In Dying We Are Reborn | John Tavares

I would have liked to have gotten to know Isabella better. I returned home after the Christmas holidays in low spirits myself, miserable following the completion of a university degree in history, upset that, prior to graduation, I hadn’t seized the day with applications to teacher’s college at Lakehead University, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, or even York University, which, after the requisite one year of study, would have earned me a second, more useful university degree to build a career in education. An education degree might have allowed me to put my original university honours bachelor’s degree to work, permitting me to obtain a decent job, albeit even if it was only as an educator, since the money, I had heard, wasn’t bad. Contrary to popularly held belief, my understanding was that teachers were well paid in the province of Ontario, although then again the hard work and stress surely burned out plenty of teachers.

I learned the news about her fate shortly after I arrived home, to my hometown in Beaverbrook, where my younger brother was in low spirits himself. The gloom about missed chances and botched relationships in youth, lost opportunities, and difficult or wrong decisions, had loomed over us like a dark storm. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Marco experienced this sense of impending doom and this depression soon after Isabella died. I learned the fate of this young woman, which I didn’t think should be concealed or covered up, shortly after I arrived home, having taken the transcontinental train for over a day across the Canadian Shield, to Beaverbrook. My brother and I traipsed to the bar, the only nightclub left in town after progressively stricter drunk driving laws and anti-smoking by-laws and home entertainment centres took their toll. There actually existed a time, before drunk driving laws and beefed up police patrols, when the municipality was still something of a boomtown and had a fairly active nightlife, and the armed forces had a radar base on a hillside overlooking the steep spectacular shore on a nearby lake.

“Whatever happened to that girl who, like, actually would perform this amazing dance routine while she was jogging or working out.”

After my father died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and heart and kidney failure, complicated by his diabetes, I started visiting the gym and fitness centre regularly and religiously. The routine and rigor of exercise was one of my few consolations and forms of relief and outlets; instead of visiting a counselor or therapist to work through my grief, I visited the gymnasium and fitness centre, which also allowed me to improve my cardiovascular capacity and endurance. After my mother, suffering from a rare blood disorder, which may have been related to leukemia, hemorrhaged after she fell in the basement, and died, I spent even more time at the gymnasium, cycling for up to two hours on the stationary bicycles, even jogging on the treadmill, even though I did not enjoy stationary running. The amount of time I spent on the exercise equipment annoyed the fitness instructors and irked the other patrons working out, but I justified the time I spent there, believing that they might have understood, if I could have somehow communicated how much better it made me feel. Meanwhile, Isabella was the one person who brightened my otherwise grim visits to the gym.

“The Portuguese and Filipino girl?”

“I didn’t know she was Portuguese and Filipino.”

“Her mother is Filipino and her father is Portuguese.”

“I hadn’t realized.”

“She died.”

“What? Come again.”

The shock of the news sent me scrambling for a new course of thought, a change in the direction of the conversation. I had entertained ideas about this young woman before I left town. While I peddled furiously on the exercise bicycle, reading a pocketbook, say, turning the page on a paperback novel, a murder mystery, I had built up a whole systems of beliefs and delusions around her, of a happy relationship, of marriage, of a family life, but that received the most abrupt of shocks.

“You mean Isabella? I think that was her name.”

Marco had described Isabella’s accomplishments as an athlete earlier. She had been overweight before she entered high school, but by her tenth grade she was a track and field star, had broken several records in the sprints and hurtles in college. More recently, she had earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, having studied modern dance at York University. In fact, after performing in several critically acclaimed dance troupes and modern dances, she had even set a few Ontario and Canadian middle distance records at the university level. I was surprised to learn that she had something in common with us.

“She’s Portuguese,” Marco said.

“I thought we were the only Portuguese in Beaverbrook.”

“What about the Silvas?”

“I forgot about them.”

“Actually, she’s only part Portuguese, if you can conceive of such a thing.”

“Well, that’s what I meant to say. We’re the only full-blooded Portuguese from the Azores in Beaverbrook.”

“But the Silvas also are Portuguese on both sides, and they did immigrate to Canada from the Azores, and their father went to work for the railroad.”

“I knew they were Portuguese.”

“Anyway, Isabella’s Portuguese on her father’s side. Her father is from the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores archipelago.”

I was intrigued that I had partially the same ethnic background as someone I found so desirable. I had never thought I would find a relationship with a young woman who also had a Portuguese background desirable.

After we chatted, I asked, “Well, what happened?”

“She committed suicide.”

