You can read this if you want. I am, after all, writing it in a place where you can find it. But know that I am writing this for me, and for the lucky few people out there who knew this woman like I did. Who still know this woman.
One of my favourite things about my decade-long friendship, mentorship, partnership, love with Priscila Uppal is that before she knew me, before she knew I existed at all, she touched my underwear. My boyfriend at the time was her cat-sitter. I am certain this is why I fell for him in the first place. He brought me to her house and I flipped through the books and marveled at the clothes and the hats and I knew I had to be friends with this woman, this fantastic poet who adorned herself in feathers and sequins and elaborately-patterned pantyhose. I don’t think I did it on purpose, but I forgot a pair of panties in that house one weekend when we had been cat-sitting. Looking back now, it might have subconsciously been a Costanza move. It was an embarrassing pair of underwear to leave behind: a bright fuchsia thong with black corseting and a bow. Pris would later describe the fabled underwear as “not the most expensive, but still fabulous.” She returned the thong to my then-boyfriend in a gift bag alongside the gift she had brought him from their trip saying, “and here’s a gift you’ve already opened.” He was mortified. When I heard the story, I was in love.
And then Pris and I fell into place, slowly at first, and then all at once. Dinners and drinks and movies and parties (and parties and parties and parties). I never paid for a damn thing with Pris. She kept saying, “I know what it’s like to be a poor grad student. You’ll pay for stuff for me when you get tenure.” She was always generous like that, with her money and with her expectations for us.
Eventually that boyfriend and I broke up, but somehow Pris and I never did. She perfected the applications that eventually won me an OGS and a SSHRC. She helped with the poetry manuscript that would eventually be accepted for publication (and which she’ll never see completed, though I promise it’s all for her). She brought me to fancy restaurants I couldn’t afford and once to Barbados (which I really couldn’t afford) and then to fancy restaurants in Barbados that I so couldn’t afford, they’re the kind of places Oprah goes to when she’s in Barbados. We kept an eye out but never saw her.
Pris and I might have stayed great friends our whole lives, but two things ensured that we became more than that, we became kindred: a cemetery, and a motherfucking karaoke machine.
The cemetery has become the stuff of legend in our circle, and now to Pris’s readers as she started writing about it more and more. I don’t know how it started. I know she was annoyed with not being able to run in the early stages of this complete asshole of a cancer. I know we started walking west along St. Clair to avoid the hustle and bustle of walking eastward. One day we dipped into the cemetery. Then we went every time we walked. We made friends with the headstones there. We invented backstories. We made places where we asked for favours from the dead. Often, in health crises (for Pris) or job search woes (for me) Pris would buy one, two, or in dire situations three dozen roses and we’d walk to the cemetery and bring them to our favourite headstones, or else weave them into the fences and gates. I am sure the cemetery employees thought us strange, but the started to wave at us. It was a strange thing, we realized, when we started inviting other people along every once and a while. But it felt natural to me. There were stories in that cemetery. Pris, above probably everything else, was a lover of stories, of their power.
I don’t want to glamorize or change this story now that I must write it in the past tense. As Andy wrote to me in an email yesterday, “the past tense doesn’t suit her.” The walks were beautiful, but complicated. She wanted to walk all the time, even when my schedule (and my preference for lazy mornings) didn’t allow it. But she wanted to walk all the time. At its height, and while she was able, we averaged three walks a week. It drove me nuts, but she needed to show the cemetery who was boss, to let Death (who we came to know by name) know she had no intention, was not interested.
But more important even that the cemetery was the karaoke machine she bought a few years ago, when the cancer had already weaseled its motherfucking way into her lungs. She thought a karaoke machine at home would give her an opportunity to work out her lungs, fill them with something better than surgical tools and then fluid and then tumors tumors tumors that wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t let go. We filled her lungs with songs, with gusto, with performance and the sheer joy of three glasses of bubbly and all eyes on her while she sang. I helped her set it up. I learned how to pirate karaoke tracks. I amassed a collection that now has over 15,000 songs. I practiced with her. I helped run karaoke parties smoothly until I was too drunk with it all and someone else had to take over. We repeated our mantra every party: karaoke is not about vocal quality, it’s about performance value. And we gave it our all every. damn. time.
Yes, Pris was a great (and freakin’ prolific) writer. I once helped format and edit her CV–it was over 50 pages. She was a great teacher, a mentor, an editor, an activist. She did well over her fair share of administrative duties in her department. She was shortlisted for the best awards we have here. She won her share of contests. And those are all things you can all remember. I like looking through your lists of favourite books or poems of hers, favourite classes you took with her. But my list will always be Priscila Uppal’s greatest hits on the karaoke machine when there’s only four of us left at the party and the neighbours have surely had enough, or at Hal’s Car Park in Barbados, or when it’s just the two of us on a Tuesday afternoon and we’re just trying the machine out. They are as follows:
5. Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart
4. Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes
3. U2 – One
2. Blondie – The Tide is High
and just one glorious, inexplicable time, the last time,
1. Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball