For J…

Affection is an emotion I have yet to fully understand, and perhaps there is a reason for this, perhaps we are not meant to. If one considers the root of the word in a philosophical light, and accepts the idea that affect is best used to describe feelings that have not yet been fully processed by the brain–at which point, affect is transformed into emotion–then affection can be recognized as something that is felt, even deeply, but never truly understood, never truly grasped. In this, I see affect as something quite different from even love, which seems in many ways the purest of emotions but is actually a feeling that is somehow more reasoned than affect, more conscious, more intentional.

These thoughts are on my mind today as someone who was very dear to me has lost his life to cancer. And though nobody deserves to suffer from this disease, his death seems particularly undeserved, for as a friend just wrote in telling me of this sad news, J was truly one of the good ones.

I met him some years ago. To be honest, I can give you the where and the why, but not the when–not to the year, at least. Like many young people in Toronto in the nineties with dreams of careers in film and television, we both became part of the freelance gang that could be found working on any number of CBC productions: from Jonovision to Sharon, Lois and Bram to the plethora of variety programming that the broadcaster excels (or at least, excelled) at. These were rarely good jobs, in the conventional sense–low-paying with long hours and no benefits–but they were stepping stones, and more importantly, an opportunity to meet a group of like-minded people with whom one could commiserate, drink and dream. Though I entered into this world with my own already established mini-gang of film school pals, it was a place where great friendships were born, not to mention, future collaborations, both personal and professional.

J was one of the stalwarts of this group. Though in the early days we never actually worked together, at least not closely, he struck me first as a young man–we were all much younger then–of great warmth, humour and integrity, and as someone who, to use the vernacular, just really had his shit together (these impressions were borne out in the years that followed). My affection for him was immediate, but it was only years later, after our move from Toronto, and after my departure from the film and television industry, that we really got to know each other when he hired me–almost as a lark–to work as his assistant on Parliament Hill, the year (or one of the years) he coordinated the CBC Canada Day Spectacular.

For anyone who has never worked in film or television, or never worked in a completely immersive environment, what is both marvellous and, at times, trying about this kind of work is the number of hours spent in the company of others. As one might expect, spending 16-18 hours a day for 10 days straight with people who drive you crazy can make you reconsider your choice of career. But spending the same amount of time with someone you adore–through fatigue and stress and bad food and grumpy celebrities and busybody security guards and all the laughter and boredom and frustration that these jobs engender–is wonderful. At times, so wonderful that people can become so engaged with their colleagues that they become estranged from the people who are supposed to matter most: their wives and husbands and children. For me, a life in the film industry became untenable after marriage; I wanted work to take up less of my life, not more.

But I look back with extreme fondness on those days on the hill. For the first few we were a skeleton crew, making sure that things were getting set up correctly and that orders had been filled. Our days were long but empty and so there were hours upon hours to fill with stories and jokes. As I mentioned above, in this kind of environment, it is very easy to move quickly past both the small and the medium talk and find yourself discussing things of great import and meaning. This is why the bonding is so profound, or at least, can be, with the right people. But don’t get me wrong–this is not a story about the early days of a love affair or a transgression. This is about a relationship that is hard to define: not quite a friendship, in the sense that friendships are built over years, taking time to develop, but more than simply an acquaintanceship. In fact, the only way I can think of describing it is to borrow an idea (both heavy, and perhaps a little bit hokey) from another dear friend named Gordon: my spirit took to his spirit.

In the years that followed, J and I saw each other rarely and knew only of each other’s successes and sufferings through the conduit of a mutual friend. When we did meet, as always, that feeling of affection was brought to the surface, and when we parted, it receded again. But it never went away. This is what I find so compelling about affection, that one can have this depth of feeling for a person who is not really even on the periphery of one’s life. It is when meditating on this subject that I start to think about the possibility of past lives and alternative universes, when I think that we must be drawn to people that we have known before, loved before, trusted before. I want to believe this. In a sense, I have to believe this, or something like this, because there is no other way to rationalize such a senseless, and for his close friends and young family, devastating loss.

When J became sick a few years ago, I did not hear about it until it seemed that he was already on the mend. And as a person who had already come through some difficult experiences and had rebounded with his trademark qualities intact, he seemed a prime candidate for survival. It simply never occurred to me that he would become sick again. Of course this speaks only to my complete naivete about a disease that takes many more young lives than I am aware of, or am willing to consciously acknowledge.

I can only imagine what his family are going through tonight and will go through in the coming days and weeks and months; what it feels like to lose a son or a husband or a best friend. From this distance, death remains in the abstract. From this distance, it is easy to imagine him somewhere very near, to imagine him as I can still see him in my mind’s eye: we are on the hill and the sun is going down. He is kicking back on the picnic table, heat-sick and exhausted, but still managing to keep us giddy with laughter. The sun casts everything in red and gold. In my mind’s eye, he is out of pain and somehow at peace.

I hope this is true.

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