Bob Brehl's high school friend gave him strength even in his most fragile state. Photo/Wikimedia Commons via SimonP [http://bit.ly/1JmmVd8]

Jim’s death diminishes me, but also gives me strength

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  • August 27, 2015

Some weeks ago, I mentioned an inevitable goodbye that would take place with a dear friend whom I met on the first day of Grade 9 at Neil McNeil High School in Toronto’s east end 40 years ago next week.

The goodbye took place and it hurt. Famed British poet John Donne once said: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” This death certainly had that effect on me, but it also strengthened me.

Before that, I must backfill a little bit about James Daniel Whyte. When I first met Jim, we were only 13 years old and he was about half my size but his heart was twice the size of mine. I was a quivering bowl of jelly at this new school far from my home. Jim was brimming with confidence, not afraid of anything or anyone.

When the Vice-Principal for Discipline stood before all the new students and called us “worms” who had better not act up, I was quaking. Jim was not. He told me to relax. It was the Veep’s shtick, merely a speech to scare us into submission, Jim assured me.

Jim was always a little bit of a rebel, as his brother, Bill, humorously outlined at the reception following his funeral at Our Lady of Grace Church in Aurora, north of Toronto. I would witness Jim’s rebellious streak many times over the years, including in Grade 12 when he delighted in squealing the tires of his Buick 454 four-barrel car on the street right outside the window of the vice-principal’s office.

Besides rebellious, Jim had a lovely mischievous side to his personality, too. For years, four close Neil McNeil friends (and one outsider from a different school) would go on fishing trips that would include hours of card playing after dark. One of the favourite card games was Hearts. Each heart was worth one point and the queen of spades was worth a whopping 13 points. The object of the game is to have as few points as possible.

Jim and I were known as “the weasels” because we informally banded together to stick as many points as possible on others. When one of the other guys was getting close to the limit and the end of the game near, Jim and I would inevitably turn on each other to try to win the game. It was all good fun.

Long ago, 27 years to be precise, a tumour was found in Jim’s head against his pituitary gland. It wasn’t cancer but was dangerous. Doctors operated but could not get it all. For the rest of his life, a cocktail of steroids and other drugs were used to keep the tumour in check while limiting the brain seizures. Jim had many seizures over the years, including at the SkyDome and down in Cleveland while watching his beloved Toronto Blue Jays.

His health issues eventually ended his budding banking career. But he was one defiant guy, determined to live his life. All the health issues initially prevented him and his lovely wife, Debbie, from having children. Jim said to heck with that and he did what he had to do to have a child. His beautiful daughter Elizabeth appeared on the scene, Jim calling her his “superstar.” Perhaps he couldn’t do all the so-called normal dad things, but he did a lot more, too.

Almost a year ago, Jim developed a cancer tumour in his ankle. He lost most of his leg before doctors realized the cancer was by now everywhere in his body.

I saw him many times over the last weeks of his life and I didn’t hear one complaint. Indeed, just the opposite. “I’ve had a good life. I have a beautiful wife and daughter and I’m okay with things,” he said one time.

The last time I saw him he was in the hospital bed they’d moved into their family room in their home. He drifted into and out of consciousness. I intentionally maneuvered myself to sit in a seat where he could see me when he was awake. Just as he had strengthened me back in Grade 9, I was trying to do the same for him now.

I didn’t need to. Each time he opened his eyes, he’d smile at me and I’d toss him a thumbs up. I saw no fear in his eyes, only peace and tranquility. Just like Grade 9, he was giving me strength.

A few days later, I awoke one morning with a horrible headache in the lower back part of my head. I’d never had a headache there. It hurt for several hours.

Then, just before 10 a.m., Jim’s wife, Debbie, called to tell me he had just died. After I hung up, tears trickled down my face and I realized something: my head no longer hurt.

Was the headache a signal? Was the pain’s disappearance Jim telling me he was okay now and up there with his beloved mother? I don’t know. But I like to think so. Rest in peace, my friend, you deserve it.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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