“How else you gonna be?”
That was Peter Chin a few days before he left us. We were talking on the phone. He wasn’t in great shape. They’d taken him to the hospital a couple of weeks earlier because he’d woken up with no feeling in his legs. He couldn’t walk anymore. I may have the details wrong. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’d been cheerful during our call though he must have known the prognosis wasn’t good.
“I have to say, Peter, you sound pretty positive despite everything,” I’d told him.
“How else you gonna be?” he said.
It was a gift. Peter had been good to me right from the beginning, ever since we’d met thirty-four years earlier serving the nation’s broadcaster in Radio Master Control. He’d mentored me, and I was awfully fond of him, and now here he was in the last week of his life and he had to have known it and he wasn’t anywhere near old enough to be in the last week of his life and he was cheerful. It kills me to think of it. But it was a gift he was giving me, it wasn’t an act, I’m sure of it, it was really Peter showing me that you could face that sort of thing, the end of your own life, with courage and grace and I will remember it to the end of mine.
Then there’s Gus. Gus was my next door neighbour, had been since 2001. He passed away a couple of months ago. You may think this is sad, me writing about good people dying, and of course it is, it is definitely sad, but it’s a part of life (“the last part,” a friend’s father once said) and we arguably don’t talk, don’t think about it enough. But bear with me, please, I promise you it’s not all doom and gloom.
The last thing Gus ever said to me was a joke. He’d had surgery and it hadn’t gone well. In fact, it had signaled the beginning of the end. He never got better. And he was sitting on his porch in his eighty-fifth year with the woman he loved, who loved him back more than anyone I’ve ever known has ever loved anyone, and who was there with him right til the end, and he was watching my wife and I move a ridiculously heavy couch from our basement to our living room through the front door.
“Good for you, Joe,” he told me, in his soft Scottish lilt. “Making your wife lift the heavy end.”
Gus knew the end was near but he faced it with good humour, joking to friends, family, and nurses alike right to the end. We lost him a few weeks after he poked fun at me.
My father-in-law Dave spoke to me via video from the hospital bed from which he would never rise.
“How are you, Joe?” he asked with genuine interest, my well-being somehow, impossibly, important to him during these last few hours of his life. “You look good,” he added, his attention firmly directed on those around him rather than on his own predicament.
I am not at all sure that I will be able to muster anywhere near the same courage and dignity when my time comes, but having seen it done now I shall certainly try.
Bill Lane. (Boy, I really feel like we’ve lost a lot of fine people in a short span of time this past year. I think about them often.)
Bill’s family reached out in his last few days, soliciting memories from those in his life. I shared one on Christmas Eve, honoured to have been included. So did many others. There’s a picture of Bill on Facebook taken on Christmas Day after having received those memories. He appreciated us celebrating his life. He’s lying in bed smiling. Smiling, though he would be gone a few short days later.
You see, don’t you? It’s possible to smile at the end. To joke, even. To be positive in the face of certain calamity. I am sad, thinking of my friends. I wish I’d gotten to know each of them better, spent more time with them.
But I am also braver courtesy of their parting gifts.