Farewell to Steven Smith
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.
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.
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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