When I first started showing up at the Improv Embassy last February, hanging out in the back row and hoping to God I wouldn’t be called up on stage, I had a hard time answering the question “What made you decide to try improv?”
It was a good question, especially when I panicked or blustered or just stood there on stage without a clue of what to say next (which, by the way, still happens).
But I do know the answer, and have for a while – it’s because of Emily MacNaughton.
Emily and I met at the Dalhousie Gazette, beginning of the 1992 school year. Me, from the small town of Labrador City and she, from the bustling metropolis of Kitchener-Waterloo. Her first article was a review of Cameron Crowe’s movie Singles which included her take on Generation X and the ‘Year of Grunge’. I was amazed at her confidence in expressing her opinion so publicly and a little intimidated by her philosophical tone and big words. I still have the clipping saved in my mom’s basement.
Emily loved to dance.
She brought me to my first show at the Double Deuce, back when Halifax was becoming the next Seattle. I think Sloan was playing. My friends from the Gazette would know. Maybe even my roommates.
While she was at Dal, Em and I attended every single Canadian University Press (CUP) conference we could get to – especially the Atlantic Region (ARCUP) ones which always included a rowdy kitchen party.
Emily was a board member of Campus Plus, CUP’s national advertising company. My memory is so shagged up I don’t remember if that’s while she was in Halifax or Toronto. I do know that even after she left Dal and Halifax, she was still involved with CUP and co-chaired a CUP national conference.
Emily was funny, smart, goofy, artistic, articulate and edgy.
She moved to Paris for a few months. I don’t remember when. Between 2000 and 2004 I visited her a few times in Toronto. I think it was during my breaks from Bosnia, and when Mom and Dad moved from Labrador to Toronto so Dad could get a lung transplant.
We lost touch sometime during my four years working at Kandahar Air Field. I lost touch with a few friends back then. Emily was no longer on Facebook, I lost all my emails when canada.com shut down and I couldn’t find her on Google. Also, unbeknownst to me, some version of PTSD was screwing with my brain and any friendships I maintained after Afghanistan were all due to my friends’ efforts.
Emily was a really good friend.
Emily tracked me down almost five years ago when she found a blog post I wrote about Remembrance Day. I was so happy when she contacted me. Emails flew. She was still in Toronto, looking for work and living in a nice place called Eden House with nine other crazy people (“I’m the tenth,” she wrote). She volunteered as a sound operator with the Bloor West Players, finished training as a volunteer Expressive Arts Therapist for Hospice Toronto, was participating in a poetry group run by Workman Arts for people with mental illness, and at that very moment was at her dad’s and stepmom’s place learning about golf as they watched the Masters Tournament.
Emily had a great memory. Out of the blue she’d say something like “Your mom is a Taurus, right?” – 20 years after I mentioned my mom’s birthday. She was also an astrology nut. When I introduced her to my roomies, family or friends, within the first two minutes she’d ask “When’s your Birthday?” or “What’s your sign?” Unless I had mentioned their birthday in some previous conversation long forgotten by me, in which case she’d lead with “You’re a Leo, right?”
Emily liked to share. After discovering a great program she emailed me the link for the Wellness Recovery Action Plan in Ottawa. “I was wondering if your mom might like it.” Emily knew about Mom’s history with bi-polar, but I wonder if perhaps she also sensed my own mental health issues – before I even dared to voice them to myself. She could be very perceptive.
Once we reconnected Emily was really good at keeping touch. She mailed me Christmas cards, emailed me e-cards from the Art Gallery of Ontario and when she went to New York with her mom, she mailed me a postcard. For one birthday, she emailed “Remember how great you are and enjoy being 42. It’s not so bad, eh?”
In one early email, she wrote that she recently talked to Dave Matthews, a friend from our CUP days and now an Anglican priest in London, UK with whom she had also been out-of-touch for a long time. She described him as “very much the same fast-talking, charismatic, witty man,” who had tickets to see Barbara Streisand and Black Sabbath. “So, same Dave, a little older like the rest of us.”
In another email, she said she and her dad saw Zack Taylor on TVO’s The Agenda, talking about conservatism in Ontario. “He looks exactly the same!” she wrote, and told her dad she “once worked as a co-chair for the CUP conference with our star!”
Emily could also annoy the hell out of me, as only a good friend could. “Have you been writing?”, she’d ask. “Why don’t you write?”, and “That would be a great story to write.” And “Would you please read my poetry and let me know what you think?”. Well, at least she wasn’t asking me about writing.
Emily would read her poetry out loud. In public. In front of strangers! And she got her poetry published. She tried to encourage me to write again but most of the time I just changed the topic.
