Losing a parent, a sibling or a close friend is always difficult. I lost my younger brother in 1993 and I know that it feels like part of you has been torn out. But there is another type of people that I also find very painful to lose. These people were not necessarily very close to me, but they were people who had a profound influence on me, on who I am: they helped shape my life. When these people die, it also feels like a part of me has died or been torn out. I’ve lost three such people over the last few years and here I’m going to honour each one of them by talking a little bit about who they were and how they influenced my life. I hope those readers who are part of my extended family will recognize them and perhaps agree with how I perceived them. As for other readers, perhaps you will find some inspiration to go and influence others around you like these folks did for me.
The first one I lost was uncle Dave. Dave and his family moved away to New Brunswick when I was a young kid but I continued to see them a couple of times a year. They would come and visit us during the summer vacations and the Christmas holiday season,and we would go visit them every other summer or so. Dave was a wonderful fun-loving man who loved to laugh and play practical jokes. But above all, Dave loved kids. He always spent a lot of time with us and would let us do cool things, like drive his car around the campground or go swim in the local river. He treated us kids as equals so I saw him more as a big friend then as an authority figure. In a sense, Dave was the father I wished I had. My own father is a very good man and I love him, but when I was a young kid he was working 60 hours/week to provide for us and he just wasn’t very present for me. Dave was not only the cool uncle, but he was also the dream father (to me anyway, not sure how his own two kids saw him).
But Dave influenced me in a much more fundamental way. He was single-handedly responsible for instilling in me a love of science and technology. When I was about 12, he spent time with me in his workshop explaining how things like diodes, resistors, capacitors and transistors worked, and we did small projects together. That year he even bought me a Radio Shack 100 Electronic Experiments kit and a Chemistry Kit. This launched me on a path to study Applied Science in college and it was instrumental in me later becoming an Air Force pilot and then for my second career in information technology.
After I joined the Air Force and moved out west I only saw Dave every few years or so, but he nonetheless still held a special place in my heart. Dave died way too young of an unfortunate medical accident. I can still see his smily face and he obviously still influences my life to this day having shaped who I became from an early age.
The second such influential person I lost, only recently, is uncle Roger. I was never really close to Roger since he was a busy executive and he lived in Montreal and I lived in Shawinigan and then Quebec City, but we often saw each other at his lake cottage in the summer. I also helped him with his personal computer when he spent time in Quebec City on business. Roger and his wife Fleurette were the most beautiful couple I knew. Deeply in love with each other and that love transpired to everyone around them. They were the epitome of love, gentleness and tolerance, and very supportive of their own kids even when they embarked on what was at the time very controversial lifestyles that my own parents were scandalized by. Roger was also a very smart man with a thirst for knowledge, an intellectual who studied all his life. He loved nature and became an expert in mushrooms, even helping start the Montreal Mycological Society. Roger was a distant role model to me, but he was the kind of man I aspired to be.
Roger was unfortunately afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, a horrible disease that I think is doubly tragic for someone of his intellect. They say that Alzheimer’s is far worse for the victim’s loved ones than it is for the victims themselves and I believe it. This disease slowly took away Roger from his beloved Fleurette, devastating her. The last time I saw him he didn’t even recognize me, but I will always remember his gentleness, his intelligence and his loving nature. I still aspire to be half as good a man as he was. He died a few years ago from his disease.
The third influential person I lost is uncle Fernand. Last time I saw was in October 2010 during our visit to Canada and I can tell you that the Fernand we knew and loved was gone forever. Fernand was also afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and it was progressing very rapidly. The previous time I had seen him, two short years before, he had no short term memory left but he still had all his strength, sharp mind and fun-loving personality. Alas, he died a year later, just a couple of weeks ago.
Fernand was a simple, unassuming man and I didn’t know him much when I was a kid. I really got to know him in my 20s and 30s. He began occupying an important place in my life after I joined the Canadian Air Force. By this time Fernand was a victim of the massive closures of industries that happened in Quebec during the 80s. He was forced into early retirement while in his 50s, which was devastating to him. He also decided to leave his wife around this time, walking away from a joyless and lifeless marriage when his only daughter reached 21 (something he had actually announced he would do 7 years earlier!) Rather than feeling sorry for himself he took this opportunity to realize a life-long dream and go live on the shores of his beloved Lac des Piles. From this point on Fernand lived a simple life close to nature and with a woman he loved and who loved him back without judgment.
I admired Fernand for his courage to leave his joyless marriage despite the fact that most of his sisters disowned him for doing it. He was a picture of happiness living by the lake with his lover, even though they had very little money. They took pleasure in each other’s company and in the beautiful nature surrounding them. He led a healthier lifestyle and got by with what he had, never asking for more. He thought me the importance of love and happiness, of not wasting your life on bad relationships or the pursuit of wealth, of taking risks and of living your life for yourself and not to please others.
My wife Diane and I spent many weekends at his lake house before we got our own cottage on the lake and then many wonderful dinners in his company after that. Every time we would come visit from out-west we made sure we spent plenty of time with Fernand. I have many fond memories of night-walks in the snow, and excellent food and wine mixed with great conversations and lots of stories from Fernand’s storied life. He always expressed interest and admiration for our own globetrotting lifestyle while politely acknowledging that he preferred his own low-stress and simple life. He was an important part of the process I personally went through over several years, ultimately leading to my own decision to get out of the rat race and live a simpler but more meaningful life close to nature and my lovely wife. Fernand was more than an uncle, he was a very good friend. I was simply floored last October when I saw how quickly he deteriorated in two years. He went from a strong man with a fun-loving and bubbly personality, to a wilted-up and frail old man with the mind of a child. Our old friend Fernand had already left us then, and now he is truly gone.
This brings me to a further comment on Alzheimer’s. We mostly hear about how this horrible disease slowly deprives its victims of their memory beginning with short-term and progressing to long-term memory, eventually regressing into childhood while taking away the intellectual powers of the victim. This was poignantly depicted in the film “The Notebook”. What this film fails to show though is the physical deterioration that often accompanies the mental deterioration. We also don’t hear much about how the personality, the essence of the person slowly fades away. Seeing Fernand last October brought that home to me, really hard. And for those who still cling to the notion that the “essence” of a person is encapsulated in an eternal soul that survives us, surely, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases should make you reconsider that position. We now know, without a shred of doubt that the essence of a person, his or her personality, intelligence, memories, values, etc., all come from the electro-chemical processes of the brain. And when these processes start breaking down, the essence of the person disappears with them.
Here’s to your memory Dave, Roger and Fernand. Your minds may have been extinguished forever, but the essence of who you were lives on in those you loved and influenced. You all had a profound influence on me that I will cherish until my own death. I can only hope to have had a similar influence on other people during my own life.