David’s Friends

February 26th, 2011 2 comments

We always knew that our friends were extraordinary.  But we didn’t recognize just how extraordinary until David was diagnosed with cancer.

Friends were crucial right from the start.  On September 9, 2009, David was alone at the cottage in PEI when he got very sick.  Although it was the middle of the night, he called Jim and Rachel Steadman, who live across the road from us in Cable Head.  Jimmy was there within five minutes, drove David to the Emergency Room in Charlottetown, and stayed with him while the tests were being done.  The diagnosis came quickly, and it was a frightening one: a brain tumour. I’m grateful David had a friend with him when he heard it.

The next extraordinary person on the scene was Sam Cioran. Sam was one of David’s dearest friends; he lives down the road from us in Monticello, PEI, in the summers.  We often joked about Sam being David’s “roadie,” because they made trips to theatres in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to see David’s work being done, and had a host of adventures along the way.  This was one adventure neither of them wanted to be on…but as ever, Sam was there for David.

September 10 was Mary’s first full day of Grade One back in Toronto, so in order that I could stay with her, David’s former wife Leslie flew to Charlottetown to bring David home.  (More about Leslie later. She is the most extraordinary friend of all.)  David was afraid of flying and hadn’t been on a plane in years, so I was surprised to see him smiling as he came through the sliding doors at Pearson.  He’d done a complete about-face during the West-Jet flight and become a fan of air travel.  “That was terrific!” he said, as he so often did.  And then we were off to St. Mike’s Hospital for David’s emergency surgery, and everything that followed.

In PEI, Sam and his wife Lyn Copeland closed up our cottage.  In Toronto, Sheila and Hrant Alianak entertained Mary while David was in hospital.  Sally Han brought a full dinner to the hospital waiting room for Mary and Leslie and me while the operation was in progress.  Burgandy Code arrived with a bathrobe and t-shirts and shaving cream and other essentials.   As David recuperated from the operation, encouraging phone calls and emails and notes and cards from everywhere kept our spirits up.  The Chernoff family drove Mary to school every morning, where her extraordinary teacher and the Grade One class held her hand and her heart. Most welcome parcels arrived from Alberta from my dear friend Marina Endicott and her family and from Mary Lou Chlipala in Michigan.

So much more was in store for David during the next fifteen months: a blood clot, radiation and two kinds of chemotherapy, a second operation, infusions of an experimental drug, visits to doctors and naturopaths and oh, those tests…  Through it all, friends were there for us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Mary spent many hours with her friend Alexandra, who shares her birthday, and with Sam.  She hung out with Marcus, her oldest friend, and his mom.  She had sleepovers with Georgia. She went horseback riding at Whinny Acres Ranch with Ariana. She giggled her way through Riverdale Farm with Noa and Rick. Leslie often picked her up from school or took her out on special excursions.

Dinners arrived: from Kris Purdy, Leslie Jennings, Hope MacLeod, Lisa Dickie, Su Laine Varkey, Rose Auciello, Nancy White.  Our refrigerator was filled several times by Leigh Lamacraft  — and how David loved that soup!  One summery evening, Orville and Julianne Endicott showed up on our doorstep with a complete and elegant several-course dinner in a box with a rose in a vase and a candle.  During the last few months of David’s life, Hrant and Sheila came by every second Friday evening carrying two giant aluminum trays: shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese, or lasagna.  (David’s favourites.)  The Alianaks would stay and eat one of the dinners with us, and we’d put the other tray in the freezer for another day.  The food was great, but the company was even better.

We had lots of other good company, too — Mike Laurie from Ottawa, Brendan Murray, Marlene and Allan Aarons and their entire family: Shawn and Jordana and Riel and Chantelle.  Members of David’s family came by, including his brothers Don and Bill and Wallace, his sister-in-law Pearl with her partner Harold, and several nieces and nephews.  Sam and Lyn, Brian Gray and Darleen Carty, Pat Ogura and Mike Watts, Nir Baraket.  My mom Sharon came from Saskatchewan; Brenda Mercer dropped in from David’s home town in Newfoundland. Valerie Buhagiar, Michael and Marion Langford, Charlie Northcote, Colleen Loucks…  I can’t possibly name all of you, but you know who you are, and I thank you.  A couple of weeks before David died, Mike Laurie arranged a special weekend visit: he and Chuck Perret from Connecticut arrived in town and had dinner with David on Saturday, followed by a “Boys Only” brunch at the Drake the following day.

