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Sunday, August 25, 2013


She stepped up to the podium. On contemplating this moment six months ago, she had told herself she couldn't possibly face a room full of people. She had decided there would only be a graveside service with immediate family and closest friends. The thought of anything more nearly sank her. 

But the children had vetoed that idea. "People will want to pay tribute, Mom. We'll get through it together."

She hadn't been convinced. Perhaps her fatigue from the constancy of the job bestowed upon her warped her sense of sharing. Perhaps she just needed to not think about it.

Then things started to change in the six weeks that preceded his death. As she came to terms with the inevitability of his passing and with hosting a tribute, she thought about those she wanted to participate. Her spiritual community had already shown such willingness to help over the years, she knew she could count on them for help. She turned to her good friend who readily accepted the task of helping her organize the event. It was premature, yes, but she really didn't know how she would feel after his passing, knowing instinctively that he wasn't going to go easily. Better to be somewhat prepared because it would be a long and exhausting final chapter.

When she thought about eulogists, she had a few names of good men who had known Michael through various stages of his life. She would approach them. She had never done any confident public speaking in her life but in her heart she knew she must be the one to deliver the main eulogy. Oddly, she felt no fear.

When the day finally arrived, she stood with her grieving children and their partners to welcome the arriving guests. As she fingered his rings on a chain around her neck, she still felt none of the panic that was so familiar to her from the past. She had been the girl in school who would shake and redden violently when she considered merely asking a question in class. At times she felt as though nothing had changed in all the intervening years.

Over the past few years of his overwhelming care needs, she had developed a strategy of never looking beyond the moment they were in. Sure she'd have to plan a few things ahead of time, but, after so many calamities that had brought about so many cancellations, she had learned never to bank on anything...ever. She easily fell into the same strategy for facing the funeral. Stay in the moment. Don't worry about the future. 

So as she stepped up to the podium, she realized a small miracle had occurred. She still felt no fear. None. How could that be possible? She took a breath, looked at the large crowd before her, then launched into what felt like the most natural thing in the world. She smiled to herself. Thanks, Michael:

This has been a long road, folks, and here we are today to say goodbye to Michael. Thank you for joining us.

Many of you before me today have stood with us offering your loving support over the years and there are many more who could not be with us. I made a list of all those who gave so much physical and moral support but the list was so long I’d be here all day reading those names. Suffice it to say we have been well loved and well looked after.

I therefore send out my humble gratitude to my community, my dear friends, the amazing Quebec health care team that made caring for Michael at home a possibility and, of course, my wonderful family. You have enriched our lives.

But there is one person I must single out without whom I could not have done my job. Francine C. has been Michael’s caregiver for over three years, stepping in for me so ably and lovingly when I needed her, caring for Michael primarily but also for me with her calm good cheer. Thank  you, my dear. May we now continue a friendship born out of this partnership.

Michael was a most loving husband, father, son, uncle, brother and friend. He was a hard working and loyal civil servant with the Federal government for 34 years, earning him the 2002 Queen’s 50th Jubilee medal for dedicated service to his country.

Most of his career was spent with National Defence as a mechanical engineer. In his early years as a university student he spent several summers in the wilderness of Western Canada, working as a geologist.

Leaving nervous parents behind in Ottawa one summer, he hitchhiked across the country and landed in Jasper where he spent the season in the kitchen of the Jasper Park Lodge. He was long-haired and wild looking, judging from the photos I’ve seen of him from that time.  

As an enthusiastic and capable participant in many sports, Michael excelled as a hockey goalie and a soccer player. I am told he still holds the record for the most goals scored in a season of Chelsea Old-timers’ soccer. In fact the Michael Torontow award was established for “spirit, perseverance and dedication to Chelsea Soccer” of which Michael was the recipient twice during his many years of playing the game.  He won many other sports awards during his life as an athlete, including the Best Goalie award in a local Old-timers’ hockey league. His wry comment on receiving that award was: “What does that say about the league when an Old Fart with Parkinson’s Disease wins best goalie?”

