My late mother was only 19 when my father asked her to marry him, young even by the standards of the 1950s. They’d known each other only a very few months. She answered him, “If you’re sure, I’m sure.” Through his lifetime of 81 years, my father’s extraordinary sureness became a rock upon which everyone who knew him rested and trusted.
That rock cracked Monday May 27, at a little past six o’clock in the evening. After a struggle of a little less than seven weeks, my father—a lifelong nonsmoker—died of metastatic lung cancer.
At the beginning of April, he had been in Florence on one of his famous art-sleuthing expeditions. Seven years before, my father had scored one of the great coups of his art-collecting career. He had bought a Baroque bronze of a crucified Jesus. The bronze, heavily overpainted in black, was dismissed by art historians as a product of the “Italian School,” meaning a sculptor too insignificant to merit a name. My father’s friend, the art historian Andrew Butterfield, conclusively proved that the piece was the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the great builder of papal Rome—indeed that it was Bernini’s own personal devotional icon. The piece now overhangs a central gallery of the Art Gallery of Ontario, my father’s gift to his beloved native city of Toronto.
Now my father had a new project in hand. He’d bought a wooden bas-relief of mother and child. The piece was generally thought to be a later copy of a Donatello original. But he had an intuition that the piece was older than previously thought and ... he and Butterfield were on the case ...
My father did not complete that trip. His visit to Florence was cut short by a sudden pain in his leg that prevented him from walking. That was early April. Over the next weeks, my father would be in and out of hospital, as the disease escalated its attacks on his once tall, strong body. The final attack struck on May 15, only three days after the death of my wife’s father, Peter Worthington. On May 24, we brought him home. Medical science had done all it could. Through it all, my stepmother Nancy Lockhart stayed by his side, night and day, caring for him with loving, tireless devotion.
In his book Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger compares the experience of being under artillery fire to being chained to a post while an enemy swings a sledgehammer at your head. So it is with late cancer. The disease erupts now here, now there, until at last the most powerful mind and most intrepid will are overcome.
About my father’s high character and dazzling achievements, there is more to say than I can even begin to describe in this place, at this time. To tell the story will be the task of the eulogy I must begin tonight. Born in poverty, my father rose to great success in business. To the country that had given refuge to his parents, my father returned public service upon public service. He served for years as trustee of the Art Gallery of Ontario and as chairman of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He supported charities too numerous to mention. He helped to launch the careers of two of Canada’s most famous architects, Howard Sutcliffe and Bridgette Shim, many of whose designs grace his home, including a small garden pavilion in which my wife and I were married in 1988.
My father was a man of easy learning, of hilarious wit, of generous temper, and of high ethics. He was a devoted husband in two happy marriages, first in the joy of youth to my mother Barbara Frum, and then to Nancy, who delighted his later years. In the lives of my sister Linda and myself, and of our children—his grandchildren—he was a presence both awe-inspiring and tender. It was to his counsel that I turned again and again in moments of doubt and uncertainty.
Two funerals in one month are much for any family to bear. The work of mourning is a heavy work. Readers will have noticed that blogging by me has been light, with Justin Green shouldering most of the task of operating this page. I fear I will be even more AWOL in the days ahead. I have published online with seldom more than a day or two of interruption continuously since October 2002. In that time, I have come to know so many remarkable people through this medium, so remote and yet so intimate—made even more intimate by the addition of Twitter. I have been warmed by so many kindnesses and good wishes from so many people during this grim month, one made even grimmer by my wife’s hospitalization for appendicitis just as her father was dying. I am grateful for every generous word.
I’ll post notice here of the details of the public memorial service for the interest of Toronto-area readers and then the text of my eulogy, for (as the poet says) we must
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.