Celebration of Life

At Jen’s celebration of life, I told the story of the first time we met.


t Jen’s celebration of life, I told the story of the first time we met. I was just out of high school. My best friend John had moved into a hippy house in Fernwood. Marissa was the head roommate there, she let John stay in the sunroom in exchange for cutting the shake from the bud of the plants in the house’s grow-op. I still lived at my parents’ in Langford, but any night I went into town to party I’d stay with John—the buses stopped running at 11 back then, and I didn’t want to go home drunk besides. There were always other people crashing and sometimes I’d get the couch, but more often I’d take the cushions off the armchairs and sleep on the floor and once just passed out on the front porch.

“It was,” I said at the celebration of life, “that kind of place.”

Jen showed up there one weekend. She was an old friend of Marissa’s who had just moved back from Vancouver. She paid 50 dollars to sleep on the couch for a month while she looked for somewhere better. A girl with long black hair and tattoos up both arms; she was the sort of person 17 year old me wanted to know. She didn’t seem very friendly while me and John listened to records and people showed up with beer. She went into the kitchen when the living room started to get crowded. I followed. There were waist-high toadstools made of papier mâché and painted purple and orange all over the room. A hippy from Edmonton had lived there for a month and made them for a rave he put on; the toadstools lit up under black light. I pretended to look at them for a while and then said, “Mushrooms, huh?”

Jen had sat down at the table, her arm outside, coming in only to take a drag of her cigarette. She said, “Yup,” without looking at me. I checked the fridge. Read a note someone had put over the sink about not using toxic dish soap. She pulled a tape out of her bag and put it in the little boom box on the table. I asked her what it was. She said some friends of hers from Vancouver. She didn’t offer any more information. I sat at the table across from her.

The older hippy who lived in the attic of the house always had a chess board set up on the kitchen table—he’d play people for beers or pot. I moved a piece. Jen stubbed out her cigarette and made eye contact for the first time. She looked about ready to get up and leave, but reconsidered. She pushed a pawn forward. We played chess and talked about music for most of the night.

“Music,” I told everyone at the celebration of life, “started our friendship and was a constant through it.”

A few years before she died, Jen wrote to me and said she was having a rough time and felt alone, that no one she knew was sticking by her, and that I was the only one who ever cared or made any effort. She told me sometimes she felt like she would do anything to get back to how things had been when we were young, and how every day for the last 15 years had been worse than the one before. She said she didn’t know how she could go on.

Her and John had started dating in the hippy house, shortly after I met her. They were together on and off for four years. The break up was ugly and I hadn’t stuck by her so much as I left town. I moved across the country and had only seen her a few times since. She liked all my social media posts and sometimes we would email each other for a couple of weeks at a time, but I hadn’t heard from her in two years at that point. Her email was a surprise.

I wrote back and said I missed her and thought about her often and was worried about her. I told her about the night we met and wondered if she remembered beating me at chess all those times in a row and how awful all those hippies she lived with were. I told her she could call me any time if she needed to talk.

She didn’t call me or respond to the email. I texted a few people back home, but no one was in touch with her anymore. I worried, but she liked some of my posts on Instagram a few days later and then she posted a picture of herself at a park with her kid, so I assumed she was doing better.

A year later, I saw Jen for the last time. It was at a concert of an old friend’s band. They had done well in the mid-'00s—their first album had been a critical success and they’d done tours around North America and Europe. They put out three more albums, but each one got less press and their tours started losing money. They broke up and went different directions. The singer’s new band had never done as well as the old one, the guitarist worked at a record store and ran a small label, the bass player went into real estate at his father-in-law’s agency, the drummer had become a drywaller. Nostalgia for the era of their prime had led a promoter to get in touch—the 20th anniversary of their first record was coming up and a new tour was planned around the re-issued album. Before they left, they were playing a kick-off show at the venue they’d played in Victoria before they found success. I planned a trip home around the concert.

I didn’t keep in touch with many people from the old days, but I could usually pick up where I left off with anyone; the shared experiences of our teens and early twenties enough to bind us for life. And enough time had passed to let bygones be, in most cases.

