of my mom on the bookshelf and, knowing that I had fairly recently lost her, she advanced to comtemplate it. (She’s particularly sensitive to grieving and loss, she herself having to grieve for that most unspeakable kind of loss: that of her 7-year-old son to cancer.) Then she looked at the other pictures on the shelves when suddenly the quasi-solemnity of the moment got broken when she practically sucked all the air out of the room, pointed at a photo of a guy in his graduation robe and asked, “Who the HELL is that?!” So I told her: that’s the infamous but much younger Hiker, to which she kept saying over and over, “Oh. My. God.” Once she recovered, she said something to the effect that she remembered thinking when reading my letters so many years ago that he must have been quite something to have me in such a state, but she had never imagined that he was so handsome.
Interestingly, that same picture had triggered a similarly strong but negative reaction eight years earlier. It’s funny in a way because I hardly notice the picture anymore. It’s just part of my stuff. But mere minutes after NowEx first set foot in my Halifax apartment after that horrible, horrible plane ride that night from Montreal, he noticed the picture and demanded — he never asked — “Who the FUCK is that?!” Unaccustomed to such blatant displays of jealousy, I had to pause for a few seconds to understand what was happening and recall what I may have said about Who-The-Fuck-Is-That until I simply told him that it was Hiker, about whom I had already spoken along with his nearly 20-year partner Bello.
* * * * * * *
I had a truly wonderful vacation trip this past summer. First I spent two days in the Québec City area. Then I drove through the Charlevoix region to cross the Saint Lawrence by ferry to Rivière-du-Loup to visit relatives. The next day I drove to Fredericton and stayed a few nights at Hiker and Bello’s before spending several more days in Halifax and then slowly driving back to Montréal. I think what made the trip so wonderful is that although I was only gone for 10 or 11 days, it felt, even during the trip itself, as if I’d been gone much longer. I avoided freeways as much as possible and my attitude in general was, “I’ll get there when I get there.”
One evening after dinner, sitting at the Queen and the Poobah’s table in Halifax, I reflected on how and perhaps why this trip was so enjoyable. About my Fredericton segment, I told them about how I didn’t get to see The Quad because he, too, was on vacation and out of town, but instead I did get to have lunch with one of my former PR students. Of course, the Queen then asked after Hiker and Bello, and I quite enthusiastically shared their big news: in the spring, after 25 years together, they finally decided to get married. Theirs was a super low-key affair with only a few friends on their back deck — no fancy suits or anything.
— So how do you feel about that?” the Queen asked me.
Her question puzzled me, for sometimes the Queen knows me better than I know myself. I stammered something or another, even joking that it was perhaps time after 26 years together, but I think I was stammering because the question — “How do you feel about that?” — simply didn’t compute in my head. She kept looking at me as I was answering, and once I’d finished she continued looking at me and finally dropped what felt like a non sequitur:
— He was the love of your life.” To which I said, after a sigh:
— That was so, so long ago. Like a lifetime ago.”
We were so desperately young back then. I was 22 going on 23; he had just turned 21. I had been his first.
Although I still can’t wrap my mind around it, I’m 51 now. But that comment by the Queen catapulted me into memories of the summer of ’88 in that 13th-floor apartment on Gerrish Street in Halifax. And worse, it reminded me of a train ride from Moncton to Halifax the following late-October or early-November that seemed to last forever and through which I had to fight back my tears, for just a few hours earlier, Hiker had asked that we “just be friends.”
I entered a fog that lasted 18 months through which I somehow managed to finish my degree. When I came out the other side, I had been changed. In each significant relationship I had in the following decade, the shadows of my memories of Hiker hovered over those relationships… until they didn’t anymore. They didn’t anymore not only because I stopped believing in what we euphemistically call “relationships” but also because I couldn’t find or understand the point of them for me, a fact I painfully demonstrated with my quicky marriage and divorce with NowEx.
* * * * * * *
I first met Hiker in the spring of 1987 and the first thing I saw on him was his crotch, but that was an accident.
I was sitting in a conference room at the library at the Université de Moncton, where I was mounting for printing the latest issue of the newsletter for the association of Gays and Lesbians of Moncton, when my friend !!!!! — there’s definitely an inside joke in that nickname — called my name as she entered the room and noticed me. She walked behind my chair to go sit in front of me and I turned my head to the right as she and — it turns out — Hiker were walking behind and around me. So my head just happened to BE at his crotch level, which is why I maintain to this day that it was an accident.
Trust me: when I saw the tall, slim, dark-haired mustachioed guy sitting next to her, I first had to quickly find the most gracious way of picking up my jaw from the floor and then I had to figure out how not to sit and stare at him in awe. Then !!!!!, bad girl that she was and had long known by that time that I’m gay and active in the community at the time, kept insisting on asking me what I was doing since I’d quit the U de M several months before. Now remember: this was in 1987, and back then it wasn’t easy to just casually say as you could now — at least I couldn’t! — that you’re putting the final touches on the local fag rag!
