I arrived in Toronto on a Friday evening in late March. I believe it was cold but whether it was unseasonably cold or not I could not tell you. This is what I can tell you: That from the moment we touched down in the early dark a small clock began ticking deep within my core, a clock that for me would stop in less than 48 hours. That, had you been there with me, had you been my traveling companion, if you looked very carefully — with the most precise optics — you might have discovered a very fine thread, a fiber fine as spider silk, trailing back from the plane, across the western sky to southern California, and back East to western Massachusetts, and northwest to Ann Arbor, and then to Toronto, and back to Ann Arbor, and back to Boston, and back to a white Dutch Colonial house on a quiet shady street in a small college town, where, on the second floor, you would find me, holding my phone like a lost thought.
I had no idea how much thread was on that spool, the day it began to unwind. But I knew it would continue to unwind, sometimes slowly, sometimes faster, like a kite rising into the sky to a predestined terminus. The last time such a spool unwound, it unwound with terrible swiftness. That was the spool that belonged to my dear friend Gretchen. Her spool unwound in three merciless months. When Gretchen’s brain tumor was diagnosed as a malignant, inoperable, glioblastoma, I was working in an office in lower Manhattan, and the news made me physically ill. An air-sucking, nauseating gut-punch. I had to go outside. I could not function. I cried in the bathroom, I cried on the way home. I stopped the car on the Palisades and wept until the city lights were a hot melted blur. I wept until I had no more tears to give.
The next night, after work, I went to see Gretchen at a hospital on the upper East Side. At that nine o’clock hour the streets were dark and quiet. Small cyclones of oak leaves and trash blew by, paradoxically beautiful in their ugliness like so much in this city.
It was well past visiting hours, but owing to compassion or bureaucratic indifference I was allowed up to her room on the 12th floor, where she was sleeping, on her side, facing away from me. A small woman with a large presence, she seemed smaller here. Her children had hired a caregiver to sit in the room with her. The woman did not speak much English, but she smiled at me, nodded and offered me her seat, so that I might sit next to my dear friend. The day before, a surgeon had drilled deep into her brain and extracted the tissue sample that confirmed everyone’s worst fears, the reason for her forgetfulness of late, the reason for her stumbling, the reason for her mixed up sentences, the reason for her slamming the car door on her own fingers.
Her hospital room was dimly lit — by fluorescent light spilling in from the hall, by the ambient sodium vapor light of the city, a light that in the right light can resemble red gold. Down the hallway, I could hear the casual chatter of nurses at their station. A soft laugh. White noise. Gretchen’s soft, slightly labored breathing. A vital signs monitor measured the beats of her existence.
Those few contemplative moments stretched to forever. In that brief eternity, Gretchen was my little sister, sleeping as peacefully as a child full of a child’s dreams and hopes. What harm could possibly befall her? But my mind flew back to a night on a train through a snowy landscape in Nova Scotia. I was reading Lord Jim. Most of the passengers were asleep. And I came to the passage where Conrad described the disparate classes and races and religions of all the sleeping passengers on deck, “all equal before sleep, death’s brother.”
That observation stayed with me a long, long, long time. The only passengers here were Gretchen and myself, and only one of us was sleeping, yet I was in a fugue state. Somehow, somehow, somehow. When someone you love is terminally ill, you will say somehow until they die, and probably ever after.
And, somehow, one of my life’s threads connected me to Gretchen, who became a good friend and mentor. In a few months time she would win an Oscar for her work as a set decorator on the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, an award she would be unable to accept in person, instead watching the ceremony from her home, surrounded by her family. And within a few weeks of that, the twinkle in her eye, the last bit of her that had refused to fail, would dim forever.
It is because of Gretchen that I know about the spool. My friend Hilton, also a set decorator, likewise a mentor, gave me my first job as a leadman in the business, in 1989, on a little movie in North Carolina called Everybody Wins, starring Nick Nolte. I rented a small studio that winter in Wrightsville Beach. Now I am working on a television series called Luck, which we are filming in Los Angles. The series stars Nick Nolte. I am renting a little studio, only this one actually belongs to Hilton. You see how clever the spider is? This thread weaves over and under, races back years, crosses continents. Last summer, Hilton cleared out his books so he could rent his apartment while he underwent his cancer treatment. He offered me the apartment in December. He was a year without any new tumor growth. He and his wife went to Italy. When they returned to Toronto, in January, they received the news: The latest MRI showed lots of — in Hilton’s words, “Bloody, rapid new growth.”
I heard these words on my cell phone. I was sitting outside a Bed Bath and Beyond on West Olympic Boulevard. We chatted for 45 minutes. He liked to talk. He told me he was planning his memorial service. He seemed at peace with his life. And from that day in early January, 2011, until this day in late March, the spool unwound faster. His texts became more and more garbled. Long stretches with no word, more trips to the emergency room, brain swelling, infection, sutures, staples, seizures.
And then the swelling went down and the seizures stopped and his wife Philippa called me to say that friends should see him now.
Another friend, a woman named Tracey, flies in from Seattle. We have known and worked with each other for over twenty years. When I see Hilton he is unable to speak but he grips my hand hard and does not let go for a long time. He locks eyes with mine and he is telling me how glad he is that I have come to see him.
We spend most of our time together, in a guest room on the second floor of his house that has become his world. Tracey and I laugh, tell jokes, reminisce, and on Sunday morning when I wake up I open the window and gaze down at the daffodils emerging in his garden and wonder again, as I did with Gretchen, how does one take their leave? How do you say goodbye when you know it really is forever? At breakfast that morning, he begins weeping, and we all start crying. At last, when the car service arrives, he wants to see me off. I help him downstairs – I have to sit behind him, and gently slide him down on his butt, step by step, into his wheelchair at the bottom. I hug him, I squeeze his hand, and finally I run, looking back, one last time, to catch him smiling at me as the door closes.
Six weeks later, arriving back in California after another trip East, I receive the news from his wife Philippa. Hilton’s spool unraveled the day before, on my birthday, May 8th. She breaks down in sobs and doesn’t complete her message, and her tears are contagious. I stand there, awkwardly, in the Burbank airport parking lot, with my roller, looking about at the ceaseless shuffling of humanity, in and out, up and down. Luckily I am wearing shades, sparing the passing travelers my indulgent sorrow. And yet — call it Vitamin D or the magic of a California sun that feeds half a nation, but even in my sadness I am lifted by the river of life that flows around me. I take heart. All of our spools are endlessly unrolling, but oh, that clever spider.
© 2012, 2018 James Brunel