Author’s Note: I’m sad to report that FUB passed away on May 27, 2014. The world is a dimmer, duller place without him.
There is a man I know.
His name is Robert.
Or as we like to call him FUB – Funny Uncle Bob.
Funny because he is witty and bright. Even in a serious discussion with Bob, there will come a point when you find yourself laughing. Maybe a chuckle, but more often than not a belly laugh, a laugh from the heart.
Bright because he is a spark. He creates, he paints, he draws, he writes. He is an artist, an inspiration, a giver, a friend, a husband, a father, a grandfather.
He’s not actually my uncle, but the dearest and closest of family friends. If I were to ask my parents, I’m sure they would recall the moment when they first met Bob and his wife Carol. For me, and I think for my sisters, it’s as if Bob has always been there. There is no first moment, there just is.
In 2010 my parents received the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts. Each recipient of a Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards is allotted a number of tickets to the events held for honourees. The number in our group exceeded the limit because my father lobbied to ensure he could include Bob and Carol.
Our four days in Ottawa were magical. From evenings in the bar, to Question Period in the House, to receptions and galas, Bob’s wry gaze, Bob’s singular perspective, Bob’s irreverence enhanced and enlivened every moment.
Bob’s generosity of spirit has spilled over into his interactions with my son who is an emerging artist. During a visit to Hornby Island in 2008, we went on walks together and we would sketch en plein air to capture the golden aura of Helliwell Park and the shimmering blue of the ocean. I was even required to join in and put pencil to paper!
Bob also sat down with my son indoors and they drew together in the creative stillness of common purpose. It was mentorship of a seven year-old to show what it means to observe as an artist, to be diligently aware of your surroundings, and how to express what you’ve seen for others to experience.
This past summer, my mother, my son, and I went out to visit Bob and Carol at their home. It was an opportunity for my son to see Bob’s studio, to have a look at Bob’s world, the world of a successful artist. My son was whisked away upon arrival and when the two rejoined us for lunch, my son was clutching canvases, drawing paper, and pens. Gifts from one artist to another with the most priceless one being the encouragement to do.
That’s Bob and he has decided to discontinue chemotherapy. He is at home with his family and he is embraced within a circle of love which extends beyond the boundaries of time and place.
His name is Robert.
There is a man I know.
And thus it shall be forever.
Math was not my favourite subject in high school, but I was proficient with the material presented. Decades later a modicum of what I learned is hardwired for my general use, but don’t ask me to explain an advanced concept and please save me from anything that has to do with calculating probabilities.
One formula that has stuck with me is d = rt or distance (d) equals the rate of travel (r) multiplied by time (t). And while familiarity with the relationship between these three factors comes in handy for planning, lately I’ve been thinking about the formula’s applicability in a different way.
Because I think the distance we travel daily contributes to the feeling we have that life is hurtling by us at breakneck speeds.
On days when I teach, for example, the 25 kilometre journey to SFU’s Burnaby campus takes me about thirty minutes each way if traffic is flowing smoothly. That’s nothing compared to those who may commute in to Vancouver from the Fraser Valley or drive down each day from Squamish or ferry over from the Sunshine Coast.
Compare that to the daily distance my Grandmothers would have travelled as young women, my paternal Grandmother in rural Lebanon and my maternal Grandmother in rural Jamaica. Until they married, their circle of travel likely extended no further than 10 kilometres, by foot, over the course of a day.
We have extended the distances we travel dramatically and not just for essentials. How many consider a drive to the Bellis Fair Mall, a three-hour roundtrip from the Lower Mainland depending on border waits, a simple excursion? Or consider how cavalier we have become about booking vacations requiring hours if not days of travel?
So if the distances we traverse have become more extensive, and if you accept that our time is fixed (not just in the sense of 24 hours a day, but in the finite sense of our mortality), it would seem that the factor which has changed the most with regard to our day-to-day is r, the rate.
And that may help explain why it feels like we are living at a faster and faster rate, one which increases with each passing year.
Is it any surprise then, as we’re preparing to celebrate the arrival of the new year, that many of us wonder what happened to the old one? How is it that we are celebrating graduations when it seems like just yesterday we were celebrating the births of the children in our families?
And nothing drives home the finite nature of time as much as the loss of those around us, whether people we’ve known and loved, young and old, or strangers from far away whose images fill the news.
That’s why it’s vital to recognize, sooner rather than later, in our instantaneous 140-character world, that we do not have another now.
And unless we take control of the speed of our life, it will pass by in a blur.
My maternal grandfather, Mr. Mike as he was known, passed away in 2008 at the age of 104. Yesterday, October 9th, would have been his birthday. These are the words I spoke at his funeral four years ago.
“As you can see, I’ve written a book. But, before I start, let me say one thing. Looking around at this incredible gathering, the one person I know who’s having the time of his life, wherever he may be, is Michael Khaleel George Azan.
