Many years ago, on the shore of Lake Simcoe, with an early paramour.
We were squirreled away at her parents’ cottage for a weekend of assignations. We rented The Big Chill on VHS, shopped for groceries, and tucked in for a couple of days away from the world.
As we started the videotape playing we indulged in whatever illicit hallucinogen she’d secured (she was older, more worldly, and my spirit guide as regards mind-altering).
The call comes: there’s been a suicide at the summer home. The word goes out to old friends, and they make their way to the countryside.
Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Don Galloway, Meg Tilly.
We get hungry, and pause the video.
We retire to the kitchen, and make a fantastic meal (see also hallucinogens).
After perhaps 45 minutes of cooking and eating, we resume The Big Chill.
Oddly, everyone–Tom, Mary Kay, Jeff, William, JoBeth, Don, Meg–is packing up and getting ready to leave. This seems premature: shouldn’t there be more plot development in this movie? Where’s the chill?!
And then the credits role.
We are perplexed, but still mind-altered enough that we’re willing to accept the working premise that The Big Chill is a very, very short film that was very, very over-rated.
The next morning we realize that rather than pausing the film, we’d let it run during our meal break. And so had simply let the meaty heart of The Big Chill pass us by.
I have yet to re-watch it.
But let’s set that aside for moment and address the real question of the film.
How did the old friends from The Big Chill recognize each other after so long?
I spent the meaty heart of my day today at the celebration of the life of my friend Laurie Kingston. In so-doing I found myself in the company of both many unknown strangers and many long-ago-and-far-away-known familiars. While I recognized some of those familiars, many of them I didn’t recognize at all. And some of those, even once introduced to me, rang no bells.
There was a man I will call David, for example, who provided strong documentary evidence that he and I were once, if not friends at least of the same tribe. He quoted the details of events and conversations in which we’d both participated. Referenced common friends. Inside jokes. And yet, even with all this, I drew a complete blank. We had obviously been there.
I had difficulty falling asleep last night due this absence in my memory: I was worried that I’d suffered targeted memory loss. Or that the whisky that my friend Tim kindly served me as a nightcap had broken my brain.
David is a thoroughly engaging fellow, quick with a comeback, easy with a story, kind of disposition and demeanour, and not the sort of person I would have cause to erase from my memory.
Other cases were less severe: the midwife I convoyed to Texas with in the late 1980s who I didn’t recognize (although, to my credit, once she reminded me who she was, I at least recalled her existing).
But there was a pall of time over the proceedings which gave lie to the notion that I have complete recall of the events in my life.
And yet the group from The Big Chill all seemed to have immediately picked up from where they left off.
This seems implausible, and doesn’t prompt me to revisit the missing hour of the film.
The event in celebration of Laurie’s life was held in the Glebe Community Centre, a grand former Methodist church re-purposed for the neighbourhood.
Hundreds of people from all parts of Laurie’s life–teenage roommates to later-day book club pals. About a dozen spoke, with heart and humour and grief and grace, from the podium.
Truth be told, although I call Laurie my friend, we never really met.
We attended the same university.
The Venn diagrams of our groups had significant overlap.
She married a wise and thoughtful friend.
And yet it wasn’t until recent years that we became acquainted, and even then it was primarily an email friendship circling around breast cancer, something originally a passing interest of mine when we first corresponded about her book, Not Done Yet, and then, suddenly, after Catherine’s own breast cancer diagnosis, a dramatically more personal one.
Despite her own significant medical concerns, Laurie was a frequent source of education, enlightenment and humour over the past 4 years.
From June of last year:
My kids were 2 and 7 when I shaved my head.
We ended up having a spontaneous head shaving party. We had temporary hair colour for us all. Our friends Eve and Ellen were in town, along with my mother. My friend Liam came over with clippers to do the honours. We took lots of photos. It all made it so much better.
On the other hand, I have a very distinct memory of sitting on my kitchen floor as a child and my mother coming home with new glasses. I burst into tears and would not stop until she put her old ones on.
Our kids don’t want us to change.
And none of this is easy.
And from May:
That palliative program sounds incredible. I think it’s really important to make the point that palliative care and hospice care are not the same thing. This shows that palliative care is about continuing living as best you can.
And from August of 2016, when I sent a note that Catherine was out of hospital:
That is fantastic news.
I am so glad. This is such a hard road but it sounds like you are getting good care moving forward.
I am obsessed with explaining palliative care too. I think there are people who avoid taking advantage because they think that palliative is the same think as hospice care. And then they miss out on resources that can really improve quality of life.
I have to share one last thing. I snorted at one point in your letter. Tim asked me what could have made me do that. I told him to read and he would know. Hit the sentence that included the word “bored” and snorted too. We have so been there.
And from June before then:
I got my first tattoo at 44, when I was well into cancer treatment. It’s also on my left calf. :)
Laurie and I came face-to-face only twice.
In 2009 Tim and Laurie and their boys had supper with us in our back yard on a beautiful August evening. Before they arrived, she emailed me about arrangements, and added:
Peter, it will be so nice to finally meet you. At Trent, I referred to you as the Snuffleupagus (had to google the spelling on that). My friends would say, “I just saw Peter Rukavina!” or wave at a passing car and say, “That was Peter Rukavina.” Everyone seemed to know (and like) you. But I was becoming convinced you didn’t really exist.
But I did exist, and so did she, and it was a lovely evening.
And then, in the fall of 2015, we stopped over to visit them while we were en route to Oslo and had an Ottawa stopover.
By that time it was a year after Catherine’s diagnosis, and yet an evening of tacos around their dining table that could have been maudlin was simply two families having supper with each other. We knew.
As you might imagine, the memorial for Laurie was packed with some additional resonance for me.
Last night I had the chance to get together with my friends Chris and Lene and their son Graham (fortunately we all remembered each other). While making our arrangements for supper, Chris texted “My first thought is of Tim.”
Which was entirely appropriate. And yet, I realized, that was not where my first thought was.
To come around to the point where I could confront both the loss of Laurie and the grief of my friend Tim, I had to swim through that resonance, and come to see today’s proceedings not (simply) as a template for what looms, eventually someday, in my life. Not an easy thing.
But here I am, on VIA Rail № 38 from Ottawa to Dorval, with tears streaming down my face, thinking about my friend Laurie and my friend Tim and how much they’ve meant–and do mean–to me.
At the end of the proceedings today someone said that although today was a celebration of Laurie it was hard not to be sad, and it is hard not to be sad. As I’ve just suddenly discovered.
In the words of one of the speakers was a story about how Tim and Laurie decided at one point that they needed to resolve to have more fun, despite it all.
And so they did. Not an easy feat, and by no means a universal salve. But important and helpful.
And so the other side of resonance is not only about shared grief and loss and sadness, but also about inherited hope. Not hope for the impossible or unreasonable but simply hope for as much of a fullness of life as we can muster.
As I listened to Laurie’s roommates and activist co-conspirators and book club friends and coworkers and MBC travelers today, Laurie emerged to me as a fuller person than I’d ever known. That both amplifies the sense of loss, but also makes me feel all the luckier for eventually convincing Big Bird to let us meet.