Like most Canadians, I reacted in shock on July 25 when Jack Layton held the news conference where he announced, “I have a new cancer…” His appearance, compared to the Jack Layton we had seen in the spring election only weeks earlier, looked like twenty years down the road: eyes sunken, cheeks hollow, obvious significant weight loss—we all could see the signs and we knew he was in very big trouble.
The raspy voice spoke of fight, of optimism, but few of us felt it. I gave him until October. It was a second shock last Monday when the news came that he had died. Fast. It scares us all.
This week, we have been seeing a groundswell of reaction to his death: crowds gathering, comments being left, flowers laid, flags at half-mast. Yesterday saw lines blocks long to see his casket in state at the parliament building, and it’s likely to be more significant in Toronto. I have to commend Prime Minister Harper on his decision to order a state funeral for Jack. It was not a generous gesture as much as a quick appreciation that Jack was special to the people, and to not expand the response of the Canadian government beyond the normal “rules” would be something that would invite a backlash.
I couldn’t help but see a parallel, in many ways, between Jack’s death and that of Princess Diana—I will explain. The unexpected massive response in England to her passing called up the label of “the people’s princess”. In a smaller way, the reaction to Jack’s death pops up the label of “the people’s politician”. It seems apparent that Jack’s honesty, his optimism, his energizer bunny enthusiasm, his record of on-the-street attention to the issues of homelessness, AIDS, poverty, and the working person’s welfare endeared him to so many people, whether they voted for his party or not, that it has provoked an unusual grief. It appears that the surprising strength of the NDP in the last election was due in a significant way, certainly in Quebec, to Jack rather than to the party or its policies.
While I would not like to strongly relate Prime Minister Harper to the Queen (I’ll leave aspirations of future royalty to him), unlike the Queen at the death of Diana, he or his advisors picked up early on the mood of grief, responded appropriately, and avoided the backlash from the people that Elizabeth felt when she failed to perceive that the people wanted, needed, something more.
A good deal of the response triggered by Jack’s death has come from the perceived “unfairness”. Right at the time when he had won the most significant gain in the history of the federal NDP, right when he seemed to have beaten prostate cancer, when he managed to struggle through a debilitating hip problem, when his party routed the Bloc in Quebec, all but annihilated the Liberals, when he moved into the official residence Stornoway, when the voter notion of, “I’d vote for them, but they will never be the government” was possibly on the way out—after all that we get, “I’ve got a new cancer.” It runs the marker quickly from unfortunate to tragic.
That’s cancer. No respecter of persons, no care about its timing.
I’ve naturally thought at this time of my friend and former co-counsellor Wendy. Completed her masters degree in counselling, married in late June in a beautiful outdoor ceremony at her home. She and husband Brian starting a new life together. Then the back pain. The useless medications from the doctor that did little good. The bone scan on Valentines Day that revealed cancer, Ewing’s Sarcoma. The desire to fight it, as Jack did. Prayers going up by the thousands. The doors closing one by one, slamming shut. Stage 4. Metastasized to her brain. No hope.
She died only weeks later, on the Saturday of the Easter weekend. I have always thought that appropriate, if it must happen. I read a comment once that, “We all live on the Saturday of Easter, between the Death and the Resurrection.” Nine months, almost to the day, after her wedding. One of my friends was best man at the wedding, pallbearer at the funeral.
You only remember a few things from your education, certainly a tragic thing for teachers to appreciate, and these things differ by person. I can recall an English professor I had, a wacky fellow at times (but they are often the best), who one day was commenting about the social environment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and spoke of the wars, the unrest, the extreme poverty, the sometimes hopeless situations that many people endured. He said something along the lines of our having things easy now, and then paused and added, “But I guess I shouldn’t say that… we have cancer.”
I don’t know where his comment came from, whether he and his family had tragic experience in that area or not. And I don’t know if it is true, as we have evidence of cancer, at least in the form of tumours, being with us for centuries. Most of us would have to feel, however, that we seem to have it far too often these days.
It seems one of those ultimate diseases, one that we can’t easily blame on invading creatures from outside, like bacteria and viruses, but on the very tissues of our body turning on us. Betrayal.
And although it shows up more with age, none of us seem immune, from the two year old through the teenager to the older. It makes no appointments, and while some fight it for years, sometimes successfully, others like Jack and Wendy are struck down at a speed that scares us all. It doesn’t care if you had been at your lowest low, or had experienced the happiest time of your life. It sometimes spares the lifetime smoker who abused his body his whole life, while felling the health addict.
I can recall that there was a television show many years ago called The Millionaire (back when a million was really significant and interest rates were more than one percent). The typical plot of the show was the story of a person or a couple, faced with a trying situation where they seemed headed for disaster. At the eleventh hour, an emissary from a very wealthy man would arrive and present them with a check for a million dollars. Suddenly, everything was changed.
Cancer is that show, but turned on its head. In the midst of people’s happiness, their triumph, their finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, they get the stab of pain. They’ve been visited, and suddenly everything is changed.
I once gave the message at a local church with my topic being the insecurity of life. At one point I asked the congregation, “Who can guarantee you will be here next Sunday?” The only one raising her hand was a challenged girl sitting near the front, who was absolutely sure she would be. No one else had the recklessness to guarantee life that far. Near the end of my message, I secretly triggered my cell phone, hidden below the pulpit, and rang the church phone. It was interesting to see the sudden attention and concern on faces when everyone heard the ringing from the phone in the hall. The brain immediately runs through its routines: Where are the kids? Who has been hurt? Who’s on the road? The concern for the safety of our family, the thought of a knock on the door after midnight, the call from the doctor’s office about the tests, the unusual pain that should have gone away by now—these fears are not buried too deeply in many of us.
Jack left a legacy of work for the people of Canada, and a final letter composed only hours before he died. While it is a bit strong on his party—he couldn’t resist getting one more message out—it ended with what will perhaps last longer: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Words to live by. Even with cancer.