My aunt Paula passed away from cancer last week, and today was her funeral. I am thankful to have been able to give the eulogy, which I am posting here. My aunt was a special lady, and I will miss her.
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath;
He knows death to the bone —
Man has created death.
“Death” by W. B. Yeats
I thought it would be appropriate to begin this meditation on the life of my aunt, Paula Clary, by quoting from the poem “Death” by William Butler Yeats, the great twentieth-century Irish poet and playwright. I do so because Yeats should have been the subject of my aunt’s doctoral dissertation, had she done one. His writing occupied much of her mind throughout her life; and I believe is tied to one of her biggest regrets. A couple of months ago, as she and I were reflecting together on her life, she said as much. She told me of a dinner that she had in Toronto with her father, my grandfather, as she was caught in the throes of indecision about whether to do a doctorate. She had an offer to join a local school-board, which gave her job security and a really good wage, and my grandpa strongly encouraged her to take the job. She did, and regretted it ever since. Now we will never be able to read what her prodigious mind had to say about Ireland’s great poet.
Since aunt Paula was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, I have thought a lot about who she was, and we spent a number of occasions talking about her life. It seems to me, as I look back on the last few months spent with her, that I got to know her in a much deeper way.
Those of you who knew my aunt will not think that I am being crass when I say that she could be quite a character. At times frantic, at others basically irate, she could frustrate even the calmest of us. Yet, at the same time, my aunt was one of those eccentrics, whose eccentricities were perhaps a mark of genius—at the very least of intelligence. We’ve seen that already, as she should have done a PhD. But she was more than just smart. She had that rare ability to look at the world about her and capture its essence with words. She was, like her hero Yeats, a writer and a poet. I have had the pleasure of reading her poetry, and am proud that she lent her creative gifts to the name that we share. My regret for her is that she published very little.
She was also a novelist who a wrote a book that was selected to be published after winning an award, only to have the publishing house close before her book could hit the shelf. This was a blow to her self-confidence, I fear, and is probably a key reason why she never became the author she always wanted to be.
One of her great loves was Northern Ontario, specifically the region of Temagami where we all cottage together—her cabin is next to ours. Her writing captures this love of the north, as she expressed herself with some very personal and thoughtful prose and poetry. Take, for instance, this poem simply called “Temagami”:
To-day, I try to think what made me.
In sunlight, the hills restored against the sky,
I can’t find why.
these trees, high up along the rock,
This house, sprung from rock,
and water, washing rock below,
This land I love most under snow
must be the reason why
I want to say, Temagami.
I have spent the last ten or more years going up to the cottage with her face as a regular part of the landscape. Red Cedar Lake will seem strangely empty when I go in a week. My aunt not only had that place stamped on her heart, but her very person was stamped on the water, the sky, and the sounds of life.
Oddly enough, some of my memories of her up there are of her at her most disheveled, which were for me when I was most entertained. Like the time her old dog Sadie—another great love of her life—got into some fish guts that my dad had left in a garbage can. We laughed our heads off as aunt Paul chased the dog across the yard, yelling for it to drop the guts.
I have other memories too. One of my favourites was watching her slowly drive Ken’s boat on Marten Lake as he and I fished for trout with down-riggers. She often had this actor’s look of being an old pro at such things.
Over the last number of years I have developed a deep appreciation for literature and poetry. I have three academic degrees in theology, and am now working on a fourth, and so I have spent a large part of my life slogging through highly technical non-fiction. After finishing a master’s degree a year and a half ago, I dove into the great works of English literature, and found in my aunt a reliable guide and insightful critic. Not too long ago I brought with me to her house a pile of books of poetry by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and others to get her opinions. Though she hadn’t taught English for some twenty years, she immediately fell into her old form, and helped me through some of the metaphors and allusions in Eliot’s great “Prufrock” poem. Who will I turn to now for such careful help?
