Monday, May 11, 2009


My step-father Jim passed away on April 30th. He had been sick for a long time—I think I’ve mentioned it here before—so this wasn’t unexpected. My mom has now dealt with the death of two husbands; my father, who died suddenly of a heart attack when I was young, and now my step-father, who finally succumbed to a long illness.

I’m not really sure what I want to write about it, so I’ll just put down some random thoughts.

I went back to Chatham on April 26th. We knew it was the end, by that point; he wasn’t really conscious, because they were keeping him comfortable by giving him lots of morphine. So there wasn’t much I could do for him, but I could provide some relief to my mom. She was in the hospital 24/7, but with me there, she could leave for a couple of hours to go home and get a shower, and maybe run some errands.

I probably spent more time with him in that last week than I did for the last few years of his life. Mostly I just sat by his bed, reading a novel—The World According to Garp, if it matters—and helping out when I could. Occasionally he would wake up and ask for some water, or some ginger ale. Or ask me to turn the fan on. Or he’d take his oxygen mask off—he hated wearing it, although he did better with it than many other people do—and I’d ask him to put it back on, or help him put it back on.

And occasionally he would stop breathing. Those were the tense moments for me. I’d be sitting beside the bed, hearing his laboured breath, and suddenly it would stop. I’d look over, wondering if it was the last moment, and then he’d start back up again. And then I’d breathe my own sigh of relief, and go back to my book.
Speaking of which, as mentioned, Jim was very good at keeping his oxygen mask on. He had to wear it all the time, and it became very uncomfortable, but he mostly kept it on. Once in a while, though, just for a break, he’d take it off. He may not even have been conscious of doing it; it was just a reflex, and he wasn’t that lucid to begin with.

But any time he’d do it, I’d give him some time, and then say, “Jim, you have to put your mask back on.” And he’d normally just put it back on. Once in a while, he’d be unable to do it, for whatever reason; the tubes would get tangled up, or he just wouldn’t have the strength. When that happened, I’d help him put it back on.

And I learned how useless I am, when it comes to caregiving. A simple thing like helping someone put their oxygen mask on was difficult for me. Because he had the mask on all the time, he had started to develop sores above his ears, where the elastic went across, so the nurses had put some kind of salve on them, and some gauze under the elastics. It took me a few tries to try and get the gauze right. All you had to do was put the gauze under the elastic, what could be easier, and yet I didn’t find it intuitive.

Once, when trying to get the mask back on, it was giving me some trouble, and I apologized. “Sorry,” I said to him, “I haven’t quite got the hang of this yet.”

“Me either,” he replied.

Another time, when putting the mask back on, I accidentally let go of the elastic, and it slapped into him, right on the sore spot above his ear. That was possibly the worst part of the week, for me; inflicting more pain on him was the last thing I wanted to do!
I got home from the hospital, the first night I was in town, wondering what I would be able to have for supper. It was 9:00, and nothing is open at 9:00; so I decided to stop by Sobey’s and pick up a steak, which I would BBQ for myself. My parents keep the BBQ in the garage—so that Jim could BBQ even when it’s raining, or in the winter—so I went out there to fire it up, and start cooking. And that’s when I realized: All of Jim’s oxygen tanks were in the garage. I was sure that it wouldn’t cause any kind of… you know… explosion, if I lit the BBQ. And yet… not so sure that I could bring myself to do it. So I brought it out into the driveway, instead, and did my steak there.

Later on in the week, after Jim passed away, we were all at home and Mom decided that she wanted steak again. Susan’s boyfriend Craig was there, and I mentioned to him my hesitation to start the BBQ around the oxygen tanks, and he told me not to worry about it; he and Susan had been smoking in there, and there hadn’t been an explosion, so we’d probably be fine. (He works in HVAC, so I figured he probably knew what he was talking about. And I was happy to keep the BBQ in the garage, since it was raining out.)
Eventually the end came, and it was how I had always sort of assumed it would happen: He passed away quietly, in the night. Mom was sleeping beside him, on her usual cot. The nurses woke her, to tell her that he was gone, and in her groggy state, she didn’t believe them at first.

