I first heard of the Money Saving Challenge last winter just as I was rebuilding my budget spreadsheets for the next 10 years to see if I could indeed afford to retire at 60.
It goes like this. On Week 1, you put $1 in the pot. On Week 2, you put in $2, giving you $3 in the pot, and so it goes for 52 weeks, each week putting $1 more than the previous week. At the end of 52 weeks, you’ll have $1,378. When I posted this trick on Facebook at the time, one of my friends said that she used it to save for Christmas gifts, except that she did it in reverse (starting at $52 on Week 1 and putting in $1 less each week).
I hardly ever have any cash on me. I find that when I break a $20 bill, the change I get back isn’t money to me anymore so I just waste the rest away. So, since money has become more of a mathematical abstraction to me, I never needed a trick like this to develop my ability to save. I’m better at going from an abstract model, as complicted as it might be, and enacting it in reality.
But what sparked my interest about this challenge is the number: $1,378. When I started my quest to rebuild my financial health in 2011, I had no idea what I averaged in gas money each year. I mean, it’s such a moving target: in the last decade, I’ve seen regular gas go for as much as $1.49/litre to as little as $0.89/litre, plus some years I travel considerably more or less than others. However, after tracking how much I spent on gas each year from 2013 to 2015, I found that I averaged about $1,500/year, which is damn close to $1,378!
So last December I decided that every late-December when I get my yearly bonus, I would leave $1,500 in my chequing account and earmark it as gas money. Initially I just paid cash as I went (with my debit card) and had a spot in my spreadsheet that showed me the balance in that “virtual account” I called Gas Money. My thought was that I could top it up if I ran out before the following late-December (which I thought unlikely even though I’m driving more these days), and if there was still some money left in it by the following late-December, I would only top it back up to $1,500. I figured I would have to try this for a few years to see if I needed to squirrel away a bit more than $1,500, but the benefit for me is that I wouldn’t be counting that amount as potential savings when I knew that I would in fact be spending it.
Then, last May, Tangerine Bank (where I maintain a savings account) offered me a MasterCard that would pay back 2% on three categories of purchases and 1% on all others, but for the first three months, the cashback on the 2% categories was 4%. You can change your three categories at any time, but knowing I would be going on vacation in those next three months, I chose “Hotels & Accommodations” as one of them, to be changed to “Gas” later, and “Restaurants” and “Groceries” as the other two.
The cashback goes directly into my savings account on the 17th of every month, and by paying absolutely everything I can with that card since the middle of May, I got $135 back as of September 17. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s free money just to use a card! Also, I wouldn’t care if the interest rate on the card were 50% (it’s actually 19.99%) because you pay no interest for the first 21 days and I pay it off at least once a week, often as soon as expenses are posted. I haven’t paid a bank any interest in the last 3 years, except for $35 in 2015 when I borrowed about $31,500 from my line of credit for 10 days in order to meet that year’s RRSP contribution deadline which was a few days before I would be receiving a huge tax refund from the Feds.
Also, twice a year for three months, Tangerine gives a considerably better interest rate on new deposits in their savings account. You have to read the fine print because sometimes the “new savings” are only up to a certain date well within the three-month period, but other times it’s for the whole three months. For July to September of this year, the rate applied for the whole three months and went from its regular paltry 0.8% to 3.25%, so I moved much of what I had in a savings account at my credit union where the rate is 1.7%.
Because Tangerine’s rates aren’t as good as my credit union’s for half the year, I used to drain that account at the end of every offer. However, as the new credit card cashback would go into that account, it dawned on me that I should simply view it as my virtual gas account and earn at least 0.8% rather than ziltch in my chequing account and, on my spreadsheet, I would separate the gas money from the funds I move in and out just to benefit from the semi-annual better-interest-rate offers. And then, in so doing, something else dawned on me.
