During our 40 years together, Christmas was always an especially memorable time for Timothy Findley and I – whether its celebration was lean or lavish. Growing up during the Depression and the Second World War involved a lot of the lean; later, commercial success in our respective fields allowed the lavish.
Eventually, too much of the latter. Our Christmas card list snowballed into more than 300 names. Our gift budget ballooned into the thousands. The four Swedish coffee cake wreaths I traditionally baked for a few close friends somehow multiplied to 30 – difficult to store and a nightmare to deliver on Christmas Eve.
All of this in the face of increasing demands on us to work.
Finally, we made a difficult decision. We "resigned" from Christmas. We bought no gifts – not even for each other – and instead of Christmas cards or cakes we sent out brief notes explaining our new attitude to Dec. 25: "From now on, please replace the thought of 'Christmas presents' with that of 'Christmas presence.' No gifts, please – but we'd love to see you!"
And then, we got busy. Tiff and I – friends and family made a nickname out of his initials – were never happier than when we were hard at work so this was a gift in itself.
Both of us earned our living by putting words on paper. Most of his were meant to stay on the page; most of mine were meant to be read out loud on radio or television.
But the interplay between words on a page and words read out loud was also a core part of our relationship and our winter rituals.
Écouter mes chevaux
In our later years, the location for this work was a small property we bought in the south of France. The lot – which swept down a Provençal valley in seven terraces (Tiff's studio on the upper level in a garage-turned-library, the house two levels down) – was on the outskirts of a village called Cotignac. It was nestled at the foot of a towering red-rock cliff and centred on a square that featured a lovely old stone fountain and a border of ancient plane trees.
Although it was remarkable that we could spend much of the year in France when neither of us had any fluency in French. I could speak it well enough to get by, but had tremendous difficulty understanding what was spoken to me. Tiff could neither speak it nor understand it. This meant most of our days were spent in English – writing, reading and talking to each other. It also meant that Tiff rarely went into town without me.
His only solo foray into French came on a day he needed to get a haircut. I was just typing the previous day's writing, and asked him to wait a few minutes. "No need," he said to my surprise. He had figured out what to say: "Bonjour, Madame, voulez-vous couper mes cheveux." Literally, Good day, Madame, would you cut my hairs? He had been rehearsing it all morning.
And so off he went. And he returned with a fine haircut.
I was greatly impressed that it had all gone so well. But over dinner he explained (confessed) what had happened. On the 15-minute walk into the centre of the village, his sentence had undergone an unfortunate change. His words to the coiffeuse became, "Bonjour, Madame, voulez-vous écouter mes chevaux?"
"Would you like to listen to my horses?"
Apparently Madame gave him a big smile, looked out into the street and said, in French, "Gladly, Monsieur ... where are your horses?" Then, laughing, she gave him his haircut.
It was honing words in our own language, though, that kept us going most days – usually into the early evening.
That was when Tiff would call me on the intercom that connected the studio to the house to announce that he was finished for the day and would be down shortly. I would then set out our dinner, a bottle of wine and glasses, lay a fire in the living-room fireplace ... and wait.
Eventually, Tiff would appear, his handwritten pages clutched in his hands, released only in exchange for his glass of wine. We then quickly settled down and I would do what I had been doing for decades: read aloud to the author from those pages.
This was not an easy task. The Findley penmanship was such that sometimes not even the author himself could decipher what he had written. On occasion, to give myself time in which to figure out just what the words were – or, if it seemed appropriate, to lighten the author's mood – I would clown the recital up a bit.
There was serious intent here, however: Tiff firmly believed that if my tongue tripped over any of his writing, then it was quite likely, as he would put it, that his reader's brains might also trip over the words. This was a hedge against those stumbles.
As for me, I had my own reward for reading to Tiff – encountering writing so stunning it took my breath away.
I kept talking to him
But neither new words on a page, nor new words read aloud were to continue.
In 2002, a couple of weeks after our arrival at our Provençal retreat, Tiff fell in his bathroom and fractured his pelvis. His initial hospitalization seemed successful in treating the resulting internal bleeding and infection, but within a week of returning home, he had to be rushed to larger medical centre, where he was installed in the Intensive Care Unit.
He was there for three months, and was never able to write or talk again.
Within hours of Tiff's move to the ICU, the medical team had induced a coma. Machines took over life support, a respirator operated with the help of a tube inserted surgically into his throat. Tiff had an artificial kidney. He was fed and given drugs intravenously. To see him I had to put on surgical gear – and drive 90 minutes across a mountain pass at rush hour.
I only had 15 minutes a visit. And I could never be certain he heard me. For the first time in my adult life – and after all the words between us – there was no response. I kept talking to him – just in case.
Then, back in Cotignac one night after 12:30, the telephone call I knew I would ultimately receive finally came.
A male voice spoke to me in French. He seemed to be saying that Monsieur Findley "has decided...."
Decided what? I wondered.
And then I realized. Not decided. "Décédé."
The next time I looked at the clock, it was just after 1.00 a.m. 7:00 p.m. in Canada.
I had made up a list of people anxious to hear of any change in Tiff's situation. And so I sat down and started calling.
I failed to reach a single person. Only answering machines.
How, I wondered, would the words I left on them be heard?
This is my mark
Shortly after my return, the Stratford Festival staged a memorial to Tiff and I was asked to speak.
I wanted to tell that audience – and all of Tiff's fans – that as far as I could tell, his death had been peaceful. I also wanted one last chance to read Tiff's words out loud.
I chose a passage that had always astounded me, from the novel Famous Last Words. It concerns a visit by a character called Mauberley to Altamira, the famous site of primitive cave paintings.
I have long thought that in this passage, Tiff not only summed up the aspirations of mankind but also his own epitaph.
It goes like this:
And out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something irresistible above my head, seen in the ebb and flow of the swinging light: the imprint of a human hand.
God only knew how long ago it had been put there. This is my mark, it said. My mark that I was here. All I can tell you of my self and my time is in this signature; this hand print; mine. Now, the animals are calling to us out beyond this place – the frozen entrance to this cave. In days or hours we will have died. I leave you this: my hand as signature beside these images of what I knew. Look how my fingers spread to tell my name.
And I knew I was sitting at the heart of the human race – which is its will to say I am."
Whenever Tiff read this passage to an audience, he would look up and say, "I am. You are. We are..." I did the same.
Then, I closed the book, lifted it high above my head, and made my own addition.
"And Tiff ... is."
That was more than ten years ago. But as we approach the Christmas of my 82nd year, Tiff still is. His words still are. And in that way, you could say, the Christmas presence keeps coming.