I saw him on the other side of the intersection. It was a chilly day last December in Edmonton. There wasn’t much snow on the ground but there was enough to make it difficult for him to move through it. It would not be taken kindly to rush across the intersection to help him, although it was becoming obvious that with his 76 years, he had slowed down. Not one to complain much, he had casually mentioned some arthritis and a steady pain in both hands, carpal tunnel he said.
He struggled, he persevered, he progressed; slowly making his way across the intersection. Old school, we didn’t hug or even shake hands; instead we joshed, me about being a delicate Vancouver flower struggling in the arctic chill of below zero, he about how much he hated the ice on the roads and the lack of snow clearing on the sidewalks.
We slowly navigated our way to our favourite lunch spot, a vegetarian restaurant on Whyte Avenue, an unlikely favourite for two Alberta boys raised on meat and potatoes, a common sense response to old age and delicate stomachs. He’d actually upped his game and was now going gluten-free; no bread, no pasta, the man was insane!
Finishing our coffee, we casually, warily circled the inevitable; how are we feeling these days? Then, mutually satisfied we’d make it another day, we paid and left, on to our next adventure to a downtown movie – we both shared a deep fascination with the magic of movies, the escapism of it all.
“The bus stop is just around the corner” he said.
“Let me help this time,” I replied. “You’ve been pushing that wheelchair for 60 years, maybe you can let me push a bit now.” It was always a touchy subject, to help or not to help with the pushing.
That was our last big adventure, a vegan lunch, a movie downtown, a cold wait for the bus, an evening that culminated in NFL Monday Night Football and a fragrant, steaming bowl of pho from his favourite Vietnamese hole-in the wall – Friends and Neighbours – what a perfect name for a restaurant.
Going to Edmonton to see my brother Marvin was always a special event in my life.
Life is full of surprises, the past two years of the pandemic had brought us closer than ever before, more frequent visits, regular phone chats lasting an hour at least, till one of us signalled sign off with the not-so-secret code, “well, I’ve run out of words for today.”
The weather turned cold the next day, the first of many chilling arctic fronts had arrived. I scurried home to Vancouver, wondering how people survived.
Two months later, I returned. Marvin was in hospital, something had afflicted him with a rasping cough and a perilous decline in strength and energy. He’d lost the strength to lift himself from bed to chair, to get safely from chair to bed. By the time I arrived, the mounting but confusing array of results of medical probings had not comforted us. More and more, the bits and bites of news dashed any hopes of a return to normalcy; the news became grim, consistently and pervasively grim.
We met the doctors on Friday. Stage four, nothing to be done; the palliative care team was his only option. We talked of many things when they all left; some important, some the remains of the day. Words mattered, especially then; he needed to know that he was loved and valued, that his life had been filled with meaning, that we all admired him, cherished him and, again, loved him. Michael, his son, and I shared his time for the next few days, talking with him till he told us he’d ‘run out of words for today’.
He passed away on March 8th, just four days short of his 77th birthday, Michael by his side.
That last short visit was a micro-example of the man I had known all my life.
He was a stoic, of the best kind. He had to be, at the age of sixteen, injured in a freak car accident and confined to a wheelchair after an extra-ordinarily long rehab, he chose to accept his new life and get on with it rather that rage against fate, the gods, God or anyone else he could focus his anger on. He chose to accept and be optimistic, to manage those parts of his life where he had control, where he could choose. Years later, as Executive Director of the Canadian Paraplegic Association in Calgary he learned that he could only help those who had chosen to be positive, who had not succumbed to rage and self-pity. He had chosen wisely – at sixteen. His stoicism guided and informed his life; he never let his limitations define him or limit him.
Marvin created a career for himself; he moved to Edmonton in 1977 to become Executive Director of Chimo, providing interim care for at risk youth and as a long standing board member of the Boyle Street Education Center, a unique public charter school offering an educational haven for urban street youth. He served other agencies in the youth care and education fields for over 40 years; he seemed to have a particular affinity with, and understanding of, those people who, faced with challenges not of their making, sought to rise above them.
He was also quietly but fiercely independent. Resolute. Persistent. Unflinching and unflagging. In 1970, nine years after his accident, he and I signed up for the newly launched Master’s program in Public Affairs at Carleton University. We pooled our resources, meagre, and drove his car to Ottawa. We never missed a class in a year of unprecedented snowfall; we showed up, he would have it no other way. It was one of the few times when he allowed me to help push. He kept that independence for another 50 years, we all learned to ask politely if we could help him navigate a crosswalk or a curb-cut.
He loved hole-in-the-wall restaurants, was known by most of the places within a short wheel of his home and took hot and spicy as a challenge. Sushi was top of his list but anything Asian seemed to tickle his taste buds.
He loved movies. I found out that he loved books and, courtesy of the pandemic which gave us time to explore such weighty topics, we nattered like a couple of preteens about books we liked and why. He wrote a movie script once with a friend, it was remarkable, he had a keen eye for the human condition and admired good writing. I will some day read the Kafka and Dostoyevsky he extolled, but not for a while. He never shined it up and put it on the mantle but he had a keen intelligence and abundant curiosity.
He was most proud of his son, Michael. Michael grew up with Marvin in Edmonton, some might say they grew up together though fathering seemed to come naturally to him. Every chat we had required a long update on our kids, always proudly positive and with a sense of wonder at our good fortune. One of Marvin’s happiest days was to be father-of-the-groom at Michael’s wedding in Halifax.
He took care of himself; he had to, to survive all those years. He was disciplined, consistent and careful of his health.
Finally, I’m learning that he loved a good party, never the centre of attention but always the anchor and usually there till the end. He pretended to be a hermit but had more friends than most of us could wish for; all he needed was some quiet time to recharge. He had several friends who dated back 60 plus years to his home town, Taber. He shared life and regular meals for decades in Edmonton with John, one of those Taber buddies; he regularly rode shotgun while John did a Meals on Wheels route.
It took grit and courage to get up and go out the door to meet the day, but he did and he greeted his friends with a smile and a direct, friendly look, some said a twinkle, in his eye.
He was honest, frugal, grounded. Why have a chair in his apartment? He didn’t need it, if I came for a visit, we borrowed one from the common room of Abby Road, his coop apartment.
Tender Mercies are small acts of kindness that make the lives of the recipients glow. They are given with no strings, no presumption that they will be returned. They are given out of love. Marvin spread those Tender Mercies like confetti at a wedding.
He was a good man.