The day it all changed, I had been standing on a beach next to Lake Ontario, teaching a writing class. It was a glorious fall day in September. The sun was hot, and the lake was grey glass so smooth you could have skated across it. I’m wrapped in that scarf women buy after fifty years of age. Something about covering up the neck. Men don’t leave us because we are old. They leave us because they don’t want someone to unwrap. My students gathered around me, and I taught a lesson that a good story begins when you hear the word suddenly. I got the idea from a play I saw many years ago called ‘Lots of Suddenlies.’ A good story has a lot of suddenlies the play declared. “I stole that idea and adapted it for the classes. I told the writers that when you hear the word, suddenly you know something big is about to happen. You are going along having a normal day when suddenly a boat floats to shore with a man calling for help. Suddenly, pirates take over the beach. Suddenly, God burps and creates a new universe.”
As they went off all directions to put a suddenly into their story. I breathed in and thought how blessed I am to get to do this class. How lucky I am to be in this beautiful location, teaching what I love to do. And all those years of trying to understand my craft, that my work had paid off so I could finally own the things I knew. Then suddenly, my phone started pinging. Ping. Ping. One text after another from my brother, Vernon. I looked down, and it said, “Call me! Explanation Point. Are you there? Question mark. Are you!! Two exclamation marks! CALL ME. All Caps! I called, and it was about my brother Kevin. “They got the results of the biopsy back, and it’s not good.” Kevin 3rd in the birth order. Kevin. One of my three brothers. Kevin- the healthiest one of the bunch- had been diagnosed with a Stage 4 Glioblastoma brain tumour. I hung up, and numbers rolled around in my head like a Rubik’s cube. Did Vernon say there was a 7 % chance of survival? Or a 97% chance he’d die if he lived past a year. My body divides in two. The brain is doing math, but my mouth carries on with the class.
Yes, I continued with the class.
I was on fire. “When a suddenly hits people, they are asked to go on a journey they hadn’t planned. And they will likely fight it, deny it, bargain with it, and maybe accept it.
The five stages of Suddenly. I came up with that idea right at the moment. Impending tragedy grants me diamond-sharp clarity. By day’s end, I was like a participant at a Tony Robbins rally–I could have walked barefoot on fire and not gotten burnt.
I thanked the host, gathered up my stuff, and hurried to the car.
I had to call my people to tell them the news. Someone. Anyone. Before I could think about who to call first, a student, Simon, took every one of my classes and had written ten thousand words about his cat knocking on my window asking. “Can I bum a ride back to the subway?” Yes, hop in.” If he was in the car, I couldn’t tell anyone the news. If I couldn’t tell them the news, I couldn’t cry, and then the Suddenly won’t be true.
You can never trust the weather regarding ‘a suddenly.’.A good suddenly can happen on a rainy day, and a bad one can happen on a sunny day. Death is always a surprise. No matter how much you think you are ready for it, it comes as a shock. That is what we were talking about, here: death. It was not one of those tumours. “My second cousin twice- removed had a tumour and drank sheep urine and got it cut out and now she’s fine’ tumours. Kevin, the good Catholic who never window-shopped for God, had a Glioblastoma tumour. A GB tumour is aggressive. It doesn’t care about your spiritual credentials. It’s as if your landlord has given you notice and developers are coming to tear your building down, and you can beg and plead and say you’ve been a good tenant, but that tumour doesn’t care. The wrecking ball was coming. Kevin was dying, and it was my life that was flashing before my eyes.