Time passed. I don’t know if we’re talking days, weeks, or months, but “some” time passed. I had gone out with The Quad and we ended up sitting at a park bench on Main Street in Moncton when suddenly !!!!! and Hiker came walking down the sidewalk. We chatted for a bit before they went on their way — to or from a movie, I don’t recall — and then I just gasped to The Quad something to the effect that I’d gladly give my right nut to be with Hiker but that he’s probably not gay, to which The Quad said, “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” But rather than comfort me, that comment made me despair: a snowball in hell would have a better chance than I would with him.
Then several months passed and, truth be told, I didn’t think much if ever about the gorgeous francophile anglophone demigod although it had been clarified with absolute certainty that he’d preferred to kiss boys although he hadn’t yet. I had already had my figurative good cry over him and moved on. By this time, both The Quad and I lived in Halifax and were enrolled in the PR program at MSVU, and Hiker was supposed to come visit The Quad on the May long weekend. Except that a few days before that visit, The Quad fell ill and ended up in hospital.
That’s when I concocted the ballsiest plan in my entire life — so ballsy that it was unprecedented and never surpassed since. Feigning disinterest and pure altruism, I managed to get Hiker’s phone number in Fredericton and called him to invite him to stay at my place so that he wouldn’t have to cancel his trip to Halifax and could get to visit The Quad in hospital. He was a bit hesitant at first but finally accepted my invitation after I assured him that it was no trouble at all. I’m pretty certain that at that precise moment, Jesus either wept or shat the bed.
* * * * * * *
I know no one in the peanut gallery will believe me, but I was a perfect gentleman that whole weekend and I do have a witness: Hiker himself. Although we didn’t end up visiting The Quad in hospital that much, we spent the weekend drinking lots of coffee, exploring the city, eating at home and then staying up late, talking the night away while listening to music. On more than one occasion I wanted to take him in my arms and seduce him to my bed, but I didn’t because I knew he’d never been with a guy and, even though I could tell that we were getting on like a house on fire, I still wasn’t convinced he’d want to make that leap with me. So every night I’d make my bed on the sofa and send him to my room, by himself. It took every ounce of my strength not to enter my room that one morning I got up before he did and saw him sprawled on my bed sleeping and wearing only bikini briefs. In fact, the sight of him there seemed so surreal.
In 1988, few had ever heard of e-mail, let alone used it. He had a summer job in Fredericton and I studied full-time through the summer sessions. So began our exchange of long letters as neither of us could afford long-distance calls, as well as the inevitable staple of relationships in the ’80s: The Mixed Tapes. I introduced him to Michael Franks and Jane Olivor; he introduced me to Helen Merrill. I challenged him to figure out which Michael Franks song reminded me of him and, to this day, I get carried into thoughts of Hiker and the summer of ’88 each time I hear “Tell Me All About It.” Yet, at the same time, I find myself blushing: We were SO damn young!
I still have all the letters he sent me, along with all the cards and letters anyone ever sent me when people still did that. I may re-read them every 10 years or so. The last time was about a year after I moved to my new apartment, but whenever I do, I always keep his for last, as if they were some kind of dessert. In them, we weren’t professing our neverending love; we were just continuing the conversation, talking about the most mundane things, although I suspect we would have just as assiduously read the phone book if we’d thought the other guy had written it.
The intensity of the whole thing was such that he inevitably came back to Halifax a few weeks after his first visit, for the Canada Day long weekend. By then it was clear where all of this was heading, but I still harboured this fear that if I moved too fast, I would, as RuPaul would say, fuck it up. So the night he arrived we stayed up impossibly late — dawn was starting to break — as if we — but especially I — were afraid to broach the topic of sleeping arrangements.
Finally at one point he got up to go to the bathroom and I took that as my cue to start making my bed on the sofa. But when he came back out and saw me getting some bedding out of the linen closet, he asked me what I was doing.
— I’m making my bed. It’s late…” I stammered.
That’s when he came behind me, took me in his arms, and with his bristly cheek against my bearded cheek he softly said as only a francophile anglophone would: “Je te l’interdis…” (“I forbid you.”) That was the Torch Song Trilogy moment of my life, except that for my unspoken, “What am I going to do …with my beer,” substitute “beer” with “bed linen.”
And so we went to my room, but you know what? We undressed, got into bed in each other’s arms, and simply fell asleep. And while this song hadn’t been written yet, it’s of that precise moment I think whenever I hear it.
* * * * * * *
I have to tell you something: It feels weird for me to be writing about this. Specifically, why am I writing about this? Moreover, why now?
Hiker met Bello two years, give or take a few days, after he had asked that we “just be friends.” He had finished his university studies and landed a job which he still holds to this day. Between me and Bello, he had a fling with a guy studying in Halifax whom some of us very affectionately nicknamed the Cyprius Fruit, and this brief pairing turned out to be the electroshock treatment I needed to get out of my aforementioned fog and accept that my proverbial ship called Hiker had sailed. Being still in my mid-20s at the time, I assumed that more and better was yet to come.
