Patriarch, husband, anesthesiologist, veteran. Born on Feb. 17, 1923, in Hamilton, Ont.; died on May 13, 2014, in Vancouver, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure, aged 91.
On the day my grandfather Jack Nixon died, I delivered a baby boy, the first child of a young couple. As I held the newborn, watching his first breaths, I thought of my grandfather – who was also a doctor – and contemplated how these two lives, connected end-to-end in my mind, bridged an incredible span. Grandad was born in a time before television and raised in the Great Depression, and left this world having mastered using an iPad and Skyping with his grandchildren in foreign lands. If this baby lives the 91 years that Grandad did, I wondered, what will he experience?
I come from the younger end of a large family. Some of the most cherished memories for me and my many cousins took place at our grandparents’ home in Vancouver. Playing football in the yard, Easter egg hunts, Christmas crackers. Grandad was seen more than he was heard, sitting in his chair. But I remember vividly those times when he spoke. Standing before dinner, he would update the family on what everyone was doing, his voice filled with pride.
As I moved into my teen years, our conversations began. His 80-year-old body was slowly failing him, but his mind was sharp. For a high-school project, I learned about his experience as a navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He rattled off dates, names and experiences as if they happened yesterday. He described travelling from Halifax to England on a troop ship, and the determination and focus needed to train at the British aerodromes. He calmly recounted the ill-fated bombing mission that saw his plane crash in Poland, and his two-month internment by the Soviet Army in Ukraine. He spoke most reverently of those with whom he served, of the bond between soldiers that we now glorify in movies and on sports teams but cannot even begin to imagine. He was 21 when he went to war.
Later, our conversations shifted to medicine, as I navigated my path through medical school and into a residency in anesthesia – following in his footsteps, in fact. We talked about the special medical class for returning veterans in which he enrolled at the University of Western Ontario. He recalled his 1950 marriage to my grandmother, Vera, and their big move across the country for his internship year in Vancouver. We talked of his time as a family doctor in North Bay, and his quick enticement back west for training in anesthesia. We discussed the many changes he had seen during his 33-year career, and I offered observations about how they had changed even further since he retired.
I was struck by how much he remembered – the specific cases he had handled, the people he worked with. I got a measure of his impact when I was a medical student told to assist with a surgical case at Vancouver General Hospital, where Grandad had worked. I walked into the operating room with a mask over my nose and mouth and got a quizzical look from the surgeon, as if he recognized me. “Do I know you? What is your name?” he asked. When I responded, he quickly replied: “Do you know Jack Nixon, the anesthetist?” This was 23 years after he had retired, and still he was remembered.
Grandad loved his work, and he had no shortage of respect from his peers. He loved his family even more and his seven children, 17 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren miss him dearly.
Christopher Nixon-Giles is Jack’s grandson.