2016: My Walk to Remember 

Everybody dies… but how many people live?

William Wallace (Braveheart)

When I look back at 2016, I really find it hard to say that it was one steaming pile of crap. Yes, I will say that the time between getting the news that Joelle was terminal because the cancer was so aggressive right up to her passing in November were not happy times, they were indeed joyful. Yes, focusing on Joelle’s death can indeed make 2016 look like a pile of suck, but there is one thing we all need to remember about 2016: Joelle lived more in 2016 than most people I know do in their entire life.  

As soon as Joelle discovered that her time here on earth was limited, the first thing that we did was plan a trip to Cuba where we would make our decisions, or more to the point that she would make her decisions and I would stand right beside her, supporting her, right to the end. Every decision was made with a drink in hand. This was blogged in Life’s Moments and Pina Coladas which I wrote sitting by the pool on my BlackBerry. I remember her saying, as we were sitting in a beach chair facing the ocean, “I’m going to live!” This wasn’t a deluded statement meaning that she was suddenly going to be cancer free and we would grow old together. I knew what she meant: she was determined to not take each day she had left for granted. She was determined to squeeze every bit of life out of what was left in that bottle. 

And she did, right up until the day she died. 

Anyone who knew Joelle, knew that Joelle was all about family. She was in Alberta visiting our daughters and grandchildren more times than ever, maximizing every moment she could. She even cashed in her RRSP, and set up what would be her final trip to the mountains with all of our children and grandchildren. She went to Israel to see her family there, and they gave her a party and everyone come to be with her. When Joelle started to get worse and traveling got limited, she held parties here. There were people who traveled to Guelph just to be at her “Celebration of Life” party in July. When the doctors were no longer sure if she would make it to October for that mountain trip, countless people made it possible for her to celebrate what would be her last birthday at Great Wolf Lodge with all of our kids and grandchildren as well as Joelle’s brothers and sister and their families. Joelle wouldn’t back down, after that. She was determined to make it to the mountains for that final time to be with her kids and grandchildren, and that determination paid off. We all went and had a great time there, despite the difficulty for her to travel or even pack a suitcase. 

We also can’t forget our kids and grandchildren that flew out here when Joelle wasn’t able to go out there. Cassidy and I had some great tines this summer going places such as East Side Mario’s and having some quality grandfather –  granddaughter time. Not to mention Connor being here as well as all of Margot’s children. All of them gathered around Joelle this past summer. So there are plenty of joyful moments and Joelle squeezed every moment she could.

Even up to the end, everyone who knows Joelle knows that Joelle was Joelle right up until the final day. She was barking orders at me, even if she couldn’t speak. She was laughing, trying to sing out her love for God which made me melt. Bottom line is that Joelle lived.

So while I am sure that no one would blame me for wanting to watch 2016 become nothing more than a glowing ember, I am not going to say that 2016 sucked. If anything, it was more like one of the tear-jerker movies that Joelle and I would watch and cry over when the main character dies at the end. And I will not deny that there were plenty of great scenes leading up to it. 

The Greatest Gift You Can Give

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’  Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?  And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?  When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’  The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

Matthew 25:35‭-‬40 NASB

For the longest time, I had always wondered that if Christmas is such a joyous holiday, why are there so many people suffering from depression during this time? Unfortunately, I got the answer this year in a way I had never in my life hoped to receive. I found out in the worst way possible. I can go as far as to say that I have been put in those shoes and am living it, and I certainly didn’t believe that life would be like this two years ago. If you’re like me two years ago, just try to imagine the future holiday celebrations without the person or people that you hold extremely close to your heart. In no way am I trying to scare you. I’m just telling you just how uncertain life really is and tomorrow is not guaranteed for everyone. I am obviously not the first person to get the answer the hard way and I unfortunately won’t be the last.

So, now that I managed to hit you with a little bit of holiday pain, with sincere gratitude that you let me, what can you give anyone who is suffering in what is supposed to be a joyous holiday? Not just me. There are plenty others around you if you are willing to look around not with the eyes in your head, but with the eyes of your heart. You might be thinking, “Oh, I’ll just buy them something special.” Well, I hate to tell you this, but that won’t make anyone feel better. You see, that is the way the world wants you to think. “Buy someone a gift and everything will be alright” is one of the biggest lies that Satan could ever unleash upon this world, and yet the world laps it up like a thirsty dog at a water bowl. Commercials everywhere telling people they deserve something for Christmas, whether they buy it for themselves or get it from someone else. And if that doesn’t make you happy, then you need something else because that is guaranteed happiness. Guess what… it isn’t. In fact, stuff doesn’t fill you with happiness. It just makes you more empty, because the more you have, the more you want. Honestly, there is nothing you can get me that I could not get for myself and I wouldn’t be happier if you got it for me than if I bought it.