But then I changed. By the early ’90s, I began to question if I even believed in “relationships” or what having a relationship really meant. I began to notice how most of my friends were forever seeking this elusive thing, going from one to the next and the one after that, completely unable to picture themselves alone or single, while I rather enjoyed extended periods of time on my own. At some point between the age of 25 and 30, I began to make a distinction between sex and lovemaking and wondered if I might be polyamorous. (I think I am but never got to test it out.)
Then I look at the life I’ve had after Hiker until now. My professional life influenced my so-called love life a lot, not only because I had at least a decade of financial precariousness but also because of the intensity with which I work — or used to work up until a few years ago. I found myself not falling in love so much as falling into relationships. This is an awful, terrible thing to say, but I think I’ve had a few particularly intense infactuations that I mistook at the time as falling in love. But setting aside that thing with NowEx, which was so entirely different from everything else that it’s like comparing a galaxy to a planet, I always seemed to reach a point where I needed more time to myself to do nothing but be by myself.
If I were to be totally honest with myself, however, I would have to admit that Hiker loomed over all those others who weren’t Hiker. To this day, that man is capable of saying things that make my heart melt all over again. I remember a comment he once made to me about Bello that some people might have viewed as criticism but was in fact so disarmingly sweet and loving. Meanwhile, I once had a colleague at work who couldn’t be any more different than Hiker except for one thing: they have a very similar laugh, and whenever I’d hear him laugh, I inferred that he had as kind a soul as Hiker.
So that’s where it all stops making sense to me. While it’s clear that Hiker is prime long-term relationship material — I mean, 26 years and counting! — was I ever? I can’t convince myself beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would not have come to the same questioning about myself by my late 20s, and I don’t think that would have flown over very well with Hiker even though he, himself, is also a fiercely solitary type. Then again, monogamy aside, it’s not like he and Bello are anywhere near being joined at the hip: they maintain very separate interests and even vacation separately at times because of those different interests. Meanwhile, as much as it’s true that my professional choices had an influence on my love life post Hiker, wouldn’t my choices have been different had there not been a post-Hiker?
These questions can’t ever be answered. At 51 I might have a house and have travelled as much as Hiker and Bello have, but do I yearn for that now at 51? Honestly? No, I can’t say that I do. Do I wish I could fall in love like I did nearly 29 years ago? Yes …and no. I mean, yes, of course, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world! But the older I get, the more time and space I need for myself and I can see my capacity to share my intimacy and privacy dwindling after each passing year.
Then that brings me full circle, doesn’t it? It sounds like I want my cake and eat it, too. Or as we say in French, le beurre et l’argent du beurre (the butter and the butter money).
Maybe that’s what it is! They say that to write a good story, there has to be conflict. Perhaps I feel compelled to write this because there’s a conflict. On the one hand, I think I’m finally reaching that point where I’m ready to have a significant man in my life, but on the other hand, I’m not ready for compromise. And by that I don’t just mean compromise on the time and space I need for myself, but also merely “settling” for a kind, handsome, intelligent, independent guy who just doesn’t quite light my fire.
That might be the conflict, but I’m not sure it’s making for a good story.
I had a bit of an epiphany during my vacation last summer. No, not the summer that’s ending now; the previous one. And it has given me a sense of freedom ever since.
Remember how, in October 2013, I reached my milestone of getting out of debt? In hindsight, I’m so glad that Mom got to see that moment. It didn’t matter that I was 48 years old; she still worried about me and was my best cheerleader. I can still see the expression on her face through Skype when I told her. “I knew you could do it!” she said. “I’m so happy for you.” And she legitimately was.
I didn’t know then that she would be gone a year later, and I didn’t know that I would inherit so much that my debt would have been wiped out and that I would still have some money left over. I had my doubts that it would happen when she’d go, but I preferred to deny that she would ever go and refused to think of her as my retirement plan.
Then, just before Christmas after she died, the taxman figured out that I hadn’t filed in years. Many years. Many, many years. But because I had asked my employer to hold back a sizable amount per paycheque for five years, I knew I didn’t owe any back taxes and properly was owed some. Except that while I knew that, somewhere in some piles in my apartment, I had all the necessary paperwork to file, I had no idea how to get the forms going so far back and thus I became frozen into inertia. When the taxman offered to send me all that paperwork in one envelope and made me promise to immediately get a professional to file for all those back years, I jumped on the occasion to finally get that monkey off my back.
I won’t say it here, but you would shit a brick if you knew how much I got back, counting that current year (for which I actually filed early, all on my own using tax software). Deciding to invest most of that unexpected income into an RRSP, which I never had before, certainly inflated the final amount.
A few months passed and my three-week Summer 2015 vacation came. On the last week I visited my older brother in the Gaspé. Since he retired a few years ago, he spends two months in the summer in a trailer on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Saint Lawrence where every day he gets to see the sun rise on one side of “his cliff” and set on the other side.
