This is a photo of my friend Jeff, taken on Saturday, September 17, 2016. In this shot, Jeff is wearing what was supposed to be a finger-knitted Kleenex bag to attach underneath his walker that I made but ended up to be something entirely different. We’re not sure what it was. Over-sized bandanna? Extra-small infinity scarf? Jeff was going to name it and brand it. Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t get the chance to tell us about his ingenious moniker for the odd creation because he died on Saturday, September 24, 2016 – just a week after our visit.
This is what Jeff wrote on Facebook shortly after our visit.
Facebook is full of tributes for Jeff, and rightfully so. Seriously, click his name above and you will see some eloquent testimonies that had me in tears. Jeff was diagnosed with Gliobastoma Multiforme in 2014, the same type of nasty brain cancer that Gord Downie from the Tragically Hip has. Usually patients with this type of cancer survive a year. Jeff was part of a clinical research trial but that damn cancer decided to be extra vicious and it did something it rarely does to others – it spread. It’s almost easier to say what organs and systems weren’t affected.
I didn’t want to learn how to say metastasize or palliative care, never mind apply those words to Jeff. We knew that Jeff’s remaining time was limited, but we thought it’d be months, not weeks. We were planning to go see him again this week, but now I’m just grateful that we made it up to Kingston when we did.
Too soon. Too damn soon.
I first met Jeff in the early 2000s. At that time, Jeff lived in Guelph and he was part of our gaming group. Our house was the headquarters and Jeff with his friend Adam would make the drive out to Toronto to join Kevin, Chris, Ian, Dave and my husband James for some role playing game action. I wouldn’t play much because my children were young and needed attention but we’d talk a lot before and after the game. One of my favourite role playing “one-off” adventures I ever participated in was a zombie game involving infected simians: my character was an animal rights protester and Jeff’s was a local redneck. The phrases “Chimpanzees wanna be free!” “Sir, please get this flaming monkey off my back” and “It’s just over that tree line” were immortalized due to that game. Eventually the gaming group disbanded, and Jeff moved to Montreal. We lost touch. We reconnected after learning about his cancer diagnosis and when we reunited, it was as if time hadn’t passed. Jeff was still Jeff – full of opinions (he was pretty passionate in his admiration for the Quebec educational system and their publicly funded pre-university college known as CEGEP), his quick sense of humour and his gift of the gab. In his final days, we also saw how considerate, generous, appreciative and caring Jeff was. He’d get tired because of his illness but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his days napping – he wanted to spend it with his friends. From what I saw, his friends loved and admired him just as much, flocking to Kingston when possible to visit him.
While our group of friends was visiting Jeff, a trio from Montreal arrived. We all gathered together and there was a lot of joking, stories, and general goodwill. Alex, Steve, and Marie made some entertaining suggestions about the next finger-knitting gift Jeff should receive and we agreed that a colourful strapless tank top with fringe and two strategically-placed tassels would be ideal. I never got to start making that bizarre outfit for Jeff. However, there are a lot of other Jeff-related projects that will see completion, ensuring that he’s not forgotten. Check out Dork Tower, for example. Then there’s “Operation Jeff”(quoted by Lisa Prince but written by another):
More than 20 of us (and more all the time) working in tabletop, video games, fiction, comics and other media have come together to demonstrate that as far as we’re concerned, you’ll always be a part of games for us. Over the coming months and years, characters named “Jeff Mackintosh” are going to start showing up in the work of those of us who know, love, and admire you
This doesn’t count the Fan Expo Canada #staystrongJeff tribute video that made me a basket case the first time I saw it.
And then there’s this. the gesture is much smaller, but just as significant … when Jeff saw us December 8, 2015 and stayed for dinner, he became reacquainted with our daughter, who was just a little kid when he had last seen her but was now a teenager who loves art. Jeff looked through her comic book cover pages and gave plenty of good advice. He also gave her some “voluntary homework”: practice drawing hands in various poses. Jeff told her that illustrators often struggled with drawing hands realistically and offered to critique her hand drawings for her when she was done sketching. She was in the process of making these drawings when he died. It’s ironic that the first hand pose she sketched was of the ASL sign for “I love you”. Love you Jeff. Rest in peace.
P.S. This blog is related to my professional reflections, often intertwined with my personal life. What “school connections” can I make here? I know that on Thursday, September 29, during our school’s Terry Fox run, I’ll be thinking about Jeff and wearing his name on my chest on our “I’m running for …” badges. I’ve talked to my students as we’ve prepared for the Terry Fox fundraiser about my friend Jeff. I’ll probably cry a bit when I mention him – but that’s okay. Causes need to be real rather than abstract to students, and fighting cancer (a disease that’s hit both my parents as well as Jeff) is very real for me. Jeff’s battle with terminal illness also taught me a few lessons to remind myself in school and life.
1) Be appreciative. – We take for granted our health. Don’t. Even when you don’t have it, be grateful for the things you do have. Jeff was so appreciative of any and all visits, notes, phone calls, and gestures. In school, we complain when we don’t have enough technology that works well. Before we gripe, we should remember that we are fortunate to have a roof over our heads.
2) Prioritize. – Jeff knew what he wanted to do with the limited time he had: spend it with family and friends. Don’t put off ’til tomorrow what you can do today. If we had postponed our visit with Jeff for another week, we wouldn’t have seen him at all. What’s more important in my library – that it’s tidy or that I helped some students with a project or a problem? (Note: this doesn’t mean I can ignore cleaning the library forever, as much as I might like to do so!)
3) Relationships matter. – Jeff was very considerate about his interactions with others, and fostering positive ones among other people. For instance, he was very upset that his illness interfered with his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Like a “people gardener”, Jeff nurtured and fed and encouraged growth. At times when I think I’m spending too much time “just chatting” with other teachers, I have to remember that I’m growing that relationship.
4) Laugh when you can. – In the palliative care hospital, a quote was on the wall that said something like “laughter is like a windshield wiper; it won’t stop the rain from coming but it allows us to keep going”. Despite it all, Jeff joked with his friends. Brain cancer isn’t all fun and games, but injecting some levity into a serious situation makes it a bit more tolerable.
Thanks Jeff, for teaching me about how to learn and live well.