Friday, January 25, 2013


On January 7th I went back to work after two and a half weeks (give or take) of vacation time. It had been a good rest, and I was ready to go back. I was on the subway on the last leg of my morning commute, and as I was standing on the platform at St. George station I saw a young teenaged couple. They got on with me, and, since the train was so crowded, I witnessed their interactions all the way from St. George to Union.

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I see couples all the time on the TTC, we all do, but there was something special about these two kids. The intensity of her gaze when she looked at him, the obvious devotion and longing in her eyes, it was palpable. It was a good sign for going back to work; new beginnings, intense experiences. Life. But then in the middle of the morning I found out that the person who had been more intensely alive than anyone I’ve ever known, my grandmother, had passed away from a heart attack. It was a shock; she’d just beaten cancer at the age of 80—which surprised us all, despite our optimism—and was now home from the hospital. Foolishly, we all thought that she’d be around for years to come; though a heart attack after chemo therapy is actually pretty common, it simply didn’t occur to us that there would continue to be complications. We shouldn’t have been shocked, but we were. So shortly after her 81st birthday, she passed on.

Below is a transcript of the remembrance I gave of her at her funeral.

We’re here today because of our love for my grandmother, Shirley Harris. Everyone who ever met Grandma loved her, which is a remarkable thing. I find that most people I meet tend to like me, and that’s true of many in our family, we’re likable (and good looking). I obviously inherited the likeability from her but I got it in a smaller measure; lots of people like me, but everyone who met Grandma loved her, instantly and deeply.

I also tend to speak my mind, and I think I inherited that from Grandma, too. I sometimes wish I’d inherited more of the former and less of the latter because she carried it off better. When we were looking around at Grandma’s house for photos and photo albums, we found a little plaque that says, “Shirley: Cheerful Heart.” Every person in this room knows how true that was of Shirley Harris, and I’m sure that’s how we all remember her.

What might be even more remarkable is that the feeling was mutual: she loved us. It’s not enough to say that Shirley loved everyone in this room. It was obvious that she did; she made it obvious. Aunt June mentioned to me yesterday that Shirley loved her grandkids, she talked about it often, and that is a fact that I’ve always known with certainty, my entire life, that my Grandma loved me and cared for me. She made it clear to me every time I saw her. When I first moved to Toronto there was a show on City TV called Speaker’s Corner: they had this booth where people could come in off the street and record little videos to air their opinions or sing a song or whatever, and the station would put a bunch of the videos together for their show. Grandma watched the show regularly, not because she expected me to record a video but just on the off chance that she would one day see me walking by in the background, while someone else recorded their video. It’s the perfect example of both Grandma’s quirkiness and her love for me. All of the grandkids will have similar stories, because when Grandma told us that she was thinking of us all the time she meant it, she really was thinking of us all the time.

This extended to our significant others as well. Andrea, and Craig, and Andrea, and Krissy, have all expressed how Grandma made them feel welcome, made them instantly feel like they were part of the family, as if they had been part of it forever. Craig mentioned that this is the type of thing that we all want to do when someone new comes to the family, we all strive to be like that, but with Grandma it was a core part of who she is. It’s rare to meet someone who naturally and genuinely makes you feel so included. Before any of these four people had even decided if this was a long-term relationship, they were already getting Christmas presents from Grandma. Sometimes the presents were somewhat bizarre, she’d have been the first to tell you that she’d lost touch with what kind of presents would be good for our generation, but even gifts which were silly were well thought out silly. She didn’t just buy any old thing, if she bought you a present you know that she spent a long time in that store, trying to get just the right thing.

Obviously it wasn’t just her grandkids that she loved. We were talking yesterday about the fact that family events will never be the same without her, there will be a Shirley-sized hole in any family events from now on. I joked that the one nice thing is that at least we can leave quicker; Grandma’s routine of saying goodbye to everyone while Grandpa warmed up the car was always a long process. But then on the ride home last night I was thinking about how much I enjoyed accompanying her around the room as she said goodbye to everyone. Nobody ever left a family event wondering how Grandma felt about them; she made it clear. She loved all of you, and I don’t think any of you ever doubted that for a second.

But even to say that she loved people doesn’t quite go far enough. I have never heard Grandma say a bad word about anyone. I know this is a funeral and that’s the type of thing that people say at funerals, but in Grandma’s case we all know that it’s not an exaggeration, and I don’t think there’s anyone else I know that I could truly say that of. There was such a genuine warmth to that woman, which was a joy to see. It was also a joy to see other people meeting her for the first time, and encountering that warmth; I’d grown up with it, so I was used to it—it’s just how she was—but people meeting her for the first time were always in for a pleasant surprise.

I can also say that Grandma’s love of people was more than just general good feelings that she felt for people, it was personal. She had a great memory—I did not inherit that from her in the slightest—and I heard people mentioning yesterday that Grandma would meet them on the street and talk to them, and ask after family and loved ones. She remembered people, and remembered how she knew them, and remembered facts about them. Her stories could sometimes ramble, but she didn’t get lost in them. If she started a story for a reason, she’d get back to it. Eventually.

So it’s not surprising, with all of Grandma’s love for people, that she also loved to have a good time. It’s remarkable how many people I talked to yesterday who mentioned that they loved partying with Grandma. I don’t have any stories to pass on to you about that—if you really want some, Aunt Helen might be able to tell one or two—but I know that it’s true that she loved a beer now and again. But only half as much as she enjoyed two beers. I can’t speak for her teenaged years but I never knew her to be vain, except that she was always sure to make sure her hair was done, and it would bother her if she had to go somewhere and couldn’t get a chance to get it done. I hope that it’s done now the way she’d like it, because it’s probably the one part of her appearance that she’d worry about.

What I keep circling around is the fact that Grandma was always so alive. We were all shocked by her death because of the circumstances, beating cancer at the age of 80 and then succumbing to a heart attack a couple of weeks later at 81, but I think we’d be in shock regardless of the circumstances of her death. She was always so alive that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that she no longer is. It makes us confront mortality in a very direct way; if she can die, of all people, then it makes us all come to terms with our own mortality.

If I didn’t have my faith in God I don’t know how I would process a death like this. But the God who proved that He was in control of her cancer also showed that He was in control of her life, just as He has a time appointed for all of us. This is a death I’ve been dreading for a long time, I don’t want to have to lose Grandma, but He provides comfort. As we all mourn the loss of Shirley Harris, and process what her death means to each of us, it’s also appropriate to approach God on His terms, and seek what comfort He has for us.