As a rule, I don’t blog about daily events. Things that seem important in the heat of the moment so often fade and blur with the healing balms of time and distance, and I want these posts to have longevity and relevance beyond the moments of creation. I doubt I’m violating that principle now: The world is a little dimmer and darker than it was yesterday, and I suspect a void has been created in Canadian public discourse that will never be truly filled.
This morning shortly before 9 a.m. I read on Twitter that Jack Layton had passed away. I felt like a stone had hit me between the eyes. I’ve spent the last twelve hours in a daze, reading obituaries and an outpouring of grief from Canadians across the political spectrum. Friends and foes alike, no one can ignore the dull thud of sad fact being committed to unchangeable history. Canada lost a giant today, a lion cut down in his prime after an incredible life-long story of struggle and hard work and perseverance.
I ache that Pierre Berton died almost seven years ago: Jack was his kind of character; Berton’s unwritten words of off-hand admiration –the wry twist on a matter-of-fact retelling of the improbable-but-true– would have formed a lasting tribute worthy of commemorating that remarkable breed of Canadian politician, neither boring nor crazy nor insincere.
I appreciate that many of my readers are not Canadian, so perhaps I should take a moment to give a little context: When people say that all politicians are crooks and cheats and liars who will say or do anything to get elected, somewhere deep inside of you exists a belief that there are exceptions, even polar opposites to that statement. The Honourable Jack Layton was that sterling example of what you always hoped a politican would be, could be, should be. Jack really was a dedicated public servant. He really did work incredibly hard to make things better. I didn’t agree with his entire party platform –even members of his caucus often quibbled with some of his decisions– but no one ever said he wasn’t the genuine article. No one ever said he was in it for himself. He wore his heart on a sleeve rolled-up to allow for serious effort, and he did his best to make friends and neighbours and total strangers happier through a combination of optimism, seeking the middle ground, and never letting a lesser politician get a superior quotation in the media.
Thousands of people better qualified than I have spent today talking about his life and his politics and his contribution to Canadian history. I have little to add to that, except to say that I met Jack somewhere between a dozen and a score of times, and I was always impressed that he really did care. I spent three semesters going to school in his riding, and I lived there for a year and a half some years later, at least in part because I admired him as a man and as a representative of the people: He never missed an opportunity to participate in the things that mattered to his constituents, and he never played politics with the things that shouldn’t matter but political handlers agonize over.
The first time I met him he was wearing one of those hand-knit sweaters that even Annie Liebovitz couldn’t make look flattering. A little starstruck, I complimented the woolen wonder for lack of anything better to say, and without missing a beat he said, “Well, I knew it would be cold in here.” I remember reading once that shortly after becoming leader of the NDP someone in the party ran a survey to see whether voters liked his mustache. When he found out, he called over a media scrum and said something to the effect of, “The only person who gets an opinion about my mustache is my wife, and she likes it!”
He was a straight-shooter, and when he shook your hand and made small-talk, you really had the sense that in that minute or two he cared about whatever you had to say. The only politician I ever gave my email to was Jack. Again, I’m not a party member. He was that good.
It occurs to me I keep calling him Jack. I’ve shaken Stephen Harper’s hand. I’ve met Bob Rae half a dozen times or more. I admire them both in their way, but I wouldn’t dream of calling them by their first name, let alone the familiar diminutive of John Gilbert Layton, the man the majority of Canadians would have liked to have a beer with and perhaps see as Prime Minister one day –whether they liked his politics or not.
When Jack announced he was taking a leave of absence –when he looked so drawn and thin and weary– I strongly suspected it would come to this. Maybe not in four weeks, but I worried I would never hear from him again. When Jack had prostrate cancer he said so and wore a blue tie, and he fought the good fight and he beat that damned disease into the dust; then he campaigned across the second-largest country in the world with a strut and swagger only embellished by a cane. This ‘new cancer’ was never labelled, and I’m sure that was a mercy: Jack knew he was going to go, and he didn’t want his name attached to a fatal prognosis in the mind of other Canadians suffering the same dreaded illness. I don’t know if he died of lymphoma or liver cancer or lung cancer, and I hope we never learn what finally laid him low. Fighting cancer is a life and death struggle, and Jack made the conscious decision to throw himself on the grenade and keep his death sentence a private matter, even when you could see it written on his face, hear the quaver in his voice.