I knew a man of uncommon wealth. Not financial or material wealth, for he never had these in abundance, but wealth of character. Blessed with intelligence, curiosity, talent, and insight, life was a smorgasbord for which he had insatiable hunger. How would I describe him? How does one describe the multifarious moods of the sky? He was the type who would sit beside a stranger on a bus travelling to Toronto, and begin a friendship that would last a lifetime. He had the hands and the eye of an artist, but he could also lay down a roof or take down a tree. He read, and he wrote. He loved theatre, music, and travel. He had a memory that allowed him to recall the actress who played Pericles’ daughter at Stratford in 1978, although he never did bother to learn his own phone number. The first present I ever received from him was an enormous chocolate bar with the inscription ‘From your dentist’. The second present I received from him was a work of classic literature by the eighteenth century French novelist Victor Hugo. He had amazingly blue eyes which sparkled when he laughed, which was often, because he found humour everywhere. He could spend hours watching children. He would wear a tie and a jacket for a trip to the store, and he would never be found in a restaurant that didn’t have tablecloths on the tables. He had a sense for people, and he had a sense for what was proper, and I am richer for having known him.
I knew a man who was an actor. With voice, expression, and movement he could become Faust, wrestling his inner tumult with gargantuan ravings, or he could be a lunatic teetering between dangerous rage and wallowing self-pity, or he could be a drunk staggering with comic precision. I saw him perform in the simplicity of a living room at home, and when his face changed it was like the lighting of the room did as well. In more professional environments, he performed in Montreal and Toronto and Estonia and Australia, on stage and on television. When I watched him I would find myself moved, transported, my own emotions stretched and laid bare, and I didn’t even understand what he was saying! And he had an actor’s emotional sensitivity and depth. I remember driving with him on a sunny spring day in the Laurentians. The hillsides blushed greenly with their quickening growth, and he was like a child at Christmas, relishing the scenery and the hue and the time of year. Then Mirella Freni came on the car speakers singing Un bel di vedremmo from Madama Butterfly. I looked over and he was crying. You see, an actor is only as good as what he can feel, and this man had a profundity of feeling that was indeed rare. I am richer for having known him.
I knew a man who took up downhill skiing at the age of 52. And as it might have done to a man three decades his junior, skiing became a passion. He loved skiing; he loved snow; he loved mountains. He skied in France, he skied Whistler, he climbed and skied Mt Washington, he skied Mte Ste Anne. Mont Tremblant, the old Mt Tremblant, the one of Trudeau & company, before it became a mock European village, was a particular favourite.
I skied in the company of this man a number of years ago. After skiing for a couple of hours, with a little bit of fatigue setting in and a pleasant gnawing in the stomach, we suggested that it was time for a break and lunch. He agreed. “Good idea,” he said. “Go ahead.” And he just continued to ski the mountain as if rest and food were simply unimportant in comparison with his present activity. He was 83.
On the penultimate day of his life, he spent two hours with his daughter perusing a special ski section in the newspaper, talking about ski destinations and reminiscing past exploits. You see, his mind was always full of adventure and energy, even during the short fraction of his life when his body was not. I am indeed richer for having known him.
I knew a man who was an artist. Among other things he studied art when he was a young man in Estonia, and his teacher commented that when he worked a pencil he did so with the natural curve of an innately skilled artist. “Don’t ever lose that curve,” he was advised. Later in life he used his skill working as an architectural draftsman. “Look what’s happened to my curve,” he lamented ironically one day. “Now I draw with a ruler and make straight lines and corners!”
I knew a man who loved to laugh. Almost every memory I have of him features him laughing. He found humour everywhere, and if he didn’t see it he’d make it. He laughed at politicians and he laughed at children. He laughed at dogs. Sometimes, he even barked like a dog, causing dogs to bark back and mystified dog-owners to wonder if they were going crazy. When he was a young boy, he became an ape, chasing his little brother Ants around the house. The fun ended when Ants, clearly fearing for his life, smashed his head trying to duck under the kitchen table. Removed from the incident by eight decades, the man would still laugh when describing the incident. And he would still faithfully mimic a giant ape. Fortunately by that time he had lost a bit of his youthful quickness, and I was able to escape without smashing my head.