I was still stunned, shocked, because I didn’t conceive of women as committing suicide. I knew that my hometown of Beaverbrook, with its relatively large population of indigenous people, percentage-wise, had an astronomically high rate of suicide—amongst one of the higher rates in the world, statistically speaking. Sometimes the topic dominated the course of conversations in coffee shops and diners; the death of youth and promise forced the topic of conversation upon us. After all, how could you talk about the weather and the long range weather forecast after you learned the daughter of a popular and community-minded individual had just committed suicide. In fact, the plague of self-destruction often affected the town residents emotionally and psychologically. Indeed, in my career as an undergraduate student at York University, which I attended, sometimes hoping in the back of my mind I would meet her, I seemed to have developed an expertise, a technical subspecialty on suicide, writing academic papers on various aspects of suicide for different disciplines—suicide from the perspective of a novelist for an Victorian English novel course, suicide from the perspective of existentialists for a philosophy course, suicide from the perspective of aboriginal youth on First Nations reservation for a sociology course. But I never expected that I would have to deal with the issue so closely, so personally. I hadn’t expected that a young woman would commit suicide, one for whom I had nurtured a crush, of sorts, and I told my brother so.

“But she wasn’t the first girl to commit suicide this fall in Beaverbrook.”

“Wasn’t the first…this fall? Well, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You never asked. You never even bothered to call.”

I had lost touch with my family in Beaverbrook, becoming a virtual recluse as I devoted myself to successfully completing my university studies. “Sorry. You’re right. Well, who else killed herself?”

“The Tahi girl.”

“The Tahi girl. You mean the other mixed race girl.”

“You remember her?”

“The singer and songwriter.”

“That’s the girl.”

“Wow. That girl has talent. I remember going to a live concert at the movie theater after Mom died and listening to her. It was a soothing salve.”

“Well, yeah, I’m sure it was. But she’s gone now.”

I shook my head as I considered yet another tragic loss. There were still so many questions I wanted to ask my brother about Isabella, so much that I wanted to hear. But the pretty daughter of a neighbour came and joined us, and I immediately became distracted. I remembered how much I had desired Isabella, wanted her.

A friend from high school days insisted on seeing me before I returned to Toronto, where I planned on searching for work in a field where I might be able to put my history degree to use. At the time I was thinking of working in a library. Inga and I had sent emails to each other about potentially collaborating on a film project—but she was thinking of self-producing, self-directing, and self-acting in a short film for an arts film festival while I conceived drafting a feature length suspense movie a big Hollywood studio might consider producing. We were both filled with creative ideas, Think Big concepts and wild dreams. I supposed they acted as a protection against the fierceness and bleakness of the Canadian north. We discussed what had transpired, good, bad, and in between, in the past few years in Beaverbrook while I was gone. Then Inga moved to the topic of her current short film. She had been having trouble finding the composure, strength, and wherewithal to continue with the production after her lead actor had died.

“What?”

“Didn’t you hear? She committed suicide.”

“Your lead actress committed suicide.”

I was still having problems wrapping my head around the idea of a young woman committing suicide, particularly a young woman with so much hope and promise in her life, particularly a young woman I had admired as much as Isabella.

“That’s what I said. I thought we had finished shooting the film, and then, when I was editing the raw footage, I saw there were a few scenes that could use retakes, but—”

Inga sipped the mug of strong, freshly brewed coffee I had offered her steaming hot black. Out of frugality and laziness, I hadn’t bothered to drop by the grocery store or the convenience store to pick up table cream.

“I think through some clever editing I should be able to finish the film.”

Inga suddenly sobbed and blurted Isabella had even warned her she wanted to kill herself. I was a bit nonplussed, surprised that Inga hadn’t gotten the girl help. Intervention was mandatory and prerequisite, I understood, when anybody communicated a self-destructive sort of message to somebody they knew intimately or professionally. My understanding was that it was irresponsible to do otherwise. At least that was what I had learned in college and university. But Inga hadn’t because, as she told me, we all contemplate suicide at one point or another. I couldn’t help but pour her another cup of coffee, java I had brewed strong, because it stimulated me and cleared my mind, and I also couldn’t help acknowledging the truth of that message.

Inga told me that in the months preceding her suicide, Isabella had experienced a number of reversals, which made me inclined to think that, if friends and professionals had counselled and monitored her, her committing suicide might have been prevented. Inga mentioned a number of things that might have made her feel depressed. She said that Angelica had applied to a number of different teaching positions in Beaverbrook but none of her applications had been successful. She was a talented contemporary dancer, and a decorated, winning athlete, but she couldn’t land a job as a dancer instructor at the fitness centre or as a gym teacher because she didn’t have the requisite educational qualifications or credentials, the certifications, and experience. Instead, she had been hired to work as a youth counsellor at an alternative school on the Fort Hope reservation on the shores of the Hudson’s Bay up north, far from home, family, and friend in Beaverbrook. During the long, arduous winters, during which record amounts of snowfall fell and cold weather records were broken some nights, several youths on the reservation committed suicide, which, Inga believed, may have placed Isabella in a mindset where she got some dark ideas.

“And she was having problems with her parents. They demanded much from her.”

Isabella she had hung herself in the basement bedroom she had in her parent’s home. All I could remember was the lithe and grace with which she moved about at the beach and on the oval track and in the gymnasium at the municipal parks and recreation school fitness centre. And I remember that my younger brother had told me that Isabella’s first husband had been the son of Portuguese immigrants living in Toronto. My understanding was that she had eloped with him as an act of rebellion because her parents expected her to marry a professional, a doctor or a lawyer. But the marriage turned out badly, the couple was incompatible, and that was how Isabella had wound up returning to her hometown.

