If you stare straight at the sun, it burns your eyes. And so it is when you lose someone you love.
It’s been a year now. There is a yawning crater where once there was an incredible person, and it’s difficult to navigate. John was a unique blend; he had the wisdom of a village elder coupled with the energy and enthusiasm of a puppy. He was a shooting star in the Milky Way, someone we gazed at in wonder. His friend said God needed John to liven things up in heaven, and that seems to be the only explanation that makes any sense.
If I ruminate over those last moments together, or the injustice of it, or just the fact that he is gone, it scorches my heart and torches my mind. Reality blinds me as though I’m gazing, unblinkingly, into the sun. Life becomes a game: do what you can without thinking about it.
It’s easier for me. I’m thousands of miles away and have three kids to distract me. Much harder for his wife and children, and for our mother.
But still, I have trouble living in a world without my brother, who was no less a superhero to me than Superman himself. Some days are more successful than others. The minutia of life keeps me away from my thoughts, and I skate along the surface of life, doing what needs to be done. Occasions are trickier. When his two children graduated from university last month, I’d guess their focus was more on the one person missing in the audience, than the occasion at hand.
Times like these, waves of memories are too strong to be swept aside. The thin ice that I skate on gives way to shockingly cold water.
The thing about grief is that it doesn’t abate in a clean, linear line, once the empties have been cleared from the funeral reception. It’s more like the tide; it stems and flows and visits you relentlessly. It is a common misnomer that time heals all wounds. Time doesn’t heal anything. Grief hovers beneath the surface of your life, it’s just a matter of how good you become at masking it.
Of course, I don’t want to forget. I will never forget. Who could forget? His smile. His energy. His wit. His intelligence. His light. His magnetism. He was one in a million. He was one in a lifetime. No, I will not ever forget. If grief means remembering, then so be it. I will learn to shield my eyes when I stare at the sun.
And still, I know. John is in the whisper of the wind, the whitecaps on the lake, and in the beautiful blooms in his garden. He’s absent from this physical world, but lives on in our hearts. Someone of his magnitude, who made an indelible mark on so many lives, can never be gone. He’s everywhere.
There were many stories to choose from, so writing a 500 word story about John was difficult. Yet when you have known someone like him, and he is taken too soon from his life’s course, you want to tell everyone you pass in the street about this incredibly dynamic person. As if the loss will start to make sense, the more you speak about it.
I had to virtually sum up his career of teaching kids with a short sentence – hardly doing it justice, knowing that he was a positive influence on countless students. I barely mentioned his close relationship with his wife and children. But that’s national newspapers for you.
At his funeral, his past running coach told me the story about how he ran a 5 minute mile in his hungover state one day. His coach was clearly impressed at John’s abilities, (perhaps less impressed, but still slightly amused, by his priorities). So many athletes wouldn’t have turned up for that practice at all; his youthful bravado and competitive spirit shine through this story – a story long since forgotten by John, but remembered by his coach.
Golfing with John was a treat for anyone, so that story had to make the cut. He took fewer swings than most golfers, so I think he came up with the idea of being the sharpest ball hunter that ever walked the links to challenge himself while the rest of his foursome duffed it out. He proudly told anyone who would listen how he had never in his life bought a golf ball, since he had buckets full of them from his jaunts through the rough. He would stuff handfuls of balls into my bag before we teed off. I blame him for my enduring inability to read a putt, since I would arrive on the green and he would hold his putter where I needed to aim, either to the right or left of the hole. He was always right.
There were so many stories that couldn’t fit. Like the time when travelers were stranded in Halifax during 911, and John ended up bringing two men home, making space for them until they were cleared to fly again. Countless stories about the times he coached Peter or Julia, about trips he and Debbie had taken, and many, many about his antics that were uniquely John. There was truly never a dull moment when he was in a room.
His large personality paved the way for thousands of funny situations. Let’s say he was no shrinking violet. But for the complete picture, he was also smart, generous, warm and caring.
For some people, the word “brother” conjures someone who they rarely speak with and can barely tolerate. The relationship means different things for people. But I was madly in love with my brother, and I know the rest of my family was, too. He was a rare and unique gift. We are missing him, but he is lodged somewhere between our hearts and our minds.
With every breath, I feel his presence.
Grief is radically different when viewed from arms length. I read about it everyday in the news, it is almost as benign as the weather. I easily gloss over its bottomless depths when it applies to others.
Or I might begin to imagine what it could feel like, shudder, and then continue reading. Or perhaps skip to a different article altogether.
This one I can’t skip. Grief now covers my life in the same way as a heavy snowstorm can alter a landscape. Normalcy is buried far below the ground cover, and you don’t know where to begin to shovel.