In 1965 this man and a few friends happened to find themselves in a room at the Queen Elizabeth hotel. Coincidentally, the Dave Clarke Five was also at the hotel, and a small contingent of fans was milling on Dorchester Street below. Well, this man thought it would be a good idea to give the young people what they wanted. So the friends went to the window and started tossing out slips of paper with signatures of the members of the celebrity group. The effect was immediate and incendiary. The crowd below swelled and screamed. More paper was tossed out. Soon they ran out of paper, but the crowd had become a frenzied throng, more and more people filling the sidewalk and, now, part of the street. Writing paper changed to toilet paper, and the masses screamed for more, more. Police came to cordon off the area. At this point one of the friends, purporting to be the group’s manager, went to the door of the hotel and conveyed to the mob that the group needed to rest in preparation for their concert, and so, unfortunately, there would be no more signed toilet paper released from the group’s window.
A week and a half before he passed away, when his health had deteriorated to the point where he felt he needed to go to the hospital, he met with his palliative care physician, who happened to be a female. “What is it that made you feel you had to come here?” she asked him in an attempt to assess his situation. “I wanted to see you,” he answered.
Ah, yes, this man loved to flirt. He made women feel as if they were goddesses. But it was always just for fun. There were ever, ever only three women in his life: His wife, Haldi, his daughter Hille, and Audrey Hepburn. I know I watched Roman Holiday with him three times, which brought his own count to about a dozen. Haldi’s and Hille’s photos dominated the man’s room in terms of numbers, but Audrey’s poster was the winner in terms of size.
But there’s no question about where this man’s love lay. Haldi was a part of him, and he adored her with his eyes and with his actions and with his heart. When she passed away it was like a part of him was ripped asunder, but he had the strength to stand and the strength to heal. And a good part of that strength came from his daughter. When he needed a crutch Hille was there, and when she needed support he was there too. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen a father-daughter relationship so close, so symbiotic. The man was indeed fortunate to have such a daughter, and she has certainly been blessed to have had such a father. And his love passed through her to his grandson, Allan. He had great pride in Allan, and they shared many experiences together. Grandfather and grandson: They travelled together, they skied together, they cooked together, they ganged up on Hille together. I knew this man, this father and husband of such devotion, and I am richer for having known him.
I knew a man in front of whom life threw up many challenges. He was a teacher in Estonia before the havoc of war ripped his homeland from beneath his feet. A dramatic and dangerous escape across the sea in an ill-fitted boat that was anything but sea-worthy landed him and his wife and baby daughter in Sweden. It would be 15 years before he knew if his family had survived. He worked in the forest as a lumberman and in the city as a jeweller, without previous training in either of these areas, and then he was uprooted again or, more precisely, he uprooted himself. This time he materialized across an ocean and in, of all places, Montreal, a city with not one but two alien languages. Again, with nothing but skill and gumption, and a manner which made people instantly like him, he made a career for himself, designing buildings for the Royal Bank, and on the side designing houses. And, of course, he had a daughter named Hille, who many of you know, so you can imagine the challenges that that invoked.
Even the last challenge of his life, he met with courage and vitality. He refused to be mastered, refused to be prevented from living, refused to stay put! A few weeks ago, in flagrant disobedience of direct orders from the aforementioned daughter, he left the house and took a bus to the shopping centre. After doing some banking and buying some groceries, he went to take the bus back home. The Montreal transit system being what it is, the bus did not appear at the appointed time. And so the man, displaying the type of impatience that sometimes runs in a family, decided that a bus going somewhere is better than no bus at all and therefore jumped on a different one. Off he went, confident that he would be OK as long as the bus headed in a direction within 15 compass points of home. After estimating an appropriate time delay he exited the bus. A further hour of walking brought him to the realization that he was lost. Seeing a man working on his lawn, he went to ask for directions. He was invited in for tea, the wife brought out cookies, they talked and laughed... Yes, another friendship was born. Typical. Later that day, having related his adventure to his horrified daughter, he seemed quite content. “What would you have done if there was no one around?” Hille asked him, exasperated. “How much longer could you have walked?” “Oh, I had about another half hour in me before I would have had to lie down on the side of the road.”
I knew a man who was born in a potato patch. Is there something meaningful in that? I don’t know. Maybe that his homeland was part of him, that he would never really leave his roots, no matter how far he travelled? That he would always be fiercely proud of his Estonian heritage and his language? Maybe that he was destined to be special? Unusual? What I do know is that this man was extraordinary in myriad ways, and he affected everyone who knew him. He was impossible not to like. My brother sent me a note the other day saying that this man was the nicest man he ever knew and I thought, ‘what a simple, and incontestably accurate, statement.’ He was... nice. And he made people feel special. For him, life, in all its aspects, was something to be embraced, and being with him somehow heightened one’s own sense of vitality. In his 94 years he lived as much life as five regular mortals.
And many are we who are richer for having known him.
Kalle Viires, sina jääd alati minu südamesse.
December 9, 2006
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