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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


  1. What a beautiful eulogy, Claire. He would have been proud. In fact I'm sure he WAS.

  2. What is there to say but thank you for including me in your journey with Michael. I hope you'll continue to do so. Amazing.

  3. Merci Claire for sharing still! What little I knew of Michael was confirmed during the eulogies, yours and others: that here was one heck of a special man, guy! He was no less, married to the best woman, gal! I used to tell himhewasmarriedto the best cook, I especially loved everything you made! After a pause, I said "you know why Michael"? Because it's full of love and devotion!I'll say it again, it's been a priviledge, a gift to be included in your loving family.

  4. Thank you for sharing so deeply.

  5. What a beautiful heartfelt eulogy ... thank you for sharing it ... I am glad you got the strength to do it yourself .... truly beautiful. Virginia x

  6. Thank you for sharing this, Claire, it's a beautifully written celebration of his life and the way he will be remembered by his family. I especially loved your earlier post about the heron (and the mention of the lights dimming); I feel like when you're open to receiving signs that a soul/spirit is still with you or watching over you, you will notice them everywhere and know that it's true.

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    Joel Kurtis
    Nevada, USA

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