The new normal is far less colorful, far less welcoming. Better to dwell in the subconscious of sleep.
The feverish hope we had been clinging to each day and night has been replaced, leaving in its place a cold grief. An unending sorrow.
Physically, this grief manifests as a faint feeling of nausea, 24-7, mixed with lethargy. You realize you need to eat, just to keep moving, but whatever you’re eating tastes like leather. It’s pure sustenance, nothing else.
Limbs that dove into exercise, previously, are hard to coax into action. The energy required to move them could be better put to use – just remembering. Remembering a recent past that was subtly different.
A time when someone was okay, that now is not.
Grief, I’m realizing, is really a mixture of sadness and anguish. Sadness because you miss this person, and would do anything to have them back, just for one more second, but preferably until you die first.
Anguish because we live in a world where extremely wonderful, physically superior, morally impeccable and outright supreme beings can be extinguished by disease, although they have lived their lives so carefully.
And yet so many others live on, careless to their humanity.
It seems so unfair. So unjust.
Rightly or wrongly I am furious at the medical community who didn’t know anything about his cancer, a sarcoma so out of the limelight that it receives no funding, no benefits of research.
Although he was accepting and gracious with the outcome, the one we feared most and could barely turn our minds to, I am not. I can’t stop thinking about the what if’s and the if only’s, desperate to piece together a different ending.
At this juncture, I remind myself that this has happened to countless others throughout existence, to mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, sons, daughters, friends, brothers, sisters.
Others, too, have been taken from this world far too soon.
But this, this is personal. This grief is a permafrost.
We can’t choose our family. But being his sister was fate’s greatest gift.
It would be difficult to pay him a tribute that equaled his legacy, but as tributes go it came close.
People came in droves to his three wakes – lined up for blocks and waited over an hour to say a final farewell. The church was brimming to the rafters and at maximum capacity a full half hour before the ceremony began. When it was announced they would be naming the local high school’s new gymnasium the John Regan Memorial Gymnasium, 800 people erupted with applause.
We knew he was special, but it was a tad astonishing to see how widely cherished he was.
Over the last few days we have heard countless stories about how John touched peoples lives in ways they would never forget. Like his friends are too many to count, there are too many stories to relay. The common theme involved his quick smile and unfailing generosity.
Here’s one of mine.
Whenever I got home for a visit, we would go for a run together. When we turned a corner and were faced with a headwind, he would jump in front of me and tell me to follow closely behind him, he would act as my windshield. He always tried to make things easier for those around him, even if it meant things were tougher on him.
He always pulled more than his load.
It’s hard to believe this has happened, it is surreal. We have cried enough tears to sink a ship, but still they are coming, easily triggered by a story or a memory. We keep waiting for him to bust into the room, snapping his fingers like he did restlessly. So often he entered with a “Let’s go to….” or “Why don’t we… ” and we would be off, trailing after him, trying our best to keep up.
He walked quicker than anyone I knew.
If health was a viable commodity, I would have so gladly given him a lung, or an eye, or a limb. Or traded places with him. Everyone in his family would have. And in the days following his death, I met hundreds of people who would have gladly done the same. Strangers to me, these people also loved him like a brother.
He was easy to love.
Luckily, for all of us who knew him, he was generous with his love. I know a lot of people who casually cap the amount of friendships they have – they can only manage so many on top of family and work. Like his energy knew no bounds, it seemed, so did his friendships. In the last few days I have seen a lot of big, burly men shamelessly crying their eyes out at this unfathomable loss.
I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on the snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain.
He will be missed more than I can properly express. But the most amazing thing happened as his body failed him: his spirit continued to grow. His bravery, strength, love and humor grew stronger in the face of adversity. It grew through the roof and became bigger than the sky.
There were a lot of stars out last night, but it was easy to pinpoint the brightest one. And there he was.
Look out, there will be carnage.
We are hurting acutely, our star center forward has left the building, and we are yearning for him. This adjustment to a lacklustre life, sans John, will not be an easy one. We are broken.
But we need to remember, in our darkest moments, that someone who contributed so much, and lived so large, can never be gone. He’s everywhere, his spirit is so strong it encompasses all of our senses. His personality was so big it left indelible marks everywhere. We have indents on our hearts and in our minds. Not to mention his beautiful wife and amazing son and daughter; John, thank you for these gifts, these pieces of you.
He lives on, but in a different way.
I’ll get you across the finish line, Dee.
I’ll be the first star you see in the sky every night.
Who else in the world could sing, in the midst of being transferred to palliative care two days ago, On The Road Again? To have the breath, let alone the humour, boggles the mind.
