I was sitting in front of the TV late on Wednesday night, January 30, (well, early Thursday morning), half watching an old Simpsons episode, half surfing the net on my laptop. It had been a couple of long days on the Island; an ice storm had crippled the power supply, and what started as annoying, sporadic blackouts turned into extended periods without power. But by late Wednesday night that seemed to be behind us, and I was able to catch up on both my TV watching and my blog reading.
My cell phone vibrated on my hip. I glanced at the clock and winced. (Remember when it was fun and exciting to get a phone call after 11:00 at night?)
I flipped my phone open. It was a text message from my sister, Andrea. "You still awake?"
I snapped off the TV, clicked over to MSN Chat and messaged her: "What's up?"
"Ah, shit," I groaned. I'd just gotten back from three weeks of taking my Dad in for daily radiation treatments, and this was the call I'd been dreading. Of course, the other possibility was that my Mom had slipped away - she's fairly fragile now. Which one ...?
"Who?" I asked, bracing myself.
"It's Jay," said Andrea. My brow furrowed.
My brother had collapsed in his home office and they'd rushed him to hospital. Andy was just waiting for a call from my sister Barb, who was at the hospital, so we could get an update on his status.
So I waited with her - chatting about inconsequential things, neither of us believing that anything serious was wrong with Jay. After a few lines, she messaged: "Sec. Barb on phone." Sure, no prob.
Then: "Fuck. He died."
I stared at the screen, my jaw slack, trying to make some sense of those impossible words.
"He died."? Who died? Jay? OK, I knew full well that could not have happened. So this was ... a typo? A mistake of some sort? If it was a joke, I was waiting for the funny that would cancel out the mean.
There was no funny. No mistake. No typo.
At age 57, my brother Jay died on Wednesday night, January 30, of a massive coronary. It happened mercifully quickly - paramedics had done as much as possible to resuscitate him en route to the hospital, but the thinking is he was dead before he crashed to the floor.
No. No no no no no.
The two of us, Andrea and I, sat a half a continent apart, gazing at our screens, unable to fathom what we were talking about, unable to take in the enormity of it all, the finality. We couldn't comfort one another - the medium doesn't lend itself to that. I shut down the computer, snatched up the phone and called.
But even that was empty. We talked for a few minutes - not saying anything of substance, mired up to our axles in the awful truth we were experiencing. We agreed to talk the next day. "I love you," I said, my voice crumbling.
"I love you," she whispered, and was gone.
I sat there quietly in the warmth of my family room, embers in the woodstove glowing, a cat curled up at the far end of the couch, my mind alternately whirling, then slowing, engaging, then disconnecting.
The last time I saw Jay, he hugged me and said "So, there's this guy, and he's driving around in the WalMart parking lot, and it's 30 below and he can't find a parking space. He circles and circles, but he knows he's going to have to park way at the far end of the lot and freeze his ass to get in the store. So on his last pass, he closes his eyes and says, "God, all I want is a good parking spot. Please, God. If you get me a spot close to the store, I'll never ask you for anything again." He hears a celestial choir, opens his eyes and there, right in front of the doors, a car is backing out. The guy looks up to Heaven and says, "Oh, never mind. Found one."
That was one of thousands of jokes Jay told me over the years. Me, I'm a funny guy, sometimes, but I can't tell a joke joke. I can't remember them, for one thing. And if I do, I screw up the inflection or miss a detail and the best I can get is a nod and "Heh."
But Jay? An inexhaustible supply of jokes, most of them unprintable or objectionable or inappropriate for any audience. Which never, ever stopped him.
And you know what? The boy could pull it off. You may be sitting there thinking, "Oh, I'm sure he could tell a hideously offensive joke to some folks and get away with it, but I hate those kinds of jokes, and I don't think I'd enjoy being around a guy who tells them."
But you know what? You would.
For my kids - in fact, for all the nieces and nephews - he was the "fun uncle". He was an unmerciful tease (everything I know about teasing I learned from him), and he was the master of the straight face.
So here's a story Allison told just the other day:
"About two years ago, my family was discussing things in our house that we should get rid of, things that we have had forever but no longer need, or things that are so out of style that they should have been trashed years ago.
"What painting of Mom?" Dad asked.
"You know, the clown one?"
"Yeah, the sad clown on the wall upstairs...." Erin knew what I was talking about.
"Yeah, some painter guy painted a picture of Mom dressed as a clown...." I started to trail off, now unsure of myself.
"Uhm....who told you that?" Mom asked us.
"Uncle Jay!" We said together. But as soon as we said it, we realized.
What a bugger.
I think I'll miss him most. After all, I was his "favourite niece."
(Without meaning to burst her bubble - and Allie knows this - at one time or another he took every kid in the family aside and whispered that he or she was his "favourite". And they all believed him.)
When I was in grade six, I was a tiny, scrawny kid almost two years younger than the rest of the children in my grade. Because of my size, I was easy prey, so I was bullied and hounded every day by a couple of other guys from school. They were bigger than me, and tougher (well, everybody was tougher than me), and every day as we'd go home for lunch they would follow behind me, tripping me up, pushing the books out of my hand, poking at me, making my life miserable.
