I remember exactly where I was when I got the news my older brother Doug had died. It was the Monday of Labor Day weekend, 2011. I was at my home, a 28-acre forested property in Mulmur Township, southeast of Collingwood.
The telephone rang, and I answered. It was my eldest brother Peter calling to tell me Doug had passed away earlier that morning.
The news both did, and did not, come as a shock. After having a stroke-like memory loss one August day in 2010, Doug spent some time in the hospital before being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Chemotherapy beat back the disease for a bit, but his health began to decline again, leading ultimately to a stay in a hospice before the day of the fateful call.
So the call was not unexpected—and yet, the final confirmation of what we dread is always, in its own way, an unwelcome sort of thing.
What made Doug’s death sting all the more was his age—he was only 58, and that seemed much too young.
Doug was six years older than me. Losing him really made me think about my health and my future, and became one of the motivators—although not the only one—that drove me, three years later, to take early retirement at age 55.
Doug, on the other hand, had opted to continue working, although he too could have taken early retirement, albeit with a reduced pension. As his health declined, I fretted that he’d made the wrong decision. Doug owned a large rural property, and had harboured thoughts of spending his retirement days puttering around doing this and that. It struck me as unfair that he never got the chance.
I remembered so many family Christmas get-togethers where he’d either been absent, or been there on loan, his pager clipped to his waistband as though he were some sort of corporate gun-slinger ready to take on trouble at the drop of a hat. He worked too hard, I told myself. He never got the chance to really enjoy life.
A heart-warming number of Doug’s friends, fellow nature enthusiasts, former fastball teammates, and co-workers showed up to the visitation, the memorial service, and the Celebration of Life afterward in the local Legion hall. As they made my way to the line in the visitation, or stopped and chatted with me in the quiet confines of the Legion hall, the attendees offered condolences and often, a shared story or two. It was the anecdotes, particularly those shared by co-workers, that lifted my spirits a little.
The stories shared by his co-workers clearly illustrated that Doug was one of those fortunate people who truly loved his job. They spoke affectionately of him as their “big brain”, the quintessential problem solver. They shared stories of his mentorship, his dedication to the job, and his forthright but fair way of dealing with people at all levels in the organization. They talked about the enjoyment he got from wrestling a thorny problem to the ground.
Some of the anecdotes were simple, some almost trivial—yet individually and as a whole they provided comfort. The respect and affection with which Doug’s co-workers spoke of my brother told me that he’d had a second “family” away from home—one that had cared deeply for him, and looked out after his interests.
It seems such a small gesture on their part, to come to a visitation and memorial service and exchange words with the family, yet these insights were inestimably valuable to me. Those comments and shared stories proved to be an unexpected gift that moved me closer to accepting my brother’s fate, bridging a gap I likely wouldn’t have been able to span on my own.
I got to thinking that maybe, in his own way, Doug would have preferred to go out at the top of his game, rather than fading off into the sunset. Perhaps retiring would have left a void in his life—who was I to say? Either way, I now realized I had neither the right nor the responsibility to pass judgement on his choices. Finally, I found myself able to let go of the bitterness I’d felt on his behalf.
It’s been just over seven years since Doug passed away, yet I still find myself thinking of him often. I miss his quirky sense of humour, his ability to reel off abstract facts, and the deep enthusiasm he radiated when talking about his favorite pastimes and interests.
And yet, I also realize that he lived life on his own terms. Sure, he never got to retire. But he worked at a challenging job that he deeply enjoyed, and in that much, he was a lucky guy.
Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in a variety of venues, including four Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, Small Farm Canada, Star*Line, Dogs of War, and The Future Fire. She has self-published a collection of creative non-fiction and poetry entitled A Trail that Twines: Reflections on Life and Nature, and also wrote St. George’s Lawn Tennis Club: The First Hundred Years, the history of a tennis club in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia