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Books A eulogy for celebrated Canadian writer and broadcaster George Jonas

Jonas barely spoke English when he arrived in Toronto in 1956. Twelve years later, he had published his first book of poetry in this language.

These are the words I'd have spoken at George Jonas's funeral had I not been out of the country. He had asked me to speak if I was in Toronto, though he also knew how difficult it would be for me. He had also instructed me not to return if he died after I was away. I will have more to say about George and our friendship at a later date, but for right now …

Thank you all for joining Maya, and Alex and his family, in saying goodbye to our friend.

This is very hard. Some people have a presence in life so vivid that, when they leave us, it shapes an absence colossally large, and George was like that. His not being here is appalling.

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Each person who knew him at all well will have his or her own stories, memories. I don't want to superimpose mine. We were introduced 36 years ago, almost exactly, by Eddie Greenspan, who should be standing here as George's best friend – being eloquent and gently funny with his recollections, to filter sorrow. I used to tease them that I was finally able to play the kid brother, having been the oldest in my own family. Sometimes the roles you play change through the years. Sometimes they bring you here.

George Jonas, as many of you know, arrived in Toronto at Christmas of 1956, 21 years old, barely speaking English. Twelve years later, he had published his first book of poetry in this language.

I will not tell you – because this you also know – how much distinction, how many honours, in so many dimensions of writing and thought, he accrued though the years. But I'll say this:

George wrote a poem, Landmarks, remembering his earliest days here. He ended the poem by describing himself on his first winter night in Toronto: tall, too thin, exhausted on a porch in the dark, seeking admission to a house, and in the poem he wrote: "And God knows why / they took me in." On the occasion of the publication of his brilliant book of translations, The Jonas Variations, four years ago, I said something, and I am going to echo it today. If ever, if ever there was any kind of unbalancing of the scales, wherein we, Canada … all of us … had given more to him, that balance went so very far the other way through the years. George was a national treasure, an international one, and he was a source of richness and delight to those of us who knew him. The scales of justice in this regard are weighted entirely towards what he gave us. The task now becomes to remember, to move back past the diminishment that illness inflicted upon him at the very end, and picture what he was, what he gave for so long.

I'm going to finish with a few lines of poetry, without apology, because George Jonas began as a poet, and his last published books were poetry. As I sat with him during the last days, he'd sometimes ask me to read poems to him – his own, those of others. I managed at one point to share four lines with him – I say managed, because they were, and are, powerful for me and it was immensely difficult to say the words at his bedside, knowing final moments were near. But I wanted him to hear them, and he did. This was written by Sir Thomas Wyatt after the death of his friend Thomas Cromwell, in the days of Henry VIII. The lines are a translation from the Latin of Petrarch, which makes them feel even more resonant, because George was a translator of verse, among so many other things.

Wyatt wrote:

The pillar perish'd is whereto I leant,

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The strongest stay of my unquiet mind;

The like of it no man again can find,

From east to west still seeking though he went

I think many here today, and elsewhere, might speak of how George Jonas was such a pillar in their lives, someone upon whom they could lean, to ease disquiet. He shouldered that readily for those he cared about. He shouldered it sometimes for near-strangers. And in an unexpected but real connection to Wyatt's lines – and he and I talked about this the day I quoted them to him – George, who became friend, father, grandfather, husband here, did make that journey from east to west, seeking. He was always seeking.

I think it fair to say he was looking for freedom, at the beginning, and at the end – starting with leaving the sequential tyrannies that afflicted his homeland. I think he'd have said he mostly found it here. He had reservations, and he shared them. He found people to care for, people who cared deeply for him. He also found, and shaped, a contribution he could make, distinctive and important. It feels fair and right to say with Wyatt, as we offer our goodbye, "the like of it no man again can find."

Farewells to such people, such friends, are intensely painful. What we might try to hold on to is the awareness that this is because we've been blessed, graced, enriched by a person's presence in our life. That's how it seems to me today. I hope others share that. I suspect they do, or will, in time.

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If we were somehow wise enough to let George Jonas in, back in 1956, he let us all in to his gifts through the 60 years that followed. I'll miss him dearly. I miss him already.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of twelve novels and a book of poetry. His thirteenth, Children of Earth and Sky, will be published in May.

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