So where am I going with this? It’s simple, really. There’s only one gift that you can give a suffering person that lets them know you really care: spending time with them. It’s the one thing we treasured most with the person who meant so much to us. We’d give up almost everything for just one more day with them. In a way, I was grateful to receive this gift of knowledge in the last few months with Joelle, knowing that no amount of money or anything else I could offer for that matter would bring her back so it was spend every day I could with Joelle before it was one day too late. And even after she was gone, all of the people who would come and just sit with us while we were in mourning was one of the greatest gifts they could ever give to us. Some of them would try to find the right words only to discover that there are none, and yet we didn’t care because all that mattered was that they were with us. Others would ask if there’s anything they could get you, when all that really mattered was just them sitting with us. Some people made the journey from Waterloo to Toronto just to be with us. Many of them would just sit and listen to us talk. They would listen to me tell story after story about Joelle. That to me was worth more than anything else they had in their hands when they walked in the door. Even at this time, if you came over and you just watched a movie with us, and said nothing during the entire visit, it would mean more than anything else because you were there. Recall that I said in my previous blog post that true love is giving everything you have without any expectations of receiving anything in return. Spending time with someone is telling them that you truly love them because you are giving them everything at that moment knowing that you will never be get that time back.

So, if you are looking to give a suffering person something special for Christmas or Chanukah or whatever you are celebrating, then it is time to get off the social media and get more social. Trade Facebook for face time. More greets than tweets. Stepping out of MySpace and visiting someone else’s space. I’m sure you get the picture by now. Go visit someone and give them the gift of your time. People are suffering this time of year not because they don’t have something. We’re suffering because we don’t have someone. It’s usually that someone who could make our day brighter than the most sunniest of days. They made the celebration that much more joyous. Yes they are deeply and sadly missed, making it real hard to even want to celebrate. However, your time is what helps us through these once joyous, but now difficult to celebrate holidays. It just might help us rediscover the joy of celebrating once more, and give us the strength to face a new season just as those we deeply miss would want us to. It gives hope to those who have lost their hope. And don’t think that you have to do something or say something to make things better. Just being there takes care of all that. And even if you have a hard time seeing their appreciation, believe me, they are very appreciative even if it doesn’t show. 

You might not think that you are giving much, but to those who are suffering you are giving a lot. 

Learning What Love Is and Isn’t 

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.


1 Corinthians 13:4‭-‬7 NASB
 

As I face what is clearly about to be the worst days of my life, walking the body of my wife, my best friend, to its final resting place, I am holding on to the love that Joelle and I shared throughout our thirty-six years of knowing each other. I can truly say that it is that love that is the greatest gift in my life and I am so grateful to have experienced this love. 

One never forgets their first crush. When I was eleven years old, I admittedly had a mad crush on a girl, who I will simply call Andie. Despite thinking at the time that I was head over heels over her, Andie told one of my friends that I didn’t know what love is. Being as young as we are, talk about someone who seemed wise well beyond their years. It was true. I really didn’t know what love was at the time, and it has taken me a lifetime so far to figure it out. While there are a lot of things that I my relationship with Joelle taught me what love is, there are also a lot of things that I have learned what love is not. 

I have learned that real and lasting love takes time. In fact, it takes lots of time. Television and movies have us believing that we are able to find true and long lasting love in the course of two hours, if not less. Is it any wonder why the divorce rate is so high? Joelle put a decal on the wall in the front hallway of our house that every one of her wedding clients would see when they first walked into our house. It read:

Love at first sight is easy to explain. The real miracle is when you are able to look at each other the same way after twenty-five years. 

I can say that after all of the years, I didn’t just look at Joelle the same way. I looked at Joelle with far more love than when I first fell for her, and I fell for Joelle far harder than ever. There were a lot of events in our lives. Plenty of great events, such as witnessing the birth of all of our children. Also, plenty of not so great events, and periods of struggle. I stood by Joelle as she was finding herself through her many businesses and eventually standing beside her in one of them. Did we fight? Oh yes! Some were doozies. But the one thing we learned to do was not run away. At the end of the day, we ran to each other. Throughout all of the things we went through, my love for Joelle grew stronger day by data . My love for Joelle was far more than a movie. It was a journey that we shared together.

I know that we shared true love when it got put to the test for the last twenty-one months we would ever be together here on this earth. 

