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Life, Death & Hope: A Salute to the ‘Courageous’ Jack Layton

On Friday I quoted The Toronto Star‘s reference to Rick Mercer as one of Canada’s great educators.

They must be right, for this morning I woke to the sad news of Jack Layton’s death, and my first thoughts were of Rick Mercer.

No, not really.

But a lot of what I remember about Jack Layton came through The Rick Mercer Report.

In the 2008 election campaign, RMR did a spoof of the candidates with child actors representing each of the party leaders. My favourite part? When child-version Stephane Dion showed his stamp (or coin?) collection and child-version Stephen Harper walked along and smacked it out of his hands.

My second favourite part? Child-version Jack Layton, left hand in his pocket, right hand emphasizing his words, ‘Canada needs strong leadership, I’m strong like the Hulk, I can lift rocks!’

That last statement has become one of those things David and I say to each other when we need to do something hard. Next to Alex Burrows’ ‘obviously,’ (just watch any Burrows post-game interview, or Luongo, for that matter, they insert ‘obviously’ every five words or so), its probably the most repeated phrase in our house.

This past weekend, while installing new closet doors in our bedroom, or hauling our kids up the hill to Prospect Point in Stanley Park, we puffed out: “we’re strong like the Hulk, we can lift rocks.”

I felt a bit sheepish this morning when I read that Jack was no longer with us.

But only for a moment.

The next moment, I realized that perhaps there was more truth than fun to that spoof, at least when it comes to our now-passed leader of the Official Opposition of Canada.

Jack was strong. Jack lifted rocks. Figurative ones, maybe, but he dared to lift them.

The last images of Jack Layton were eerily familiar image to me. He looked so much like my dad did, only days before he died.

My dad also died at 61. My dad also died of cancer.

Though we knew it was coming, my dad’s death was also sudden. Shocking, even. He was given three months. He lived only three weeks after that. He also went downhill over a weekend. He also died in the wee hours of a Monday morning.

It also rained a lot the day he died.

My dad believed in things. He was passionate. His personality had ‘force‘ (as Stephen Harper said earlier today of Layton).

And though his illness and death have forever left our family not quite the same, cancer made my dad better.

We’ve had a lot of elections in Canada recently. Though annoying, it allowed me to become more familiar with the parties, their platforms (when they had any), and their leaders.

And, from what I saw, cancer made Jack Layton better.

Following his first bout with cancer in 2009, Layton’s speeches were more focused, peaceful, and strong. He showed even more concern for Canada, its citizens, its future, and its environment. He was more bold, more daring, less afraid.

He gained my respect even though I didn’t always agree with him.

And he accomplished an election outcome this past June that has changed the course of Canada’s history.

As many of you have read, Jack spent at least part of his last days writing Canada a letter.

He ended that letter with what is sure to become his most famous words.

‘My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.’

In a world that runs from pain, in a society that fears suffering, in a culture where challenges seem to make us bitter and not better, Jack Layton shows us that perhaps our best can come when we encounter the worst.

My dad’s last days were filled with similar sentiments. He was happy, peaceful, and fun his last hours. He laughed with us. He spoke words over me that I’ll never forget. Some people always wonder if their fathers approved of them. Because of my father’s last words, I’ll never have to wonder.

His last words? ‘Why are you crying? I’m going to lick this thing.’

Cancer – even the face of death – can make us better.

The oldest book of all has this great line: ‘suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.’ Jack Layton and my dad believed in very different things. But both let suffering produce hope.

Years ago, that wasn’t true of me.

Years from now, I sure hope it is.

Jack was strong. Jack took on things only the Hulk would try. Jack lifted rocks.

And, Canada is better for it.

Thanks, Jack. We’ll try to do the same.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Margit Mackintosh #

    Thanks Lana for a wonderful blog! Actually all of them are great–many times you have made me reflect on your words and I always have good intentions to reply, but I have to think for a bit what I want to say and then days go by replies. But today I wanted to comment right away as my pondering reflections came quickly. My Dad too passed away quickly from cancer last year. From initial diagnosis to the day he died was 4 weeks..and on a Monday as well. He was 81, not 61. He was a very proud and humble man who always wanted to do for others rather than accept help for himself. He came to this country as an immigrant and truly loved this country. I cannot tell you how many times over my lifetime he and my mother would tell me and my sisters how lucky we were to live in Canada; they lived in the Okanagan and would tell everyone they lived in God’s country. I was there his last week and as he laid in his hospice bed, he had a view of the courtyard and the hills surrounding Penticton. He stared quietly out those windows and I so wanted to “see” what he was looking at. I was afraid to ask him. I wish I had. But when we left for home, 3 days before he died, he said to me he was fine, was not afraid to die because his life had been good and to be happy in the life I wanted to live. To have no regrets. Thanks Lana for making me think of this again and to Jack for loving this country like my Dad did. And in a way, reading of how Jack could lift rocks, reminded me that my Dad always “lifted rocks” for us.

    August 22, 2011
    • Thank you, Margit! I so appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I am also so glad you shared such this story about your dad. I love that he thought Canada was ‘God’s Country.’ I think Canada could use a little more patriotism! I love it when I see people love Canada for what it IS more than for what it isn’t. Yes, cancer can be swift. But sometimes the swiftness is mercy, considering what agony the long, drawn-out kind can be. And Jack Layton did do a lot for us. I’m actually pretty proud of him.

      August 23, 2011
  2. I didn’t always agree with Jack, and I never voted for him, but I did respect him. His success in his last election was undeniable, and I appreciated that he stood up for his values unwaveringly. Sometimes I rather wish that he had been the leader of another party 😉 I think he made a lot of people proud to be Canadian. There’s one clip CTV NewsNet kept showing of him in a debate and he’s asking Michael Ignatieff how he can get away with having the worst attendance record in the House of Commons. The best line ever – “Most people, when they don’t show up for work they don’t get a promotion.” Absolutely priceless.

    August 23, 2011
    • That line is fantastic! I hadn’t heard it before. “Most people, when they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.” I love it! I think he did a great job of gaining people’s respect even when they disagreed with him. And really, there’s something to be said for that. Too often we disagree with someone, therefore, we disrespect them. But respecting someone when we – even vehemently – disagree, that says something about us, and something about them. I want to be that kind of person that respects/is respected even when I’m not the same as those around me.

      August 23, 2011

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