A generous heart for the right things

May 25, 2024

Gerry Chamberlain enjoys a moment on the Port Stanley Terminal Rail line when aboard in 2017, not far from his birthplace in Shedden, Ont.

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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, May 25, 2024)

“We shake with joy. We shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.” — Mary Oliver, poet

It’s some years ago and my father-in-law, Gerry, is on a train somewhere between St. Thomas and Port Stanley, a Saturday touristy ride for nostalgia as much as anything.

There’s a conductor and they laugh and I take a photo. It’s really something, in hindsight, considering that train rides can reflect how life brings each of us ever-changing people and places. This, before our lives, any one of them, get edited to precious few images. A baby picture. A school portrait. A wedding. A man on a train.

More recently, whenever leaving Gerry’s bedside, I’d squeeze his hand and say, “Bye for now.” I never knew if I, or anyone, would see him again this side of eternity. He’d sometimes open his eyes, like a child looking at the world for the first time. Then they’d close again, as if seeing mysteries otherwise hidden.

“Bye for now,” I’d say. Then the next day, “Bye for now.” And, surprisingly, so on until all his loved ones had ample opportunity.

This is my bride’s father, Gerry Chamberlain, who died on Mother’s Day, the day when, a year earlier, he last saw Margaret, his wife of 62 years. She died in a hospice called “Margaret’s Place.”

The previous spring my own father died.

So in three springs my family has lost three exemplars, like three seeds fallen to the ground to die and break open before — even as we observe in this world — becoming something new.
I met my father-in-law 24 years ago. His daughter, working overseas, suggested weekly dinners back home in London so her parents and I could better know each other, and organize the wedding.

They were retired. I was a journalist in St. Thomas-Elgin. That’s where Gerry was born in 1937, in a farmhouse near Shedden. Challenges came early. He had double talipes equinovarus, or clubbed feet (before later becoming a formidable high school linebacker). Also, in that farmhouse, when Gerry was 16, his father died by accidental death, of medication given for a heart attack he’d just had.

Years later, with two children and an Ontario Agriculture College degree, Gerry and Margaret returned to the Shedden area. Child No. 3, Jean, my bride, was born in St. Thomas. Then came family life in Toronto where, now with an MBA, Gerry became a long-serving Scotiabank vice-president for agriculture and Aboriginal banking.

His was a remarkable journey from farm boy to Toronto banker. This is my father-in-law, a man who adapted to what life dished him, and found opportunities to learn. Years later I knew him as a man with a generous heart for the right things: growing spiritually, supporting less-privileged people overseas and loving his grandkids.

Gerry and Marg visited my own young family while we were in Yemen, this when the Arab nation wasn’t really everyone’s top tourist destination. And, later, Uganda, several times.

One day over lunch Gerry told me, “You know, Thom. Our bodies aren’t made to last forever.” It was dementia. Then the long goodbye.

The day of that train ride, by the way, he took our kids to the farmhouse of his birth. Another day he gifted his 11 grandkids with a book on the family’s history. It starts, “My story begins in the Great Depression.” I find the family chronicles especially priceless.

And what are his end-of-journey, back-page parting words? “Tell the truth (even when it’s hard). Love, respect and be faithful to your spouse (even when you don’t feel like it). Forgive others and forgive yourself. Stay out of debt. Keep fit. Love, honour and obey the Lord your God.”

Then, “I’m sure many of you (hopefully all of you) will leave behind great life stories for your descendants.” And finally, “This is Grandpa, signing off. Love to all.”

Gosh. I mean, is anything more needed? Thank you, Dad. Bye. For now.

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May 25, 2024 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]

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