September 28th, 2019

Baby and me

Catching Up on Death, Death, and Life, Part I

Salut, mon, mon oncle


Marcel Chojnacki being interviewed by Young Geoffrey, January 2019.

The last time I wrote about my Uncle Marcel was way back on October 17, 2018. You might remember that my favourite uncle was, among many other things, a one-time dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, current first-string violinist with a semi-professional symphony orchestra, and Holocaust survivor, whose life I had begun to document on video. He was also, then, an apparent cancer survivor, and Raven and I returned to interview him twice more, the last time coming in mid-January of this year.

We got most of his life down for a total of maybe 10 hours of tape, but we didn't get to sitting down with him to go over the photos he had managed to bring over from Belgium or the other documents relating to his long and frankly illustrious life.

In January he had complained of feeling tired and by March it was official. The pancreatic cancer was back, and he was given no more than three months to live. He died on Friday, May 24, 2019, less than a week after Raven and I had driven to Laval to say goodbye in person. His obituary is here. We had the pleasure of showing him a few minutes of the footage we shot, but he was tired and the visit was a short one.

What follows is the eulegy I wrote for him, and which I read (along with one written by my father, who wasn't up for the drive) at the funeral. If you're interested, the entire service (audio only) is online here. If I remember right, the rabbi stops talking around the 10-minute mark, giving way to his daughters and to myself.</a>

Needless to say, I still miss him.

__________

It isn't often we can say of a man who died in his 88th year, that death came for him too soon, but I can't help but feel that way about the passing of mon, mon oncle Marcel Chojnacki.

Though I in fact Lydia and I visited from Ottawa only two weeks ago to say goodbye, and so I saw how that strong man had been rendered so physically weak he could barely sit up on his own, when Morgan called me one week ago to tell me he was gone, the expected news still came as a shock, one almost as strong as when she had called me more than a year ago with the bad news that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I am trying to take comfort in the fact that he went into remission for a year, that he was able to play two more concerts, and continue to care for his wife, my aunt Lillian, that he had the chance to put his long and accomplished life on the record in video.

I am trying to take comfort in that delay, from that surprising extra year, but it is hard to face up to the fact that he is gone. As I said, gone too soon.

Marcel Chojnacki, as we all know very well, was a remarkable man. Orphaned by the evil of the Holocaust, he not only built a life in his adopted country, the life he built was a full and a giving life, steeped in the grace of love and generosity of spirit.

Together with his wife Lillian, he made of their home, 5150 Boulevard Sainte Rose, the most welcoming home it has been my pleasure to visit (and to live in, more than once). The door at 5150, literal and proverbial, was forever open — as Marcel would be the first to tell us, were he somehow able to speak to us from the beyond at his own memorial. Make no mistake, he was a proud man, if one with very much to be proud of. And that is the difference between pride and hubris; the former is based on accomplishments, the latter on mere self-regard.

Kidding aside, 5150 is a beautiful symbol for the life made by mon mon oncle Marcel Chojnacki. Little more than a shack when Lillian and Marcel bought it in the early 1960s, 5150 Boulevard Sainte Rose grew bit by bit, as Marcel built his own life from the ruins of his monstrously destroyed childhood.

His home (their, was a mansion of the spirit, filled with music and art, with food and with drink — speaking of pride, no doubt there are few here now who have not had the pleasure of drinking Marel's wine, of eating his break — and, so often, with guests. With friends and with family (and unlike too often in this world, the two were often one).

My uncle was a generous man, but not to a fault. Though he was an artist — a dancer who painted, and later a musician in honour of his late son Daniel, he was also a husband and a father, a provider and later on a caregiver, who knew the importance of living in the physical world as well as the artistic.

Life for all of us, if we are to be full human beings, is a matter of balancing matters of the spirit with the exigencies of the real world. Better than most, mon mon oncle accomplished that and more.

During the last year of his life, it was my pleasure and privilege to interview my uncle on video, documenting his many stories for posterity and, yes, for my own selfish desire to know him better than I already did.

As we all know, he had a lot on his plate, and looking back at our third session, in January, he seemed a little tired; I think he was already starting to get sick again. Yet, he was kind, he was funny, he was (yes), generous, insisting on feeding us and even taking us on a trip out to the Oka cheese factory.

I'm going long, and feel as though I haven't scratched the surface of the man I knew for my entire life. But really, what are we here for except to say goodbye? And so I say, Salut, mon mon oncle, je t'aime.

Young Geoffrey scatters his uncle's ashes
Young Geoffrey scatters a handful of Marcel Chojnacki's ashes, May 30th, 2019.

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Baby and me

Catching Up on Death, Death, and Life, Part II

Farewell to Steven Smith

Photo of Steven Smith with his wife and daughter
Photo of Steven Smith with his wife and daughter. My guess is it was taken circa 2014 or 2015. Provenance unknown, snagged from Facebook.</a>

Yes, this catching-up day continues with a second death, that of Steven Smith. He was 56 years old.

The notification was both concise, stark, and moving. I'd like to quote it, but his wife posted it under a Facebook friends' lock, so I will not break that confidence. Suffice it to say, that the first person to befriend me after I came to Toronto as a 14 year-old boy died this past July 6, 2019.