I must have mentioned it in tears at the table, because one day I was walking home, and they were behind me, and as we got to the corner of our street one of them tripped me - and then Jay came leaping over the Friesen's hedge, grabbed my tormenter by the lapels, and lifted him bodily off the ground.
(The kid knew who was dangling him - Jay had a well-earned reputation as a fearsome street fighter, one of those guys who gets into a fight and people get badly hurt.)
He calmly explained to this terrified kid how this kind of thing was over, and that not only would these guys no longer bully me, but he was assigning them to be my bodyguards. If any other kids bullied me, Jay would hold these two personally accountable, whether they were involved or not. "Think of yourselves as the Secret Service," he said. "And think of my brother as the President."
I was never bullied again - not in elementary school, not in junior high, not in high school. I was Jay Ling's little brother, and you did NOT fuck with Jay Ling's little brother.
We weren't best friends - there was a four year age gap. But we were shelter for one another. With a pilot for a Dad, we often found ourselves left alone with only one another to counter the flood of estrogen from my Mom, my Granny, and four sisters.
We did this the only way boys know how: we became expert and ruthless teasers and tormentors. In this picture of our family after church on some long-ago Easter Sunday (note the bonnets), you can see that Barb is in tears; Mom and two of my sisters are looking on, concerned; Jay is grinning like a fool, and I am looking up at him worshipfully. I'm willing to bet that he started whatever was going on.
Jay often got stuck with me as his tag-along. Sometimes he resented it, and made my life miserable - one Hallowe'en my Mom dressed him as Zorro and me as his sidekick (whom Jay dubbed "Zero"), and instructed him to watch me all night despite his protests that I would slow him down and reduce his take from trick or treating. His solution to the dilemma was to urge me on from house to house by poking and slashing at me with a sword fashioned from a curtain rod.
But most often he tolerated my existence, and sometimes we'd have memorable afternoons on the vast Canadian prairie that surrounded the air force base we lived on. We would go out into the fields to hunt gophers, for which the farmers paid us ten cents a tail as bounty. (Which was enough to get you into the Saturday feature at the base theatre.) (In case there was any doubt I am goddamn old.)
While the richer kids (or kids who came from families with fewer than six children) would hunt with BB guns, Jay and I would venture out with only a length of twine with a loop at one end. We'd encircle a gopher hole with the loop, back away, lie down in the grass, and silently wait, the other end of this makeshift lasso wrapped around Jay's hand. If I fidgetted, he'd quiet me with a glare. Eventually, a gopher would stick its head out to see if the coast was clear, and BAM!
Now, walking around with a piece of string is one thing. Walking around with a piece of string with a dead gopher on the other end is quite something else. We'd parade around the neighbourhood with our trophy, letting the other boys admire it (or even, if they asked nicely enough, touch it); we'd swing it over our heads; and we would chase the girls out of the playground. There are, we discovered, no end of things you can do with a dead gopher on a hot prairie summer afternoon.
Jay and I shared a room, which meant that for about ten hours a day he was Lord and Master of the Universe (at least, our Universe). Mom and Dad had a rule that once lights were out, you stayed in your room. Coming out to tattle on your brother for tormenting you was not considered an acceptable reason. In fact, if you were out of your room after lights out, your pyjamas better be smouldering and the flames licking at your ass. You don't end up with six kids by letting the first four or five wander around the house after dark.
So when the door closed, Jay became Boss of the World. He would, of course, abuse the power - ordering me around, teasing me, practicing fighting moves -- just generally being mean. There was no point ratting him out in the morning, because you knew later that night the lights would go out, the door would close, and through the darkness you'd see Jay's head lean out over the top bunk, peering down at you, deciding on the fate of the little snitch below.
By rights, Jay and I should never have been in the same school at the same time after Elementary. But I was a superior student who skipped a couple of grades, and he ... um ... wasn't. By high school, he was only 2 years ahead, blazing a unique trail, so that by the time I showed up in classes, the teachers would pause during the first attendance call. "Ling, Nils," they'd say, then peer up overtop the clipboard. "Would you be Jay's brother?"
"Yes," I would say.
"Uh-huh," they'd say, examining me more closely, perhaps jotting a note or two beside my name. "Let's move you up to the front, shall we?"
But that wasn't the only trail he blazed.
So, brother of a tough guy and womanizer. Much was expect of me in both regards. And in both, I failed completely and utterly.
(I was -- well, hell, just look at me. I was a nerd. I am wearing a cardigan in this picture. It was my favourite sweater. I preferred pale blue denims, worn with a crease. I was the kind of kid who couldn't take a drink of water at a school fountain because there would be someone like Jay walking past to smack me on the back of the head. Not exactly a chick magnet.)
There were, I admit, times when I bridled at being regarded as "Jay Ling's brother". The bar was pretty damn high, and I was so unlike him in so many ways that it all felt unfair.
It took him awhile, but Jay found his place in life. He found a wife to settle him down (somewhat), and he had three sons that kept him busy.
