Portrait of the Artist as a Life Partner


For the second anniversary of Jacques’ death, I joined an expedition into Canada’s Far North. He came along in surprising ways.

I was pulled to the Arctic by an urge that had nothing to do with interest in plants, geology, climate, history, or Inuit culture. The adventure itself was a lure, certainly—to travel on a ship through the Northwest Passage—yet consciously I was most interested in the Awe factor. All I could voice was that I needed that air, that sky, that earth, that journey. It was about Being There. I didn’t consider why. It didn’t matter. But I return with so many layers of effect I can’t sift it into Normal. In fact, my first night home I dreamed my glasses exploded. And that was the simple truth of my experience.

The sense of adventure came early, actually before we even started. Originally scheduled to fly to Kugluktuk, the ice charts revealed an impenetrable Coronation Gulf. Our expedition leader regrouped, arranging that we fly instead to begin our sea voyage in Cambridge Bay, a bit further east. The weather and ice were not friendly to the original itinerary, so missed sites and disembarkations gave way to some massive disappointments, most notably the by-passing of the Erebus shipwreck. I was frankly more taken with the decision to change course than by what we were missing (i.e. Ah, this is how exploration goes. You never know about weather and ice. OK. Now this. New course. Like life. Best lesson EVER.) So I was likely the sole excited rather than disappointed person on board. Perhaps this was partly due to my lack of preparation, but it suited my spirit.

From the first I’d found myself with a band of three other solo travellers and we hung together throughout the 17 days. My ship-family was my touchstone for familiarity. As well they companioned me in lectures and meals, and looked out for me on hikes. They ensured I had enough wine, celebrated my birthday with all due glee and elan, attended what I believe was their first taste of a Jewish new year ritual which must have been to them akin to our taste together of Inuit culture. And significantly, they bore witness to my upward spiral of connections with Jacques.

Within the first days, I sat next to a compact, white-haired lady at lunch. I commented on her French accent and glanced at her name (we wore our access keys and names hung around our necks). It wasn’t French. She glanced at my name and gasped. She said: “I travel under my husband’s name. I’m Catherine Comet. How is Jacques?” My turn to gasp. She had been the assistant conductor in St Louis when Jacques and I met. He’d always felt a kinship with other Paris Conservatory graduates—of any era—and in his collaboration with Catherine in her fledgling career as conductor in St Louis, from the Concertmaster chair he’d offered her candid feedback and encouragement for which she remains enthusiastically grateful. She regaled the table with stories full of admiration. These days, she enjoys her privacy which explains why we’d found little trace of her online. But in this moment, in this random (?) place, Jacques joined us.

Not long after this I met two gentlemen brothers travelling together—Francois from Ottawa and Vincent from NYC—who originally hailed from a South African farm but their parents were Parisian. Their mother had been a concert violinist who’d studied at the Paris Conservatory. (At this point, nothing surprises me). Francois is a psychiatrist, which was a fun element for me. But both brothers had intimate connections to music. Vincent is a businessman who is on the board of Juilliard (where Michael went) and Francois has written a book about Beethoven relating his health, his psychology, and his music (Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven).

AND, they happened to find on board and independently select to read the book Jane Urquhart had written that contains a chapter about Jacques’ violin, so they had read about him.....Remember the violin. It will appear later.

For me, the complete otherness of the Arctic offered awakenings of a new order. I’ll mention here only a few points of light which together suggest an evolving constellation. I don’t know how else to talk about any of this. There were living Inuit communities and dead white explorers, new national parks mostly reserved for caribou where we hiked in packs and isolated landscapes kept safe for our hours of free roaming by our personal bear patrol. We could pick crowberries and sink into spongy tundra or foot deep snow. In one spot Nada and I listened to birds, hearing not their song but their flight. We Zodiaked amid pods of belugas whose powerfully audible breathing merges in my bones with the haunting throat singing of the Inuit women. We cruised through paintings which made the stark quiet visible (think Lawren Harris, David Blackwood, Toni Onley). We scuttled on deck at night to lay bewitched by the aurora’s dancing lights. and awoke sometimes at dawn to watch the sun’s layered miracles. Sometimes I simply stood on deck in my five layers of clothes and inhaled the purest air I’ve ever breathed and caught my breath at sky phenomena I’d never seen. The photos I snapped in a compulsion to save, to savour, like these words, are simply memory hooks for the ephemeral.

And somehow Jacques kept weaving himself into this fabric.

There was a lady playing the grand piano in the common room just because she wanted to and I asked others who she was and someone said a retired piano prof (Elaine Keillor) from Carlton in Ottawa. I approached her and asked if she’d known Jacques. She looked at my name and replied, “I’m writing the program notes for his (posthumously released) Mozart Sonata CDs.........Sheesh...........!!!!

On my birthday, Beechey Island.. I felt the clear presence of the explorers who had died here in their failed search for the very sea trail we were taking. Oddly, I felt Jacques intensely as well. I stood alone above the beach and felt to be merely an outline filled with air and sea, ice and cloud and love (it must be said). Somehow I came across the name of Otto Sverdrup , whom I later learned was hugely instrumental in mapping the far north and had once sent a party here to visit what could be grasped of the Franklin expedition. Suddenly I was gripped with the certainty that he was a cousin to Leif Sverdrup, the Norwegian engineer and husband of Molly Sverdrup who had paid off the huge mortgage on Jacques’ violin as a wedding gift to us. I was sure of it but had no reason to be. i just knew. We truly were connected to this land and this exploration in the most unexpected way.

Ten days later I came home and looked it up. Intuition— dead on.

There is one more thing. Molly Sverdrup, our violin benefactor, turns out to have translated from the Norwegian a book by her brother-in-law, Harald, who at the time (1926) was the world’s leading expert on ice in the arctic. And who is one of today’s leading experts on ice in the arctic, but our ship’s resident scientist and my instant soulmate, whose name—wait for it—is Jackie.

As I returned to the Toronto airport, a monarch flew around the window I passed. AT THE AIRPORT. Really?

So here I am. Home again. I’ve traveled into nature a lot since Jacques left but this is a far harder re-entry. Suddenly I’m aware that I’ve spent much of two years (when home) negotiating the Old — ordering, framing, sharing, shaping. And in some measure this will continue because there is much that endures and begs celebration. But here’s what I realized today about The New that will help me lean into it: Jacques celebrated the new. It was one of the coolest things about him. He surged into new (albeit, cultural) landscapes without inhibition. It applied to any art form. There was judgment but of an educated and intuitive sort. Once he was the sole adjudicator for an important young person’s music competition for which pianists or violinists had always been the winners. He decided to award the coveted prize to a bagpipe player! The parents of the violinists and pianists were FURIOUS at him, but he had a sense of who was the most musical, the most imaginative, and the freshest. And he was not afraid to proclaim it. Although he was not asked to adjudicate that particular contest again, he just laughed. He laughed SO MUCH. It was another of the coolest things about him.

As I come to the scary edge of my NEW, (new again? yes, always) and it IS scary, I am remembering when Jacques and I were in Cologne on a symphony tour in the youth of our relationship. Our immediate destination was, of course, the art museum, where I first came face to face with a painting by Luciano Fontana. It was a solid painted canvas with three vertical slices across its width. My initial reaction was on the exasperated order of “What will they think of next...?” Soon, though, I was struck by its genius. The painting was no longer two dimensional; it invited the viewer through the looking glass. This is what Jacques so often did for me. And this is what the arctic did. It sliced the canvas. In magical ways my super-urban previous life swirled into that of the mystical North. And I’ve come home to butterflies everywhere. To remind me of renewal. To kiss me awake. Just as a certain prince once did.