Now, twice a year (in early-June and early-December), I move whatever interest I’ve earned at the credit union’s saving account into the Tangerine savings account and earmark it for the virtual gas account. Then, whenever I get some interest or cash back from Tangerine, I also earmark those amounts for the virtual gas account.
The point? As of right now, I spent $1,080.17 on gas in 2016. However, my gas fund isn’t down to $419.83 ($1,500 — $1080.17); it’s in fact at $819.50. In other words, with just a bit of planning and a few mouse clicks, I made a few cents shy of $400 and painlessly dumped it into my gas fund. So, come late-December, I might only need to put +/- $1,000 of my yearly bonus into my gas fund instead of the full $1,500. (Update, late-December 2016: I ended up spending $1,298.67 on gas in 2016 — I didn’t have much reason or opportunity to drive in the fall — so with the interest and paybacks earned to the end of December, I only needed $607.69 to top myself back up to $1,500. In other words, it looks like I got banks to pay about half my gas consumption this year!)
A bit here and there: it’s really does add up! I’ll take cash back over air miles anytime because I can really make it work for me. When I told one of my brothers about this little scheme, he just laughed and said, “That is SO something Mom would have done!”
His saying that made me smile. Because he’s right. I hadn’t thought of it that way until he mentioned it, but it really is something she would have thought of as well.
He didn’t mean it with any ill intent, but I once had a colleague who would sometimes word things in such a way that, while he wasn’t lying, he was answering the question in a way that skewed what was really happening.
Let me try to explain while remaining as unspecific as I can.
My team had a backlog of clients waiting to get an appointment with any one of four or five people. Each of us had a few available timeslots starting three workdays ahead, and then more and more timeslots the further ahead you looked. But each of us is one of two parties, the client being the other. While we might have two timeslots available three days ahead and three timeslots four days ahead, the client might not be available or ready for an appointment for any of those times. Therefore, we have to look for a mutually acceptable time further down the calendar — sometimes many days or even a few weeks ahead.
Concerned that we were having to make our clients wait an unacceptable number of days before getting an appointment with us, our supervisor asked my former colleague at one point, “How far ahead are we booking appointments right now?” In my mind, the answer should have been three days ahead, with the caveat that there aren’t many availabilities. However, my colleague, remembering that one case when he booked an appointment 15 workdays ahead, answered 15 days. While he answered our supervisor’s question literally, he seemed to be implying with his answer that there was no availability before 15 days.
The reason I’m bringing up this anecdote is that I had this nagging thought after posting about my epiphany on how I would be able to afford to retire at 60, or in 9 years. Therein, I asserted that “already I’m living on 70 percent of my income,” but was I really misleading by numbers as my colleague was? Indeed, I realized that when I would add up all the incoming money in one year and substract all the outgoing expenses for the same year, there were a few thousand dollars that I couldn’t trace even if I counted as an “expense” the amount I managed to set aside in the year. The percentage of income spent and the percentage of income saved never added up to 100%, so what was wrong with my logic?
It then occurred to me that I was confusing income with cash flow. For instance, I get a $50/month non-taxable expense reimbursement for my home Internet connection since I work from home, which I just put back into my cash flow. Similarly, the interest I earn in savings accounts, which is taxable, gets circulated into my cash flow as well (specifically to suppplement my gas fund). But I don’t recirculate the interest or dividends I earn in my Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) and my retirement fund (RRSP), which are not taxed, and every cent I get back in tax returns goes into my RRSP. While those amounts are incomes, they don’t go into my cash flow.
The minute I added up take-home pay and other revenues that I add to my cash flow (expense reimbursement, interest earned but not tax sheltered, cash payback on all spending done on one of my credit cards), I came to a totally different lower number (CF) from which I substracted all my real expenses (E), which gave me the exact amount I socked away in savings from cash flow (CFS [for cash-flow savings]) as opposed to the total amount saved (S). Then, using that different number as the denominator for percentage of expenses (E / CF) and percentage of savings from cash flow (CFS / CF), I always get 100%. (Well, except for 2015 because I bought my new car cash and used some of my savings, so I adjusted the E / CF formula so that the result cannot be higher than 100% and the formula for CFS so that it cannot be less than $0.)
