During the middle two weeks of December, I attended three funerals. The first was for my wife's cousin, who died much too early. He was 30. The last funeral was for a former officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He was 89. Clearly, death has respect neither for youth nor age. That fact might cause one to reflect on the unfairness of things.
But what struck me at all three funerals was how one life touches so many other lives -- and, often, that one life reaches across barriers of age, gender, language, culture, race and ability. This was particularly true in the case of Simon Lortie, my wife's cousin. Simon was perfectly able bodied until the age of 19 when, swimming in the Atlantic -- not far from Boston -- he dove into a wave and broke his neck. The accident left him a quadriplegic.
He returned with his family to Montreal, where he underwent months of rehab and he began looking at the world from the perspective of a wheelchair. But the accident did not turn Simon into a narcissist. Self pity was not in his vocabulary. With a partner he started his own business. He had always loved music and the nightlife of Montreal; and he continued to make the rounds of the clubs and to enjoy the various musicians who, with other artists, give Montreal its unique elan. With help from a visiting attendant, he lived in his own apartment. Perhaps most importantly, he joined the Association des paraplegiques du Quebec (The Quebec Paraplegic Association) where he counselled others who found themselves in circumstances similar to his. And he became a community activist, lobbying for wheelchair access to public buildings and public transportation.
Simon's name became a watchword -- particularly in Montreal's French language press -- but he was thoroughly at home in both French and English. He even spoke a little Italian, his grandparents' native tongue. From his parents he learned tolerance for the many cultures and languages which gathered with human faces around the family table.
The church was packed -- there was standing room only. There were many people in wheelchairs, some on crutches -- white faces, black faces -- and personal recollections in two languages. The service was a reminder, for those of us who grew up in what used to be called Quebec's Two Solitudes, that so much of what separates us is mere claptrap; and, if we can take the time to build walls, we can also take the time to tear them down.
In the last two decades the tribes have been resurgent. Much time and blood have been been spent in ethnic cleansing. Simon's short life was a rebuke to the lie that there is salvation in the tribe. And, as the new year begins, his life reminds us all that the length of time we have is unimportant. It's what we do with the time we have that makes all the difference.