a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘death’

reading between the lines

Today was my aunt’s memorial.  As regular readers will know, my method of trying to reconcile death is to write about people as if I could talk to them.  My mom delivered the news.  This was her much older sister who didn’t figure into her life that much as a young child but became a pillar by the time she was an adult.  Bizarrely, it was through my aunt’s death that I found out my mother had been wildly excited about her trip to DisneyWorld (you will hear about it in due time, complete with photos 😉

That nugget of information was gleaned because my mom noted that my aunt didn’t express her emotions much in nice clear diction so that the rest of us could be sure what was going on.  There is much to be celebrated about northern Europeans but emotional intelligence is not a strength.  I realize it might harm art and literature but life would be so much easier if people would just talk – and hug 😉

my aunt smiling!

my aunt smiling!

My aunt did hug… but talk… not so much.  Of course, it made her more mysterious.  When someone dies, you have to reconcile your emotions and your memories of that person.  Death sucks – but at least the pause can force us to think in a more metaphysical way than we might do on a regular day.

My aunt always seemed to be one of those people who wanted to fade into the background.  I always wanted to see her bolder, more confident.  But everyone has to follow her own path and we all have our own unique DNA.

North American culture celebrates loudmouths and show-offs.  I sometimes fear we forget the valuable role that the quiet, unassuming nurturers play in the world.  My aunt Shirley was the anti-Kardashian.  She never sought the spotlight.  She never appreciated how amazing she was.

trying to get my aunt to smile for a photo ;)

trying to get my aunt to smile for a photo 😉

But she taught me stuff that Kim and Kayne will likely never figure out…

She cared deeply about people and her house was open at almost any hour to anyone who needed a place to hang out – or a hug.

She didn’t judge and opened her arms and her heart to people who had made mistakes – or who were in a tight spot courtesy of other people’s decisions.

She was one of those sunny, happy people who never yelled or ruined your day.

She did it all in a really quiet way that snuck up on you and, sadly, left her underappreciated.

She was the first adult other than my parents that I really remember hanging out with (she babysat me as a small child).  I can still remember every inch of her house.  I spent hours playing with dolls or playing doctor in the various bedrooms.  I grew up in a trailer park so I realize now it resonated with me so strongly – my aunt was the lady who tried to feed you constantly, made twelve different kinds of yummy treats for Christmas and lived in the same house her whole adult life.  She was like a real life Hallmark film.

She – and that house – was a place of stability in my gypsy childhood.  And her sole daughter was like the ultimate big sister.  She was the coolest teenager I have ever known.  She treated my sister and me like we were not just little kids – when we really were.  She was one of my first great loves.  My sister and I continued the tradition with her daughter, treating her a bit like a living doll 🙂

a living doll!

a living doll!

We all just live.  Things happen.  There are family events.  Mostly we just sleepwalk through them.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more aware of the influences in my life and how people and events shape us.

Shirley definitely inspired me to spend more time in the kitchen.  She taught me to be kind and forgiving and to care about others.  She kept buying me cool Christmas presents even though the family had declared it not necessary (her husband owned a record shop so she shaped my musical taste).   Her children inspired me.  The people in your life matter.  They help to shape and define you.

Thanks, Shirley.

Actions speak louder than words.  That’s how I know she loved me.  And I loved her.  You don’t need to say it out loud for it to be true…

 

wear prada and drink veuve ;)

I am watching an extraordinary man (my crush Stephen Colbert 😉 while writing about an extraordinary evening with another extraordinary man talking about a third extraordinary man.  Do I feel extraordinarily privileged?  You betcha 😉

I wrote about my friend Sean last year.  Ideally I would love to never have to write about death but I am at that age where it is no longer possible.  And one needs to figure out how to deal…

family guy :)

family guy 🙂

It’s the first anniversary of my friend Sean’s death.  It’s a tough day.  Life offers few magic bullet solutions and death is one of the most elusive and slipperiest quandaries we have to figure out how to cope with and work through.