Emily and I would catch up whenever I was in Toronto for work or whenever she was in Ottawa for a job interview. She was very keen on getting a job where she would need to speak French. For a while she worked with Kids Help Phone and then with Public Works, while taking courses through Bloor Street United Church in preparation for the ministry.
We talked about depression and PTSD. We talked about recovery, roommates, boys we dated and books we read. I think we talked about going skating on the canal the next time she visited.
Emily died a year ago yesterday. She was in her pajamas, in bed with a book nearby. During one of our dinners she had mentioned a heart condition, but no one had expected this, especially her family who were waiting for her at their pre-Christmas dinner the next day. Emily was 45 years old.
I was out of town when it happened and found her Christmas card waiting for me when I returned. I sent her a Merry Christmas text and wasn’t worried when she didn’t respond. Maybe she and her mom went on a trip. I think she had mentioned they might go to Paris. I left her a voicemail around New Year’s.
I found out about Emily when I was taking a quick peek at Facebook during work on a Thursday afternoon. Dave Matthews found out about it from Emily’s dad, and the news was handed down a short chain of CUP presidents, from Dave to Alayne Armstrong, to Joanna Shepherd Zuk, and then to me. Which I then shared with our Gazette and Dalhousie friends.
Emily’s memorial service took place on January 19th at the Van Duzer Art Studio in Toronto. I booked my hotel for the wrong week, took the wrong bus twice to get to the service and showed up too late to hear Dave’s message read out. Friends and colleagues and family took turns getting up to speak and share stories about Emily. One friend read some of her poetry. One counselor shared that Emily would also ask her to read her poems and provide feedback. It seemed most of the people there knew Emily from her more recent Toronto days. I wanted to say something about how I first met Emily almost 25 years ago. But I couldn’t speak. I physically couldn’t do it. As each person finished talking I tried to will myself to speak up, but words wouldn’t come out, no room for my voice to squeeze past my heart-blocked throat.
Eventually the minister stood up, made a last call for comments, and then started wrapping things up – when I found myself standing up.
I think I said my name and that I first met Emily at the Dalhousie Gazette. I talked about her review of Singles and how she loved to dance and that she was energetic and…. whatever that word is for someone who speaks well. I had forgotten the word “articulate”. I said we lost touch when I was in Afghanistan and when we reconnected she was living in a nice house with nine other crazy people. I think some of them were there – and they laughed. And I said she was brave. So very brave and she inspired me. I cried pretty much the whole time and someone insisted I keep their pack of Kleenex.
I met Emily’s mom, dad and step-mom for the first time after the service. They said some very nice things to me and I hope I said some nice things back. I said I would email them photos of Emily. I don’t remember if I did. I spoke with some of Em’s recovery friends and there was an instant bond, because we all belonged to different chapters of the same club.
I then spent my time in Toronto asking myself “What would Emily do?” and did it. Instead of staying in bed listening to murder mystery novels on Audible, I went to the Women’s March. Instead of going to see a fluffy superhero movie I went to see a film I figured Emily would prefer – something real, edgy and possibly uncomfortable: Twentieth Century Women – it was pretty good. And then I went to Sneaky Dee’s on College and Bathurst… and got drunk. Not something Emily would have done now, but something we both did in our twenties, so screw it.
This piece of writing here, about Emily, I started on the train in January, to and from her memorial service. The first writing I’d done in more than a year. The next month as I sat staring at my computer after work I googled “comedy class Ottawa” and found something called Improv Embassy on Rideau St. And they had something called an open jam that evening for $5 – so I stopped in. I took my first class in March. I took two more classes in May, one of them a sketch writing class. Somewhere in between there I tried stand-up at the Embassy. In September I took another improv class and joined the sketch troop the Shit Hot Shit Show, in October I took a photography class with the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa and in November I was able to memorize my lines for three and a half Shit Hot Shit Show sketches. This month I finished my photography course and submitted my final assignment of six photos, which were, I explained to my instructor and classmates, inspired by my friend Emily – who found me when I was lost.
I wish I could tell Emily how much improv has helped me. How that flood of fear and panic I feel on stage helps me calm down during the rest of my waking life. That I started writing again, although I’m still a terrible procrastinator. That Mom and Kelley came to see me in some sketches last month and laughed their asses off. Seriously, I could hear Mom laughing all the way from the back row. That I’m applying to the Ottawa Fringe Festival next month and if I can find a venue I might actually be doing a one-person show in June called How to Get Over a Guy in 723 Days…. and Other Useful Things I Learned from PTSD. That I started dating again, and maybe she could rate my Plenty of Fish ‘matches’ based on their astrological signs.
That I say weird stuff out loud. In public. In front of strangers!
That I miss her. Very much.
Thank you Emily. I so wish you were here.