I had never been to the Gulf side of the Gaspé and I was 17 years old the last time I’d been on its Bay side. Although my brother and his wife had often sent us pictures of what they called their “little paradise,” none of their pictures had prepared me to what that place would be like when seen in person.
While the city boy in me couldn’t stand spending two whole months over there, I sensed on the 10-hour drive back to Montréal that the little hamster in my head had hopped on his wheel and had started to run furiously. Until then, because I was 40 by the time I started working at a steady, well-paying job, I had assumed that the earliest I would be able to afford to retire was at age 65 (or 67 under the change to the age of eligibility for Old Age Security, which has since been rescinded), and even there it would probably be tight. But the little hamster reminded me how I can live quite contentedly with little as long as all the unavoidable bills get paid and I don’t ever get back into debt. And then he reminded me of how much I already had invested and roughly how much I would be getting from my pensions.
That was the moment of my epiphany.
Speaking to my supervisor on my first day back at work, I declared, “I’ve had a fantastic vacation because I had an epiphany: in 10 years and no longer, I will retire even if it means having to eat a bit of cat food now and then.”
My supervisor was obvioulsly surprised: “But you’d be awfully young, wouldn’t you?” To which I reminded her, “Girl, I’ll be turning 50 next month! So 60 doesn’t strike me as being that young to retire.” That’s when she said that she had me pegged at 43 or 44, hence her surprise.
A few months later, during the two consecutive very long weekends I enjoyed during Christmas and New Year’s, I decided to redo from scratch my budget-slash-spreadsheet-from-hell for the next 10 years in order to uncover one single number: what would I have, give or take a few thousand dollars, even if I switched to the most conservative approach to saving for my retirement but kept the same financial discipline?
It had taken me only nine months to realize that I don’t have the nerve for mutual funds. I know that they say that you have to take the long view and not look at your RRSP’s value every day, so what did I do? I looked at it every day! By late 2015/early 2016, following a mild recession in the middle of 2015, it looked as though the Canadian economy was heading toward the precipice. So I found the best guaranteed investments I could put my hands on and figured out that I prefer having a firm number distributed over several types of savings schemes than a bigger (or smaller) “you could have” number.
What convinced me after all those calculations that I would be able to afford to retire at 60 is the commonly accepted advice that one should be prepared to live on 70 percent of their income at the time of their retirement. And you know what? Because I’m single and disciplined (although I don’t deny myself much of anything) and make pretty good money for one person, I currently sock away 30 percent of all my income that includes sizable tax returns because I’m putting much of it in a registered retirement plan. When I reach retirement in 10 …err …9 years, my days of saving massively will be over. But already I’m living on 70 percent of my income, so I estimate that my savings and my pensions will have me set for 20 to 25 years, by which time I’m pretty certain I’ll be dead.
Yes, I still have to work for a living a while longer, but I sense my parents are smiling down on my siblings and me, knowing that we’ll all be fine until we go join them. I don’t know where Mom, especially, took her financial wisdom but I thank her every day for having taught it to me. And I’m in total awe at how those two magnificent people of relatively modest means have managed so well at taking care of four kids from cradle to grave, and are still taking care of us now thanks to the memories and the love we still feel coming from them.
I signed into Facebook after work that Friday, the day before my previous post, the one that got me back into aMMusing. Sometimes I wonder why I sign into Facebook a few times a day as I do. More often than not it’s a downer, and the quick succession of one terrible and practically surreal event after another only seems to amplify the craziness and sadness that surround us. But as much as I have come to view Facebook as that train wreck we can’t help ourselves from looking at over and over, I hadn’t come prepared to read the status update of Cleopatrick, with whom I clearly had a falling out two years ago.
Just a month earlier, coincidentally on the day that would have been my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary, I read that he’d married his partner in a double wedding with his sister who finally married the guy she’d been with for 28 years. We hadn’t spoken in nearly two years at that point (more on that below), but that day we chatted through Messenger. He and his now-husband were leaving the next day for a week-long honeymoon in the Mexican Riviera, and I wished them a good trip — he assured me they would have — and that was that. I didn’t know if this chat signalled the beginning of a thaw in our relationship, but I didn’t give it too much thought because I wasn’t sure how I felt about that prospect.
Then, on that Friday a month later when I signed into Facebook after work, I read his status update: his husband had died earlier that day.
I immediately sent him a private message urging him to give me a call but, given the strain in our relationship, I wasn’t sure he’d respond; therefore, I also sent a private message to his sister and brother-in-law. It turns out he did respond within two hours or so, simply saying to give him a few days, which I perfectly understood. Around midnight, his brother-in-law filled me in: CP’s husband had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months or so back. In other words, the guy had received his death sentence. He was in his early 50s, if that.
