By Craig Comberbach and Dylan Fontaine
Craig: 5 a.m. My alarm goes off. Why is it going off? The sun isn’t even up yet!? I go to silence it and try to get back to sleep until a reasonable time when—just like the sun outside—it dawns on me: I have a plane to catch!
Dylan: I was incapable of conscious thought at this point. Whatever was going through my mind was likely comparable to the noises that come from a barnyard in the early morning.
Craig: Dylan and I caught a taxi we had booked ahead of time to the airport where we uneventfully caught our plane to Toronto.
Dylan: I had not been on an airplane in more than a decade, so I was rather nervous. Fortunately, Craig had much more recent experience with this sort of thing.
Craig: We were a little flustered leaving the terminal to get to the shuttle jeep which would take us to a meeting place before heading off to our retreat location. As it turns out, in the shuttle were two others who, as fate would have it, had a very similar sense of humour. We accidentally fooled them into thinking we had just met and had become fast friends as they had, but in actuality, Dylan and I have been good friends for almost two decades. Our casual banter helped loosen the tension and we became good friends with our new Halifax buddies.
Dylan: It was pretty awesome how well we hit it off with our Halifax buds. We’re considering starting a touring rock band where none of us play instruments.
Craig: At the hotel, we were led to a room where a few other attendees and facilitators were handing out packets containing information for the coming retreat as well as name badges. There were various art supplies strewn about the room and it was hinted (rather strongly) that we should personalize our badges. But first, I made a beeline to the decaf coffee. I’ve never been addicted to caffeine, but I sure do love me a nice hot cup of mostly cream. Two (probably actually three) cups later, I was ready to make the best damn name badge of my life. I succeeded, but it paled in comparison to some of the badges I saw others making.
Dylan: He’s specifically talking about the slice of perfection that was my badge.
Craig: Regardless, I felt mine was a great expression of who and what I am at my core.
Dylan: It definitely was.
Craig: Paul, one of our brave facilitators, led an expedition of the travel weary and hungry across the street to a mall where we broke up into small teams, each charged with foraging for a hot meal at the food court. Once successful, we returned as a group back to the hotel to eat together. However, we returned to a room that had filled with even more new lifelong friends whom I did not know the names of yet.
Dylan: I should admit, I was nervous seeing that big group of people. As much as a boisterous jokester I am, I still get nervous around big groups of people I don’t know. I was scared shitless at this point and wanted to hide somewhere.
Craig: Eventually our time at the hotel came to a close and we boarded a bus that drove to a small town named Paris in what felt like the greater, greater GTA. I had long since joked with my girlfriend that Dylan and I were going to a couples retreat in Paris (pronounced as pah-ree of course). Upon arriving at the destination, we formed “orderly” lines to unload the bus of all of its people and their bags. Dylan and I helped those who had packed what seemed like a month’s worth of clothes, provisions, and other required supplies, or who had been weakened through prolonged or recent treatments. To me, it was a great way to stretch my legs, but to those who needed the help, it unknowingly (to me) made their day.
Dylan: I’m really glad that mine and Craig’s efforts made people happy. My cancer and treatments haven’t affected my mobility in any notable way, and Craig is as healthy as a horse.
Craig: The first day was mostly uneventful, except for the soul-crushing stories in the evening. Everyone had a cancer narrative that revealed a deeply troubled individual who was in desperate need of help and understanding. Myself included. And I was there merely as a supporter for my best friend! After a heartrending evening of sharing their stories and only hearing other stories that would make one’s soul weep, I expected everyone to be in a miserable mood. Instead, an aura of joy appeared around every face in the crowd at the realization that they were among people who understood each other, people who you could say anything to, and people who you didn’t have to explain yourself to.
Dylan: That first night was beautiful, but also really hard. There had been a lot of things I hadn’t been dealing with. Being around so many other great people who were also struggling with their own wounds and who still wanted to connect with each other deeply really helped me overcome some of my terror and fear of rejection.
Craig: For the first while, groups formed along the easy filter of similar diagnoses or experiences, but then something funny started to happen. Groups began to merge. Not all at once mind you, and definitely not in that first night, but merge they did. Drawn by the strongest forces known to humankind—the power of friendship, the power of understanding, and the power of being surrounded by your people. At first I felt like I was an outsider. I was a supporter and as such I did not have a cancer to discuss. Despite this obvious handicap, I was approached by several people who had found my own story warranted an introduction, something I am incredibly thankful for!
Dylan: Rejection had been fresh in my mind. Right before we attended the retreat, I had told someone I cared for deeply that I had feelings for her, and she had not reciprocated. A lot of old rejections and self loathing was freshly exposed to the light of day, and the vulnerability that everyone was sharing made it a lot easier to feel through the recent grief, as well as older grief that I hadn’t realized was lurking under the surface.
Craig: On the following days, there had been several discussions that I thought I contributed very little to, but I was approached afterwards and told how inspirational my words had been. There were several stories that others told that resonated with me. I was inspired by them as much as they were by me. I felt touched in a way I did not think possible. Finally, there were key figures that inspired the best in others, and one in particular was the source of the name our Facebook group earned: For Rectal Use Only. Thanks for your shenanigans!
Dylan: It was an incredible experience that I hadn’t realized how much I needed until I was in the middle of it. I cried a lot during that retreat, and I met a lot of lovely and wonderful people. Their kindness and understanding touched me in ways that are hard to describe. I can’t think of a single person at that retreat that wasn’t a beautiful, wonderful beacon of light warming up the world around them. I love them all.
Craig: The rest of the weekend was a blur of emotions across the entire spectrum. The highest highs were amazing, the lowest lows were crushing, and the rapid swings between the two were exhausting. We showed up as strangers and left as lifelong friends. The plane ride home—toward home, but away from everyone—hurt more than I expected. I met up with old friends in the coming weeks, and despite how long I had known them, it felt like I had less of a connection to them than to a group of randomly assorted people who I spent four glorious days with.
Dylan: Coming home after the retreat was hard. My emotions were so raw and powerful. I had grown used to fully feeling my grief and love over those four days, but we brought some beautiful things back with us. I have new close friends whom I can turn to for support, and people I have the honour of supporting back. Plus, Craig and I are closer than we were before. I know I can cry on his shoulder any time. I know I’m supported by him and other people I love.
Craig: Would I do it again? Yes.
Dylan: Would I do it again? HELLS YEAH!
Kayla from This Infernal Racket (and the photographer of most of those photos!) has you covered!