This is a blog about someone who’s died. I promise it won’t be maudlin or depressing. And it definitely won’t be mournful.
I’ve just come back from a “Celebration of Life” for a lady who was my good friend for nearly 10 years. She was also my writing partner for a handful of feature-length screenplays, a couple of one-hour tv pilots and a “lifestyle & cooking show”.
Only the first two episodes of the cooking show ever made it into production, and were ultimately shown on Community Television here in Vancouver. The potential was there. The money, alas, was not. The same is true of the tv pilots. And three of our screenplays were optioned. But, as is typical of 95% of all optioned scripts, they were never produced.
As a mutual friend of ours, a film producer, remarked to me at the reception after the church service, “It’s a terrible, terrible business to try and be successful in.”
It was, in fact, that mutual friend who brought Nola and I together. I was fresh from a writing program at film school. I was in my early 50’s, so I can’t honestly claim that I was fresh at life – though it could be argued that my life up to that point had been a bit on the sheltered side.
I’d written a screenplay. It was my first, and it was about a chap who worked on a cruise ship in Alaska. It was my main project at film school. I’d entered it in a local screenwriting contest, and although I wasn’t one of the winners, I’d caught the attention of one of the judges, a producer. He’d contacted me to let me know he wanted to produce my script. It was, he promised, going to be a major Canadian film. We’d find a way to shoot it cheaply. I would be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. His company had a dozen films in development, and mine would be the most important, the highest profile, the project that would catapult us both into fame and fortune.
Just one catch – it needed to be rewritten. And he graciously offered to help with that, lending his years of production experience and his knowledge of what would make a dynamite film.
And so, every Saturday, we met up, usually in a coffee shop in West Vancouver, sometimes at his cottage, which was close by the sea. We worked on the main character, the storyline, the supporting characters, the storyline, the main character again, the storyline, a different storyline, another different storyline, the main character again….
It seemed, in fact, that every time I went home with notes and rewrote the script, paying strict and scrupulous attention to what we’d discussed, the following week none of it mattered anymore, and we were off on another tangent, exploring yet another treatment of the first act.
It seemed, in fact, that we never actually got past the first act.
It all ended badly, as these things sometimes do. The story descended into chaos, a second writer was brought in, our initial meeting resulted in a falling out on all sides. I went home to attempt a full rewrite on my own, only to be invited back to the cottage by the sea, to be metaphorically impaled on a pin, like a captured butterfly, and torn to bits by Mr. Producer.
I went home again, vowing to have nothing more with the film business. In spite of trying to remain professional at all times, I was emotionally and creatively destroyed. I reckoned I had nothing left to lose. And so I wrote A Letter.
Emails of the type I wrote should never be sent immediately. In fact, they should probably never be sent at all.
I waited a day.
I let it gel. And ferment. And percolate.
I made a few revisions.
I added an email address to the “cc:” line.
And then, I pressed “Send”.
Goodbye to my short-lived screenwriting career, I thought, as I watched it go. Goodbye to all those amazing golden-carrot-dangling-at-the-end-of-a-fishing-line dreams.
A day later I received an email. It wasn’t from Mr. Producer. It was from the lady I’d cc’d my message to. The reason I’d included her was because Mr. Producer had introduced me to her: his on-again, off-again, on-again girlfriend. She’d seemed nice. Much nicer than he was. A sensible woman, a woman with empathy and understanding, a woman who’d connected with me the instant her eyes had met mine.
I’d cc’d her because I wanted a witness to my thoughts. I didn’t want my message to be dismissed and deleted. I wanted someone to know.
“I’m just curious,” Nola wrote, “whether he’s treated you very badly. Because he’s certainly treated me very badly. And I absolutely love that you called him a Fuckwit. Here’s my phone number….”
I picked up the phone immediately. “Listen,” I said. “We need to talk.”
We met up that Saturday and wow, did we talk. She was at her wit’s end with Mr. Producer. I told her about the rambling, never-resolved scriptwriting shipwreck I’d been a part of. She told me we’d been the unwitting subjects of his erratic and psychologically fragile ego. She was of the considered opinion we’d both been screwed – she, literally; me, metaphorically.
