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This week, First Person explores the process of dealing with love and loss
Sometimes life can get pretty heavy and holes open up and the sun stops shining and darkness falls at midday. Everyday. Every damn day. And it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever get different.
And then out of a room full of strangers a fella walks up and says, “Lemme buy you a cup of coffee.” And you say “Yes,” because what difference does it make? And he’s buying. And you head across the street in the rain and you sip lukewarm coffee and he tells you about himself and he seems much older than you, but his story sounds so familiar and he tells you that the hole you’re in isn’t that deep and there’s a way up, but you’ve gotta stop digging and you’ve gotta let him show you. And he becomes a friend. Soon a teacher. He talks you down when you need it, walks with you for hours, rain or shine, and he shows you pictures of flowers he saw that day and he tells you to get a job. You hate that job and it smells like farts all the time, but he reminds you of the value of being of service. And you keep going, and suddenly it ain’t so bad. And even when his knees give out and he can’t walk much, he’ll sit with you on that bench on Howard Park in Toronto.
Then, a couple of years go by and you’re having coffee with guys that are stuck like you were, so you tell them about these old timers who did it this way and you introduce them around.
And you hear his voice in your head. Your words are his words. Almost word for word.
And these new guys start to hope just a little bit. They walk a little taller, all the friendships get wider and the coffees get bigger, busier and funnier and the sun shines. And he’s always there with the fastest wit and the easiest smile.
Then, time, age and distance take over. He retires and moves to Hamilton. And life is such that Hamilton may as well be Tanzania.
Soon, you don’t talk all that much any more. You don’t see those guys much any more.
Then, you drive to the hospital one day because your old friend is suddenly not going to make it.
You drive too fast, as if it mattered. As if you could beat a 70-year-old’s aneurysm.
And it’s not good news.
And everything feels very cold.
And you hug his family.
And you tell them he saved your life.
And you drive home in the quiet.
And when he finally dies, sober, proud and giving, you remember his words from years ago: “You’re gonna be all right.”
And you smile.
Thank you, Victor.
On the day of the funeral, it feels like time travel. Everyone looks much older. We’re all carrying a bit of extra weight. Handshakes and hugs all round. We’re all united by two things, and one of them is Victor.
Some of us have had a kid or three. Others have flown in from B.C. I take the day off from school.
We all know a few shared secrets. Nobody says more than few words. It’s hard. It’s sad. It’s the hottest church room I’ve ever seen. The sudden June heat reminds you of one of those things Victor would say when the going got tough: “the strongest steel through the hottest fire.”
The bag pipes start, because damn his Cape Breton genes.
Tears all round. You remember the stories he’d tell of the tragedy he’d seen. You know he isn’t going out in tragedy – he’s going how he wanted: painless, sober and quick.
You see his son and daughters. They stand so tall. They’re proud of their pop. His son speaks without notes and talks of the straight-backed achievements of his siblings. He tells the stories that sons do. He tells you it’s sad. And it is.
But he remembers.
All of us in silence, we remember.
We remember a life of service. The son, not the man he used to be, thanks his father and tells us to remember harder. He tells us to be of service to strangers and to each other, to friends and maybe to friends we don’t see any more, to just be ready with a hand when the call comes.
To let that be his legacy.
The funeral closes with a hymn he sang to his kids.
You make your way back to the car. Back to the day that is still so hot and you wait for the AC to cool you down, so you just sit there.
You think back to that first coffee. You think back to all the lessons you learned the hard way. You think back over all the laughs, tears, the shouting and the work. Oh God, the work. But the panic doesn’t come, the fear doesn’t come, the tears feel okay and you don’t feel like running away. You’re grateful to him and you hear his words again: “You’re gonna be all right.”
You start up the car and head down the road.
And you smile. Thank you, Victor Hayes.
Daniel Enright lives in Toronto.