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NDP Leader Jack Layton is applauded by MPs wearing blue ties and scarves in honour of his fight against prostate cancer during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 31, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick)
NDP Leader Jack Layton is applauded by MPs wearing blue ties and scarves in honour of his fight against prostate cancer during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 31, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Brian Topp

Cancer's gift Add to ...

And now for something completely different. Imagine this as a powerpoint deck.

Slide one: My wife, best friend and lover has a lovely three-note laugh (ha ha ha!) that she reserves for odd newspaper stories, improbable pitches from our sons, and antics by our cat and by me. The last "ha" is an infinitely flexible instrument that can be tuned to say many things: that's funny; forget it; try that again!; etc.

Slide two: There are many wonderful museums and galleries in Paris including some wildly eccentric ones. If you find yourself there check out the Musée Gustave Moreau, for example. The artist had it built himself -- two large floors stacked onto his childhood home. The first two floors of the rebuilt building (the original bits) are a temple to his parents. The top two are for his strangely haunting paintings, drawings and sculpture. Wonderful, but it doesn't beat the Musée d'Orsay, home of France's amazing heritage of late academic and impressionist painting. This was the moment in art when its greatest practitioners had absolute mastery of their craft -- painting, sculpture and other forms as technically accomplished as the best work of antiquity or the Renaissance -- and were simultaneously kicking down the doors of convention and state-sponsored rules. Better, the Orsay is being renovated, and so its collection is jumbled up in temporary displays and can be seen in new ways. The paintings that Gauguin and van Gogh did together in the south of France now hang together, for example. They scream off the wall -- particularly the van Goghs, which were the last few things he wanted to say before he decided to leave us by his own hand.

Slide three: My older son devoured the comic strip Zits when he was a little younger, and now seems dedicated to living out some of its tropes. For example, he sprawls on our living room couch, which has gradually been beaten down to conform to his body in ways I think the designers did not intend. One of the pillows now forms a sort of off-centre half-pipe that perfectly fits his leg. The other pillows are just so. The lamp is just thus. Soon he will put down roots there and we'll have to water him.

Slide four: In the early 1940s my grandfather wanted a shack he could play poker in with his buddies, and where he could hammer and saw stuff during summer holidays. By good fortune he built that shack (later slightly expanded into a nice little cottage) next to a Laurentian lake north of Montreal that developed an active homeowners' association that cared and still care about it. And so that lake is not dentist-drilled with motor boats and personal watercraft; its clean spring-fed water isn't mindlessly fouled with lawn chemicals and algae; its fish are periodically restocked and fussed over. Put on goggles and dunk your head on a sunny day and the light dancing through the particles in the water makes for a fun kaleidoscope. On a moonless night you can see stars over that lake almost as bright as the ones you can see on the prairie in rural Saskatchewan. If it's calm you can stand out in the water on a rock at midnight, ten feet off my grandfather's dock, and feel the warm water and hear the silence and see the stars perfectly mirrored on the lake and you will think: this is a sacred place.

Slide five: My younger son picked up the guitar a few months ago. He is a determined and joyous student of it, and clearly has a natural affinity for music as evidenced by the increasingly cordant (which must be a word, the opposite of "dis-") chords and note progressions he practices until we tell him that even on a summer night you have to go to bed sometime.

I could go on.

I've lived with my family for many years; have been to Parisian museums before; have been going to my grandfather's place on the lake my whole life. But to be there -- to really be there -- to see all of this and hear it and smell it and taste it with your full attention. To experience it in the bright light like one of those paintings; without wondering in that little corner of your dark mind that is always back at work: "what's new on the blackberry this minute?"

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