His brother said, I’m sorry for hacking you at hockey. He replied it’s okay, I deserved it. This was all they needed to come to terms with, some tiffs after twenty years on the same hockey team. Between that and some stolen socks, not bad after fifty years together. Many have fared worse.
And that’s as spicy as it gets. No drama, or fences to mend, just pure and simple. Love, the biggest kind imaginable, from every direction you turn, for the greatest person you could imagine knowing.
If we could all be a little more like John, live and love and laugh as much as he did, the world would be a better place. Big shoes to fill, but is that the message here?
He can’t go yet – we are still learning from him.
He continues to be a picture of grace, flashing his beautiful smile every time someone enters the room. Thanking every nurse and doctor who comes by. Telling us be strong when we cry.
Generally the purpose of these visits is to comfort the sick, but it is definitely he who is doing the comforting.
He has taught and coached hundreds – could be thousands – of kids over the years, so he is taking this opportunity to give us advice and words of wisdom. Be the mentor one last time. A knee jerk reaction when you’ve been doing it your whole life, I guess.
He says he doesn’t want to leave us, but he’ll be watching us from above. Every hour our admiration grows stronger, although I didn’t think that was possible. Every hour his voice weakens.
How he can stay so strong and so brave after all he has endured is truly mysterious. As though he hasn’t impressed us enough with his exemplary life.
Remarkable in every way. He always did rise to the occasion.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This was not the end he wanted.
Nevertheless it’s happening, proceeding like your worst nightmare on speed. But let me tell you about the love. There is so much of it in the air it is almost visible; I can smell it, taste it, and most of all, feel it.
I look at my brother, shrunken and weak far, far too soon, and know that he has experienced more love in his life than is humanly possible. Take the love I feel for him, which borders on worship, multiply it by a million, and you’re getting close.
He lived a love story.
In a gaggle of children, he was the middle child, and my mother has always freely admitted he was the apple of her eye. To this day she has a soft spot for middle children, although when you’re the fifth of nine it’s hard to imagine the phenomenon is the same. Regardless, he was the favored one, ironically named after my father. And because he was deserving of his plum spot we all forgave him for it and bowed down to our rightful (lower) place.
He married the woman of his dreams, someone who was engaging and beautiful to begin with, who then fell into the folds of our family as though she’d been part of the fabric her whole life. And then something happened that doesn’t always happen: their love grew.
A workaholic (she) and the life of the party (he) meshed and morphed and taught each other things. She learned how to relax, he learned how to work hard to achieve his dreams. A perfect mix.
Of course there has been ups and downs, stresses, harder times as well as many wonderful ones. But underneath it all, love was growing like the weeds in their perfectly manicured garden. Everytime I showed up at their house for dinner they were working on their garden. The workaholic would be weeding or planting, the life of the party mowing the lawn or cutting back bushes. They were always working on that damn garden.
An overused metaphor? Maybe, but it is perfectly true so I’ll take it at the risk of being predictable. Their love for each other and their children grew like a garden that could sustain an army. If it were to produce, say, carrots, it would be the sweetest carrot you ever did taste, packed with fortifying vitamins.
Now, you can imagine the life of the party attracts friends like bees attract honey. Everyone wants to be around the life of the party, party or no party. But not all lives of the party retain their closest friends throughout their entire lives. This one is still best friends with his buddies from the neighborhood, and his brothers he grew up amongst, although he’s picked up hundreds more along the way. They probably didn’t talk much about the love they felt for each other amongst their escapades, hockey and golf, but it’s apparent now and they’re not shying away from it.
Too many friends to count, too much love to measure.
Writing about love is overdone. It can be cheesy and trite. It can be thrown around too casually, or riddled with drama. But I look around at this unquestionable nightmare and the air is heavy with love. It is hanging around like a fifth wheel. I can smell it and taste it and it lingers on collars. It’s in his hair – not a grey hair to be found, by the way – and underneath his fingernails. It’s hovering around him like a forcefield. An aura of love.
He’s been worshiped, revered, idolized, respected, looked up to his entire life by literally everyone who knew him, but chiefly and most importantly his wife and his children. His greatness was obvious and apparent, bordering on flamboyant. But the love in the air still takes my breath away. It’s followed him everywhere the world over like an unrelenting shadow. It’s a wonder he didn’t trip on it.
He says he feels so much love. He is thankful for so much love. His cup, you could say, runneth over.
The eulogy was short, just like Cookie’s time with us.
It went something like, “Those hours you spent in our house were among our brightest. You lit up that tank like no other fish in the sea. You fought valiantly with your one fin, and didn’t even complain. You are an inspiration to all of us, and we will never forget you. Go bravely into the sewage.”