“You know what?” I said. “We should write about this. We need to get him out of our systems.”
“I can’t believe you called him a Fuckwit,” Nola said again. “I was killing myself with laughter. He so deserved that.”
Thus began a wonderful, amazing friendship. We met at her house every weekend, sitting across from one another on sofas, a coffee table between us. I had my laptop, and we just…wrote.
I’d never collaborated before. Whatever we had together just worked. We tried out dialogue, we acted out scenes. We argued over whether our character would do or say something, and what our other characters would do or say in response.
We finished the script, and at the end of it, we were both convinced that we’d done more for ourselves than any therapist could have accomplished. We’d exorcised our demon.
I pitched it to production companies. It was read very seriously. We were told some Very Big Names in Canadian Television loved it. But, alas, it would not be taken into development. It had nothing to do with Mr. Producer (who, we’d discovered, really wasn’t all that well-connected, and certainly held no sway over my screenwriting future). It had everything to do with the way Canadian films and tv shows are financed and developed. It’s a very small slice of pie, rationed out in spoonfuls to a very small community of writers and producers.
And so, Nola and I wrote another screenplay. And another. And a pilot for a tv series. And another pilot for another tv series. And a cooking show. Two cooking shows.
In between the bouts of writing, we became very good friends.
I’m a solitary soul. All through my childhood and teenage years, and into adulthood, I’ve really only had room in my life for one or two close friends, never any more. But my friendships were – and are – intense; and Nola was no different.
We connected. I listened to her stories, her adventures, her troubles, her good times. She listened to mine. She was nearly eight years older than me and we consoled one another, offered advice and accepted it. We enjoyed sharing stories of our lives. And we had lunch together. A lot.
This was our favourite hangout: The MarinaSide Grill, down by the waterfront in North Vancouver. We’d sit outside on the deck, under a huge umbrella, with yachts and motorboats docked in the harbour below, cars speeding over the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge above, and freight trains clanking behind us. And it was there that we discussed our worlds, our scripts, our plans for our glorious screenwriting future, our lives.
Because writing wasn’t our main occupation.
It was my dream, and it was something I’d pursued since childhood, first with fiction, and now with film. But I also had a full-time job. Film school had been an interesting one-year interlude in my life, undertaken after a buyout from a telecommunications firm where I’d worked for 18 years. I was back working full-time again, at the University of British Columbia. I was writing on the side – as a lot of us do, driven by passion and need.
Nola’d had a history of interesting occupations, was a self-admitted party girl, and had been in AA for about 10 years when I met her. She told me once that she was different from a lot of AA members, in that she had “outside” friends. I was one of the outsiders, but she loved me as much as she loved her friends on the “inside”. She also taught yoga, and was passionate about it. Yoga infused her life. It was the basis of her outlook, her spirituality, and her reason for being.
She tried to teach me yoga at one point, but it was a hopeless proposition. My sinuses filled up every time I put my head down. My body was lopsided and I had no sense of balance. We decided it would be best if we didn’t pursue it.
And as for her AA friends… I recall being invited to a get-together of her “regulars” one evening. A dozen very well-dressed, well-coiffed women in their sixties, all of whom I’d describe as sophisticated, smart and respectable. And what did they talk about? The nights they’d spent in jail, after being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour, or impaired driving, or other gross misbehaviours.
Nola took great pains to explain how she’d come out of a bar, completely sozzled, with her refilled martini glass, climbed into her car, made sure her drink was secure, and then promptly backed into a police cruiser. We later used that scene to open a tv script we were working on.
She also shared how, again, completely sozzled, she’d stripped off all of her clothes one New Year’s Eve and gone skinny dipping in Georgia Strait. She’d been rescued before hypothermia had claimed her. But that was Nola.
What else can I say about my friend? She loved gardening, and always had the most amazing flowers. She loved life. She loved me. She really did. We always ended each lunch meeting, each writing session, with a hug, and those words: “I love you.”
