For about a year now I have been spending time each week with a family friend, Andrew. He suffered from Frontal Temporal Dementia which is a fancy scientific way of saying his brain quit working properly and began to slowly shut him down. I wrote about Andrew’s grace regarding his illness last Fall.
I don’t even really know why I started walking with and visiting Andrew. Maybe I just needed something to do that didn’t involve staring out the window and crying. Or maybe it was that I suddenly had a different understanding of loss and I felt like we had something in common. Something big. We ‘got’ each other now. Whether it’s fast or slow, gentle or cruel, loss is loss and it surrounds us. It takes us apart and puts us back together in a different way. We may look the same on the outside but deep in the guts of us, we are forever altered.
To be honest, Andrew and I were not super tight, the old Andrew anyway. We skied and holidayed together with our families and we enjoyed each other’s company, but he was my husband Cam’s close friend, not mine. Still, something drew me to him at a time when I must have really needed a silent witness. I will be forever grateful for this weird little friendship.
On October 24th, the savage disease finally, mercifully, took my friend. He was only 51 and left behind a beautiful and cherished family and countless friends.
I haven’t done any speaking publicly since the memorial service for my own son over a year ago. Talking is still pretty tough these days. I have been a snivelling mess in far too many coffee shops, parking lots and grocery stores. But in the case of Andrew, like that of Holden, I felt a strong desire to explain to the world just how extraordinary he was. How incredibly strong he and his family have had to be and how, when a life get’s small, it can still be big.
Here is what I said to the devoted gathering at Andrew’s Memorial Service.
My husband Cam, our daughter Lyla and I have been friends with the B – Family for about 8 years. Since our youngest kids started kindergarten. Andrew and Cam became closer when we lived around the corner. They did lots of manly-man—things together like golf, ski, watch hockey and drive too fast. They also drank quite a bit of scotch in the basement playing wii games after everyone was asleep.
For the last year or so I have been spending time with Andrew. First, while he was still at home we would walk around the neighbourhood. Then more recently at Lynn Valley Care Centre where mostly we would read.
Being with Andrew has been a deeply rewarding experience. The time I spent with him has made me realize more deeply than ever what is truly valuable in this life we are given. What is left of any of us when all of our ‘stuff’ is gone? The possessions we spend so much precious time and energy working to accumulate? When all of the ‘things’ of his life were taken away, all of the objects we think are so important, the Andrew that was left was a remarkable man. Without his business or his fancy car. Without his skis or golf clubs. And yes, even without that god-awful Leaf’s poncho. Andrew was still there: he was attentive, patient and above all extraordinarily brave.
Did you know that the B’s are super heroes? They are. They even have a family portrait with Andrew as Superman, L – as Wonder Woman, Big C as Batman and Other C as Spiderman.
What started as a family joke has turned out to be more accurate than anyone could ever have imagined. It’s pretty obvious that L – really is Wonder Woman. The strength and elegance you have shown over the last few years has been a powerful example of grace and strength.
Boys – You have experience, at your young age, more loss than any child should have to. Sharing with your Mom and the rest of your family this long battle and tragically slow loss of your Dad. These are heavy blows to the heart. Like any super hero, you have shown incredible courage and fortitude under very tough circumstances.
And of course there’s Andrew. He really was a kind of Super Man. When faced with the loss of not only the larger physical aspects of his life, but eventually his ability to walk independently and to speak, Andrew displayed a stoic dignity. He showed more determination than anyone I have ever met. Even when walking meant likely falling and injuring himself pretty badly he wouldn’t be held back. I remember asking him one day if he was angry about the bad deal he had been given in life. If he was pissed off at the world? He squeezed my hand twice very hard, that meant ‘no,’ and he simply kept on walking. The matter was settled.
Just because Andrew lost his ability to speak doesn’t mean he couldn’t communicate. He most definitely could. He spoke with his eyes and his hands. And he could be quite definitive. As you know, Andrew is a really smart guy. He helped me make decisions about business and real estate and parenting. He was a terrific listener. And he helped me to see that life is simply not fare and it’s best to accept that fact and keep on walking. As best you can.
But Andrew’s biggest and most emotional displays of communication always came when I would mention something about L or the Boys. Andrew’s eyes would well up and become like laser beams, he could be pretty intense. It was clear in those moments that these people are the most important part of his life. Nothing else even comes close.
It would have been easy, as the months of his illness rolled by, for Andrew to give up. To sit in his comfy brown chair and simply surrender, but he never did. Day after boring-endless-shrinking-stupid-day he lived as much as he was able to. Every time I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk or head out on the deck into the sun, his answer was ‘yes.’ He was still positively participating in the life he had no choice but to endure. As Andrew’s life got smaller, he continued to fill up all of the space he had with all of the capabilities he possessed.
Through his perseverance and astonishing strength Andrew displayed a beautiful example of how best to live. And that is – as fully as we can, with as much gusto as we can find, given our circumstances. Even when life is uncertain or scary or painful. He showed us that it’s best to look each other in the eye and listen carefully. To keep on walking. And most importantly, not to waste a single minute.
Rest in Peace my friend.