As we grew older, our friendship grew stronger. When I moved away, we'd keep in touch on the phone and when I'd go back to Winnipeg, I'd always find some time to grab a coffee or a bite to eat with him. He'd always want to go somewhere with cute servers (and he knew all the places), and I would cringe and blush and apologize for him as he would banter with the woman bringing us our food and drinks. (The last time we went out, our server, who was very attractive, wore a nametag which shortened her name (Billie Jean) into simply "B.J.". God, for him, that was like shooting fish in a barrel.)
It's still incredible to me that he's gone. I keep expecting a call from him, confessing that it's all a joke.
When the people at the funeral home asked how many to expect at the service, we guessed that his friends would fill the 250 seat chapel. At the end of the service, the Funeral Director came to me and said that not only was the chapel full, but also the auxiliary chapel and the reception room. More than 400 showed up to pay their respects to my brother. He'd have loved that.
He'd have loved the tune that Erin and Allison played: a tune Allison had composed for him on her fiddle - a tune fittingly titled "Uncle Jay's Favourite". He would have been proud of his sons and grandson as they spoke eloquently and emotionally about what he meant to them.
I was asked to deliver the eulogy. This is what I said:
This is going to be tough for me. Which I know would amuse Jay greatly. He loved to see me squirm. Well, anyone, really. But me in particular.
A eulogy feels inadequate for Jay. I’m a skilled writer, but I can’t possibly squeeze the essence of a spirit that big onto a few pages. Sum up Jay’s life in a few minutes? Impossible.
So if I’m doing the impossible anyway … why stop at a few pages? Winston Churchill once wrote, at the end of a long letter: “I’m sorry this letter is so long. Had I more time, it would have been shorter.”
So I don’t need a few pages, or even a few sentences to sum up Jay’s life. I can do it in a word:
Did you ever meet a guy who loved to laugh as much as Jay did? I mean, I know he had his serious moments, we all do. But damn, that man could enjoy a good laugh.
And did you ever meet a guy with so many jokes, right at the tip of his tongue? Something for any occasion? I mean, you’d be sitting around talking about – I don’t know, a nature series you saw with penguins – and Jay would start in: “So, a penguin, a priest, and a Scotsman walk into a bar …”
(Actually, I just made that up. But it does sound like a joke he’d tell, doesn’t it? Probably not one I could repeat in mixed company.)
He was relentless. He wanted you to laugh, and he didn’t care how he’d do it. He would tease – and man, he could hold a straight face – ask any of the kids. Like Ashleigh – who is now married to our nephew Cole.
The first time Cole introduced Jay to Ashleigh at a wedding, he looked at her and said “Wait – you aren’t the one he introduced me to last week …?”
Well, Cole was able to fumble his way out of that. So later Jay was on the dance floor with Ashleigh, and he said, “So you and Cole have been together a while?” Oh, yes, she said, about six months.
“So I guess you know about his little secret, then,” said Jay.
“Well, the cross-dressing thing. I’m sure he’s told you about that. No? Oops.”
My wife Joyce will tell you about the first time she met Jay. It was at my sister Kathy’s wedding. I introduced them, and Jay asked her to dance. As he led her around the dance floor, he leaned in and whispered, “I wish women had been created with three breasts – two in the front, and one in the back for dancing.”
Oh, he wasn’t done. He leaned in and said, “Want to see me undo a bra with one hand, through clothing?”
Joyce said, “Uh, no.”
Jay said, “Oh. I guess I should do it back up, then.”
I was always horrified by what he would say to women – whether he knew them or not – and always in awe of how he would get away with it. I could never pull that kind of thing off.
But Jay would say the most outrageous things, and just by the sheer force of his personal charm, he would walk away unscathed. Well, until Marg got hold of him later.
But it wasn’t just charm – I think when he said stuff like that to women, they wouldn’t feel threatened or insulted because he was this big, harmless, cuddly teddy bear of a guy who drew them right into the joke with him.
And he’d laugh at himself as hard as anyone. He didn’t care if the joke was at his expense. As long as people were laughing, that was OK with him.
We should all live our lives with such unbridled joy as Jay lived his.
When we look at our lives, or others’ lives, we often focus on what is not there – on what we haven’t achieved. It’s unfair, of course, because life is so designed that all of us fail in so many ways. Even the greatest baseball players who ever lived failed to hit the ball two-thirds of the time. No fisherman walks away having cleaned out the lake.
Instead, let us judge ourselves on the quality of our character; on how much pleasure we can squeeze out of what life has dealt us; and on how much joy we create for the people we love.
By that standard, is anyone here the equal of my brother? I know that I will be a better person if I can achieve in my life a fraction of what he achieved in his.
As I go through this life, I know I will hear many, many more jokes. And every time I hear a great joke, I will remember that Jay would have heard it first, and would have been the one who told it to me, and stood there with that goofy grin, waiting to see me laugh.
I want you to do that, too. Every time someone tells you a great joke, I want you to hear Jay.
Remember him that way. Nothing would have given him greater joy.
There will be a reception in the room outside, a chance for you to say something to Marg and the family, offer your respects and condolences.
And yes, there will be tears, but I hope you’ll also tell them some way that Jay made you laugh.
He loved to make people laugh.
There. I guess it’s not so hard to sum up a life in a few words, after all.