I’m not sure, but I think this was the best way for him to go. Mom was there, with him, but she was asleep, so she didn’t have to witness his final moments.
Although Jim was my step-father, he wasn’t… how do I put this… he wasn’t the “fatherly type.” He wasn’t the type to teach me things, or do fatherly things like that. He did, however, teach me one thing. Sort of. I learned how to tie a tie from him.

I never knew how to tie one, so when I moved out and came to Toronto, he pre-tied one for me, and loosened it, and I brought it with me. Whenever I needed a tie I would slip it over my head and tighten it up. Eventually, though, I wanted to learn how to do it myself, so I “reverse engineered” it; I slowly untied it, in such a way that I figured out how he’d done it. And that’s how I learned to tie a tie.

However, it wasn’t the “proper” way to tie a tie. Either he did it in a more simplistic way, or I just didn’t get it right, but any time I tied a tie, it always came out slightly wrong, because of the way that I tied it.

Before Jim’s funeral, my uncle saw the way I’d tied my tie, and showed me the right way to do it. I saw this as highly ironic; one of the only things I ever learned from Jim was how to tie a tie, and when I went to his funeral, I showed up with my tie tied in a different way than what I had learned from him.
Jim had some tattoos on his arm, and on the knuckles of one of his hands. He’d always had them, as long as I’d known him; he must have done it very young. In fact, it seems to be a family tradition, because most or all of the men from his side of the family seem to have done it.

What I didn’t realize, however, is that he was embarrassed about them. I found out when we were making funeral arrangements, because he had requested that my mom have them fold his hands over each other, to cover up the tats.
That’s all I can think of to say on the subject. But I was also tasked with giving the eulogy at his funeral, so I’ll round out the post by including it here.

On behalf of the family, I’d like to thank you for your love and support at this time. We’re here to remember the life of a man whom I recently described as the strongest, most stubborn man I ever met, Jim Titus.

In theory, this should probably be the easiest eulogy to give. I know that Jim wouldn’t want me up here for too long, and that he wouldn’t want us to dwell on him, so I should be able to get out of here pretty quickly. In practice, though, I have the task of summing up the life of a very complicated man, and I don’t know if I could do that even if I had an hour. (I promise, I won’t be an hour.)

Actually, if any of the men in the room ever had their hair cut at Gord’s barber shop, they may know Jim better than I did. He didn’t have a whole lot of hair to cut, but what he did have, he liked to have it cut at Gord’s, because he loved shooting the breeze with the other men there. Which always shocks me, when I think of it, because Jim was a man of few words. The idea that he’d spend an afternoon shooting the breeze is surprising to me. To give you an idea, let me recreate a conversation I had with him every year, on the phone, on his birthday:


“Hi Jim, it’s David. I just wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday.”

“Thanks. … Do you want to talk to your mother?”

Part of the reason that he didn’t like to talk might have been that he was going deaf. Well… selectively going deaf. It was hard to have a conversation with Jim, if you were in the same room with him, but if you were talking about him, when he was in the kitchen, he could apparently hear you perfectly. Mom had mentioned times when Jim was in the hospital, and she’d be out in the hall talking to the nurses about his medication, and he’d shout from the bed to correct them on what medications he was on.

Jim was a maintenance millwright at Eaton Yale for over 35 years. He also became the Union Steward, while he was there, and I know that this gave him a lot of pleasure. I only got to hear about issues from his side, of course, but I got the impression that Jim was very interested in fighting for what was right. He would fight for his people, and whenever he won a battle on someone’s behalf, he would come home very happy. He would get annoyed with people who wanted to fight for silly things, and I think the main reason is that these little battles would get in the way of his fighting for important things. There are a number of people in this room who I never met until this weekend, but I heard Jim mentioning your names at the dinner table, as he thrilled about the victories he won for you.

