Friday, 16 July 2010

Bob's Still Dancing

On July 11, 1995, my friend Bob and I had our last conversation. His two last words were “Hello” and “Respect.” Hello, he said with his mouth. Respect, he said with his eyes. I’ll never forget that last conversation. Like many things with Bob and I, it was private, not intended to be shared. After many years and millions of thoughts, I think that it should be shared.

I was honoured to be asked to say a few words at Bob’s funeral.

It was tough to say just a few words so I gathered up the notes that had been prepared for me by my best friend Sally and I spoke at the Church.

In the short time that Bob was with us, he gave us so much to talk about, to think about, to love about and to laugh about. For me, I think about him everyday.

Bob or Bobby as his family called him was a husband, son, brother, relative and most importantly a friend. Whether it was based on marriage or by blood or by acquaintance the solid basis behind all of these relationships was friendship.

Bob was Fred’s best friend, he was Katherine’s best friend, he was his family’s best friend and I guess the reason why I had so much to say that day on July 14, 1995 was that I felt he was my best friend too.

Why did so many people who gathered that day and thought about him since value the friendship they shared with Bob? I suppose that it would be appropriate to delve into who he was, why he was important and how he became important.

Bob never got to actively pursue a particular profession because soon after he went back to school to build a life for himself and his beautiful wife Katherine, he was dealt a little set back. He got cancer of the heart.

That’s all it was to him was a setback, a blip.

But Bob was an engineer, a woodsman, lawyer, political organizer, doctor, and most importantly to all of us who knew him, a comedian. Bob, simply, was one of the funniest people I ever met.

On Wednesday after the wake, a number of people gathered at the Melanson homestead at 245 George Street, Miramichi; to grieve to eat and try and make themselves feel better. Many people who viewed Bob as their best friend were there.

Many of the people that viewed Bob as their best friend weren’t there so for the benefit of those who weren’t I’ll describe the atmosphere. It was just as electric as if Bob had been there in body as opposed to spirit.

There were people in the basement; there were people in the kitchen; in the living room where the food was spread out and a couple of groups on the veranda.

As I wandered from group to group, as I passed by there was always someone repeating the same phrase…I remember the time that Bob…and a story would follow. Those stories were filled with laughter.

I knew that each of those groups weren’t telling the same stories. Each person there and all of us who knew him had their own Bob stories. Because Bob is not a physical presence in our lives, we have a grave responsibility. We are, as his best friends, guardians of the memories.

Fred, who Bob loved and respected fiercely, is and will be a guardian of the memories. He’ll tell you of the time that he went fishing with Bobby. Fred was in the militia and had brought along a number of left over ration packs from exercises he had been on.

He had packed enough for three days. So the story goes, they had been fishing for an hour and a half and Fred looked up to see that Bob eating. He was just finishing the third day’s food.

Bob was always good to eat. I personally was amazed and astounded as to what and how much he could put away and still be as handsome and fit as he was.

I was proud of the way that he could eat, but his sister’s were proud of his courage. We all were. Terry Smith was awfully proud of him too. He summed up Bob’s courage by saying “He died well.” His life was short by some standards but he died well. Courage like that doesn’t come along all the time.

I visited Bob in Halifax a few months before he passed away and I asked him how he could do it; be so brave in the face of the struggle.

He said “Pete, it’s no problem, it’s only me, if it was you, or Katherine or someone else in my family that had cancer, I couldn’t handle it. They’d have to lock me up somewhere, but it’s only me.” Courage and selflessness like that doesn’t come along all the time.

Somehow when you had Bob around, he made you better than you were. Funnier, happier and just proud to be his best friend.

Bob and Katherine were and are a wonderful love story. I was a witness to that love from the very beginning. Bob didn’t have a girlfriend before Katherine. He was waiting for her.

He always told me that the first girl that he was going to go out with was the girl he was going to marry. He was right and true to his word.

Katherine, Bob and I lived at 774 Reid Street in Fredericton, NB. It began there. I don’t know if anyone else knew but Bob had had his eye on Katherine for quite some time. Those conversations are personal and private and will remain so.

During most of their marriage, Bob had cancer. It was something that Bob and Katherine lived with. Instead of becoming bitter or any nonsense like that, their love which was strong, only strengthened. Some people would give everything that they had for just a moment in time, feeling what Bob and Katherine shared.

I personally thought I would never have that. Sheila, Bob’s sister and the mother of our two children, have loved each other since we were kids, but now I know what Bob and Katherine shared. Thanks Bob.

Bob had great faith in himself and his love for Katherine, his family and his friends. He also had great faith in god and was strong in his Catholic faith. It was always important to him and even more so near the end of this life.

But let this be understood, it was not a blind faith. It was a faith based on examination and questioning. Now many Catholics remember that it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays – then they changes the rules. Bob wondered……what happened to the people who ate a piece of bacon on Friday “are they down there shoveling coal or what?”

Belief is a funny thing. Wondering is the same. Bob wondered about all those good decent people who didn’t follow a particular directive and he questioned their fate. Importantly though, he didn’t question his own faith in an all loving deity. We had a couple of conversations that were personal and private.

Myself, I always considered myself a rational and logical person. Many people may beg to differ but that’s the case. Until the year 2008, I had dismissed God, close to the same time I dismissed the tooth fairy. I didn’t and could not find the faith that Bob had. That is not until recently.

Bravery and courage was what I had been lacking. I was searching for the courage that I had seen in Bob. I couldn’t find the strength that he had. I now have it. Bob knew exactly who he was and what he was facing. He was facing the possibility of light. He is and always will be, at least for me, a flame that will show me the way, if only in the terms of courage and the possibility of self.

Bravery like Bob showed, most people will never have the privilege of seeing. Whether he admitted or not, he never stopped believing.