Michael coached soccer to many children, including most of our own. He was well known for his skill and gentleness as a coach. Sports were his passion. In fact, I believe he thought about sports more than almost anything else. On his deathbed one morning he had a moment of lucidity. He looked at me earnestly and said, “It’s almost over.” Thinking this was finally the moment to talk to him about what he was facing, I gripped his hand, looked him in the eyes and said, "You’re right. How are you feeling about that?" His response: “Just as soon as Emily scores that goal.”  Oh.

His punning skill knew no bounds and was affectionately dubbed “Dad humour” by his children: When asked by an offspring one day “Did so-and-so turn up?” his witty response was, “Yup, she radished too.”

He was always quick to break into an appropriate (or inappropriate) song from his vast repertoire of popular music. The innocuous word “pickle” could never be uttered in our house without  Dad breaking into Arlo Guthrie’s “I don’t wanna pickle, I just wanna ride in my motorsickle.”

We met in the summer of 1979 while I was holidaying in Ottawa from my home in Kingston. I had met my brother Peter after work one Friday afternoon along with a number of his work colleagues. Michael and I barely spoke to each other during that pub visit and subsequent dinner but I can tell you there was much significant eye contact across the table. My friend had sat next to him actually and chatted enthusiastically with him all evening. Later the three of us broke away from the group to go for a coffee. My friend and I happened to be staying in his downtown neighbourhood so we all walked home together that night promising to see each other during the rest of our stay. Afterwards, my friend told me I should check him out, declaring he was such a great guy. This I already instinctively knew but wasn’t letting on a thing to my friend.  I did some quiet research through my brother then took things into my own hands since Michael had dropped the ball and never got in touch – something about important sports commitments no doubt. I contacted him myself when I got back to Kingston. That weekend he visited me, starting our whirlwind romance that saw us married less than a year later. I can still see him climbing out of his car that first time and crossing the street to my house as I watched nervously from my window. Bearded, sunglasses, loose-fitting Indian cotton shirt, faded blue jeans, sandals, tanned, long hair. Devastatingly handsome. The rest is magnificent history. I take full credit, though, for making sure things got going in the first place.

Michael was always quietly supportive of every interest and commitment in my life. About twenty years ago I joined the Baha’i Faith, which ranks with my children and my marriage as one of the most important aspects of my life. Michael never seemed attracted to the Faith himself but he stood by me in that decision and attended many community events throughout the years. He was a staunch defender of the Faith to anyone who questioned him about it. Four years ago Michael’s battle with Parkinson’s disease affected his mental health very violently. Suddenly beset with extreme psychosis and anxiety, he was overcome. It took a long time for the doctors to help him pharmaceutically with his troubles so the only tool I had at the time to help him was prayer. Together we chanted prayers hour after hour until he was calmed. This was a practice we kept up together until the end and it was the recognition of the calming power of prayer that led him to declare that he too wanted to become a Baha’i about three years ago.  It was one of the most joyous moments of our time together.

I will sorely miss my husband and best friend of 34 years.  He struggled with Parkinson’s Disease for twenty years, nearly two-thirds of our lives together and almost one-third of his own life. His care in the final years was fulltime and onerous but I am grateful we were able to keep him at home until the end. It was a privilege.

He was afflicted with a disease that sapped nearly everything out of him, everything, that is, but his courage, grace and courtesy, which remained untouched to the end. He was truly a gentle man…a true gentleman.

Please join us as we sing the prayer that meant so much to him and helped him through some very dark times.

Two of her friends led the congregation in a chant of ninety-five Allah-u-Abha's. With her eyes firmly shut she sang as best she could, breaking into frequent wracking sobs. A few reported to her afterwards the lights had mysteriously dimmed during the prayer. 

*Photo of Michael Torontow taken by Claire Verney, circa 1981

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Other Shore

She slowly dipped her body into the frigid waters of the Gatineau River. Her hardier friend beat her to it and paddled lazily nearby. The two women chatted comfortably about the momentous events of the past week. A husband buried. A family bereft.

