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What I Learned About Life From my Father's Death

Posted: 05/24/2013 10:25 am

This is adapted from a eulogy I gave for my step-father, the Canadian journalist and Toronto Sun founding editor, Peter Worthington, at his funeral on Wednesday. His ashes will be interred today.


In "Four Quartets" T.S. Eliot wrote:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

And this is where I want to start from: with Pete's end.

Because everything that was there in those last few days with Pete was truly everything that had been there, everything that we knew and loved about Pete, from the beginning.

People will say he faced death bravely, and he did. But he also faced it with that same curiosity and interest that led him to run away and enlist in WW2 and again in Korea; that eventually led him to every major crisis and hotspot of the second half of the 20th century; to the farthest places of the earth; to the most interesting people on the planet; and sometimes, simply, just to see what something felt like, such as jack-knifing off a cliff.

I suspect it's not often, when you are sitting next to someone who is dying, that that person wants to narrate to you what he is going through. And I don't mean complain about it -- but actually tell you about it with the detachment of a voice over in a documentary about dying.

At one point, Pete was having hallucinations. Some were terrifying: He'd find himself thrown back into combat. Or there were snakes everywhere. At other points he'd find himself in debate with unspecified famous people. Sometimes a memory from his childhood would unearth itself in vivid Technicolor, and he would relive it as if it were happening in real time. There were even dancing girls. Of the latter, my husband, David, asked if any of these hallucinations were rewindable. Apparently they weren't.

At one point, when David was sitting with him, he lapsed into a restless sleep in which he began shouting in French. You have to understand Pete never spoke French. Like, ever -- not even when we toured the battlefields of Normandy and stopped for a beer.

Suddenly he was saying urgently (in French): "You stay here! I will go ahead."

David asked me later if Pete had served alongside French troops in Korea. Indeed he had -- with the mighty "Vandoos," whom he always spoke of with admiration. At one time in Korea apparently he and some Vandoos were trying to wrestle corpses out of barbed wire. It was a tough and nasty job. The Quebecois began cursing. Pete said, "Look at those damn French. They even swear at their dead!"

But as Pete struggled to describe his hallucinations, he wanted to make clear that he knew they were unreal, and that you sitting beside him were real -- but he was fascinated by the mind's ability to fool itself so completely and convincingly. At some point he mumbled a short editorial about how he had a new appreciation for those suffering false memory syndrome. I swear if he were capable of writing a column about it at that moment, he would have.

But Pete was also disturbed that he was losing control over his mind. He worried he might say something he didn't mean, that he would inadvertently offend us or a nurse. And that was perhaps the key factor in his deciding that he did not wish to deteriorate further before our eyes; he had been immune to Communism, dammit. He would not allow himself to be vulnerable to any other disease of the brain. When this was decided, he opted for a shot that would put him into a deep sleep until his body would, finally, allow him to leave. He was ready to go -- even if we weren't ready to lose him.

Until that point, he had seen it as his job to buck us up for his impending departure. When we left him in the evening, saying, reflexively, "See you tomorrow Pete" he'd reply cheerfully, "I hope so!" And when we'd arrive in the morning, he'd greet us, again cheerfully, with, "I'm still here!" When his heart doctor laid it on the line for him -- the dreaded "there's really not much more we can do for you" conversation -- he suggested she might need more consoling than him.

Even when we came to say our goodbyes -- just before the big sleep -- he kept up this merry front. When I violated, fragrantly, his "no tears" rule, and fell weeping upon his hand, he raised the other and said grandly, "I'm hardly worth all this!" When our eldest daughter, Miranda, who is 21, entered the room, he grinned mischievously, pointed towards the ground, and said, "I'll see you down there!"

But Pete also allowed us to be serious with him, to say the things to him we needed and wanted to say to him -- and he allowed himself to say back the things he wanted to say to us.

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Pete and his granddaughter, Beatrice Frum, at Toronto General Hospital.

My mother, as always, never left his side; she kept us all together with him, as she had kept us all together through life. Later I was to think that Pete, for all the adventure and exoticism of his career, was never one of those journalists who defined himself by the job and only checked in occasionally with the family. Not that my mother would have let him do that. Somehow he carried us all along with him in his great adventure.

He was always, intensely, an intimate part of our lives -- a father who was home by six to play catch in the street; who ate dinner with us every night and asked us questions like whose side of the war we'd be on; with whom one could just endlessly hang out and listen to his wonderful stories; who taught us how to fish and dive and go abroad with no plan whatsoever; who, when being charged under the Official Secrets Act, gave each of us kids a cassette tape and told us to put it in our school lockers and not tell anyone. And you know what? We never did. Not until we were all grown up did we know the other had been given a cassette tape too. How cool is that for a kid -- to be asked to perform, indeed entrusted with, such a secret mission? And he always treated us this way. Pete was not just a leader, but a leader who could take the disparate and not necessarily harmonious elements of a broken family and inspire unit cohesion -- alongside my mother, who of course, ensured it all worked.

In the end, that unit was at Pete's bedside, now supported by the rear artillery of his grandchildren, each of whom he adored uniquely. He said to me at one point, "I love all of them -- even their flaws."

It was no less heartbreaking to us that Pete was ready to go, but he was ready to go. And in his characteristic way he faced it pragmatically and without fear. He said at one point, "There is nothing left I wish to do. Only things I wish to know."

With all deference to the church, I'm not sure if Pete has gone on to another better place. Frankly, I think if he had, we would have certainly heard it about it by now. His first column on the afterlife -- "What? No Dogs in Heaven?!" -- would have been followed by his exclusive two-part, post-mortem interview with Margaret Thatcher.

But let me return to those words he shouted in French: "You stay here. I'll go ahead." How characteristic of Pete is that phrase? You stay here. I'll go ahead.

Of course he will.

He has gone ahead while, we, for the moment, are staying here.

But before he left, Pete taught us not just how to die; he reminded us of how to live.

 

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