I’ve been putting off writing this for a while for a number of reasons. But it’s reaching the point where it’s inexcusable to hold off.
Three weeks ago, a friend of mine of nearly 20 years passed away. Her name was Mary, but she was known to most of us by her middle name, Georgette. She was P-Doug’s wife for 30 years, and because it’s clear he occasionally pops in here at City in the Trees, I wanted to wait a bit because reading this, no matter how kindly it might be, will probably rake that fresh wound. But better that, I think, than it should seem I didn’t care.
Another reason I held off was because I wasn’t sure what to say. I kept waiting and hoping that The Big Important Words or the Major Life Lesson would occur to me. They haven’t. Georgette was simply one of those gems that is a fixture in a person’s life that drops away and sinks into the waves where it can't be retrieved. We can only remember. So my tribute, I’m afraid, will of necessity be a bit of ramble. Sort of like my friendship with her was.
To start off, I’ve been principally P-Doug’s friend. It’s hard for me to imagine that I would have encountered Georgette, much less had her as part of my life for 20 years, without having met her through him. But that’s okay; friends come into our lives by all sorts of means. And whatever he represents to me, I realized long ago that, had early misadventure befallen him, it probably would have been my place to step up and be around for her more. I couldn’t have ever replaced him, of course, but I knew she wouldn’t be alone. That I was not going to let that happen. And so I knew I was her friend alongside him, but also independently of him.
The first time I met her, she was in her mid-30s. She already seemed considerably older. She took it with good grace that I actually mistook her for his mother. She was prematurely grey, and her health was never ideal, not even then. I was working downtown at the time, as was she. Work was piecemeal for me then and I was often let go in the middle of the day and told to call back early next week to see what was up. So there were any number of times I was able to drop in on her, working the cash at Shopper’s Drug Mart, on my way home. She often took her break with me and we’d sit in the food court and I’d hear the stories of her youth. Even then, that was special to me. Those really became special times because they didn’t last all that long. By the end of the 90s, she had arterial blockages. She wound up with a quad bypass and that was pretty much it for her working days. She was on disability after that.
Still, it didn’t affect her negatively too much. She could still get around, and a lot of weekends, especially in good weather, involved them inviting me along for their treks to the rural fringe of southern Ontario; some bachelor-younger-brother by adoption. By and large those trips have all merged into a single big jaunt for me... I can’t really distinguish one small town and its quaint little restaurant with home cooking from another... but I’m glad they took me. There’s a whole lot of the province I’m faintly familiar with now that I wouldn’t be if they hadn't. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, at least initially, inviting me along was her idea. Just seems more her kind of thing than his.
She was there, along with him, when I was confirmed in the Catholic Church about ten years ago. They were both lapsed Catholics but they appreciated the cultural milestone, and if they considered my spiritual quest naïve, they never let on. Georgette even gave me a rosary of green beads on a silver chain, held in a black leather case. I carried it around daily for a couple of years before it started feeling too much like an affectation. But I’ve always cherished it and I always will.
Probably the most wonderful thing Georgette ever gave me was permission to understand and love my cats, especially Bonnie. Bonnie jumps up on things and makes fussy noises at me, which I interpreted as just plays for attention. But Georgette saw it and tilting her head and smiling, she said warmly, “She loves you...” In saying it, she let me believe it too. In that moment she gave me as sort of permission to let my relationship with these little beings become deeper. It was like I’d known all along but wasn’t allowed to really believe without someone else saying it. She did. Her words ring in my ears just as she said them, every day.
Georgette didn’t suffer fools or foolishness happily. She wasn’t at all unfriendly; far from it: she could strike up simpatico conversations with strangers effortlessly... but she was easily frustrated and often made no bones about being plain about it, especially with people she knew. When I was younger it was off-putting. But as I grew older, it became oddly endearing. I can’t really explain why but it’s true. She just wouldn’t have been Georgette if she were a doormat. Georgette knew her rights, and consequently, so did everyone else. And to be honest, I find myself rather more vocal when I think I’m being taken advantage of. Maybe I learned to show those claws by watching her.
Her health declined slowly over the years, and each time she went to the hospital for a week or two, she came back slightly diminished. It was never a big thing, never anything I noticed... it was just cumulative. At first, pretty much whenever I saw P-Doug, I saw Georgette. Midway through the 2000s, it seemed like I was still seeing a fair bit of her on the road trips and a few nights out, but it was easier for P-Doug to just get away and have a buddies day on the weekend at a pub or doing some hiking. Often we’d meet up with her at the end of the day. But really in the past three or four years it got to the point where it was getting difficult to budge her for anything social. She found it hard to sleep at night, and basically slept out of exhaustion during the day. If I saw her every couple of months towards the end there, I’d say that was the extent of it, and I was finding myself wishing it were more. But never mind, I thought, it’ll come.