With this growing love of poetry I came to discover that my aunt and I shared many great loves. Not only had we both left our hearts in Northern Ontario, and not only would we get lost in wonder with the great works of literature that the world has gifted us with, but we also share da love for the antique. I don’t merely mean antique furniture, but those things that are old and have and are marked by story. This should not have come as a surprise to me as I am a trained historian, but to see that she had that same love has left me smiling.
We also shared that lovelorn ache for a country we have only ever visited, but feel as though our identities are strangely shaped by nonetheless: Ireland. She went to County Sligo to research Yeats for her dissertation; I went to County Antrim to research Alexander Carson, the subject of my own. The emerald shores of Erin’s Isle caught our hearts, and how I would have loved to have visited the place with my aunt on my arm—drinking in not only the sights and the history, but the stout as well!
My aunt and I also shared the love of rich debate over the essential issues of life; namely existence, life, death, and most importantly, God. Some years ago, as we sat around the table in her cottage, she and I debated whether St. Paul was a Platonist. I argued then, and would still today, that he most certainly was not! I don’t know whether I convinced her, but I know I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion. About two years ago, with my sister driving blithely, and no doubt bored stiff in her car, aunt Paula and I debated the existence of hell—with me taking the affirmative. She was the only family member I have where I felt that I could open the engines for debate at full throttle, without fear that he would either be offended or confused, and I always came away having grown from the experience.
About a week before she went into palliative care aunt Paula and I had a very warm discussion about God, salvation, and Jesus Christ. I quoted to her the words of St. Peter from his sermon in the Book of Acts. The words are very simple, and are as true for you as they were for her, and are for me: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” It was one of those discussions that I dread, because I hate looking like a religious fundamentalist—but I must say it was one of the most beautiful conversations that I have ever had. We both wept, and hugged, and told one another of our mutual love. My aunt was not the kind of person who was as forthright with her affections, but I felt a connection with her that I never felt before.
I really don’t know what she did with my advice to her—but I worship a God of hope. The bible speaks very clearly about the need for all of us to be reconciled to God through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but through him. That is a message of profound hope. And so I carry this hope with me, when I think of my aunt Paula. Death is not the end. When we put a person in the ground, it is with the hope that we will see that person again. When Jesus Christ returns, we will all rise from our graves—some to death, and others to life—and will live and reign with Christ on a new earth forever. My hope is that I will spend many a night talking with my aunt about poetry, about the beauty of God’s creation, and the last wonder of God himself.
My aunt was something of a hypochondriac, so I feared that she would take the news of her cancer quite poorly. But I must say, I never once found her feeling sorry for herself, I never once heard her complain or say “Why me?” She has turned into a real model of someone who died with a certain dignity—as undignified as death always is. She immersed herself in books, reading anything that came across her lap, often offering stinging criticisms. I gave her the wonderful book, Surprised By Oxford, about the life of a London, Ontario-born Carolyn Weber who did a doctorate in literature at the famed British University—the affinities between the author and my aunt were strong. She loved it, and gave some very useful critiques that proved to be a great conversation starter.
We have all lost something in the death of my aunt. Who will be my seasoned conversation partner as I go through this continued discovery of English literature? Who will be my mom’s movie-going partner who will dissect the story for her? Who will go antique shopping with my dad? Who will bug the tar out of my sister, always looking for help shoveling snow or some other such thing? Who will be Ken’s indominatable euchre partner? She leaves a gaping hole.
Let me conclude with another poem, this one also a favourite of hers. It is by Archibald Lampman and is, like the one I read of Paula’s, called “Temagami”:
Far in the grim Northwest beyond the lines
That turn the rivers eastward to the sea,
Set with a thousand islands, crowned with pines,
Lies the deep water, wild Temagami:
Wild for the hunter’s roving, and the use
Of trappers in its dark and trackless vales,
Wild with the trampling of the giant moose,
And the weird magic of old Indian tales.
All day with steady paddles toward the west
Our heavy-laden long canoe we pressed:
All day we saw the thunder-travelled sky
Purpled with storm in many a trailing tress,
And saw at eve the broken sunset die
In crimson on the silent wilderness.