While he was at Eaton work took up much of his time, but the rest was devoted to family. Anyone who knew him knew that his family was very important to him. Jim had two sons—Eric and Danny—and two step-children, myself and my sister Susan. He also had a granddaughter, Kate-Lin. I know that Jim was very proud of all of us, and especially proud of his granddaughter. And when the family expanded—when Eric added his wife Marla, and I added my wife Andrea, and Susan added her husband Craig—Jim was more than happy to include them as part of his family. Jim also loved the pets in the family, especially his dog Charlie, whom you’ll notice in many of the pictures around the room; when Jim did relent, and allow his photo to be taken, he usually wanted Charlie—or his new puppies, Sam and Seth—in the picture with him.

Speaking of pictures, it was difficult to find pictures of Jim to put up for you, because, even though we have thousands of pictures back at the house, most of them were taken by Jim himself, so there aren’t many that include him. He had an amazing ability to capture great pictures, and although he went through a few cameras, and did trade up from time to time, he didn’t spend a lot of money on camera equipment. He just had a good eye, and skill with whatever camera he was using. Eric and his wife Marla were commenting just the other day that Jim’s pictures of their wedding were just as good as the photographer’s.

But I haven’t yet mentioned the most important person in Jim’s life, my mother and his wife, Carmen. (Jim’s nickname for her was “Charmin’.”) There were times when Jim might have been called crotchety. There are times when he might have been called grumpy. But there was never a time that I ever doubted his love for my mother. Jim was incredibly supportive of Mom: when she went back to school at the age of 37, when she opened her own law practice, when she joined the Rotary; in anything she did, he was always supportive.

As you all know, Jim had some health problems, which eventually caused him to leave his job. However, this did not stop him from living his life. Quite the contrary; whereas many people would have decided to take it easy, and catch up on their TV, with whatever strength he had, Jim used his free time to the best of his ability. (That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy his TV. I’m still ashamed to admit that at one time he used to not only watch, but tape, the Jerry Springer show.) But Jim began taking trips with Mom; he joined the Masons and the Shriners; he helped Mom out with Rotary. I’m sure many of the people in this room never even met Jim until after he’d retired, because you met him through some of these activities. The idea of stopping to rest just honestly never occurred to the man. He also took up coin collecting with a passion—which was a huge blessing for the rest of us, because it finally became easier to buy presents for him, at Christmas. Probably the strongest memory I’ll have of Jim is him on Christmas morning, Charlie on his lap, using a magnifying glass to look at his new coins. Other presents, which he was supposed to be opening, would gather at his feet, as he’d examine his new find.

All of his energy worked out to my benefit, because one of the areas in which he directed his energy was cooking. Jim was always a great cook, and my side of the family will probably miss him most when Easter and Thanksgiving come around, because he could cook a turkey like nobody’s business, and he made amazing stuffing. I’m hoping he passed on some of his recipes and expertise, but even if he did, none of us will have the natural skills in the kitchen that he did. It was just one of his gifts.

As mentioned at the beginning, this was a poor summary of Jim’s 61 years with us; it’s very slanted toward my own memories of Jim, and doesn’t even begin to touch on his life before entering my family. Everyone in this room could probably come up here and share a story or anecdote about how he touched our lives.

However, whatever your individual memories of Jim, it’s safe to say that we’re all remembering the same man. There wasn’t a “public Jim” and a “private Jim,” Jim was the same man for everyone who met him. A man so full of life that even now, seeing him in this room, it’s hard to believe that he’s not going to get up, tell a joke, and go back to the kitchen to make coffee for us.

I think the biggest testimony to his life, however, is that I’m up here talking about the many things he did, and not his illness, or his time in the hospital. He spent much of the last couple of years in and out of hospitals, and I’m very happy to note that that’s not how I was remembering him, as I wrote this. Jim accomplished a lot; he touched a lot of people’s lives, and he helped to shape ours, and I’m grateful to say that that’s what I’ll remember about him.

I might have cried, as I wrote this, but I spent more time smiling than crying. And he would have wanted that, too.