There was a day last summer when I was bringing something down to P-Doug, and he was out at a concert or something, and so I sat with Georgette in the living room, just talking. It was kind of like those old days, just her and me in the food court. I was looking forward to more moments like that. But just dropping in during the day was, more often than not, to meet with an unanswered door, because she was usually sleeping. So it really didn’t happen. And there was always more time, you know.
She didn’t look well at all when we all met up for Christmas at our traditional meeting place, the Swiss Chalet in Don Mills. She was distracted and pale. It took her a couple of minutes just to leave the restaurant and get to the car. I suppose a part of me sank that day. Part of me knew, I suppose, that we probably really didn’t have long. As it turned out, Georgette had both a stroke and a heart attack more or less simultaneously on New Year’s Eve. She was admitted to Toronto East General Hospital and never left it.
At first, she was unconscious, and P-Doug wasn’t even sure she’d wake up, and if she did, who she’d be, and what she’d be able to do. But then it seemed almost like a miracle. She did wake, and over the course of a week or so, her personality largely reintegrated and reemerged. She still had control of her body, though she was weaker. Larry and I arranged to come and see her on Wednesdays, and she looked remarkable the first couple of times I saw her. She was pink again, and she looked a decade younger. My heart soared for her. There was talk that she would need to move to a nursing home, since P-Doug would not have been able to attend to her during working hours, but to look at her, deep down, I had every hope she’d make her way home sometime this spring.
But of course, I was only seeing her occasionally. P-Doug was seeing her daily, and was getting the bigger picture. She was stable, but not improving. In fact, her kidneys, never strong, were on the verge of failing. She feared dialysis and had watched her foster father die of kidney failure shortly after President Kennedy was shot. Her body had been through a lot over the past 15 years. There was little more they could do. He signed papers to put her into palliative care at the hospital, and began the grieving process while she was still alive.
We all expected a few more months with her. When I saw her that Sunday, her arms were covered with burgundy splotches that looked like Indian burns. They were a drug reaction. She made a joke about the hideous colour. She was slow and tired but still bright. And I prepared myself for more weekends like this.
Larry dropped by to see her on his way someplace the following Tuesday. He did not know they’d moved her to the palliative care ward, and him not being family, they couldn't tell him anything. He left, frustrated, with the gift of a word search puzzle book he’d brought her; a gesture of compassion and personal recognition he never got to make. Less than twelve hours later, she died quietly in her sleep.
They called P-Doug.
Later, he emailed us.
Georgette didn’t want a funeral, so she had none. P-Doug saw no point in a showing since hardly anyone in Toronto knew her; their families were up north, and Georgette’s coworkers from the 1990s had largely drifted on. And so the last time I saw her, alive, was the last time I would ever see her. She was cremated the Monday following her death.
For me, it’s not quite real. In recent years long stretches of not seeing her were the norm, but she remained a presence in my mind. I don’t fault their plans and decisions (even if I did, my opinion hardly matters). It’s just... hard to make real. I know she’s gone, but that feeling that, yeah, she’s still in that house and if I want to I can see her, that’s still kind of there. I’m not sure what will dislodge that. It might be months or years before that stops feeling a part of my fundamental reality.
Being 12 years or so her junior, I anticipated going to her funeral, someday. I always imagined myself placing the rosary she’d given me back with her where it belonged. That’s not going to happen. I find that even the thought of taking it out and looking at it is painful. Not just because she’s gone, or even mainly that... because it means I’m older; that things that were mine to avail myself of have moved past me, beyond my reach. Those sweet days are gone. Something warm, familiar, and even familial has disappeared from my life and won’t be back. And that is a deeply somber feeling. I’m left with the memories of her, and the slightly different person I am for having known her all those years.
But there’s that. The big lights in your life exert a form of gravity on your character. The path it would otherwise have taken is changed under their influence, and as a result you become a slightly different person than you would have been otherwise. And in some ways, I’m not the person I would have been had she not been such an influence on my life for 20 years. I think I’m slightly more dependable for having known her. I think I’m more likely to be a bit brittle and stand up for myself because I’ve known her. And I can see love for what it is, even in beings with no way to say it in words. All that is what she gave me and how she shaped who I am today, and it’s a part of her immortality; the only kind we know for sure we ever get. It resonates in me and everyone she knew, and it will ripple through the world through us in the interactions we, the people subtly changed by her, have with others. She herself is gone, but persists in who we all are.
And I think there I’ve found my answer; that thing I didn’t have when I started writing this.
It hurts, but it will be okay.