by JOHN POTTINGER
The night nurse tiptoed into Art’s hospital room at 3 a.m. on the day he had chosen as his last. For Art, that time couldn’t come quickly enough — the cancer, its toxins and its pain, were goose-stepping through his body.
Art stirred as she took his hand and said to him, “It’s time for your pain meds. You’re going to feel a little prick.” A sleepy-scratchy version of Art’s famous voice said, “What did you call me?”
Though it wasn’t his normal voice it was his normal humour. Even this horrid intruder called pancreatic cancer couldn’t take that from him.
Arthur Black and I have been friends and confidantes for about 20 years. That sleepover on his last night wasn’t our first. Along with a couple of other wacky friends, we once isolated ourselves in a log cabin deep in the Cariboo mountains of B.C. for a few days: no power, no phones, no internet. It was bliss. There aren’t many people one can be cooped up with like that and the result is a closer relationship, but that sums up Art in a way that explains why his friends, family, readers, listeners and Canadians in general loved this guy so much. It was impossible not to.
Here’s the deal: He was kind and genuine. It’s that simple; those are the traits that foreigners use to describe what they like about Canadian culture. He personified what we aspire to (or should aspire to). The fact that he was funny was a bonus that came with the original package.
Some excerpts from recent email exchanges will give you a feel for who Art was, all the way to the finish line:
Jan. 10 (in response to whether he would be playing snooker the next day): “Can’t think of a Trudeauvian way to gild this, so here goes: pancreatic cancer with a side dish of Type Two diabetes. My doctor’s lips say he’s optimistic, but his body language says ‘don’t buy any green bananas.’ We’ll see what’s down the road. It could be chemotherapy and you know what that means . . . It means I could lose my hair.”
Jan. 27 (in response to a question about whether a few of us might get away for a “boys weekend”):
“I think it was William Saroyan who, near the end of his careen through life, wrote “I’m falling apart . . . and it’s INTERESTING!” ‘Tis too, you know. The human body is a real clown cupboard of tricks and foibles (and betrayals) never dreamt during the first 70-odd years, when everything ran tickety-boo. Knowing your days are numbered serves to remind a body of what really matters. Like the chittering of juncos on the bird feeders. The smell of wood smoke on the wind. The way a chunk of dark chocolate explodes and disseminates through the mouth, the flavour rolling out like the tongues of a tsunami or the opening chords of a symphony.
“Speaking of great sensations I would LOVE to try to re-create that magic lost weekend in the Cariboo, but I fear the window of opportunity has passed. I am embroiled in medical appointments that whisk me, with little advance warning, to fluorescent-lit, stainless steel-heavy locales in Victoria, Cowichan and Saanich. I’ve also lost a step or two. Energy levels are down. Mountain-climbing would be out.”
Feb. 9 (in response to a question about whether he feels up to lunch or snooker): “I’m no good for lunch (and probably snooker as well) but why not drop over after you get a bite? I’m currently in residence at the Lady Minto Spa and Retreat (valet parking).”
We spent much of those last days talking about love. Especially about how men (at least men in our culture) have difficulty expressing and showing love for each other. When we do rouse up the courage to tell a male friend how we feel, we do it in an awkward ultramasculine way — as if we’re throwing an uppercut to the face: “I love you man.”
Girls hold hands, women hold hands, little boys hold hands — but not men friends. So Art and I started holding hands, and sitting beside each other on his bed, reading emails from his laptop with our arms around each other’s shoulders. We should have done it years ago.
At one point during the wee hours of that last sleepover I woke to hear Art groaning a bit. He was frowning as I moved closer and asked, “Art . . . what’s the matter?”
He replied: “I can’t get that asshole Trump out of my mind.”
Kindness, authenticity and humour. That was Arthur Black. A fitting tribute to him would be to simply keep those three notions in mind whenever you interact with another human. And don’t be afraid to hold hands.
The writer is a former Salt Spring resident and Driftwood columnist who was a good friend of Arthur Black’s. Black died on Feb. 21.