“So dispo means available.”
“Yeah, short for the French disponsible.”
“And live means now.”
I nod with a gesture that says, Kids these days. Tess rolls it around in her mouth again, still chewing the diner poutine. “Dispo live.”
“Modern linguistics baby.” I take a swig of my beer.
She sighs and stabs another gravy-laden fry. “Slang makes me feel old.”
We’ve had a lot of conversations in the past twenty-four hours. Really, it’s been one long rolling conversation, interrupted only by an intoxicated pause for sleep begun at 3 am this morning. It’s been a year since we last saw each other, when she visited me in Montreal. Our partners were in attendance then, and so our discussions were inevitably diluted. This time we are alone, in her town, Toronto, and the visit is infused with her recent decision to wean off her meds and the impending death of my father-in-law.
Watching my husband lose his father to lung cancer has felt somewhat like witnessing a disaster broadcast live. A tragedy plays out across multiple locations: the man I am married to; another far away; and a constellation of friends and family members worldwide are all preparing for death. I watch the way a person watches breaking news footage on a TV screen in a bar: with all the helplessness of a stranger and all the investment of one whose world is being changed, immeasurably and indescribably, forever.
Each time information comes in, the sequence is the same: A phone call brings another shocking update; a wave of indignation breaks within at the inconvenience; cut to the catastrophe of failing to fit death into my schedule; observe the frustration and anger; retrieve a deep breath; dissolve into acceptance. Remind myself quietly: It’s just not about you.
All I can do is be present, and swallow the screams that rise and rattle in my chest with every one of Nate’s irrational grief-laden outbursts. Sitting doing nothing is the hardest part of all. It takes everything I have not to get up and clean, or leave—to not turn away from the rocky lunar landscape of his grief even when I feel I’m running out of air. Trips like this weekend to Toronto—a few days away for work—are a relief against the backdrop of the dying.
That afternoon as Tess and I stood waiting for the tram another phone call came. (Is there a more suitable setting for receiving bad news than in a torrential downpour on a grey city block?) As I sit in this booth, hungover and damp from the storm that’s still raging, I relay the latest update to T: He may not now make it through the night.
Last night Tess and I talked about the summer we first met. It was the summer she reached the height of her mania. It was the summer I was falling in love with Nate. She worked as a waitress serving brunch to tourists and comedown hipster kids, and I a barista serving tech bros and government workers their morning coffee with dilated pupils. We were both high and sleep deprived and underweight and more than a little crazy, though that last item did not register on our list then. We laughed about it over good negronis and she said, “I didn’t even know I was a ten.”
One small way I can contribute to my father-in-law’s passing is by providing the words to describe him. He has a retrospective of paintings to exhibit, and an artist bio that needs writing. Before he hung up last week on the phone, he said, “Let’s see what you’ve got kid,” and the full force of the task broke over me then. For a place to start I read some of his poems. In one he asks to die a rich man, and predicts he will die in September. He is a rich man in a monkey’s paw kind of way, since he finally grew rich by inheritance just a few months ago. As I sit in the diner on the 29th of September, I wonder if the second part, too, will come true.
Sitting opposite my friend, wiping tears and rainwater from my face, I remind myself once more that this is not my tragedy to enact. At most I am best actress in a supporting role. I will enact grief and I will enact unconditional love not because I don’t feel grief and I don’t feel unconditional love, but because the greatest pains are invisible without a performance. I learned that lesson five years ago when we lost our mutual friend to suicide. He did not play the role we thought we’d recognize, and with no fanfare at all he was gone from our lives.
When T’s brother took off and disappeared last spring I called her and texted and checked in with offers to visit. He was found in his truck weeks later, and she mourned him with a heavy dose of relief, because finally his torment had ended. Now she watches me closely between scoops of poutine, and I gather my wits, sip my beer, and excuse myself, squeezing her hand.
In the bathroom stall I read toilet philosophy while I pee and blow my nose and wonder what we mean when we say that life is teaching us. Sure, I agree. But teaching us for what? Life, after all, ends in death. So where do our lessons go then? And what is the meaning of a moment in time in which a sad girl pulls up her pants in a dimly lit cubicle to find these words level with her aching eyes: Honey, we are nothing but human.