Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Forever set in time.

And as we wind on down the road,
Our shadows taller than our soul,
There walks a lady we all know.
Who shines white light and wants to show…
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all, yeah, to be a rock and not to roll.
And she’s buying a stairway… to heaven. Led Zepplin, Stairway to Heaven

It was cold when I arrived at the hospice. Cold and frosty. A clear winter's night. Stars littered the sky above. Glistening white in the black blanket of night. The half moon lying on its back low on the horizon. Snow covered the ground. Pristine white. It wrapped the earth in a wintry blanket. In the dark night, the hospice glowed like a beacon. Of hope. Of peace. Of little possibility of more life on earth for the man I'd come to see.

I had called around 7:30 to see how James Bannerman, father, son, brother, uncle, nephew, photographer, gardener, handyman, labourer, homeless, was doing.

"He won't last a great deal longer," the nurse told me.

I wondered aloud whether it was appropriate that I come.

"It's up to you. You don't have to," she said. "As he nears the end, we will check on him regularly. We'll do our absolute best to ensure he's not alone when the time comes."

When the time comes.

I thought about that time. That time when death descends and life is exhaled on one last breath. That moment in time when the physical body releases its spirit to the night. I wondered about James being alone. What if... Someone else called at that exact moment and the nurses couldn't be there. What if... they timed it wrong? What if... he was alone?

I decided to drive the forty-five minutes to a small town south of Calgary where he had been taken earlier that afternoon.

It had been the only time I've ever heard James complain. We were in his apartment. The apartment we'd moved him into when he'd been released from hospital a few weeks before. The cancer was terminal. The doctor's didn't give him long to live. He wasn't on any meds. He wasn't in any pain. He just needed a place to stay. The main shelter wasn't appropriate. Too busy. Too noisy. Too uncomfortable for him. Because we own an apartment building for senior's, we had the luxury of affording him a place of his own to call home for his final days.

I had gone over in the morning as soon as I received the call. "They're taking James to a hospice. We're just organizing it now," the staff member at the apartment building told me.

When I arrived James was failing fast. I sat with him and held his hands. They were cold. I warmed them with mine. We sat as people came and went. I didn't want to let go of his hands. I wanted to warm them with mine, even a heart of stone is warmed in loving hands.

I'd written that line in a fairy tale for my daughters years ago. But James' heart wasn't of stone. It was a warm, kind, loving heart. A gentle soul, he was constantly on the go. "Cleaning up the river bank," he'd tell me on my morning walk into work when I'd meet him on the river path, knapsack on his back, large plastic garbage bag in one hand. "I'm doing the city a service," he'd smile.

Sometimes I'd see him in the garden at the shelter. Constantly weeding, moving plants, mowing grass. Or on a sidewalk of a downtown high rise office tower, shovelling snow, clearing up the mess.

It's what he did.

Picture taking was his 'retirement plan', he'd told me once. "I'm getting kind of old for labour."

He was fifty-two. The years of hard living lined his face like ridges of bark rippling across a tree trunk. He always wore a ball cap. Always carried his backpack with him. It held his precious camera, laptop and photo files. It had been stolen once from the shelter. "Someone obviously needed it more than me," he said. And when it was returned by the police, he smiled. "I really only wanted the files back. I was kinda hoping I'd have to buy new gear. That one wasn't doing the best job for me anymore."

He never complained. Never whined. Never bemoaned his fate. "I've had a good life. The life that suited me," he said.

And yesterday he whispered. "Cold."

It was the only complaint I ever heard from him. It would be the last.

Early this morning, at 12:45 am James A. Bannerman passed from this realm to another. I sat beside him as his laboured breathing quietened. I held his hand. Spoke softly reassuring him he wasn't alone. 80's rock played on the radio. He'd asked to not be alone and that "Stairway to Heaven" be played. The closest we could find was, "Like a Rock."

And he was. A rock. A quiet man of gentle voice and manner. A great man. A man of wondrous eyes. A man who saw the beauty in the angle of the sun hitting the corner of a building. A man who captured the awe of water dancing in the river as it passed through the downtown core to places far away. The man who saw a doggie in the window, and set him forever in time in a photograph.

James' memory will be forever set in time.

May he rest in peace.


SLM Moss said...

Thank you, on his behalf, for being willing to sacrifice your time, your sleep, yourself to be there with him in those hours. I am absolutely certain it made a difference. I pray you have a good day today.

Hugs and beans!

Maureen said...

My heart is with you, as it was last time when I picked up the message you left on my blog.

You've written a beautiful tribute to James.

What you did in those early hours of morning was more: You kept him company as he began the walk across the threshold, through the door, rising to the place we at OurCancer call the "5th stage", where peace and love comfort for all eternity. To be with someone like James in his final moments on our earth is to give a precious gift. I'm certain he say goodbye to you with love in his heart.

May peace be with you, Louise.

Anonymous said...


this is a superb piece - and it is a piece of you too.

I would like to publish this, with your permission, on 360boom.

is that OK?


Louise Gallagher said...

Thank you.

And yes Mark. Please post it.