I am one of those super analytical, make a plan, and get it done kind of people so death has stumped me.  You can’t analyze it, you can’t blame anyone and there is no five point or five year plan to set up and work your way through.

Time helps… and heals.  Mostly you have to figure out what works for you.  For me, it’s about celebrating and talking about the person you no longer have an opportunity to hug in the flesh.

I always look for something unique that resonates for me at least as being part of the person’s identity so it becomes a tribute to his life and personality.  So, tonight it was C restaurant with his best friend drinking Veuve Cliquot champagne in Prada shoes and celebrating his life and toasting his memory.

As I wrote last year, Sean changed my life and my perspective on life in such a profound way that it is impossible to imagine my life without his youthful influence.  His life was so extraordinary it almost sounds like something you made up.  But it was real.  He led a celebrity lifestyle without being written about in the tabloids.

He conquered Toronto, then New York and finally London.  But he was a guy from Niagara Falls so he brought all his friends with ordinary lives along for the journey.  He was incredibly generous and he blew your mind and expanded your horizons and shared all his new experiences and insights.

He was so ordinary and so extraordinary all at the same time that it took many years before I ever even began to appreciate the extraordinary impact he had had on my life.

Like everyone who knew him, I wish there had been more time, more experiences, more hugs.  But all we can do is remember the great times.  Toting his son around in a baby basket in Vancouver while I learned how you cook sweetbreads… attending one of his daughter’s wonderful birthday parties in London… going on a jaunt to France for dinner in a Michelin star restaurant…

There were so many incredible experiences… so many great times… so much fun.

It’s the important thing to remember when all you have is the memories.  Tonight was extraordinary and I know Sean was there sipping the Veuve with us.  And commiserating with Phil, our server, who had lost a friend on the anniversary of his death.

Life and death are both mysterious, crazy adventures.  What really matters is that we share them with people who matter to us.  Who challenge us.  Who inspire us.  Phil was drinking Guinness in honour of his friend.  We were drinking Veuve.  A toast to Sean – and all the extraordinary impact he had on my life.

 

quoting Casablanca ;)

Everyone has to find his own path in figuring out how to cope with death.  It’s never easy.  And there is such a mysterious, fluid quality to death.

It takes some time to really accept that you can’t dial his phone number and hear his voice.  And that you will never again feel the warmth of his embrace or have a heartfelt face to face conversation.

It leaves a void – as mysterious as a black hole.  And when the relationship is dramatic and complex, when you know the other person is struggling – yet you also can’t find a way to break in and fix things – the end hits you harder.

You wonder if you’d just acted differently… if you’d had more time… if this… if that… it’s hard to accept the status quo and not imagine the “what if’s”…

That’s how it was with my father.  Our relationship was complex and tumultuous.  When I spoke to him on my birthday a few days before he died, it felt like a new beginning.

Was it D-Day or the Arab Spring?  I’ll never know.  Would there have been a permanent change in our relationship, a Marshall Plan that restored the close bond we had had for so many years?  Or would it have just been an ethereal burst of hope unaccompanied by sufficient planning, ready to burst into disarray at the first hint of discord?

He was the one who taught me to be a critical thinker – so I felt he would be disappointed if I just glossed over the rough patches because he was dead.  But there had been a lot of great times and I owed him a lot.  So I decided I would celebrate his good qualities and remember the good times – and the life lessons he had tattooed into my soul.

So I’m ready to deal with my friend Sean’s death.  It doesn’t mean that I’m not weepy.  But I’m a crier – I accepted that a long time ago.

Sean is one of my oldest friends.  I’ve been trying to figure out how to capture over 30 years in a few brief paragraphs.  I know I just have to accept that this will scratch the surface and that memories will continue to bubble up unexpectedly for the rest of my life.  That’s how life goes… personally, I think it is one of the greatest pleasures of being a little more sophisticated than the average monkey 🙂

sean the scholarI met Sean in 1982, more or less my first day at the University of Western Ontario where I had somehow managed to get admitted to this mini-Harvard undergraduate MBA program that I had quickly discovered would be the most intimidating experience of my life.

