Last Monday we got word of two deaths. Both men died of cancer. We first got to know both men in 2003. One was a person I never met but felt like I knew, the other one was someone I talked to on a daily basis but never really felt like I knew at all. The first was Federal NDP leader Jack Layton, and the second was our next door neighbour, John.
There’s not much I can say about Jack Layton that hasn’t already been said better by others elsewhere. Jack Layton was a fighter, and he fought for the very people who had the least power: the homeless, battered women, HIV/AIDS patients, the aboriginal community, the elderly, the poor. The list goes on. I’ll never forget his spirit of optimism. Back in April, I wrote a post about the Vote Compass software and I called Jack Layton “trustworthy but delusional“. It just goes to show that it’s a good thing that I don’t make my living as a political pundit. I was the delusional one. Not only did I not foresee the Conservative majority (or maybe I was just wishfully hoping it wouldn’t happen), the Orange Crush of the NDP and the destruction of the Bloc and Liberal Party weren’t even in my realm of contemplation. I’ll never forget watching Jack Layton’s victory speech, and the sense of optimism and hope I felt that night. To learn in late July that Jack needed to take a leave to fight another form of cancer, I wasn’t immediately worried. He’d been down this road before, and I knew he’d get the best care possible and that he wouldn’t, couldn’t leave us now, not at the very pinnacle of his career, at the cusp of making a real difference as the Leader of the Opposition. So it was all that much more hard news to receive when we heard on the 8 a.m. CBC news that Jack had passed away. The outpouring of grief across the country, the chalk memorials, the tributes, matched my own personal grief and sense of loss. Through my tears, I said to Marla, “Isn’t this silly? I didn’t even know him.” “Sure you did”, she said. “We all felt like we did”.Contrast this with our neighbour John. Our neighbour across the back called me over that night to tell me that our next door neighbour John had died while we were away on our vacation. Like Jack, John had battled prostate cancer the year before, and like Jack, it was generally thought the cancer had been beat. I knew something wasn’t right when John and his wife Marie had returned a month early from their winter holiday in Texas, but John wasn’t one to talk about his health directly to me, and I didn’t feel like I should pry. Our last conversation was in May when Marla’s Dad was parked outside of our house. His van and trailer were laden with things from my Mom’s old neighbour, and John was concerned that Marla and I were getting divorced or something. “I saw all that stuff, the mattress and everything, and I got worried you were moving out”. We had a little chuckle over it, and that was it. After that, his health took a turn and we never saw him out for walks or puttering in his yard. Soon, we only saw Marie out walking the dog, and then we didn’t even see her that much.
John and Marla rarely saw eye to eye. John would constantly spray his yard with harsh pesticides and herbicides, and Marla would rush inside and close all our windows. When Marla hung a bird-feeder in our yard, John hung over the fence and told her she’d never get any birds. The next day when I pulled into our parking pad, I thought I was coming onto the set of a Hitchcock movie, there was so much avian action. He was a gas lawnmower man, and I was electric. That pretty much sums up our relationship. There was a lot of “fence hanging” with John. He wasn’t a tall man, so he had a little step-stool he’d use when he wanted to talk. He was like a sitcom neighbour, really. When John asked me if he could store his trailer in our yard, I didn’t immediately give him an answer, so it took Marla to be the “heavy” and tell him no. When Marla had me dig a little garden the first summer we were in our house, John told her nothing would grow. I think Marla took some pleasure in bringing over some fresh cucumbers to him that fall.
Still, I feel like I’m not painting a balanced picture. When we first moved into our house, we didn’t have a lawn-mower, so he offered to lend us his spare one until we got sorted out. A year later, he wanted to replace the fence between our yards. I understand that it is neighbourly etiquette to pay 50/50 for a fence. John said, “No worries, I remember what it was like to be young and not have a lot of extra money. I’m the one that wants the fence, I’ll pay for it.” He even respected Marla’s wish that a tree that straddled our property be saved and built the fence around it. I saw a different side to him when his beloved dog, Sasha, passed away. It’s always unsettling to see grown men cry, and I was surprised a few weeks later when barking resumed next door. “Meet Sasha!” John shouted over the fence. “But, but, didn’t Sasha die?” I asked myself. From that day forward, Marla and I have referred to that dog as “Sasha 2”. It could bloody well be “Sasha 13” for all we know. Over the years, he would come over and warn Marla when he’d be spraying, so that she’d have time to close the windows or leave altogether. In the last year of his life, he built his own garage in the back, and offered to build us one too, if we paid for the materials. I was really thinking of taking him up on that when the cancer returned. Aside from our conversations over the fence, I never really knew him at all. In the eight years we’ve been neighbours, I’ve never been over to his house, and he never was in ours. When we first moved in, I had him pegged as the type of neighbour with whom I would have a beer on our deck. I guess I missed my chance. I’ll miss our chats as we both tried to have the nicer lawn, and struggle I had in finding common ground with him. There was no obituary in the paper and there was no service. I still imagine him puttering when I’m out BBQing.
Two deaths. One disease. Two very different men.