I met up with Marissa the night of the show. We had a drink at her place and joked about sneaking a six pack into the show like the old days. The first person we saw at the venue was John, smoking alone out front.

I didn’t keep in touch with many people from the old days, but I could usually pick up where I left off with anyone; the shared experiences of our teens and early twenties enough to bind us for life.

I hadn’t talked to him since I moved away; the things Jen told me were bad enough that I just walked away from our years of friendship without explanation. We stood a ways apart and then he laughed and came over. He had already had a few drinks. We hugged. He and Marissa had fallen out after I left town. I couldn’t remember the details, but it was a small town and they saw each other regularly enough that whatever it was hadn’t been forgotten. They only nodded to each other and when we went in and got a seat at the bar, John sat on one side of me, Marissa on the other.

John told me he lived in Langford. He’d married again and was working for the school board in a way he didn’t specify. A good union job, he said, that kept his summers free. He wasn’t playing music anymore but was writing something. His wife painted. “You’d remember her, she was around back then.”

Marissa leaned across me and spoke to John for the first time. “Does Jen still hate you?” She nodded her head into the crowd.

“Oh shit, I didn’t think she’d come.”

I followed his look. “I’m going to say hi,” I said, “You guys?” Both looked away. I left them together at the bar.

She had on a bulky coat that flattened like a down pillow when I hugged her. I felt a rigid body inside. Her hair smelled like cigarettes. It had been years since I’d seen a friend strung out, and I’d forgotten how to act—forgot you didn’t need to act any way at all. She held onto my arm and said she couldn’t believe it was me. She said it was so good to see me.

A short guy in a baseball cap and a puffy jacket exactly like hers hovered beside her. I didn’t catch his name when she introduced us, but he opened his eyes wide and nodded, held up his hand splayed and swung it around for a handshake. He said he’d heard a lot about me, and it was great to finally meet me. We didn’t talk again, but the whole time Jen and I caught up, he nodded along with what we were saying, and once he laughed loudly at a joke I made.

She knew about my job and my kids. She was happy I was doing good and she said that she missed me and thought of me a lot. She said she was doing really really good. Really good. Her kid was ten now, and she was so proud of him. He was, she said, her reason for living. She said it was really weird to see everyone in one spot again. She thought it was like a high school reunion, so many people to avoid—she didn’t laugh when she said it. But she was happy to see me. She was happy I had kids, she said. She’d always known I’d make a good dad. She said it was so good to see me again, again and again she said it.

Eventually, the guy she was with held his phone in front of her and pointed at the screen.

“I’ve got to head out for a minute,” she said. “I’ll be back.” She hugged me and said she loved me.

She wouldn’t come back to the show, but I got a message from her at two in the morning, “So good to see you. I wish you were around more, I miss my friends.”

I found John and Marissa near the bar. They were with an old roommate of mine. He said, “Oh, shit, here comes trouble!” and we hugged and then the music started. I went up to the stage. The band opened with a song from their punk days, before the first record—one that only the old friends would know. Some guys started to jump around but I couldn’t pretend it was anything like the old times. I went back to the bar, ordered another drink, and watched from there.

Before I moved across the country, right at the end of the old times, Marissa called me one morning and said Jen was in bad shape. Marissa had been up with her all night and had eventually had to call for help. Jen ended up getting put in the psych ward. Marissa gave me the address and floor number and I went to visit that afternoon.

The elevator opened to a large common area. Couches were grouped together to make separate areas, tables and chairs were spread around. It looked like a Legion. People played a board game at one table, cards at another. Seinfeld played on a TV no one watched.

Jen came out in her regular clothes, but had white slip-on covers over her shoes. She looked tired but otherwise fine. She hugged me and said, “Surprised?”

I hadn’t seen her in a couple of months. Her and John had broken up for what would be the last time and he’d moved in with me. They probably would have got back together again, but John got a girl pregnant. John and the new girl had a wedding in our backyard—a banner, some friends playing songs on acoustic guitars, an old friend who had been ordained online served as officiant.