I wasn’t even legal to drink in the USA yet.  It’s hard to remember being that young.  But I do remember how freaked out I was by the country club school.  In those days the Preppie Handbook ruled and I was in the middle of all these kids with money and a secret code I couldn’t decipher.

We were arranged in a “participation circle” for classes and every class we sat behind our name plate in the semi-circle around the professor so that if we spoke, he could call out our name.  The name plates were organized alphabetically so many of my friends were made based on the alphabet.  I am an “H”.  He was an “M”.  So he sat directly behind me in class.

I can’t remember how it all began but one of the first things he did was explain the “preppie code”.  The more significant thing that he did was ask me to join his group for the final year project.  I couldn’t believe it as he was easily one of the smartest people I have ever met – and likely the smartest at that point – so I couldn’t believe he would consider me worthy.

But it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship 😉

At the time I just thought he was a great guy.  He gave me confidence in a new environment when I was mostly intimidated.  I became a confidante when he started dating one of our classmates.  He broadened my horizons by introducing me to new cuisines.

Like so many of my great friendships, it spanned cities – and continents.  His son was born in New York.  His daughter was born in London.  He travelled to exotic places.  He went to Virginia to learn how to be a southern gentleman.  He went to Wall Street to learn how to work for weeks on end with almost no sleep.  I knew all about Notting Hill before the movie because I got to go and hang out at his house there.

There is no doubt he had an impressive career but what was really impressive about him was his generosity, his warmth, his interest in the people in his life.  As I started to write this, I quickly realized it would be impossible to capture our relationship and all the incredible memories in this short space so no doubt, like my dad, he will just keep popping up in other posts.

For now, I just want to pay tribute to him.  He is one of the people who changed my life.  When we met, I was a geeky kid from a small prairie town who didn’t even know there was such a thing as investment banking.  I might have dreamed of going places and doing things with my life but they felt like pipe dreams.  I didn’t think I really had the tools to make them happen.

But Sean blew my world wide open.  He bolstered my confidence.  He introduced me to new worlds I hadn’t even realized existed.  He was a guy from a modest background who conquered the world.  And took me along for the ride.

He grew my dreams.  And helped me develop the tools to realize them.  A beautiful friendship indeed… :)))

lessons in consumption

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death.  It’s the fourth now so it doesn’t come with the same shock and trauma that the first did.  I was born prior to birth control being a common phenomenon (why are you trying to send us back there, American Republicans???!) so my parents weren’t even legal to drink in the USA when I was born.  I figured that would work in my favour in that I would be REALLY old before I had to experience the death of a parent.

My mother is cooperating!  And my father did wait long enough that I had a number of friends who had already been through it so I had some reference points.  As one of my friends said when I saw him shortly after the funeral, “welcome to the club no one wants to belong to.”  But we discovered we were both wearing our father’s watches and it added one of those bizarre additional chunks of cement to our friendship.

From him – and others – I had learned that the toughest days were usually anniversaries – the anniversary of the day the person died, the parent’s birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, whatever family holidays where you expected the person to show up and wondered what was keeping them.  The first year the Christmas presents were unwrapped and my dad wasn’t sitting in his chair was tough for everyone in the room.  I think if we’d been a little smarter – and had better arts & crafts skills – we would have made a life size cardboard cut-out of one of his photos and propped it in the chair.

People will tell you consumerism is bad and objects are meaningless.  Consumerism IS bad.  And too many objects distract you and make you forget how important objects can be when purchased in the right way.  The right way, people, is to think poor.  Only a half century ago, even in the developed world, we didn’t have cheap labour in China (and Vietnam, Turkey, etc, etc).  Goods cost a lot more – and local people made them.  So people didn’t have a lot of objects.  And when they chose them, they often saved up for years and bought something that would last for a long time.