I found out on the 9th of July and on the 10th, I posted the following.

__________

My news feed is replete with the word, shock. And shock is very much what I have been feeling since, some time this afternoon while on a down time at work, I learned that my oldest friend, Steven Smith, had died this past Saturday, of a heart attack.

Two or three years my senior, Steve was probably the first person to befriend me when I moved to Toronto to attend SEED Alternative School.

He was loud, he was funny, he wore his insecurity on his sleeve, making his weakness into a strength.

As teenagers, we shared interests in politics, science fiction and chess. We marched for peace, contemplated trips to Africa to search for Mokele-Mbembe, talked literature and music.

Steve welcomed my very insecure 14 year-old self into his (o! they seemed so much older then!) group of friends and, in so doing, changed my life irreparably - for better and for worse (but mostly for the better, I still believe) - opening door after door after door for me.

Somehow, for a while, I became his confidante, listening with wise nods and occasional noises meant to say, "Go on," as he spilled his heart about loves, both requited and un.

In time, we grew apart, as friends almost always do, though never in anger.

The last time I saw him was at his home, the same house he had lived in when we first met. This was shortly after he had married Anna, a year or two (or three) before the birth of their daughter. It was a party, and I was at a low point in my own life. There were a lot of people there and we didn't talk that much before I took my quiet leave.

Since then, I changed cities and our occasional intentions to get together (a canoe trip three years ago; drinks or food last fall) didn't work out. But I wasn't concerned. "Next time" was forever just around the corner, a permanent promise.

But of course, nothing is really permanent. Not a star, not a stone, and certainly not a life.

I mourn his passing, and my heart goes out to his family. Maybe you have to actually reach middle age to understand the depth within the truism, that life really *is* short, all too god damned short.

Rest in peace and power and laughter, old friend.

Photo of Steven Smith, spring 1982
I took this photo of Steven Smith in the basement at 224 McCaul Street, in Toronto, late winter or very early spring 1982.

__________

Steve was a political activist, father to a nine year-old daughter, husband, and tireless Facebook radical, willing to engage (and engage!) with just about any and everyone about politics. I sometimes thought of him as a personal attack dog, the way he would leap to (usually) support something I'd posted when someone would deign to disagree with my wisdom.

He was also a heavy smoker, and he was not the first of my peers to die of a heart attack. A cousin, an ex-girlfriend, an acquaintance from the days when I hung out at open-mikes in Toronto, all perished of the same damned thing — cigarettes. And I'm sure there are others who's deaths either passed me by or elude me just at the moment.

Needless to say, I attended the funeral and wake, taking a train to Toronto.

The service was very well-attended, with some mourners having to find seating in the gallery of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields church on College Street. Unlike my uncle's funeral in May, this was a much more chaotic affair, with an open mike for people to speak until time ran out.

I won't try to reconstruct the service at this late juncture, but will note that Steve was mourned as he live: by an incredibly diverse group of people, ranging from the obviously upper middle-class to people who might have been homeless.

And, he had a very distinctive, phlegmy chuckle (think of Sesame Street's Ernie, if he was a smoker) and at some point about mid-way through the service, when someone on stage mentioned, someone in the pews immidated it. And the entire crowd cracked up; I only wish that we had all been quick enough on the updake.

The wake was something else again ...

Unlike my Uncle Marcel's closed casket funeral, we were told to expect to see Steve's body at his wake.

As usually happens at weddings and funerals, for those on the periphery, the event is as much about renewing old acquaintances and friendships as it is about mourning. After the church service a few of us — which quickly became about 20 — hied ourselves to the corner of College and Bathurst and Sneaky Dee's, where cheap food and beer where consumed, and around 4:00 PM, my old friend Caron and I stopped at the local beer store then grabbed a cab.

The yard of Steve's three-story Annex house was crowded, and so was the hallway that led to the living room, past the first-floor bathroom and into the kitch. I dropped my case of beer among a crowd of bottles and comestibles, too a bottle for myself and then headed back out to the front yard.

Caron asked me if I'd "seen Steve". I shook my head, no. "Where is he?"

"In the living room," she said, "you walked right by him!"

I had to find out, of course. And now, forewarned, I saw him, laid out on a table under the small living rooom's window.


Photo of Steven Smith lying in state on July 26, 2019, the night before his final journey, to be buried outside Killarney Provincial Park.</a>

I've only seen one body before, that of a cousin I barely knew, when I was asked to identify his body (another victim of smoking, he died in his mid-40s, heart attack). I hadn't been sure how I would feel upon actually seeing the corpse of a man who had been my friend.

But in truth, it was remarkably healing. Three or four times over the course of the evening, when the room was quiet, I found myself stopping to simply commune with him. Or with myself, I guess, when you come right down to it. Yet I reached out to touch his cold, waxy hand and found that comforting, too.

There is a lot to be said for having the opportunity to say goodbye, even if the conversation is entirely one-sided.

__________

And yet, life goes on. Next up on catching up: Birth!

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