After an argument with her mother over bank overdrafts, credit cards, her credit history, and a large student loan her parents paid, her mother discovered her in the basement bedroom dangling from a cord used to fasten her cross-country skies. A provincial police officer cut her down from the rafter from which she dangled and soon he was joined by a crew of paramedics who also responded to the emergency call her mother made in a panic while she paced the street hysterically outside the house, screaming into a cordless phone. Paramedics rushed her to the local hospital where doctors shook their heads and sent her by air ambulance to the regional hospital in Thunder Bay, where she remained on life support.

Inga had flown to Thunder Bay to visit her in the hospital while she was still alive and while she could still say goodbye. She arrived at the intensive care unit at about three am in the morning. Inga had been hoping and praying for a flicker, an ember of consciousness, for some sentience in her lifeless body attached to the ventilator and life support equipment, the intravenous lines and drips, the electrodes and catheters. She wanted to have the opportunity to speak with her, coach and mentor her, but she realized, as she sobbed, that it was too late. When she realized and accepted the end was near, all she wanted to do was say goodbye.

“Did you manage to talk to her?”

“Yes, I did.” Inga gasped, taking a deep breath, as she tried to regulate her breathing pattern and return to a normal speaking voice, and wiped her eyes. “But she didn’t respond. She couldn’t. I couldn’t acknowledge it, refused, I suppose, to accept it, but she was a vegetable by then.”

I couldn’t believe what I had observed: One of the toughest women that I ever knew was almost crying.

“But she was brain dead.”

“No electrical activity in the grey matter?”

Inga looked annoyed at me.

“And they were waiting to take her off life support.”

I could only envision the grim scene.

“You did what you could.”

“Her organs were harvested for donations. Her heart, liver, kidneys, and even her lungs and corneas were donated to the terminally ill, patients in need of transplants. A nurse told me her corneas were going to Vancouver, her kidneys to Toronto, her heart to London, and her liver to New York.” Inga explained the young and vigorous athlete had offered gifts of life, which meant that spiritually and psychologically she was reborn. Even though university courses where logic and rational thinking was emphasized and studying empiricists in philosophy courses had made me cynical, I couldn’t help agreeing.

“Reborn?”

“Yes, reborn. Why not?”

I thought her parents had done the right thing in consenting to donate her organs, that it was only fitting that in dying she perpetuated life. But Inga explained the same nurse told her Isabella had insisted in her suicide note on donating whatever vital organs the doctors could use from her corpse. For precisely that reason, the head surgeon at the regional hospital, a conservative Christian, divining a sort of ethical conundrum, was initially reluctant to allow elite doctors at far flung transplant centres use them. Regardless, the organs were moved by helicopter and jet plane out of Thunder Bay Regional Hospital, and so, Inga believed, that Isabella lived not only physically in the bodies of the rejuvenated transplant patients, but she also lived on in the memories and minds of others.

Inga said she was toning down and editing one version of the film as a living memorial of Isabella for her parents. I thought I could only helplessly mourn the loss of a young woman whose love might have been transforming and liberating, if the opportunity arose, around whom I had started to lay the foundations for some fairly elaborate fantasies and dreams, of becoming her boyfriend, perhaps even her husband, of marriage, childbirth, happiness, a comfortable middle class existence. If I had stayed in the town of Beaverbrook, I wondered, even had I not become her boyfriend, but had just gone on to know her better, might I have prevented her suicide? Might I have been able to show her the empathy that might have led in the direction of life, relieved the pain, offered her some hope, and maybe even fulfilment, instead of the ultimate expression of frustration? I couldn’t express any certainty, but I realized my two year absence from Beaverbrook had resulted in me moving on, to think of other women, and I had not experienced the sense of deep loss I might have felt otherwise. Instead, there was pity and remorse, and a sense of what if.

John Tavares has written a large amount of fiction, mostly short stories, but some novellas, since 1986. His previous publications include short stories published in Canadian literary journals: one short fiction published in Blood & Aphorisms; one in chapbook form by Plowman Press; one in Green’s Magazine; one in Filling Station; one in Whetstone; two in Broken Pencil; one in Tessera; one in Windsor Review; three in Paperplates, now an online magazine; one in The Write Place at the Write Time; one in The Maple Tree Literary Supplement. He also had about a dozen short stories as well as several pieces of creative nonfiction published in The Siren, then Centennial College’s student newspaper. During journalism studies, he had some articles and features published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, Outreach Connection (the 90’s version, to which Robertson Davies contributed), Our Toronto, as well as community newspapers such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He also broadcast a set of short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS/CBQW in Sioux Lookout one summer in the late eighties and has experimented with self-publication of fiction on the web. He’s recently written a novel and is an avid photographer.

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