Flush. So long, Cookie.
My daughter had awoken to our worst fears: Cookie floating on the top of the tank. The other two fish seemed nonplussed, and swam on their merry way in and out through the plants and rocks. One down, two to go, I couldn’t help thinking.
Her tears were plentiful and anguished. I felt horrible, but of course was thinking in my head, “See? this is why I didn’t want to go down this road.” My instincts are always dead on, sorry for the pun. Yet even the doubting Thomasina I was expected at least a week of uninterrupted bliss before something hit the fan. Cookie was only with us thirty-six hours.
I am guilt ridden, both for poor Cookie’s plight and for my daughter’s tears. Naturally, I blame my husband, who was in charge of the treacherous transfer (“Didn’t they tell you how to do it properly?”) It relieves the burden of responsibility somewhat from my shoulders; yet my daughter does not fall prey to these tricks we learn as we age; who is responsible for this tragedy is of no significance to her, she just dwells with its aftermath. There is no bringing back Cookie.
But luckily, there are many more fish at the store, so they have traipsed back to where it all began, to find a replacement Cookie. As well as a state of the art heater, just in case cool water temperature had anything to do with Cookie’s failings. You see where we’re going with this. Broke.
Death is all around us. We routinely watch people getting blown away on television and in movies, read about it in books and everyday in the newspaper. But it is a different beast when it visits you personally. Nothing can prepare you for the death of someone you love.
My father died when I was twenty-two, one month after I had graduated from university. He was a journalist, and I, wanting to follow in his footsteps, had majored in journalism. I haven’t published a written word since his death, now eighteen years ago.
He was a lion of a man. Physically he was tall and striking, with an unmistakable baritone voice. He was the center of any room around which all others orbited. In our family he was undisputably the sun, and we, the children and our mother, the planets.
He was opinionated and loved to argue, hot tempered but also as excitable as a child. He lived for occasions and elections, during either of which it was not uncommon to enter our house and find him running laps around our living areas. The nursery rhyme ditty “when he was up, he was up; and when he was down he was down” applied to him perfectly. You knew which one he was the second you crossed the threshold of our house. If he was up, his enthusiasm was infectious and there was no better place to be in the world. If he was down, we tiptoed around and avoided his dark being like the plague.
He was the first person I wanted to talk to when anything happened, the first person I wanted to see when I disembarked from a plane, the person I most wanted to succeed in life for. When he died, just as I was about to launch the me that was me, all of a sudden any and all of my aspirations also died. My path in life seemed suddenly of little consequence. With no one to share my achievements with, achieving anything seemed rather pointless. He was the north on my compass. Without him, my life operated like a pinball machine, with me as the ball being batted around senselessly.
He had cancer in his bone marrow, multiple myloma is what the doctor’s called it. But he had cancer before, and had his bladder removed as a result. He had also survived a heart attack when I was young. I stubbornly thought he was invincible, right up until we turned off his life support. I actually thought once we disconnected all of those lines and tubes he would sit up and say, “it’s bloody well about time you did that!”. The optimism of youth, or sheer stupidity, I’m not sure which.
It was inconceivable to me, as we walked out of the hospital shortly after, that cars continued to drive and people sauntered on their way on the sidewalk, when my whole world had just collapsed. It was an out of body experience. Everything had changed, yet nothing had changed.
I went home, went to his closet and took out one of his favourite sweaters that still smelled like him. I privately wore it and hugged it at night, like a blanket, for weeks, until it needed to be washed and then lost his scent.
Occasionally, but only very occasionally, I have the most lucid dreams of him. He is with me again, in my life, his presence palpable. When I wake from these dreams I want to stay in bed all day, savouring and remembering every morsel of what had transpired. Had he visited me, like an angel? Had he sent me a message?
Once on the tube in London I saw a man that so looked like my father, even had his beautiful thick silver hair, that it took my breath away. I stared at him, awestruck, and when he got off at the next stop (very likely unnerved by my behaviour), I cried.
I am now approaching middle age, a time of reflection, and am struck by the difference in myself after he died. I had once walked with a purpose, striding quickly and impatiently through life. Once he was gone my pace slackened, my direction became uncertain, and I strolled uncaringly and aimlessly.
I often wonder at the huge impact his death had on my life. It didn’t leave me orphaned, after all. I still had a mother and brothers and sisters, friends and even lovers. But an integral piece is missing that doesn’t ever get filled, it just remains missing, and you learn to live, somehow, with the missing piece. Good things that happen just aren’t quite as good, the world has lost a bit of its lustre.
As I tell people, and people tell me, life goes on, and so it does, but in a forever changed sort of way.