* * * * * * *
In my last post before deserting aMMusing, I announced that I was moving four blocks down the street to the top floor of a sixplex. Not having the use of my car but having three months to move, I started carrying some stuff over on January 15 (2014). The previous tenants, young engineering students from France, left some stuff behind such as a bed, a desk and a couch, so I began living at the new place even though I didn’t have all my stuff and only going to the old place on weekdays to work and watch Coronation Street. Thus I discovered that as long as I had an Internet connection, which I got as soon as I started living in the new place, I could live with little; in fact, I came to realized that I owned a lot of junk that only weighed me down. (I ended up filling nearly 20 garbage bags of stuff I either trashed or gave away.)
Still, moving is a daunting to me. It’s either that I hate packing or that I’m terrible at it — or both. But the mere thought of it is soporific to me. So, I hired professional movers to supply boxes and do all the hauling, and knowing that Cleopatrick wasn’t getting much paid work at the time, I offered to pay him for two days of packing and unpacking boxes. Fate had it that the move occurred on February 22, the date I married NowEx six years earlier. I got to reclaim that date from the calendar, changing it from what I knew was my worst “move” ever to what I hoped would literally be my best move ever.
The only thing I disliked about the new place was the wall colours. My bedroom was some weird pinkish purple; my office was an odd turquoise; the kitchen, hallway and living room were a bad “apartment beige”; in all cases, the ceilings were the same colour as the walls, which made everything feel claustrophobic. But I had resolved when I signed the sublease to get the place painted to my taste and at my expense.
* * * * * * *
With eight years’ seniority at my job by 2014, I had only 16 vacations days per year. Still, I had decided to take them all at once because two consecutive weeks off in the summer simply wasn’t good enough for me. I had therefore resolved that the first week would be a “staycation” to get the apartment painted and the next two weeks would be to travel to the Maritimes, as usual, to visit with Mom and maybe go as far as Halifax. Having seen how well Cleopatrick had painted one of his apartments and, again, knowing that he was short on cash, I offered to pay him the going per-room rate of a local professional painter except that I would supply the paint. He accepted.
Two or three days before I was to start my vacation, one of my brothers sent a message to my work e-mail telling me that Mom had been taken to the hospital. Long story short, she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which is sometimes referred to as “hardening of the lungs,” and needed to be on oxygen. My sister was on the last days of a trip to Corsica, so “the boys” (my brothers and I) resolved to tell her only when she returned that following Sunday and, given Mom’s condition at that time, we should consider alternating our time with her in Moncton rather than all converge together. It turned out that one of our cousins thwarted the first bit of our plan by sending our sister a message through Facebook, but whatever…
Later I took Cleopatrick out for fish and chips in the Village and told him that, in view of our decision to split our time with Mom, the paint job could go ahead as planned the following week. I also remember telling him that I wished to apologize ahead of time should I be short-tempered or distracted in the coming days, as I hadn’t seen Mom’s illness coming and I was a bit of a mess about it.
* * * * * * *
Thus began the most profoundly altering six weeks of my life, for in five weeks, Mom went from living independently in her own house to dying. I had always said that, as much as I found Dad’s passing difficult, I would be devastated the day I would lose Mom.
The winter of 2013-14 was extremely difficult in Moncton and it was really hard for Mom. But besides that, we’d noticed her declining slowly in the last two years. She seemed more and more frail and more prone to worrying. When my aunt (her sister-in-law) decided to move into a new home being built in our Moncton neighbourhood while my uncle would remain in their house, which was also just a block away from Mom’s, I could sense that she was slowly coming to terms with the thought of having to do the same.
Week One of my vacation (and the paint job) started — the first week of June 2014. The initial prognosis for Mom was that she could last many months and up to three years, depending on the stage her illness was caught. However, it quickly became apparent that she’d need to be on oxygen for the rest of her life, so just as quickly it became apparent, given there was no bathroom on the main floor at the house, that her returning to live there wasn’t viable.
Meanwhile, just as this news was coming down, my brother who lives in Moncton couldn’t be by her side at the hospital because most of the city was in lockdown for the manhunt of Justin Bourque — a guy in his early 20s who actually grew up four houses over from Mom’s — who had killed three RCMP officers and severely injured two. Mixed into my memories of perhaps the darkest chapter in my hometown’s history is the memory of a tearful phone conversation with my mom, who believed she was announcing to me that she would not be able to return home. “It all happened so quickly,” she kept saying, and she was right: one minute she was preparing to go do some kind of volunteer work as usual at the golden age club, and the next minute, as she was on the phone with her sister who’d called earlier than usual that morning, she realized that she couldn’t catch her breath.
And the paint job? Every day my siblings asked how it was coming along. “Where is it at? Sixty, seventy percent done?” I could tell they were surprised when I’d say it wasn’t nearly that far along, but I didn’t give it much thought because I knew that if I’d attempted it myself, I’d probably be nowhere, not to mention that the little I would have done would have been a frightful mess.
* * * * * * *
Cleopatrick would work Monday to Thursday, for he had a dishwashing gig in a restaurant in the Village on Friday and Saturday. With the paint job still ongoing, my siblings and I decided that Week Three of my vacation would be my week to be with Mom in Moncton, taking over from my elder brother and my sister taking over at the end of my week.