My name is Reema and I’m Mr. Mike’s granddaughter. My mother is Y., Miss U as she’s known in Spaldings.
I hope, as C. and I speak, you’ll hear the echo of the many voices speaking with us today, the voices of all Mr. Mike’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
When I asked my 7-year old son what he remembers most about Grandpa Mike, he answered: “He was very old and he sat a lot.”
I know how lucky my son is to have known his great-grandfather well enough to have memories of him.
But I’m sad he didn’t know Mr. Mike the way my cousins and I did.
Mr. Mike, until recently, was not a guy who sat a lot: he loved to move, he was loud, he was vivacious, passionate, strong, loud, he loved to travel, he was loving, full of energy, brimming with confidence, and … loud.
Grandpa Mike was a force of nature and it seems only fitting that we remember him today, September 10th, which I’ve read is the peak day of hurricane season.
He was a man of the earth. Born in Lebanon and living in poverty, he once told me he “walked four year barefooted.” His footprints are embedded in the very soil of our world: in Europe as he made his way to his new island home in 1922, in Jamaica – his home for 86 years, or in Canada and the United States where he visited family.
He was a man who enjoyed the bounty of the earth. If there ever was a man who gloried in the pleasure of food – and was deeply thankful for every mouthful – it was Mr. Mike.
In the morning, he would have a glass of water, a cup of hot strong coffee and two bananas. And that was before breakfast. My cousin D. remembers him in the kitchen, in his white undershirt, mixing Fatoosh, a Lebanese salad, in a huge aluminum bowl to feed members of the family who would gather around the tables set end to end to accommodate everyone.
On Friday nights, Uncle V.’s family would travel up to Spaldings for dinner. V.’s son remembers how Grandpa Mike made him feel special by making sure that even as a child he was included in the conversation.
It was that ability to make people feel special that made Grandpa Mike such an expert salesman, or as my cousin G. says, “he could sell water to a fish in a pond”.
No one who knew Mr. Mike could deny that he had fire in him. You know that if there was music, it wouldn’t be long before he’d get up to dance.
At his 100th birthday celebration, my sister remembers how his eyes twinkled as he watched a belly dancer perform. When he tried to join her, his children urged him to remain seated. He shrugged them off, got up to dance, twirling his white handkerchief around and around.
Mr. Mike loved his family fiercely, and he had a temper, one that chased many a customer out of his store.
I remember visiting Jamaica as a young girl of 11 and being utterly fascinated by the store. I remember it as a dim cavern of treasures: men’s fabrics, women’s fabrics, cotton panties, housewares, lace, thread, mixing bowls, brooms, ribbon, and buttons.
My favourite part of the store was the mezzanine where there were boxes and boxes of shoes, some easily twenty years old.
I remember the magic of the place: it was a dragon’s den and Mr. Mike was the fire-breathing guardian. He used his voice to bellow his disapproval, and my cousin D. remembers that he also used brooms, pots and pans, and even shoes which he threw down the street after the people running away.
Mr. Mike was so physically strong. My cousin L. remembers his “hugs were so tight you thought he broke a rib and the kisses that were so hard, I swore his beard cut my face open.”
He was also a man of beliefs. The essence of his philosophy, as described by my cousin S., was his love of God, his love of family, and his love of friends.
I believe that part of Mr. Mike’s longevity was his innate curiosity about the world and an appreciation for all the things in it. This is a man who had no formal learning, but he was always asking questions.
And he never seemed to forget a thing. I once asked him to tell me about Spaldings when he first arrived. According to the notes I made, here’s some of what he told me: “Eggs was 6 pence a dozen, meat was 6 pence a pound. A big loaf of bread was 9 pence. 9 pence was money.”
Earth. Fire. Air. These, according to ancient philosophers, are considered the principal elements of nature along with water. I like to think of life as a river. You’ve got to jump in and go with the flow.
Most of us are tempted to reach out and grab a branch or a log to get to safety. Not Mr. Mike.
I believe he was fully immersed in the river of life and trusted the current to carry him.
The word hero is thrown around a lot in our world. But sometimes I think the most extraordinary people amongst us, the true heroes, are those like Mr. Mike, who live in contentment, who take joy in their family and friends, and who work on behalf of their community. Who ride the ups and downs of life, who take the good with the bad, and who smile every day.
Mr. Mike used his voice to share his stories with all of us. Sadly, we’ve lost that voice. He didn’t have the ability to capture those stories with words on a page, but he had pictures. He was obsessive about pictures. I think that’s because they were his diary, his journal, his testament. He could look at them and say: “I’m a good man. I’ve lived a good life. These are the ones I love and this is my life’s work.”
We are his life’s work: his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren. And to him we were – we are – masterpieces. Flaws and all. And, if we’re smart enough, and if we love enough, as we go about our daily lives, we will hear the echo of his footsteps, the echo of his voice, and we will feel the echo of his arms around us, and the echo of his heartbeat, here, inside each and every one of us.”