Later on, after we’d stopped writing screenplays, she used to email me and say, “Come and have lunch with me, I need my Winona fix.”
When we stopped writing together, it seemed to be a natural thing to do. It seemed to be a pause that asked to be made. I needed to get back to writing long fiction, my first passion.
And Nola had developed a cancer in her colon. It had been operated on, and she was in the clear. No chemo, no radiation. The doctors were confident they’d got it all. A piece of her colon was taken out, but other than that, her life was back to normal. She was going to travel. Europe. She’d never seen the world and her friend, Anne, was going to take her on an adventure.
“I’m going to Paris,” she said (knowing I used to be a travel agent). “Do you have any advice?”
“Watch out for pickpockets,” I said, “and don’t eat unrefrigerated seafood salad in the Moulin Rouge.”
About a year ago, around the same time I published Cold Play (a novel about a chap who works on board a cruise ship in Alaska….), my lovely friend began to suffer from unexplained pains and anomalies in her body. She went for tests. Tests were delayed, cancelled. Diagnoses were made, and then changed. Nobody could tell her what was definitively wrong.
And then, this past December, a dreaded email. Nola told me she’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. It had come back. And this time it was in her omentum, which I had to look up. She was going to have chemo, which would hopefully shrink the tumours, and then an operation to remove them.
I had absolutely no doubt Nola would beat the cancer. She was strong mentally, spriritually, emotionally…but physically, not so much. She hid it well. Her years of yoga training gave her strength, inside and out.
I met up with her a few times, and we went for lunch. She was in a lot of pain and had major drugs to help combat it. She drove to the drugstore to pick up her prescription, and on the way back she said, “Oops, I nearly went through that Stop sign, didn’t I.”
“You did,” I said. And then: “You’re completely zooed on drugs, aren’t you?”
“Yup,” she said, completely unabashedly.
If I’d known, I’d have offered to drive her to the pharmacy. But that was Nola. She played the bad stuff down. She embraced life, wholeheartedly, and with gusto.
I last saw her in May. Her chemo was making her ill, and so every two weeks she checked into the BC Cancer Hospital and stayed for a few days while she recovered from the latest infusion of poison.
I asked her how many more rounds of chemo she had left. She said she didn’t know. But she was making plans for another trip to Europe with Anne.
I spent the afternoon with her. We sat outside on the hospital’s sun deck, and talked for hours. We visited a family of Canada geese who’d nested in the shrubbery along the perimeter. We went back inside and did walking circuits of the ward, because she felt restless and needed some exercise. She gave me a popsicle – she had a box of them in the patients’ fridge but couldn’t eat them herself – they made her feel sick.
I never once saw hopelessness in her eyes. I’ve seen it in others – in people who’ve been told they’re terminally ill or have a serious medical condition from which they won’t recover. I saw it in my dad’s eyes weeks before he died from a massive heart attack in his sleep. I saw it in his sister’s eyes when her breast cancer had spread and overwhelmed her body. It’s an absence of a sense of future.
Nola’s eyes always sparkled and looked forward to what would come next.
It was totally within her character not to tell me how seriously ill she was, not to tell me when there was nothing else the doctors could do for her.
She said to me earlier this year, “Sometimes I feel like I’m dying.”
“You’re not going to die,” I said to her. And I believed it completely. I think she recognized that I believed it completely, and perhaps that’s why she didn’t want to tell me the bad news, that I was completely wrong.
A few weeks ago I was alarmed that I couldn’t reach her. There were no answers to emails, and no returned phonecalls from voice messages I’d left. I tried the hospital. Yes, she was there, but she was busy, she was asleep, she wasn’t taking phonecalls right now. I tried a number of times, left a number of messages. Nothing.
I wondered if she was angry with me. But no, it wasn’t in her nature to be like that. I emailed one of her AA friends that I’d met, who I knew was her sponsor and very close to her. And I was put in touch with Anne, the lady who’d travelled with Nola, and who was a nurse.
It was the worst possible news. My friend was fading, was near death. Her pain was horrible, but they were trying to manage it. She was being taken to palliative care.