My father came from that time – and taught me how to buy things.  And the chair to which I am referring was one of those things.  I don’t know if my father had a leather recliner when I was a very small child.  I think he didn’t because he couldn’t afford it.  My father spent his life doing jobs that required a lot of physical labour so when he came home, he wanted to sit in a comfy chair and read, watch some carefully chosen television, or talk to the rest of us.  At some age that I was too young to recall clearly, that chair became a leather recliner.

In the fall of 2007, my mother noticed that my father’s recliner was on its last legs so she decided she wanted to get him a new one as a Christmas present. We wanted to get him something of the proper quality and it was going to be expensive so I said I would go together with her on the present.  I wasn’t there to witness its arrival or see my dad sitting in his new chair but when he died, I immediately thought of it and said, “at least he had a few months to sit in his new chair.”  I know he would have loved that new chair.  A well-crafted leather recliner was one of his things…

When he died, I collected two of the expensive watches I gave him when I got old enough to afford such luxuries (he and I shared an obsession for quality when it came to watches and pens), a wool sweater I had bought him in Scotland on my first trip to Europe (still going strong 20 years later) and my favourite of the many caps I had given him.  It was from my trip to Botswana – I put it on after I made my speech at his funeral introducing My Way – “if Ray was here today, this is what he would tell you”.  The cap was one of my dad’s signatures – standing there wearing it while Frank sang as though he had known the inner workings of my dad’s mind was as close as I could come to reincarnating him for his adoring crowd.

So don’t believe it when people say objects have no value.  Just don’t do all your shopping at Walmart or H&M.  Find your objects.  Develop a point of view.  My father had caps, watches, a leather recliner.  I have cashmere cardigans, show-stopping shoes and enormous leopard print throw pillows.  My father taught me well… and I hope there will be purple balloons at my funeral… one for every year I made it through… a mix of helium and air… to distract people and cheer them up… that’s what we did for the hundreds who attended my dad’s funeral… but that’s a whole ‘nother story 🙂

dead at 66…

This is likely not the headline you may have been anticipating for the birthday post but the general concept has been floating around in my head for over a week and thinking about my birthday provided the final link.

The headline refers to the death of Davy Jones.   When I was 6, I had a Monkees lunch kit and would argue they were better than the Beatles (I know… I know… but I was 6 and they had a TV show – and we had a colour TV!)  I heard Brian Williams say these words as I was passing the TV that night and it caught my attention – because my dad had died at 66.  It is definitely very young in the developed world and it’s an age that catches people’s attention.

Of course my father’s death didn’t make the national news.  He lived in a small prairie town.   But in that locale he was as famous as Davy Jones and his funeral was huge.  There was almost an overflow crowd outside the town hall.  It really showed me how we can all be celebrities within our own social groups.

Certainly more people know who Davy Jones is.  But, was he genuinely loved by more people than my dad?  Did he have a more fulfilling life?  My guess would be that the answer is no.  It discourages me how crazy the cult of “celebrity” has become – and what pathetic role models so many of these so-called “celebrities” are.  It’s a crazy world, people 🙂

But anyone can choose their values and their path and decide what their impact and legacy will be on the greater world.  I definitely learned a few things from my father – and saw the impact he had on other people and the legacy that he left in the world.

Today’s date was the last time I talked to him four years ago.  It was my birthday but I was in a board meeting.  When I got out, I checked my phone and my parents had both sung “happy birthday”.  Especially since my dad couldn’t really sing, it was a huge treat after having to work so hard on my birthday.  So I called them back to thank them.  My mom was off at one of her many extracurricular activities so my dad and I chatted for over an hour.  Normally he would just hand the phone to my mom.  We have had an incredible, extremely complex relationship that involved some significant conflict so it was really cool to have that call where our wonderful old relationship seemed to have been restored.  Nine days later he was dead of an unexpected heart attack that shocked everyone.

Two of the friends I invited to my birthday party recently lost parents.  We are all at the age where it is inevitable.  There is no right way to cope.  I gave my dad a theme song (“My Way”), have little conversations with him on significant dates and pass on his wisdom and his values to others as a way of maintaining his legacy.  Talking about him keeps him alive for me.  So, a toast to my dad on my birthday 🙂

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