As her legs and body cooled, then chilled, she announced she would swim across the bay before she became numb. A hundred meters or slightly more, not far. It is a familiar swim that she has been repeating for years over to the other shore. She used to set out very early each morning before sickness made it impossible for her to leave him alone. She had had to adjust her swim time to suit the caregiver's timetable. No more six a.m. dips.

But that early hour had held a mystical quality. The eastern bank was always still in deep shadow. The dogs would prowl the shoreline and complain to her as she swam, urging her to come back, afraid she might abandon them. As she pushed away from the shore, there might be a curling mist rising in the new day or the water might be very choppy on a windy morning, making her more focused and careful to regulate her breathing as she battled the waves. 

There was always something magical to her about the other shore where her feet would grope for the shallow rocks. She would stop and turn, face east, and offer praise and gratitude, in the dawn light, for strength of body and the grace she'd been granted.

The return swim was always to the symphony of barking dogs but she willed herself to chant her prayer through her breathing, ignoring them while she could, eyes firmly shut, sunlight leaking through her lids. Tails wagged; sticks were retrieved as she pulled herself out of the water onto the rocky shore. She always felt restored and able to face whatever the day might bring.

Today, there were no such worries. A husband was gone. The dogs had been left behind at home, their walk earlier in the day. Her friend had summoned her outside now that she was unfettered and able to leave her house any time she pleases. An alien luxury. The swim across the bay was through calm waters, the air still and silent in the summer heat. As she approached the shore she caught sight of a shape ahead. Tall, statuesque, a picture of grace. The magnificent blue heron made eye contact, barely two meters away from her. She wanted to shout to her friend left behind but didn't want to break the spell. It felt as though he was waiting for her alone. She was entranced and awed and waited for him to make a move. After several minutes of complete stillness, he moved away slowly from her into the trees and disappeared.

Later, after her return to the other side and her excited account of her experience, they watched him take flight, his vast wingspan carrying him away from them to a distant bank.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Michael David Torontow

It is with great sadness that we announce the peaceful passing of Michael David Torontow at home on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 after a long and gracious struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was 65 years old, having spent over 20 years afflicted with a disease that sapped nearly everything out of him; everything, that is, but his courage, grace and courtesy which remained untouched to the end.

He is survived by his best friend and wife Claire Verney and his adoring children Anna (Darren Seed), Emily, Laura (Mike Cicchillitti) and William (Rhian); his precious grandson Emmett Albert Michael Seed; his mother Norma and his brother Laurence (Silvia). He will be remembered by brother-in-law Peter Verney (Linda Barber), nieces Kristine Kakuno and  Andrea Torontow, and nephew Michael Torontow. He is predeceased by his father Cyril Torontow, sister-in-law Ann Kakuno and her husband Fred Kakuno. We will miss him terribly.

Funeral service will be in the Sacred Space at Beechwood Cemetery, 280 Beechwood Ave, Ottawa, at 10 a.m., Friday, August 16, 2013 followed by a burial ceremony and a reception.

A memorial donation would be appreciated to Right to Play whose mission it is to promote “the use of sport and play to educate and empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease” at .

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Bedside Musings Part 2

Early morning sunshine fills the room. Rainbow prismatic fireflies dance about on the walls and sheets, sometimes forming a halo around the still figure in the bed. A crow complains beyond. 

His world has become very small but sometimes is filled with dogs and people communing around him. The ceiling fan purrs and the curtains murmur; the room has a chill despite the season. The air must be kept circulating to rid it of the sickly sweet smell of ketosis. 

His breathing has a new pattern, more off than on. Funny what we can get used to. Those long pauses alarmed us at first but are now commonplace.  Conversation will stop as breathing stops. We wait, all of us instinctively taking in large breaths for him.

His eyes might flutter open but are mostly either closed or half open. He doesn't see us any longer. Without any medication for several days, his body is nearly frozen. Without water for three, his mouth has a terrible dryness that we try to ease for him with moistened sponges. He seems oblivious to that discomfort. Except for the erratic, sometimes noisy flow of air in and out of his lungs, he is silent.