I should mention that some of these friends made themselves available to help us out whenever we needed it.  We leaned heavily on Hrant and Shawn and Allan and Sam, and on Ian and Sarah.

Friends who couldn’t visit called or wrote — David’s buddy from high school, Alex Melachenko, phoned us once a week for many months to check in and to send his love.  Rachelle Belair and the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market gang sent funny cards.  Gloria Perret called from Connecticut.  Susan Stackhouse, Lenore Zann, Jane Buss, and Margaret Ross called from Nova Scotia, Bernie Bomers from BC.  Judy Cameron from the Rock, my brother Fraser and his wife Shannon from Saskatchewan, Jean and Terry from England, Leanne and Philip Nearson from Bermuda, Shena Wilson from Paris.  George Knox and Shelagh Kareda from PEI.   Briony Glassco, Sue Miner and Mark Brownell, Ronnie Abrams, Ralph Osborne, Colleen Murphy, Mary Ashton-Toth…  And many other friendly voices that helped get us through the days.

Another important group of friends were David’s peeps at Soulpepper, who helped to make Jitters such a terrific experience.  David was able to go to almost every rehearsal of the play in June 2010, and it kept him going; I know it did.  He loved seeing his work come to life, and it was wonderful that the last production he was involved with was such a brilliant one.  What better play for David to spend time with in his last months than hilarious Jitters, based on his own life in the theatre?

And of course, a few months later, David’s friend and director Ted Dykstra put together an incredible tribute for the memorial service, with artists and performers David loved from across the country.  Thank you, Ted.  It couldn’t have been done without you, and it was amazing.  Much love to Hrant Alianak and Albert Schultz who gave the eulogies, Allan Aarons and Pat Ogura who did the readings, and to performers Ken Welsh, Eric Peterson, Brendan Murray, Oliver Dennis, Jeff Lillico, Nicole Underhay, Susan Stackhouse, Jane Spidell, Dennis French, Melissa O’Neill, Mike Ross, and Sarah Wilson.  Also to Arwen Macdonnell for stage managing it all. What a beautiful send-off!  I could almost hear David applauding…  Malcolm Sinclair, minister at the Metropolitan United Church, delivered a perfect introduction to the proceedings, and Orville Endicott said the beautiful and familiar prayers that end the service.

Speaking of the service, I need to mention the moms from school who put together so many of the other aspects of that event — slide show, refreshments, programmes, etc.  That would be Su Laine Varkey, Sarah Luke, Leigh Lamacraft, and Marion Chow (along with her husband Mark Schmit.)  Writer friends Dave Carley, Riel Aarons, Paul Ledoux and Florence Gibson were our ushers and Sheila, the Aarons sisters and Valerie B. sat at the guest books.

I promised to say more about Leslie, and perhaps now is the time.  I can think of no other person in the world as generous…On our return from PEI last August, it became evident that David was no longer able to manage the stairs at our apartment.  Leslie, unbelievably kindly, invited us to live at her place, which is wheelchair accessible.  So there she was, with all of us camped — for over three months — in her formerly tidy condo. (Not only David, Mary and me, but also Wooligan the cat, who is a bit of a character.)  Even though she was working full time, Leslie helped when David was having sleepless nights, she took over his care entirely whenever I needed to spend a little time with Mary, she made us many healthy suppers and hosted two parties: a birthday party for David and a “pie party,” just for fun.  I don’t know what we would have done or what we would do now without Leslie.  She is more than friend — she’s family.

The day before David died, Leslie’s extraordinary sister Debra Stuart flew in all the way from Kelowna to help us out.  Leslie and Mary and I wanted so much to keep David home with us rather than have him go to a palliative care unit, but Debra could hear by talking to us on the phone that we were finding the medical side of things daunting.  Debra is a nurse.  Her warm, loving and knowledgeable presence during those last two days made a huge difference to all of us.

Maybe a few words about Saturday, December 4th…  It’s true that we leave this world alone.  But if ever anyone left the world surrounded by love and affection, David did.  It just happened that on the last day of his life, some of the friends who had been dearest to him stopped by.  He was deep into a morphine sleep at that point, but he surely heard their farewells and welcomed their last embraces.  The end came for David just before midnight.  It was gentle; his breathing just got slower and slower…and then he was gone.

But I know that wherever David is, he’s saving places for all of his friends.

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