I’ll save the narrative of that week with her for another post except to say that on the Friday morning, my last full day before coming back to Montreal, I stepped into her room to find her with a full oxygen mask and her intake had gone from 3 or 4 litres the previous evening to 9 litres. I will never forget the way she looked at me as I stepped into her room, not turning her head but looking at me sideways as a child who had just done something wrong. It was devastatingly heartbreaking yet I didn’t let on, choosing instead to calmly ask her and the nursing staff what was happening. She was brought down for some new scans later that afternoon, but while I didn’t grasp that this was the true beginning of the end, I did know that this turn meant that she could no longer hope to go to that home she’d hoped to go to because her condition was beyond the level of care that could be offered there.
Back home that night, I sent Cleopatrick a message to tell him of this major change and that while I would be driving back to Montreal as planned the next day, I might be returning to Moncton the following weekend and work from there. To this day, I don’t know what motivated me to send him that message. Was I hoping that he’d reply to say that it’s okay because he just finished the painting? I really don’t know. I seem to recall being more preoccupied with the logistics of taking care of Mom, and somehow that note fitted into the logistics.
I don’t remember how many times and for how long I stopped on my way to Montreal, but the drive took me longer than usual. At one of my stops outside Quebec City, I texted Sweet Sam who I’d just met a few weeks earlier and agreed to go directly to his place for a drink before going home to my apartment. And when I arrived home around midnight, bone tired, I found that my place was still like a massive workshop: he hadn’t started the bedroom yet, the furniture therein was still in the centre of the room, and the futon in the office that could serve as a bed was covered with stuff.
With my back against the wall in the hallway, I crumpled to the floor and I began to cry. I just couldn’t deal with this. I had no points of reference to lean on.
* * * * * * *
The next night, my siblings and I had a four-way conference through Skype. The doctor had told my younger brother that Friday’s scans “didn’t look good,” but he didn’t elaborate. So my sister, who’s a physiotherapist, was going to have a meeting the next morning with the doctor to get some straight answers. Although all my siblings had hinted at one time or another that Mom might be dying, I had refused to say those words.
I logged into work the next morning and told my supervisor at work that I would be going back to Moncton by the end of the week and work from there, pending what my sister would report in the coming hours. By 11:00, having not heard anything yet, I called “home” and my sister answered immediately. All I remember her saying was, “…maybe 2 or 3 days…” and “…you have to come back right away…” And then, as I was sitting on the edge of that blasted futon, I essentially just hung up on her as I blurted “I have to go …I’ll call you back” and just started to wail in a way I had never before.
The rest is sketchy. I don’t remember why Cleopatrick wasn’t there, for it was a Monday and he should have been there. I do remember calling my supervisor once I could contain myself enough to call her, and I think this is a verbatim quote from her: “Log off and get the fuck out of here.” I know I decided that it was too late to start driving to Moncton, and I wanted to wash my clothes and go to bed very early after taking a sleeping pill. I don’t for the life of me remember how I got word to Cleopatrick that I was getting the hell out of Dodge. I do remember getting the text message from my younger brother telling me Mom had been moved to palliative care and was “resting comfortably” (as people always say when someone enters palliative care). And I remember asking my family for radio silence from a given point that day until my arrival in Moncton, for I didn’t know if I could finish the drive down while knowing that my mother had died.
* * * * * * *
Well, she didn’t die that day. Nor the day I arrived. Nor the day after that, for that matter, when they began administering the “end-of-life protocol.”
Nope! The protocol began around noon the last Wednesday of June 2014 and she died 20 minutes into the following Tuesday, July 1 — Canada Day. Every day until I die, there will be fireworks to remind me of the day my mother died, as if I needed reminding. But given my family’s warped sense of humour, we all said later that day she probably held on into July just so we could claim her government pension cheque for that month. And you know what? If the departed can look down upon us, I’m certain she had a shitface grin on her face, feigning indignation but thinking that we really did have her figured out after all.
One day I will write about those last days with Mom. We slept on lazyboys in her room, taking three-hour shifts, two by two, through each night. But one night, during one of my shifts to stay awake by Mom’s bedside with my younger brother, he brought up my paint job situation. “Isn’t he also friends with the Queen of Sheba?” he asked me, to which I replied he was. “How about asking her to call him to say that ‘Maurice is in a really bad way and needs to be able to get his apartment back so that he can begin to recoup’?”
I didn’t really like the idea off the bat. It felt like that would be a kind of provocation. But at the same time, I had grown indignant. If he had received that message I had sent the night before driving to Montreal, which I don’t know if he did or not, but if he had… If I’d received such a note and knew the state in which I’d left the apartment, wouldn’t I have taken an hour before going to work to go to the apartment and clear a space for a bed since the guy would be arriving after driving 10 hours or more from Moncton? I could see someone not being comfortable poking around to find the bed linen and that, but at least clear a spot? Then again, even if he hadn’t seen the note, the plan hadn’t changed: I was coming back from Moncton that Saturday night. Can someone be so lost inside their own bubble as not to even think of this on their own?
