A death too soon
DONNA YAW CHING Sunday, November 4 2012
I come to this week’s column late, and in sadness. A friend lies in hospital, dying. He’s doing it slowly, yet much too fast. When he was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, the doctors assured him that with treatment he probably had two years, maybe three; now he’s been moved to palliative care, and his prospects have been downgraded to weeks – if he’s lucky. When I visited him in the hospital, he murmured, “I had counted on having more time.”
Time is the one thing none of us has enough of. We only realise that when it’s too late. But in the shortened span left to Andre, I want to remember him, not to mourn him. I want to memorialise his spirit, his vitality, his keen intelligence – all of which remain strong, even as his voice weakens and his body crumbles away into nothingness. Our most recent conversation included the upcoming US presidential election – a topic that surely cannot have any relevance to his future, but which, nevertheless, engaged his analytic mind and his strong sense of outrage. These things will be the last to die; they will be the final flickering light before Andre’s life leaves this world.
I find it hard to encompass the imminent end of our friendship. I suppose that, so far, I have been lucky: very few of my cohorts have died, and those who have did so fairly suddenly, and at a distance. I only learned of their passing after the fact. It’s wholly different to sit beside someone who is staring death in the face, dispassionately discussing his symptoms, his test results, his doctors’ prognoses. Andre has been very matter-of-fact about all of these things, unflinching and almost detached.
I asked him, tentatively, if he was afraid. He thought about it for a second, then shook his head and said, “No.” With a particularly Gallic shrug (he is Quebecois), he added: “In Lebanon, tu sais, you could have died any minute.” He had been a career journalist covering the Middle East back in the early days of crisis; in Beirut, Palestine, Iran, life was always balanced on a knife’s edge. A devout atheist, he had long ago come to terms with mortality.
Perhaps this was why he had always lived life to the max. He smoked, he drank, no doubt he womanised; in his youth he rode a motorcycle and (though I didn’t know him in those days) I’m willing to wager it was not a lightweight bike, but a huge, roaring machine shuddering beneath his small, wiry frame. I believe he even drove race-cars, at one point.
That’s the person I want to remember. Not the macho racer, necessarily; but the man who threw himself wholeheartedly into life, into a discovery of the world. There was nothing that Andre wasn’t interested in, nothing too trivial to engage his interest. Having eventually slowed down and retired to Prince Edward Island (akin to retiring to Tobago, only colder), he rapidly burrowed into the lifestyle: he found lobster-fishing and potato growing every bit as compelling as world affairs and international economics. He knew everyone’s business, their family history, their landholdings, their interconnectedness. And everyone, on every rung of the social ladder, knew Andre, with his keen interest, his heavy French accent, his quick wit.
I met him only five years ago, when I purchased my cottage in PEI. He was literally the first person I met, when I arrived there on a wild and stormy night, after an exhausting three-day drive from Toronto. I entered my unfamiliar little house in the dark, and headed straight for the toilet.
Shock: no water. The house had been closed up for a while and all the pipes had been drained. Not knowing what else to do, I called my friend Nancy, who lived nearby. She called Andre, further up the road (they were dating), and 15 minutes later, fighting the howling wind, this total stranger was sloshing through my mud basement, priming the pump and getting my water started. There was no formality; it was as if we’d known each other for years.
It was the start of what I, at least, considered a beautiful friendship. Since then, I’ve turned to him many times for help, for advice: he was one of those invaluable, and increasingly rare, men who knew about everything, from cars to furnaces, lawn mowers to stoves. He was generous with his assistance, and if a problem required greater expertise, there wasn’t a tradesman in a 20-mile radius that Andre didn’t know personally.
But it wasn’t just about tools and furnaces. I could also be assured of stimulating conversation at the drop of a hat. He was a voracious reader (even now, a 700-page tome lies next to his bed) and maintained a lively interest in world events, social problems, philosophical issues. In an essentially rural community, he was a breath of intellectual fresh air.
Last weekend, I visited Andre, with a good bottle of wine and two plastic glasses. I didn’t know whether he was allowed to drink, but I was pretty sure that he would, anyway. We raised a toast – to what, I’m not really sure. Maybe to friendship. Maybe to life. Maybe just to Andre, who I had the privilege to know for all too short a time.
Adieu, mon ami. It’s been real.