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Jack and Rita

When Jack Layton passed away on Monday, August 22, I was in the U.S., visiting my Grandma Rita, who was dying.

As such, I didn’t find out about Mr. Layton’s death until later that evening, courtesy of This Magazine and Twitter.

To say I was upset would be an understatement.  Since I was already emotionally raw from seeing the state my grandmother was in, I spent the next half hour scrolling through my Twitter feed with tears streaming down my face.  Jack’s final letter to Canadians, in particular, really did me in. In addition to the shock and sorrow I felt, there was a healthy dollop of guilt.

You see, Jack Layton was someone whom I always took for granted.  He wasn’t my MP, I hadn’t ever met him, and I rarely gave much thought to him outside of election time.  Yet, I always expected him to be there to fight for the things I felt were worth fighting for, to say the things I felt needed to be said, to take the stand that I wanted to be taken. (And he was.  He was always there.)

In many ways, I took my Grandma Rita for granted, too.  I didn’t see her very often, I only spoke to her when my dad dutifully made his bi-weekly phone call (my phone contact with her stopped when I moved out of the house), and I only very occasionally asked about how she was doing. To my – meagre? – credit, once I learned that she was starting to deteriorate, I asked about her more often.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t love my Grandma; I did.  It’s just that I loved her “from a distance”.  I don’t think it’s too strange to say that, in a way, I loved Jack “from a distance”, too.  I loved them both in the way that you love people whom you don’t see or talk to regularly, but whom you think of fondly, and always keep a place for them in your heart.

Grandma Rita died peacefully on Wednesday, August 24th.  My family arrived at the nursing home within ten minutes of her death, so we were able to say goodbye.  I was not able to say goodbye to Jack Layton along with the thousands of Canadians who lined the streets of Toronto and filled Roy Thomson Hall yesterday afternoon, because I am still in the United States.

My family have spent every evening since Grandma Rita’s death drinking wine, eating ice cream, telling our favourite stories about her, and laughing.  Although we grieve, we are choosing to celebrate her life, rather than mourn her death.  I do not know how Jack’s family are dealing with his death, but I hope they have been able to find some joy and laughter amongst all the pain.

Experiencing two major deaths this week has sent a million words and phrases swirling inside my head:  life, death, legacy, family, celebration, loss, move forward, hold on, be strong, take responsibility, act.  I’m still trying to make sense of it all, but I have figured out at least one thing:

There is no better way to honour loved ones who have died than to live your life according to their most cherished values.

In his letter, Jack Layton left us a crystal clear example of the things he valued.  Grandma Rita wasn’t quite as specific, but I know she would have been overjoyed to see all of us sitting around the dinner table every night, sharing good food and wine, laughter, and love.

So I have decided to follow these directives, from Jack and from Rita:  change the world, and love your family.

Both of these are easier said than done, sometimes.  Still, I think I’ll find that doing one will help me do the other.

I bet Jack and Rita would agree.

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