First, with my leg injury rendering me immobile for 10 weeks. I felt so helpless and never found myself depending on someone to take care of me for almost every chore from the simplest such as preparing my meals to the dirtiest such as embarrassing bathroom assistance, Joelle did it and never gave it a second thought. I felt so bad feeling that she had been reduced to doing these duties that I was so dependent on. Joelle just looked at me and said, “for better or for worse”. I could almost feel my heart melt. She even made my first time being able to go out of the house a momentous occasion, driving me down to Hamilton and putting me in a wheelchair and taking me to see Robin Mark in concert and meet him after the show. We even celebrated beforehand by going to The Keg and when they asked if we were celebrating anything, she excitedly said, “we’re celebrating his first time out of the house since his injury”. It made me realize all of the amazing little things she did for me throughout our lives together. Not to mention all of the amazing things she ever did for our children. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, she went so far out of her way all because of love. She never questioned it and she never walked away no matter how tough the moment got. 

Then the worst happened: her seventeen month long battle with cancer. My heart sank to the pit of my soul. I cried endlessly wondering how the hell could someone so giving and selfless be inflicted with such a punishment? I felt that I deserved it, and not her. With a strong resolve, I swore that I would never leave her side. I would stand beside her in her fight, no matter how tough, not realizing just how tough that battle would be. I went down with her to her first few chemotherapy treatments. Then it got harder. I saw how sick she was getting from all of the poison running through her body. Her two surgeries, one planned and one unplanned, were nothing short of heart wrenching. Late nights at the hospital and traveling home at 3am, because I wanted to know that Joelle would be resting and would be okay before I would make that 100Km trip. In time, the duties increased because of the surgeries and chemotherapy. I had to start learning new duties as I promised her that I would be her caregiver and take care of her no matter what. I started realizing what love was all about. Real love is giving without any expectation of receiving anything in return. It was that same giving that Joelle gave to me when I was helpless. I found myself doing wanting to do anything for her so willingly and without any notion to question or complain about what needed to be done. I gladly took on more and more as I saw Joelle was able to do less and less. I remember her crying, apologizing for putting me through this and I kissed her and said “for better or worse”.

“For better or worse” became a familiar phrase that I held in my heart. While I hoped deep inside that things would get better, reality was that things were getting worse. Yet, the worse things got, the more I wanted to ensure that she would be happy and comfortable. Despite feeling overwhelmed and starting to need a bit of respite time, I didn’t really feel like my needs mattered because I would eventually be faced with all of the free time that I never wanted. I wanted to have as much time with her and be the husband I wanted to be. I felt that this was my last chance. At this point, love meant being sacrificial. It boiled down to what I was willing to give up for the woman I truly loved. Personal music time had to be put aside along with changing a few routines. I used every vacation day from work to spend as much time as I could with Joelle. Even in the face of a company policy change of turning one of our Christmas break days into an unpaid day unless we applied a vacation day to it, I chose to use that day for spending with Joelle, because a day with Joelle was far more valuable than a day’s pay and I would totally regret trying to cut my time with her in order to save some money. If anything, I wanted to be with her as she celebrated what would be her final set of goals, regardless of what it would cost. 

True love isn’t about butterflies and fairy tales. True love is sharing both life’s triumphs and trials. True love is unconditional love even when the one you love feels unloveable. True love is about the willingness to stand beside the ones that you love as they suffer and suffer with them. It is about giving them everything and expecting nothing. It is about doing the jobs you swore you’d never do, and not give it a second thought. It is about never leaving their side no matter how tough the battle ahead is. It is about walking with them, and possibly carrying them, right to the end, even if it means carrying the pain of knowing that you will never be able to look at their face, other than a picture, or hear their voice outside of a recording, or feel a daily 20 second hug. Love is keeping the promises you made, even if you secretly hoped you wouldn’t have to. And anyone that believes that love doesn’t hurt has never fully experienced the feeling of their heart being ripped in two as they say their final goodbye, or the empty void that was once filled with their presence that lit up even the darkest places of your heart. If you think all of the above sounds like a lot of pain, think again. It is the most beautiful experience one could ever have. 

So yes, I learned what love is. I experienced love in its truest form and I am grateful to God for it. My love experienced with Joelle had taught me how God must have felt when Jesus died on the cross. Not to mention how much God loved me enough to sacrifice His Son on the cross. To me, it is a love so beautiful and probably only happens once in a lifetime. However, if you ask if I would ever go through everything that I went through all over again in the name of true love, I probably would because true love is worth it all.