On the morning Annie went into the hospital, I had a dream that Toronto was drowning. It started with a sadness welling up at my windows. When I got up to look out at the city, cars were bobbing around like plastic toys and whole buildings were being swallowed up by water. In the distance was a tsunami, and it was racing towards me.
Knowing there wasn’t anywhere to run, I became curiously calm. Within seconds the wave smashed through my windows, took me up on its crest, and began rushing me into the unknown.
It was the sound of the phone jangling which woke me up. I stumbled across my shockingly dry room to answer it. Annie Jacobsen; my friend, my mentor, my lighthouse, had been hospitalized in the night. After nine years of wrestling back lymphoma, the cancer had taken hold. A tumour the size of a melon had grown in her belly and she could no longer eat more than ice chips.
“You are an artist,” Annie said every time she saw me. At first I thought she was delusional, how relentlessly she spoke that word about me. A word that was too big for me. A word whose shadow I cowered in. But she said it again and again; on every visit, in every letter, and she managed to find it in every last one of my dreams. She drummed it on my deaf ears until it tunneled through to my heart, which finally broke into a dance of yes.
Annie was fifty-nine when she drank her last afternoon glass of wine. She’d been incoherent with pain for weeks,but joked lucidly that afternoon that with death so close, she could smash her wine glass on the floor if she wanted to. But death is always that close, I discovered, and life is begging to be spilled.
Annie said her cancer grew out of her rage. After 20 years of marriage, raising two luminous children, and a demanding career in social work, her husband left her for another woman. The divorce was the kind of call you hear about in heroic myths, leaving Annie with nothing but her beautiful, breaking open heart.
Under the pain, Annie found a deeper grief for the creative life she’d abandoned. For nine years she was alone. For nine years she had cancer. For nine years she spilled out her enormous gift for writing fiction.
The woman could invent a universe on the rim of a dime. It was not that she made her characters come to life so much as exposed them in the full swing of living. We, the readers, could see outwards from their eyes, feel outwards from their hearts.
“Time is precious,” Annie warned me, with a laugh like an easy creek. How alluring it is for us women to midwife others’ emotional labours before attending to our own. Like Annie, so many of us invest our emotional wealth into relationships, children and career, leaving nothing for our creative impulses and then wonder why we’re depressed. Like a medicine that becomes a poison, Annie believed the creative life denied was the real cancer.
It hardly matters where I learned it, only that I’d become an expert. Hoarding decades of poetry and music in my closet, taking elaborate diversions from the artist’s path, I jumped at the chance to mediate others’ dreams before following my own. But dreams, if you ignore them, consume you from the inside out.
Annie’s death, like a tidal wave, yanked my anchors from the comfort zone. The very foundation of my beliefs began to quake apart; old things flying out from the center, new things entering there. The city became intolerable to me and, flooding through the portal of my grief, was an urgency to live a truer life.
At first I just took weekend trips into the country. But the more time I spent in wilderness, the less I wanted to return to the city. The dissonance of traffic and fighting was getting louder. All I could hear was the collective moan of survival. I was becoming allergic to the pavement. I was growing appalled by the edges and lines and corners of convenience.
Heedless of how long we’ve neglected it, the soul rushes back in an instant under the stars. One night in the forest, one meal cooked by fire, one naked lake plunging is all takes. How bizarre the city seems then, with its strange values like rhinestones on an imitation-world. How maudlin we then seem, grabbing onto the banks for security, while the sea of plenty flows by.
My nature was growing, poetry started flowing and I just kept going. Armed with a tent and a backpack, I positioned my home differently every night. Down in the soft needles and roots with my door pointed eastward for the sunrise show, up in a clearing of woodchips to best see the stars through netted skylights, on a grassy bank of wildflowers, I took care not to crush too many violets in my sleep.
Annie’s death was a precipice which fell me deeply in love. Coming into congruence, I felt myself connecting to the whole of everything. I was overcome with knowing that if I was bold with my life, if I risked originality, I would be taken care of.
Two months later, I hitched across the country to the interior of British Columbia. Not knowing where I’d stay or how I’d manage, I followed the simple yearning of my heart to be where the eagles are.
In a week’s time, the crest had rushed me into another dimension. I found myself in an unimaginably beautiful land called the Kootenays, which I instantly knew as home. There I would make art, find love, create community, drink clean water and grow my first garden. There I would make music and praise beauty. There, I would be an artist.
As a child, I stitched together myths of queens and lions to create a heroine who was kind, graceful, fierce and noble. With nothing but my imagination of her, I navigated across the perpetual black towards her. Often she seemed unreal and I turned my back on her a thousand, aching times.
But when I met Annie, the mirage became flesh. I never knew her as anything but brave. In the nine years she did battle with her dragons, she wrote no less than two novels,many exceptional poems, and an exquisite avalanche of short stories. And by doing it, she touched a thousand lives as intimately as my own.
Now that she has returned to the wilderness of spirit and I am left here in the slow rubble of matter, I know Annie’s legacy to me was courage. With her own life as an example, she called me to become my own lion queen. The single finest gift a person can give, Annie saw the woman I was to become, and held that reflection up for me until I could step into it. In turn, as I learn to stand in my sovereignty, I aspire to grow into a clear mirror for my own beloveds.