So what’s my point? I don’t currently live off 70 percent of my income but 75 percent of my incoming cash flow. Or stated differently, I manage to save one quarter of my available cash flow just by planning ahead, paying as I go, and keeping my list of “wants” (versus needs) short so that when I do indulge in wants (which I do!), they’re real treats! What I haven’t wrapped my mind around yet is whether 75 percent versus 70 percent means that I will have to cut back my expenses by 5 percent upon retirement (about $1,500 a year) or if it’ll all work out in the wash. However, I think I’m further ahead in my thinking 9 years before retirement than most people are on the eve of their retirement.
It took one of my Facebook friends to introduce me, albeit indirectly, to a term I surprisingly never encountered before even though it’s been around for a long while, according to the Urban Dictionary website: Gold-Star Gay or Gold-Star Lesbian.
In case you’re in the dark as much as I was, it means a gay guy or a lesbian who has never slept with someone of the opposite sex. There’s some debate about how and why this term should be retired, but I don’t really care about that even if maybe I should. The point that captured my imagination was affixing a term to my own status, for yes, I am most definitely a Gold Star Gay.
It doesn’t happen as much these days, but I remember being asked many times when I was younger if I’d ever “been with” a woman. And when I would be asked that back in the ’80s and ’90s by a straight person, it was often followed with a “How do you know for sure?” after I’d replied that I hadn’t. So, while I was unknowingly identifying as a Gold Star Gay, I had no clever comeback for them other than to ask them the same question in return.
According to user jw4444 on YouTube, the guy in the picture at the top of this post is “Alan Wells (hand drums) [who] returned to his hometown Halifax [after the musical group Syrinx broke up around 1972] but died in 2010.
The fact is that I can think way back into my childhood and recall how I was always attracted to guys. I didn’t really understand it; how could a 6- or 7-year-old “get it”? I think in my young kid’s head, that attraction translated into a kind of aspiration of what I hoped to become as a grown up.
* * * * * * *
When I was about 6 or 7 — that would be around 1972 — there was a show on Radio-Canada called Vers l’An 2000, which would roughly translate to “Circa 2000.” I only recently found out that its (original) English equivalent was aired on the then-new CTV network under the less aptly named Here Come the Seventies. The show was meant to look into what the near future would look like, although the year 2000 for a 7-year-old in 1972 didn’t seem that near at all, not to mention a little bit scary.
A few times in the last few years I tried to find the show’s musical theme, but searches on “Vers l’An 2000” were always in vain. I remember being able to hear the tone of that theme (although not the exact melody). Moreover, I think what subconsciously motivated my search was this vague memory of how it oddly excited me as a kid. I also remember the kid in me being utterly confused by this show, for how could they be filming something that hadn’t happened yet?
Then, when someone on the “Montreal Then and Now” Facebook group posted the following clip, I felt my stomach drop a little at the last sequence of images. The image at the top of this post is a screen capture of that sequence, and that’s the image that shocked me. (By the way, I translated the cheesy voiceover below for those of you who don’t understand French.)
On the road toward tomorrow :
First, the shock of the future;
Then, where are we going?
When will we arrive?
Two-kilometre-high cities programmed for Man…
Travelling in vacuum tunnels or floating vehicles…
Laboratories in space…
And finally, jet-pack belts :
It’s already tomorrow.
I had forgotten that closing sequence. But when I saw it again some 45 years later, the now-adult me recalled my attraction — that kind of tickling in the stomach — to whom I’ve just learned is a Haligonian named Alan Wells who passed away six years ago.
My rediscovery of this theme came just as I learned the term “Gold Star Gay.” And, odd as it is, this rediscovery now serves as an answer to the question, “Have you always known that you’re gay?” I just hope that Alan, may he rest in peace, wouldn’t be offended.
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.