She was surrounded by her family and by some very close friends.
“Please tell her I love her,” I said, “and my thoughts are with her on her journey. And please tell her, if you can, that I’m dedicating my next novel to her. She was always so enthusiastic about Persistence of Memory. She always had faith in me and my writing.”
Persistence of Memory was a screenplay that I wrote by myself, in between the co-writing projects we were working on. It’s an accidental time-jump story, a historical romance.
Nola had read the script and absolutely loved it. “Where did this come from?” she asked, in amazement. She thought it was the best thing I’d ever written.
I was never able to get it into development, though it was pitched everywhere. Everywhere.
And so, last year, I turned it into a novel. And it’s being published this year, by Fable Press. The first of a fresh, new series.
Anne wrote back to me the next day. “I was with Nola last evening and passed on your message, and she smiled.”
I smiled. We’d often talked about what happens when you die, and we both believed, in our own ways, that your spirit lives on. And that your spirit doesn’t leave, if those who love you want you to stay close by.
So I’d said my goodbye, and I knew that when the end finally came – as it did, a few days later – my friend wouldn’t really be gone. She’d just be in another room, and she’d always know everything that I wanted to share with her.
Today, at Nola’s Celebration of Life, some of her friends and family stood up to share stories about my wonderful friend. It wasn’t sad. It wasn’t mournful. It was truly a celebration of a wonderful lady’s life. And I learned so much more about her than I’d known before.
Anne spoke about their trip to Europe. She said, “And Nola loved everything about Paris. Even the pickpockets. She pointed at them – ” (and here she pointed in the definitive, exclamatory way that Nola had) “- and said, Oh no you don’t!’ By the end of the trip, they were waving at her every time we walked by.”
Nola has a son, Mark, who’s employed in the film industry, painting sets. He stood at the front of the church, and began by telling the hundreds of people assembled in front of him that he was imagining us all naked. Uproarious laughter.
He then went on to mention all of the things that his mum loved to do. He included scriptwriting. I think that must have been a revelation to many, who mostly knew Nola from her yoga, and from her AA activities. I was happy that he’d mentioned it though, and felt Nola’s smile beside me as I was sitting alone in the pew at the back of the church.
Mark ended with a little story that he promised would be upbeat. He talked about how, four or five days before she died, his mum was sleeping. He was sitting beside her hospital bed, and she woke up, and said, very faintly, “I think I’m going to die today.”
He then said a little later there was a knock at the door to the room. It was one of his mum’s friends, and she said, “I have a secret to tell Nola.”
Mark let her in, and the friend sat down beside the bed. Nola had gone back to sleep, and the friend leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I have a secret to tell you!”
Nola – who loved gossip more than anything – opened her eyes wide to listen.
Then she turned to Mark and said, “Nope! Not going to die today!”
There was more wonderful laughter in the church, and applause as Mark stepped down. I was so glad.
Afterwards there was a reception at the Lawn Bowling Club. Nola had planned this for us. There was wine (red and white) for all her drinking friends. And lots of coffee and water and juice for her non-drinking friends. There were strawberries dipped in chocolate, and little sandwiches with exotic fillings, and sweets of all sorts.
The first person I recognized was Mr. Producer.
I knew from speaking to Nola that he’d straightened himself out. She’d always shared little tidbits of news about him with me, although she’d resolved not to become involved with him again.
I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around, and his face broke into a broad grin. He gave me a hug – a genuine, warm, bearhug. Both arms, which I reciprocated. Genuinely.
“Winona!” he exclaimed. “How did I know you’d be here?”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” I replied. “How did I know you’d be here too?”
We laughed. I told him that our disastrous cruise ship script had been successfully published as an e-book last year.
“Yes,” he said. “I tried to read it but I found I was quite technologically unable to process or download it.”
Typical. I don’t think he wanted to read it, really.
I’ll forgive him.
And so, an amazing period in my life has come to a close. It began… and it ended, rather fittingly, I think…with Mr. Producer.
I stayed for a few more minutes, and then I left.
Today was beautiful and sunny.
And I know my friend Nola is smiling.