Anyway, the next morning, my brother shared his idea with my other brother and sister, and they all thought that if I couldn’t bring myself to do it, then it indeed was a good idea. But then we resumed our wait by Mom’s bedside, in awe along with the nursing staff over how this little lady just wasn’t ready to give it up. But after six days and five nights, she did.
* * * * * * *
It was either the day Mom died or the next day that I spoke to the Queen of Sheba. I don’t even remember if I’m the one who called her or if she’s the one who called me. I do remember that I sent her a few e-mails that week, so I may have sent her one when Mom did die. I’m not sure.
I do recall, however, her asking me if she would like it if she would come from Halifax to attend the funeral. As much as Mom had prepared everything to the point that it was almost as easy as just pressing a button to start all the funeral arrangements, I still felt overwhelmed by family and all of Mom’s friends that I feared I would hardly have time to see her if she came. “However,” I said, “I would have a favour to ask, but you can always say No.” And I sprung The Idea on her. “Gladly,” she said. “I can’t believe this even needs to be said to him.”
So the die were cast. But judging from what happened (or didn’t) in the two years that followed, my reasons for thinking initially that it wasn’t a good idea may not have been far off the mark. Except that while it may have been the cherry on the proverbial sundae, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what else may have led to the strain in our friendship.
* * * * * * *
If you’re trying to figure out the math, here it is: When I returned to Montreal after the funeral, Week Six of the Paint Job from Hell was beginning, and after going back today to check messages we exchanged back then, it even went into a partial Week Seven, which I had completed forgotten about! Granted, when Week Six began, the job was much further ahead than the last time I arrived, but Sweet Sam, whom I suckered into helping me the night I arrived to bring up an awkward piece of furniture I inherited from home, was outraged by what he saw. I was just too exhausted and grief striken to muster up any more outrage. I just longed to have my cocoon back and understood more than ever why I prefer spending so much time alone rather than having to deal with people.
After the move in February, I had asked him if he’d agree to me hiring him to clean the apartment every two weeks and, again, he had accepted. So I asked him on what I gather now was the beginning of Week Seven if he’d consent to a post-painting “double cleaning” for an extra 80 bucks. Having resumed work, I then had to make a call and thus enclosed myself into the office; when the call ended and I stepped out of the office, I discovered that he had left. A few hours later he sent me a message, but along with an apology for having left without letting me know, he was refusing the “double cleaning” offer. But what poisoned the message and the apology was this line: “The circumstances of the past 6 weeks have been stressful for you but they haven’t spared me either and that is why I want to separate my work from my friendships…”
Even though I was all by myself reading this message, I felt like I was surrounded by an invisible jury asking me in unison, “So what did your last slave die of?”
* * * * * * *
This may come as a surprise to some, but in eight years of living in Montreal, I have made precisely one true friend: Sweet Sam. I have made two or three “more than acquaintances but less than friends,” but since sending back NowEx to Mexico seven years ago this week, I’ve been guilty of closing in on myself and, despite knowing that I shouldn’t, even declining some social invitations. (Right, Richard?)
As much as astrology is bullshit, I do like that they say that a Leo is fiercely loyal. That I am. And if I come to trust someone as a friend, I will open up to the verge of making myself vulnerable. So when a falling out happens in one of my few friendships, it really, really hurts.
Meanwhile, back during my short stint of therapy in 2011, I learned that I can take criticism as long as it’s justified, but I constantly struggle trying to figure out what is justified and what is not. I also learned that being bullied from a very young age for being a “faggot” has fostered in me a deep sense of outrage when something is not right or not fair, and as a result I always question myself about whether or not I’m treating others right — especially friends. And if a friend ascribes or suspects non-existant motives to actions I pose or things I say, that, too, really, really hurts.
Did I fuck him over? Did I short-change him into painting a roughly 725 square-feet apartment? Not according to the multiple people I asked and what I saw online. But then if someone receives value X for a job that others claim should take time T but then that someone takes T * 6 to do the job, who’s at fault if fault there is: the “employer” or the “employee”?
That line of inquiry seemed like a dead end, so I then turned to conversations or “incidents” during that time besides The Call from the Queen of Sheba.
One day I drove him home (I offered) and the sky ripped open once we hit the Ville-Marie Expressway. The next day he told me that he considered it a “white-knuckle drive” and he’d rather just take the metro thereafter. He felt uncomforable with my driving — he’s not the first one! — but knowing that I was in control at all times, I agreed that it was his problem and I didn’t offer again to drive him home, letting him take the metro instead.
I also remember how his partner didn’t seem to know what to make of me. Yeah, Cleopatrick and I had been a couple once …20 freakin’ years ago! Been there, done him, not interested in that anymore, not even remotely!
