I’ve been trying to write this post for almost a month. Today, I am publishing. Not because I’ve said everything, but because I never could say everything and I need to move to the next phase of this thing.
I found out a very good friend of mine had passed away when his obituary started floating around Facebook on Friday, April 24. At first I thought it was his father’s obit, resurfacing after a month since his passing. Then I thought it was a joke, a delayed April’s Fool prank. It must have been a mistake. I grew numb reading the posts of our mutual friends, who all seemed equally as shocked. I thought Joe would outlive me, be running around Fredericton with a young hip crew well into his nineties.
I am still in shock.
I met Joe Blades almost 20 years ago during a blustery April WFNB AGM in Miramichi. He was part of a reading walking tour at French Fort Cove on the Friday evening. It was cold and damp and of course I wasn’t dressed properly. It would become one of those events that everyone who attended would remember fondly forever … Remember that poetry trek through the Cove? Jeeze, it was freezing! We should do that again!
After the activity everyone met in the restaurant of the Rodd for drinks and food. I ordered a hot chocolate with brandy and tried to warm up. Joe and I ended up sitting close to each other and just started talking. I’m an introvert, socially awkward at the best of times, and this wasn’t really the best of times for me. I was putting myself out there with all these literary people, feeling like an impostor trying to blend in. But with Joe I was instantly put as ease, it felt like we had known each other forever, not that we were meeting for the first time. I remember some of my other friends asking me later how I knew him, and being surprised when I said we had only just met.
That weekend, we shared many long talks and laughs. Hanging out with Joe was just easy. We got each other’s sense of humour. We could commiserate about the business of publishing. He encouraged and supported my writing, and shared his writing and art with me. We kept in touch sporadically by email and continued to run into each other at other literary events throughout the province. Every time we met up, we would pick right up where we left off, becoming inseparable and having a great time. It was always the best surprise to arrive at an event and find him there.
By the time I attended the Maritime Writers’ Workshop (MWW) in Fredericton that summer, I considered Joe to be a supportive literary colleague and mentor, as well as a good friend. But after spending that week in Fredericton, I considered him to be one of my best friends. Back then, there was a social component to the MWW and every evening some kind of literary activity happened throughout the city. On the first night it was a reading at a lighthouse on the walking trails by the river. When I arrived I was near tears. My first day at the workshop hadn’t gone well. But there was Joe, waiting at the lighthouse with a big hug and the wise advice to ignore all the comments that didn’t help me move forward, even if it meant ignoring everything said by everybody including the facilitator. Writing is subjective, and people are just people.
I didn’t really take anything away from the MWW to help my writing, but I had an amazing week attending events and closing down a different venue every night with Joe. He helped me to feel like I belonged in this new world of writers and artists. He showed me that there was no reason to be intimidated when I would meet people whose work I admired. I may have eventually reached the same conclusion on my own without him taking me under his wing, but I think it would have taken me a long time, if it happened at all.
After that week at the MWW, Joe was one of my best friends. We would chat on Messenger during the day while we worked, him creating instant poetry from Eastern Europe, me marvelling at the images his words brought to my mind. When he was in province, which sometimes didn’t happen for months and months, we would share a hotel room to help reduce the cost of attending some festivals and events. And if the event was happening in one of our towns, it was just a given that we’d host each other in our apartments, and defer the costs of hotel rooms.
For the two years I lived in Sackville, we visited each other a lot because I was a stop on the way to Nova Scotia when he went home to visit family, and I had easy access to cheap bus fares to Fredericton. Later when I moved back to Miramichi, bus travel became more expensive and less accessible, but we would still visit. Whenever I was in Fredericton for any reason I would see if he was around to meet up at least for lunch or dinner, and likewise on those rare occasions when he would pass through Miramichi we would spend at least a few hours catching up.
Life happened, different relationships, a few moves, a couple different jobs, and sometimes several months or even years would pass without us spending any time together, but always when we reconnected we would just pick right back up where we left off, talking into the wee hours of the night in order to catch up.
The week before my marriage broke up I was at Joe’s for a few days attending the Silver Wave Film Festival, some gallery openings, being a guest on his radio show, and giving a reading at the odd sundays series. I knew my marriage was in trouble, but I wasn’t expecting it to end so abruptly because I loved my husband so deeply and believed we were meant to be together and it would all work out eventually. This was 2011 or 2012, and I remember it was the first time that Joe and I really talked deeply about love and relationships. We could talk for days about books, art, movies, publishing, music, and so much more, but we rarely talked about love … maybe because I had never really been in love before … maybe because he had and it hurt him … but after this visit our friendship reached a deeper level as we talked openly and honestly about feelings.
A few weeks after this visit my heart was broken and I was travelling to Fredericton with a group of artists from up north who I had never met before to view one of the artist’s new exhibit. Of course I shared my itinerary with Joe and invited him to meet up if he was able. When he saw me at the gallery he knew I was emotionally devastated and he gave me the biggest hug and told me how sorry he was for me. When we were parting ways at the end of the afternoon he opened his backpack and presented me with a bottle of red wine to take home. Joe always had gifts for me, the latest books, chapbooks, broadsheets, bookmarks, postcards and other things he created, but this time he knew exactly what I needed to help soothe my broken heart, a robust red that I’d never tried before. That small act meant so very much to me.
In the past few years we didn’t see each other or talk very much. Mostly because I’ve been self-isolating long before it was required by law. I’ve gone through a lot, been very low and depressed, and I haven’t really been to Fredericton much. The last time we spoke, it was on the phone, I’d emailed to say I was thinking of coming to Fredericton for a visit and he called me. We talked for hours, long into the night and it felt so good to speak with him and catch up. It was as if we’d only just seen each other yesterday. I felt rejuvenated and happy when we finally said good night. But then I fell into another depression and never went for that visit. It was the last time we spoke. I regret not going, but I’m so glad to have had that talk.
I will miss his cooking and his stories, those blue eyes that saw the world so uniquely from anyone else. He could pick a four leaf clover out of the grass as he passed by on the sidewalk. He was constantly finding photos and other things. We’d be walking along, in deep conversation, and he’d just suddenly reach down and pick something up. I still have a bracelet he found on one of our travels that fit perfectly on my wrist.
I loved him like the older brother I never had. I hope he knew that. After weeks of feeling shocked and in disbelief, I found something I am so glad to have.
Mood: wistful, melancholic
Drinking: coffee, black, strong, dark roast
Listening To: motor boats on the river
Hair: about four months past due