The only anguish he might display is a grimace or two when we try to bathe him, now most definitely a two-person task. His rigid body wants to refuse our manipulations. Developing bedsores are covered with special rubbery bandages. We are reluctant to subject him to what now seems to be an uncomfortable procedure. I find myself whispering apologies in his ear, wishing I could somehow make this better.

His life hangs by a sigh.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sacred Rituals

The minutes tick by. The house remains silent. Even the tired old dogs barely wake up for visitors or passersby. Occasionally there is an unexplained burst of wild, crazy energy from the little Scottie. They have been Michael's nearly constant companions but today they stay away more from his room. Could the strong odour that now emanates from that space be the reason? Are they more attuned to what is happening in that room?

The daily task of bathing Michael is a welcome one. It is an opportunity to renew the rosewater scent that I have been using for the past week but which no longer masks what might be the smell of imminent death. Every day, with or without assistance, I engage in a ritual which has nearly taken on a spiritual significance for me.

I start with a clean cloth and gently wipe the eyes, remembering techniques used when my children were babies. Then the cloth is dipped in warm soapy water and I ever so slowly wash Michael's face and hair. I take special care not to rub too hard but sometimes have to with his now fairly long beard. The last time I shaved him was nearly two weeks ago, if not longer. It just seems like too much trouble now but I know he doesn't mind. He was pretty shaggy when I met him so it is a nice reminder of that handsome man I fell in love with. But now that the beard has greyed it most certainly ages him more than the clean face does.

Next each arm and hand is caressed with the cloth, paying special attention to the palms of his hands which have developed a slight cheesy smell. Careful drying is important. Then, with his shirt still on, I reach underneath to rub his chest, and his legs and his feet. I stop at his knobby knee, the one that took the brunt of thousands of falls, and rub it with affection. To me it symbolizes Michael's resilience and strength with the calcified bumps and a few remaining scabs that dot the knee.

Now comes the challenging part if I am alone. I must be certain that I am well prepared and have all that I need ready at hand because once I have him pulled up into a seated position, supporting his back, I only have one hand free to do the rest, unless he is able to grab the bars of the bed and hold himself up. That is becoming less likely with every passing day. I whisper what I am about to do, then pull him up to a sitting position. The t-shirt must be pulled off with my free hand, careful not to hurt him. Then I am able to wash his back, his neck and the back of his head. Underarms too, then a generous application of deodorant. Now the clean t-shirt goes on, again with great care. My tendency to be quick and efficient has been replaced with a deliberate slowness and calmness. We have all the time in the world for such things.

I lay him back down onto the clean pillowcase that has had a fresh spritz of rosewater applied to it. He sinks into the pillow with what seems like relief. Next comes the diaper area, left always to the end. A clean waterproof mat is ready to replace the old when Michael is rolled over, as is a clean diaper. First I roll him to one side, careful to use my whole body, not just my back, a technique I learned years ago while caring for him at home after his heart attack. The squeezed-out cloth lies ready over the rail. Once all the washing is done on that side and the diaper has been removed, it is time to partially unroll the waterproof mat to the halfway point and the old one rolled up ahead of it. When Michael is pulled over to the other side of the bed, it is simply a quick action then to remove the old mat and pull the clean one fully into position, as well as to finish the positioning of the clean diaper. Once returned to his back, more adjustment might be necessary to the diaper before it is closed.

This process always moves Michael down the bed so that his feet touch the base. Making sure the bed is now as low as it will go, I hook my arm under one armpit and haul him up higher to provide the clearance he needs at the end of the bed. This is when I am grateful I have a strong back. It is, of course, much easier with two people, but that is not always an option. The sheet and blanket are now pulled up to his chest and he usually sinks into an exhausted snooze immediately if he even woke up in the first place. The final step is a gentle swabbing of his mouth with the minty little mouth sponges the nurse provided and a quick application of balm for his dry lips.

The Baha'i ritual of cleansing the body before burial now makes perfect sense to me. It is an acknowledgement of the sanctity of the vessel that has contained the soul on this earth.

*Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: Rose window