We sat at a table with a half-finished puzzle on it. Jen said she would be fine but was just having a rough time. She told me she’d had things under control for so long, she just got lazy about it and ignored the warning signs over the last year. It was her own fault for not getting help earlier.

She seemed to think I knew much more than I did, assuming, I supposed, that John had told me. He had never talked to me much about Jen. Early on, knowing I’d had a crush on her, he’d got in the habit of not talking about the details of their relationship except to tell me when they were either together or broken up.

Jen told me about how she had moved to Vancouver after graduating high school, before we met. She had lived in a house with 12 other people near East Hastings. She had a small inheritance and when that ran out a friend got her a job working for an organization that ran hotels for at-risk people on the Downtown East Side. The job paid well and you didn’t need a degree, anyone willing to do the work could get it. Jen worked the front desk at one of the women-only hotels. She just had to buzz people in and make sure no one was too wigged out. She had been 18.

She told me a woman had come in beat up so bad she looked like she was wearing a mask. The bone in her arm poked up under the skin and she refused to call the police and had to be talked into seeing a doctor. Jen told me another time a guy with a knife had smashed the glass door with a rock and cut up his arm reaching through to undo the lock and was about to get in when the police showed up and tazed him. When he was on the ground, the police had beat him up; after they dragged him away, one of the cops came back and asked Jen for her number. Another time she had to check on a resident and when she opened the door the smell was so awful it still made her gag to think of. The woman inside wasn’t able to move. Jen called an ambulance. She held the door open for the paramedics when they wheeled the woman out. There was a boot on the blanket that covered the woman. There was something in it pink with black that looked like rot. The cop who came in to get a report confirmed it was her foot. “Came off when they tried to get the boot off.” The resident had died on the way to the hospital. Jen worked there for two years.

It had been her first time living alone and she made a lot of money and she thought she might be over-simplifying things after the fact, but drinking became a way to cope. Everyone she worked with drank, she said, and a lot of them did harder drugs too and after a while so did she. Then she told me how she’d been fired and had to come up with rent other ways. “After a few months of that, no one else wanted to help me so I moved back home and Marissa let me crash on her couch.”

She told me she was thirsty. I went and got two small paper cones of water for us from the cooler. I handed her one and we both looked at the TV. It was Seinfeld, the one where Kramer has a Risk board on the subway for some reason. She told me she was in the hospital for three days, voluntarily. When she got out, she was going to be more careful and see a therapist regularly. She had just let things get away, between finishing school and losing that structure and her and John breaking up.

She was quiet, again, for a while. She moved some puzzle pieces on the table around. I started on the edges and then flipped the box over to see it would be a mountain vista, completed. She said, “John was bad to me.”

At first, it had been nice to be with someone normal, who didn’t know her bad side and who she could just be what she thought was herself with. But then she let him know some things about her past. It hadn’t been a big deal at first, but then he got mean about it. “He didn’t want to break up with me, but he wanted to make me feel bad about myself,” she said. “He’s so insecure.” I hadn’t known that. And then they started fighting and he could get physical, bruised her wrist holding her. Slammed a door on her. “I didn’t tell anyone because you’ve all been friends with him forever and it all didn’t seem like too big a deal, you know?” But then she’d broken up with him and kicked him out, but he hadn’t left. Refused. Just thought he could wait it out. And she had to get a lawyer and do the paperwork to properly evict him. She’d been staying at Marissa’s while all that was going down. And then she moved back, and John moved in with me.

She said, 'John was bad to me.'

I’d known Jen five years by then. I had loved her in a way I thought was important when we first met. Then her and John had hooked up and he was my best friend so we all just continued to hang out. They moved in together and I slept on their couch until Jen got tired of me and John drinking all the time and kicked me out. I’d been sore about it, but then John moved in with me the first time they broke up. John slept with a woman I had been sleeping with. I got in touch with Jen again and started hanging out with her all the time. John and I got into a fight. John and Jen got back together. John and I sorted things out without talking about it. It was all pretty silly stuff but we were young. But I had seen them fight and knew it could get bad; the new things Jen told me that day surprised me so little I realized I had consciously avoided knowing them.

