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Wayne Westfall.

Courtesy of family

Wayne Westfall: Artist. Activist. Mentor. Comrade. Born Aug. 15, 1948, in Point Edward, Ont.; died Jan. 12, 2020, in Kingston, Ont.; of a medically assisted death; aged 71.

On the morning of Wayne Westfall’s death, carefully planned with his small band of intimate friends, someone mentioned cremation. “I yearn for the urn,” he deadpanned.

Wayne had a sly sense of humour, often aimed at himself. Sitting in Kingston’s Skeleton Park, he would toss his head back and smack the side of his wheelchair at someone’s witty remark.

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The Sarnia native had 10 siblings, an honours degree in chemistry and a Master’s of Social Work. After two years in Sierra Leone with CUSO, he lived much of his life with quadriplegia, the result of a 1979 climbing accident in Alaska.

Locked up in a broken body, Wayne had such a remarkable sense of himself that his next climbing journey became stunningly successful. He emerged from his broken self, rekindling a compassionate heart and boundless curiosity, his shining intellect and joyful sense of wonder.

It wasn’t easy.

“I made a conscious decision to live. I got bored with suicide,” he said after several years wrestling with depression and near-paralysis from the neck down.

Kingston, and the people who live there, were the better for it. He managed a clinic for sex offenders. Wayne did pre-release counselling at one of its penitentiaries. He taught assertiveness and resilience at St. Lawrence College, using his wheelchair and disability symbolically. He hoped to hear, “Gee, if that guy can keep going, I can find a way through my problems.” And he often did.

One day he woke up blind, calmly waiting two hours for his next “helper” as he called his platoon of caregivers. He soon regained his sight and a friend asked how he managed to stay calm. “Oh, there are lots of people worse off than me.”

Self portrait.

Courtesy of family

Wayne’s tireless advocacy work made Kingston General Hospital much more accessible. As was the public library after he served on the board. Wheelchair-bound people had long been forced to ring a doorbell around the back. Before curb cuts were the norm, he was instrumental in making them so. Creating detailed downtown maps marked with impossible corner curbs, he then led city councillors on a wrenching accessibility tour. Things changed.

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After the great ice storm of 1998, Wayne was instrumental in raising money for tree-planting and the creation of the McBurney (a.k.a. Skeleton) Park Neighbourhood Association.

Wayne could flex his wrists and (with prosthetic fingers ) hold a paintbrush, fork and pen. He could peck at a keyboard and excelled as a poet and watercolourist. His 2019 exhibit marking the 40th anniversary of his accident attracted an overflow crowd.

Describing the spirituality that sustained him over those years as “a metaphysical soup, part Christian, part Buddhist and part pagan,” Wayne explained as the end approached that he had had a decent, dignified life. “I’ve had a good run and I’m okay to get off the train.”

On my last visit, we discussed accepting the reality of uncertainty. And what might happen in a world fractured by climate catastrophe and inequality. Wayne insisted that what we do today will shape the future. That sounds mundane, but not coming from this giant of a man.

On the day he died, someone said “We will all be changed by what happens today.”

Wayne, still on his game, quickly replied, “Me, too.”

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Jamie Swift is Wayne’s friend.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide

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