Despite all of the blood, sweat and tears in Winnipeg, I did meet some people who I liked and respected deeply. One person in particular, who I knew from work (I’ll call him Bruno) left an impression on me. We had an unusual relationship, conditioned partly by the pressure cooker of working in a small newsroom, where three or four people did the work of seven or eight, and partly by being two very atypical people in a community where the walls had eyes. Sometimes we would argue– I did cry in his office on more than one occasion. We shared our fears. Sometimes we would go out for pizza and talk about our personal philosophies and favourite secondhand store finds as if we’d known each other for decades. He saw me off at the train station when I went back east, and drew a pencil sketch of me in men’s formalwear that I treasure to this day. He keeps his own internet use to a strict minimum, but I hope if he sees these lines, he won’t feel as if his closely guarded privacy has been violated.
Once I moved back out east, he would call me or write me, once or twice a month at most. In March, the letters stopped, and I just assumed he was busy.
Recently I was in Quebec City for a few meetings. One of my close friends from Winnipeg had moved to Quebec City, and I had hired her to do a bit of freelance writing for a project I worked on. The project lead wanted to meet her in person.
When she arrived, the project lead was busy, and so she and I went into another office and started catching up, putting our heads together like schoolgirls. “How’s Bruno?” I asked.
“You haven’t heard? He had a stroke.”
I lost a beat. My first thought was, “Oh no, not another Guyot.”
Jean-Claude Guyot was my supervisor when I was working on my master’s degree in Belgium. He had made many trips to Burundi, and once I mentioned to him that I’d worked there, I was immediately in his good books. He was also a breaker of moulds. Where other Belgian professors, and even teaching assistants, seemed to walk around with steel rods up their spines, to put it politely, and acted almost offended when students asked questions, Guyot wasn’t afraid to backslap or high-five people, to tease, to reassure or to engage in long conversations on equal terms. Half admirative and half mocking, our Belgian classmates called him tonton (uncle) Guyot. Around the time of the 2015 coup in Burundi, I wanted to work with him on a radio capacity building fundraising project. He said he would see what he could do. Then I heard very little. Since the Belgian academic year ends in late June, I just assumed he was busy. Six weeks later I saw a link pop up on my Facebook feed– Guyot’s obituary.
Guyot, my old colleague Jean-Claude B. from Burundi, my old boss Vincent, Bélinda…Melissa, my best friend’s ex who died mysteriously in her sleep when we were 21…not to mention the two people who I learned I could have lost. If I didn’t hear from those people within a month, I would have just assumed they were busy…I learned almost by accident that they were in difficulty. Not again if I can help it, and certainly not with Bruno. I emailed him as soon as I could, and three hours later his name showed up on my call display. We had an actual conversation two days later– he had had a minor stroke, he had lost some mobility in his left side, but he was definitely himself. To say I was relieved is an understatement– I had that same shaky feeling you get when you stand safely on the pavement after almost getting knocked into the next block by a cyclist.
After that incident, I started writing and leaving phone messages to people I hadn’t spoken to in months or years. I had two great conversations with people whose voices I hadn’t heard in a long time and who I’d begun to worry about. I felt a bit stupid saying, “I was worried you were dead!” so I just said “Checking in, sorry it’s been so long.”
I’m still not used to being at a stage of life where your friends start to pass away.
I am the queen of long silences. My father has been known to call every once in a while to make sure I’m still alive. Before this week, I hadn’t written in this blog for four whole months. So this is a bit rich, coming from me. Very rich, in fact. But if someone you’ve been corresponding with disappears…check in.