One thing that always bothers me beyond this undercurrent of jealousy or mistrust (if that’s what it is) is seeing a friend having to constantly report back on his whereabouts to his partner, or hearing of a partner getting tremendously upset that my friend returned home considerably later than he initially expected. And it’s particularly irksome when the delay was because I took my friend out for authentic Chinese food after a long day of work together, not because we decided to have a quickie for old time’s sake! You know, I’ve never, ever done that with an ex, and I’d especially not if he’s involved with someone else, so why am I always suspected of this transgression?
But one concern I did voice, which in hindsight I shouldn’t have voiced even though I believed (and still believe) was true, is how his partner seemed to be exerting the same kind of control on him as a previous ex of his used to. As his friend, I was troubled by this behaviour. And I was confused by it, too, because on the surface his partner didn’t seem like the type who’d do that. Yet what I was being told about how some events had gone down sounded like a repeated recording but with a different protagonist.
* * * * * * *
Whatever happened before and perhaps led to what I’ll call that “message of termination,” what resulted was a total discontinuation of contact.
Meanwhile, I’ll remind you, my mother died two weeks before. I had no friend in Montreal to really talk to. I had only met Sweet Sam a month and a half earlier. As kind and comforting as he was — and he really was! — he couldn’t possibly grasp the full depth of my grief as would someone who’d known me for 20 years and knew practically every detail of my relationship with my mother.
At one point I noticed that the partner had unfriended me from Facebook. Then, a year passed. Then almost another year passed, with only very rare and perfunctory messages, until May 14 of this year when I learned online that they had wed and then we had a more substantive chat through Messenger.
Then a Friday afternoon after work one month later, I read his status update: his partner had died earlier that day.
* * * * * * *
Once when my friend Da Big Goof came to visit me in Montreal a bit more than a year after Mom died, I tried to explain to him how I felt, just as I tried to explain it to you. And even as he set aside the painting fiasco, he was unequivocal as he always is: “A friend who lets you down at a time like that is no friend of yours.”
In my mind I agreed with him; in my heart I couldn’t let go and accept it.
And it didn’t help that other friends told me the same thing in their own (less blunt) way.
* * * * * * *
I called the Queen of Sheba on the night the partner/husband died, and at one point she remarked, “This is really shaking you up, isn’t it?” It was, and I really didn’t understand why. I still don’t, really, but some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind made (and make) me feel really icky, for lack of a more sophisticated word.
For one thing, how can I be indifferent to someone dying? Yes, I did have some worries; I wondered if I was the only one being cut off from Cleopatrick or if I was only an isolated case. But I also never thought the partner and now late husband was fundamentally a bad person. In fact, he had a very kind demeanour which just didn’t jive with what I was hearing about him, although I did hear of his very pragmatic (to no say “unkind”) opinions about end of life and dying. Was my perception about him completely off the mark or was there at least an ounce of truth to it? After all, juxtaposed to this thought, I couldn’t ignore Cleopatrick’s history of casting off some former friends, all on his own.
And then, of course, the mere thought of someone losing a loved one still strikes a very raw nerve in me. I know how badly it hurts. When it happens to a friend, there’s no question about how one is expected to be there; it just comes naturally. Except that didn’t come with Cleopatrick when my mother died, so what the hell am I suppose to do with this?
Then followed the darker thoughts, thoughts I feel ashamed to have thought, thoughts so unspeakably dark that they would be denied even though they may have been thought. I don’t doubt for an instant that those two loved each other very much, and in this case, until the end. But the fact remains that marriage among “commoners” like us is fundamentally an instrument to regulate property rights and onto which the notion of “love” has been attached only in the last few centuries. Love is not a condition of marriage under the law, and until a century ago in our Western societies, women were the property of men. In this case, someone’s property rights got a healthy boost, and it ain’t the dead man’s. However, deep down, I suspect that the idea of marriage was initiated by the dead man when his sad prognostic came down.
* * * * * * *
I think the fact I’ve just written such a long post is a testament to just how much I felt hurt and betrayed not to have Cleopatrick’s friendship when Mom died. But more troubling to me is how I reacted to his husband’s death.
It posed an obvious dilemma, as I couldn’t see myself behaving as he had despite what had gone down in the last two years. But then I would remember my history of lurching myself into “rescue missions,” although I think I’ve managed to control that impulse since I’ve gone through therapy. Then I was reminded of how he’d been the recipient of such rescue missions, for better or for worse, and I wondered if — perhaps feared that — this might be THE event that would draw me into a relapse.
More than two months have passed, though, and he never called back. I figure that the ball is in his court: I signalled that I would be there if he wanted me to be. He may have fallen back on his family, his late husband’s family, and their mutual friends, and that’s more than okay. But did he not call me back because he’s still “mad” at me or because somewhere inside him he realizes, now that he’s having to grieve a loved one, that he abandoned our friendship when I needed it the most?
I have other thoughts and questions like that, but better to just leave them unwritten. I just didn’t think that I would still have to deal with such situations at age 51.