He never stopped believing, even when he started getting into holistic medicine. A few months before he died, he said to me “Well Pete, I’m down to witch doctoring.” He just never gave up. It was a lesson that stayed with me, like a beacon.

It was a beacon that, for many years, I just couldn’t fathom. My brother Donnie made the comment a couple of years ago that made a lot of sense to me. “We kinda lost our compass when we lost Bob.”

People pass from this life to another all the time, but, for myself, Bob’s passing was an emptiness and a void that just couldn’t be filled. It didn’t make any sense to me and in many ways still doesn’t. It’s above my pay grade.

I just have to accept that. Coming to terms with my lack of understanding was a very difficult process but one that was necessary.

Since Bob’s death, in my quest to understand life and our role in others lives, I encountered many people and did many things. Some of them good, some of them not so.

Every event, every person, every thought was and will be an experience. It is a moment in time that will not happen again. We see patterns, signs and signals in our lives but everything is unique. Bob’s courage is that way for me. It is something I will never see again in the same manner.

On July 16, 1995, Chief Roger Augustine called and asked me to get involved in the Big Hole Tract fishing dispute. It was the first time that we had really talked and we established a relationship from that point. Two days later, I was there when Bob passed away.

I didn’t know at that time that Roger was father to RJ O’Neill a little red headed fellow who just lived around the corner from me and who used to play in the Melanson’s yard with the next door neighbour Brad.

Since Bob, there have been other losses in our circle. James Smith, Mark Savoie among them. Each of them felt like a body blow. James who was diabetic was in the hospital with Bob in Halifax. James was getting a new kidney and was almost blind and Bob was getting cancer treatment.

We were quite a sight when we dragged ourselves to a movie theatre. You’d have thought we didn’t have a care in the world. Truth be told, we didn’t. We were together and it was just like when we were kids. The laughter came easy to us.

Of that trio that spent a night in a tent in Jamie’s yard and spent that day in the theatre I’m the only one still here. That makes me a guardian of those memories. There is an obligation for remembrance.

On June 1, 2008, I lost another best friend. One was Greg Savoie’s, brother. Mark and I had over the past couple of years become really very close. We shared thoughts and ideas and friendship. Although I didn’t have a replacement, I had discovered a best friend again. Then, in an instant, he was no longer around to talk to.

The circle of being was missing another flame. I went into my head to try and make some type of sense of these so called “losses”. Where did they go? What were they doing?

With Mark, we had a number of conversations about Math and Physics and his theories of the universe. James Smith and I were avid Star Trek Fans and would discuss the possibilities of space travel and the like. Space and time seemed to be concepts that were malleable, bending, curving and folding into and onto themselves.

The mysteries of the universe and the soul are bound to go on forever. If that’s not the case, I think I missed the point. Faith in eternal light and life involve that greatest of mysteries. Why are we here?

It has been my experience that each person’s journey towards faith and self concept is different. There is no singular path and the only true destination is that of self discovery. Bob Melanson, James Smith and Mark Savoie have helped me on that journey.

In January, 2009, I had called Roger Augustine to tell him about a speaker that I wanted to bring to the Miramichi. He told me that his son RJ O’Neill had passed away suddenly in British Columbia. Again, I was a little shook.

Just in our little circle of people that used to gather at the Melanson’s or around the NBTel building we were missing some important parts to our puzzle. It was and is a mystery as to where these people went. I don’t know for certain but I choose to carry them in my mind and my heart.

They live as strong in me as if they were standing right beside me. They’re not losses but merely new beginnings. Their spirits are full and complete and as much alive now as they were on this plane of existence. We are until we depart this plane of existence, guardians of their memories. Their goodness and strength live in us; that energy fills us, in the same way that faith and spirituality can fill our lives.

When RJ left us, I didn’t feel that I could go to his funeral so I stopped in to see his Mother, Janice and RJ’s sister Shannon. I then wrote something that I hoped would convey what I felt. It made me feel better and captured the mood I was feeling.

At Bob’s wedding and his funeral I told the story of our first Liberal Leadership convention in Fredericton. We were both in High School and supporting Doug Young. Bob had bought himself a new sports jacket from Lounsbury’s that had shoulders so sharp I feared that he would cut someone if he turned too quickly.

They were having a dance at the Aitken Centre and there was a large group of people dancing in a circle. They were playing the unofficial anthem of our high school and we were having a ball.

One person went to the middle of the large circle and started to dance. People took turns strutting their stuff in the middle. It came to Bob’s turn and he was quite a dancer. He had his ridiculous red top hat and his razor sharp sports coat.

All of a sudden, the music stopped but Bob didn’t notice and he’s still dancing in the middle of the circle of about a hundred people, just bopping along.

That’s what it was like that day in the church….

The music stopped, but Bob’s still dancing…

That day, I said something that I hoped would heal, but I was not quite finished. I needed to say something else but it wasn't time.

Here is the rest: … that's what it's like today, the music stopped but Bob's still dancing.

For a long time I couldn’t hear the music and I felt lost. I wondered why the music had died?

But there was a problem; I just wasn’t listening closely enough.

You don't hear the music until you add RJ and Mark and Jamie and my little friend Bert.

Then you start to hear the music. It is beautiful and passionate and powerful. The music starts to grow, keep adding souls, let the souls soar and the music lives.

Keep adding goodness and memories and let the souls dance and sing.

Fill the Spirit with music and dancing; fill the Spirit with all souls and let them soar, hear the music and add all the souls, past present and future and let them soar, music and dancing filling the Great Spirit.

Look, Bob’s dancing with Mark and RJ and Bert and there’s James, watching and laughing and dancing.

Enjoy the show.

God Bless you and keep you well.