It happens to all of us sooner or later: death.
And if it hasn’t happened to you just yet, I would bet that it has in some way touched, and affected your life.
Maybe it was an aunt, or uncle. A son, or daughter. Someone you work with. A neighbour. An old high-school friend.
And so you would think that we should all be used to it by now. Expecting, and accepting that it is a part of life that’s as common as the sunrise, and as unremarkable as the ground we walk upon.
And yet, death still has the power to surprise, and shock, and hurt us. We never get used to it, no matter how many times it arrives on our doorstep.
It’s not the fact of death’s arrival that disturbs us; it’s the powerful disruption of what we know as our “normal” lives. The sudden, unexpected theft of a wheel, large or small, that propels the mechanism of our life on its everyday journey. Without that piece, things no longer run smoothly, or as expected. We took for granted that the bits and pieces would continue to operate in the manner to which we’ve become so accustomed. Now, we find ourselves scrambling to repair the damage. To repair or replace that piece that is now missing. Sometimes, we never can.
The deaths that happen to those most near and dear to us, inevitably leave a mark. A milestone from which we measure our own continuing journey. It’s been twenty-three years since Mom died, for example. Generally, however, death at a distance leaves only a faint impression. A mark upon the trail of life that fades with each passing year.
Occasionally, however, we are startled, and shaken by the loss of someone we know, in a way that is out of proportion to the part they played in our lives. Usually it’s because their death was wholly unexpected, and without warning. Or because they were close enough in age to remind us, sharply, that we are all mortal.
That’s the case with my friend Sylvia, who died yesterday.
Sylvia was a little fireball of a woman. Constantly busy, with just living her life.
She doted on her grandchildren. Loved corny, vintage movies, the Hamilton Tiger Cats, and inexplicably ( to me at least) Elvis. She carefully watched her diet in order to eat healthy, and was constantly on the move.
I think her Fitbit was more exhausted at the end of every day, than she was.
She was born in a refugee camp, back in the time when her Hungarian parents fled the iron grip of Communist rule, and came to Canada as an infant. While she loved and honoured her heritage, you could no find a person more fiercely proud to be Canadian, than Sylvia. In an age where the loyalty and benefit of immigrants is under attack, she was a strong example of the positive skein they add, to the fabric of this country.
And one of her favourite ways to participate in the culture of this nation, was to take to the ice and chase a puck, for as long as her short legs, could carry her. That’s how I met Sylvia. On the wrong end of her dogged pursuit of the puck.
She was by no means a great hockey player, but what she lacked in speed and power, she more than made up in determination, and a fiercely competitive nature. She never quit on a play. Never. You might be able to steal the puck from her, and head down the ice, but you did so knowing that she would pursue you tenaciously, and that you would inevitably meet once again, at the other end of the ice.
She was a pest.
Over the years we played, occasionally, on the same teams; most notably one year on the North Stars, of the GHL. ( The ‘Hockey for Dummies” version of organized sport. ) That was a good year, and a great team. We made it to the finals — and lost a game we should have won, but the experience bonded me to her friendship forever.
She was always the one you could count on to join you in the bar after the game. The one with the sarcastic, and occasionally filthy remark, that would leave you laughing long after you got home. The one that couldn’t wait for the next opportunity, to do it all again.
After last Saturday’s game, I found her as usual, holding a table for the team up in the bar. But it was clear that something wasn’t right. The big smile that usually greeted you, was gone. She looked tired, and said she suddenly wasn’t feeling well. She stayed only a brief minute or two, as a few other players found our table, then abruptly said goodnight, and left. I think that the only reason she went upstairs in the first place, was to make sure that there’d be a place for the gang to sit. That would have been typical of her. Looking out for the ones that counted in her life.
Over the next few days, she complained of having the flu; not a surprise, since it was reaching peak flu season in the city, and hospital emergency rooms were overflowing. On Wednesday, she tried to rally, because that was the night that a small group of us got together for 3-on-3 shinny at a local practice rink. I was a relative new-comer to Wednesday nights. It was Sylvia who finally convinced me to go, after asking me about a million times previously, to join in. As I’ve said, her persistence was remarkable.
But she didn’t show on Wednesday night, feeling too weak to go. That wasn’t a big surprise; the surprise would have come if she’d made it to the rink after four days in bed. On Thursday afternoon, she posted this quote, on her Facebook page:
It’s a message as heart-breaking, as it is ironic. Less than 24 hours after posting it, she was gone.
Even as I write this, I can hardly believe that she won’t be pulling on her skates next Saturday night, filled with passion, and heart, and ready to fearlessly chase anyone, of any size, into the corner to battle for the puck. That we won’t hear her hearty laugh, or her foul language again. Saturday nights, from now on, will just seem a little sadder than they did before.
She has left me with the memory of a good friend, gone too soon. A reminder that I too, am mortal, and rather than worry about the small things that challenge my life, I should be doing more to draw joy out of the things that are right in front of me every day. Thank you, Sylvia, for that. And may you forever find peace, pushing pucks, into that great big net in the sky.