Black, Blue, And Colours in Between
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.