None of us know the nature of Jack Layton's cancer and, in deference to his privacy, none of us need to know. What everyone does appreciate, having witnessed his news conference Monday, is that the NDP Leader is a very sick man, fighting a very tough battle.
Whatever treatment his oncologists design, it's likely to be brutal. So the chances of his return to the House of Commons when it resumes sitting on Sept. 19 must be considered extremely slim to non-existent. The interim leader, rookie MP Nycole Turmel, probably will be in place longer, perhaps much longer, than the next seven weeks.
The cruel confluence of Mr. Layton's conditions at the age of 61 - the pinnacle of political success, the resumption of his battle with cancer - infuses his situation with poignancy. Everyone who admires Mr. Layton must pray for his recovery. But given the nature of things, some thoughts will turn, at least within the party, to what might happen if he can't recover.
These thoughts will grow the longer Mr. Layton is gone from his job, although for the moment, in deference to him and for the sake of the party, New Democrats will attend to their business in unity and with purpose.
They were off to a respectable start as the Official Opposition. They asked pertinent questions in the House, tried to bring somewhat more decorum to the place, and defended their union friends in the postal dispute, as one would expect a union-allied party to do. Their rookie MPs from Quebec didn't make headlines with gaffes of the inexperienced.
Still, those MPs owe their seats in large measure to "Jack," as he came to be called in Quebec. In three previous elections, Mr. Layton said the same things he did this time, with only marginally improving results in Quebec. But this time, his persona and broad message resonated with an electorate grown weary of the Bloc Québécois, contemptuous of the Liberals and turned off by the Conservatives. Without "Jack," however, the Orange Wave risks being a ripple. Having rented the NDP for four years as the province's preferred option in federal politics, Quebeckers offer no guarantee this agreement will last any longer.
Should he return, Mr. Layton will undoubtedly enjoy the sympathy and admiration in Quebec (and elsewhere) that will properly he his; if he should be unable to continue, then all sorts of possibilities will emerge as candidates line up for the succession.
Mr. Layton is the most successful NDP leader, ever, courtesy of making the party the Official Opposition. The party has had leaders it revered, starting with Tommy Douglas. But as admirable as some of them were, none achieved the pinnacle of residing at Stornoway, the residence of the Leader of the Opposition. None penetrated Quebec as Mr. Layton did.
When Mr. Layton spoke at his press conference of "hope and optimism," he was also talking about his approach to politics. There's been an indefatigable quality about him - talking, moving, speechifying, always on the go. His life, apart from personal matters, has been all about politics, not as a spectator but as an active, intense, full-time participant, a "happy warrior" in the political life.
Those who saw Mr. Layton at the Opposition Leader's garden party in late June saw someone quite thin, looking as if an event that usually would have summoned his energy was draining it. He sat with his mother and his wife and his mother-in-law, receiving guests quietly but not working the room the way he normally did.
That he looked worn out was put down by those who saw him to justifiable post-election fatigue. It turns out that, by his own admission, he was beginning to suffer from the symptoms that have brought him to this, whatever this is.
His resolve will be great, his battle difficult, his outcome necessarily uncertain. Whatever their politics, Canadians will wish him well.