Jen looked over my shoulder and smiled. I turned. Ryan, the man she would marry in three months and divorce six months after came in with a bouquet of flowers. I said I guess I should be going. Jen gave me a hug and thanked me again for coming by. She said I’d always been such a good friend.

I didn’t go to their wedding—it was too obviously a mistake and I thought I needed to make my feelings about everything clear back then. I avoided John. I was 23 and had lived in 12 different places over five years and had 20 terrible jobs. The girl I was dating had got into school in Montreal. I moved with her. We broke up, but I stayed out East.

Jen’s mom had come over to me when I walked into the celebration of life. She said she hadn’t known how to get a hold of me and knew it was short notice, but wondered if I could say a few words. I went to the bathroom to think of what to say. I remembered writing Jen about the first time we met. I searched my email archive, found the message, made a few notes and fleshed it out with a couple of other memories. Hoped it wouldn’t be too obvious I was winging it.

After the celebrant finished telling us about Jen’s life and how sharing grief was a way for us to honour her, I got up and told the story about playing chess and music. People laughed quietly at the right parts. After the anecdote was done, I said some of the things that people say at funerals: that I had fallen in love with Jen that night, like everyone who met her fell in love with her; that she was one of my oldest friends and that friendships were the most important thing to her; that she would be happy we were all together today, celebrating her life, and any time we were together in the future she would be with us.

Marissa said I did good. I wasn’t so sure. Jen’s cousin had spoken after me and had talked about Jen’s struggles and how she was always her, even at her lowest points. I thought I had maybe been dishonest by not mentioning any of that.

Jen’s mom came up and said, “Thank you for doing that on short notice, it was perfect. Jen always said how you stuck by her, no matter what.” She looked at Marissa, but continued to speak to me. “It takes a good person to do that.” She left.

Marissa said, “I knew I shouldn’t have come.”

John wasn’t there, but I didn’t expect him to be. Her ex-husband, Ryan, hadn’t come. The father of her kid was there, but not her kid. I recognized some old friends and people from the old days I hadn’t known she knew. But then, after I left town, she’d had years to get to know people. I hugged and shook hands. Turned down plans to hang out—I had to fly back the next morning. An old man in a black poncho gave me a long hug and said it was absolutely wild to see me here after all these years and it wasn’t until later that night that Marissa told me the dude in the mourning poncho was the hippy who played chess for beers or pot at the old house.

Outside I saw the guy Jen had been with at the reunion show a few years before. He came over, splayed out his hand and swung in for a shake. He pulled me in and clapped my shoulder. He said he’d been in the back—he didn’t think Jen’s mom would want to see him—but he had to come, you know? I nodded. Marissa walked a few steps away, and then he told me it was so fucking weird, there were all these people who knew her and loved her, but he’d never met them and they’d never met him. It was like she had this whole other life, he said. He was happy to see a familiar face.

I told him I hadn’t known Jen really for 15 years. I was sad, of course, but I was mourning a person I’d known a long time ago, not the person who had just died, who I didn’t really know at all. I didn’t tell him I wasn’t sure I really knew Jen at all. But I did say he knew her better than I did, and probably better than anyone else there.

I was mourning a person I’d known a long time ago, not the person who had just died, who I didn’t really know at all.

He clapped my shoulder with his hand again but then pulled me into a hug. He said he really appreciated hearing that. He let go and said he wished he could have said something, but probably would have fucked it up. He didn’t have the way with words I did, he told me. He’d liked what I said about people falling in love with her. It had been like that with him—he’d loved her right away. He said he knew he was a fuck up, but she never was. She was the one who could organize things. Make sure rent was paid. Make sure they had food. Make sure they had money. He couldn’t do any of that. He said he didn’t know what he was going to do without her.

At a loss for what to say, I hugged him. I said we’d get through it. She’d want us to be strong. Then I stepped back and told him to take care. I caught up with Marissa, who had been waiting for me on the corner. It was too early for a drink and neither of us felt like eating. I said I’d call her in a bit and went back to my hotel. I sat on the thin deck overlooking the harbour and tried to remember things that had made the old days good.