A friend of many decades, writer Graeme Gibson, died Wednesday at what I now consider the too early age of 85. We met in 1972 when he and his partner to be, Margaret Atwood, whom I've known even longer, double-dated at the opening of my first play, though each was with a different spouse.
In the past year we had lunch regularly at the Gatto Nero on College Street, where it's spacious, the menu is fine and it's easy to talk.
Graeme received a diagnosis of dementia some years ago. He always spoke openly about it, it encroached gradually, and never impeded our conversations, even if details like who I was exactly, sometimes evaded him.
What he talked about most, was the Second World War. His father, a brigadier-general, spent the war in Europe. His troops liberated Deventer, in Holland. There's a plaque and a street named for him. Graeme attended the ceremony.
The soldier told his young son, before he left, that he'd have to look after his mother and younger brother. "And I did," said Graeme each time he described it, with pride and wonder. There's nothing more imperishable a parent can give a child than a sense of their competence for handling the world. It's what they'll need, after all, when the parent is gone, or well before.
He became a soldier himself after the war and took pride in being good at it, but didn't stay. He would've, he said, if there'd been a war as necessary as that one was. It was the last -- or only -- good war, despite its gruesome carnage. It's grown common to forget how defining that event was. Graeme never did.
He wrote four novels. My favourite, Perpetual Motion, is about a farmer in Ontario during the 1800s. He said he felt he'd said everything he had to say in that form. He wrote other books including, most recently, The Bedside Book of Birds and a bestiary. He introduced many of us to birding.
He was a founder of organizations for Canadian writers and artists. Few would exist without him. When we organized playwrights, he tutored us. He had an uncanny instinct for organizing people. He attributed it to the military, where leadership must be real and respectful -- or the results will be dire.
Politically he was that Canadian oddity, a red Tory. So he often rooted for the NDP. We had some vigorous disputes, especially about the Mulroney Conservatives elected in the 1980s. We also talked about religion and theology near the end. He had fond boyhood memories of singing in church.
Reader's Digest used to run a feature: The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met. If I got a shot at that I'd do Graeme, though it'd be more like, The Most Original Mind I've Met. Why? His responses were often astoundingly unexpected. If people ask for examples I have trouble -- he was just so eccentric. But my son, who knew Graeme too, reminded me of the Mike Duffy moment.
We were visiting at their place, during the period when Stephen Harper turned on Duffy, whom he'd appointed to the Senate. Duffy was taking fire from all sides. He and I had been at odds politically for years but we'd avoided personal clashes because whenever we crossed paths, it was in restaurants and Duffy never let anything interfere with a good meal. Then, when he fell out with Harper, we began exchanging warm-hearted messages. It surprised me.
Whatever happened, I asked them, to the Duffy I'd had such conflict with? Where did that hostile, servile toady go? "He ate 'im," said Graeme brightly, while making tea, as if the image slipped carelessly from his psyche. The way he thought, surpassed even the remarkable things he did.
He went out much as he'd hoped. He was a supporter of dying with dignity and intended to act before becoming incapable, with those he loved present. He'd suffered a stroke, his partner and kids were there, he surely knew them and it ended as he'd pictured. He was one of the truly irreplaceable people. I know everyone is, but in rare cases like his, moreso.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
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