September 3, 2011
We gathered at the Cafe Deux Soleils on Commercial Drive around 2 p.m. The place soon filled with a huge crowd of friends and family, those who had been touched, in one way or another, by Rob.
I didn’t know Rob personally or for a long time, but I knew he was someone special from the moment I met him. He was just “one of the guys”, part of the team from Brighter Mechanical that had re-piped our building last year. He was the one who delighted in going that extra mile, always with his incredible smile. He stayed after work to put up my new mirror for me, not part of his job. He saw to it that the painter refinished my bathroom wall behind the mirror, also not a Brighter job. He added a special box around my washer taps, making my laundry room look better.
As he worked in my apartment, mostly on retiling the area above my new tub, he talked to me about his family, about his mother, Betty, who was short like me, and how I reminded him of her when I talked about my kids. He told me how he had been adopted as a young child, a black boy plunged into a white family. He was so personable and down to earth, filled with humour and good will as he worked. He let me know that his wife, Portia, had started a storefront business for and with abused women, WWWW, selling second-hand household items to people in need. I donated my toaster, kettle and coffee maker, and many others in the building made donations, too, once they heard about Portia’s endeavour.
I learned today a lot more about Rob, his determination, his work ethic, and his very strong desire to win at life. Today I saw him as father, husband, brother, uncle, and friend. Both moving and hilarious speeches filled out the bigger picture of this man – someone who created laughter in every situation and at the same time taught all who knew him what matters most in life. For him, it was all about family.
His ten-year-old daughter spoke in loving terms of her dad and his “man cave,” the apartment balcony, equipped with chair, fridge and beer. This is where she joined him when her mom wanted her to do homework or clean her room. She loved being with her dad. She talked about him racing her down the hall to her bedroom and flopping on her bed before she could get there, and promptly falling asleep, taking up all the space. She told us a story about his letting her put pink nail polish on his toenails, falling asleep, and not having the time or the know-how to take it off before going to work the next morning. He rushed home that day, ripped off his socks and shouted, “Get this stuff off of me!” She promised to do so if he promised to let her polish his toenails again. Rob’s sense of humour is alive and well in Tanner!
Friends spoke of the many adventures they had with Rob, like hanging out at the Deux Soleils, swigging huge amounts of beer, Rob being the only one to maintain his body’s six-pack! One story was about capsizing a canoe; another about playing golf with him. Memorable was the time he hit the ball way off the golf course, smashing into the balcony of a building in the distance. Each speaker said that Rob had the gift of making him feel that he was their best friend.
Rob mentored his nephews, his friends’ kids, his kids’ friends, and all looked up to him. He seemed to be everyone’s Uncle Rob. They spoke of the love he showed each one of them and the gratitude they felt. More than one said Rob had taught him how to be a better dad, a better person.
His older sisters said that they had spoiled him rotten as a child and knew that he had become their parents’ absolute favourite. No one begrudged him that position – they all recognized how special he was and they all adored him. Rob singlehandedly opened the minds and hearts of the people in the town where they all grew up. No one had ever laid eyes on a black person before, let alone one who was so outgoing and communicative. He charmed the town.
One woman spoke of his special talent when entering a room, making every woman in the room immediately feel noticed and valued. He had a real knack for this, being able to understand feelings and to sit for long periods of time listening. She said that all the husbands had a thing or two to learn from Rob! Rob himself credited this uncanny ability to the “fact” that he actually WAS a woman!
His wife, Portia, spoke – I don’t know how she was able to do this, as she was obviously wracked with grief. She poignantly told us his wishes for this celebration and for his children’s future. She addressed each of the children individually, London, then Tanner, stating how much their father loved them and just how he would expect them to carry out their lives. She said that as difficult as his loss is to her, that she has gained much strength from her daughter, Tanner, the ten-year-old, who had asked her mom two days after his death if she could speak at the celebration and say the five things she liked best about him. This made Portia realize that her daughter was facing the future already and that she had to do that, too. Rob had told her to make this day a celebration and to do it in a way he would have liked had he been able to attend. And what a celebration it was!
I saw so much courage and inspiration today. But what struck me most vividly was the openness of this family in grief. Everything said came straight from the heart, not always in a composed manner. Voices choked and tears trickled. Some were sobbing as they spoke. But no one was alone. Several remained on the podium, arms around the speaker, arms around each other, offering and receiving encouragement and support, always allowing what needed to pour out to pour. This place was a haunt of Rob’s, a safe place for him and for all who were present. Whatever feelings arose were welcomed and accepted. Strength and vulnerability were in abundance. And the air -- what permeated the air in that room today was a spirit of overwhelming love. You could touch it; and it definitely touched me. Without any formal protocol, the deepest respects were paid to Rob today.
It was a privilege to have known Rob, even briefly, and an honour to be there amongst his closest friends and loved ones. I am grateful to have learned from this event the profound impact he had on all who knew him. He left a huge and rich legacy by just being himself, full of fun, full of love, and full of generosity. Rest well, Rob. Rest in peace.