Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What I Saw

Of course it would be one of my closest friends this week who would ask. A question no one else would ask.

What did I see just before my brother died?

Although it was only one day -- in my memory, I remember it as 21 days in one.

He was only 29, and I never thought he would deserve this, or leave this life before me. Four years have passed, and maybe, right now I can actually write about it. I have tried many times before, even in metaphors. But no matter what, it felt self-indulgent. Why am I writing this? For me? For him? For you? I didn't know. He is gone and he won't come back.

I recently read Neil Peart's Ghost Rider about a 55,000 mile journey to just keep going (just to stay alive). Motion, he wrote, was healing. He had lost his wife to cancer. Ten months earlier, they had lost their only child, a daughter, 19 (in a car accident on Highway 401).

I'd lost my brother, 29, to cancer, and watched him pass away in front of me. A year before (same month), I had also lost a friend, 32, who was very close to me in my history (we'd traveled 6 months together). She just vanished off the face of the earth in a distant land we can't easily get to...whose language doesn't even have an alphabet.

It was comforting to know someone else out there knew what I was experiencing. Not that I'd ever wish this upon anyone. It just helped you refrain from self-pity. There are always people out there who have gone through far worse.

Admittedly, the Kennedys entered my head. We all shared something only we knew.

* * *

I didn't ask if there was a God? But I've always known there were sporting gods.

My friend Tony at Toronto's Il Gatto Nero agreed to bring my New York Yankees shirt with Andy Pettitte's name (to be donated to a stranger) and my late brother's NY hat to Yankee Stadium -- to Monument Park to honor my brother. It was a New York vs New York Subway Series in May. Mets vs Yankees. I picked Pettitte because he needed some superstitious help, after being embroiled in a scandal with Roger Clemens. And this is a true story: after Tony dropped off the hat and shirt, the New York Yankees later won the 2009 World Series and Andy Pettitte, a 3rd starter with an unlikely chance to get 2 World Series wins, won 2 games! The second win, won it all.

I went to New York City right after. This was the first New York Yankees World Series Championship team after 9/11. A weight had been lifted. The players had felt it too.

My friend Kim called me long distance nearly everyday for 3 months after my brother died to make sure I was okay. She once worked for me briefly before and actually returned her last pay cheque because she felt she didn't do a good enough job. Who does that?! Only someone special. Once I gave her a $60 shoe store credit I couldn't use in August, 2007, because I was leaving town. She kept it for 6 months and gave it back in February 2008! In January, 2009, at her home, she made snacks, as we watched the Superbowl. I was the only Pittsburgh Steelers fan in the house. I had even brought my terrible yellow towel, waving it in ecstacy, shouting in a silent room. The Steelers had won the Superbowl!

That was so good.

As if I were not spoiled enough, the Los Angeles Lakers won NBA Championships in 2009 and 2010 (beating the Boston Celtics in a hair-raising series). These were all my childhood teams, since before my brother was born.

who da man!

The kicker was when the Montreal Canadiens barely made the 2010 playoffs. I was tweeting with my hockey hero Bob Gainey's daughter that year. She had lost her mother to cancer and her sister at sea. Miraculously, Montreal beat the Washington Capitals in Game 7. They somehow next made it to a final Game 7 facing the Pittsburgh Penguins. These two teams had the best two NHL players - Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Even the minds of the greatest believers with the strongest faith know it is unthinkable for the lowest ranking team to beat the top two teams with the best 2 players in the NHL. The ghosts of the old Montreal Forum were definitely in the house helping out.

Bob Gainey's kid told us all to do something for good karma that day. It had to be immediate too! I immediately gave my car to a friend so she could make her job interview. Miraculously, Montreal won a second Game 7 (do or die)! Even though they didn't win the Stanley Cup, what they did already was much harder, strange as that is to say.

My friend who borrowed my car got the job flying around the world.

Bob Gainey's kid notified us she got accepted on a trip to Antarctica. I wrote to her to bring the Habs flag and plant it there and she did!

I had not experienced so much joy.

Yet it didn't change how I felt about my brother leaving this planet too soon or the angst I felt about what happened to my friend who disappeared. Or my fear, of losing someone else.

People who are living truly become casualties when a loved one dies or disappears. My mother and her husband (second marriage) were never the same, losing their only child. I help my missing friend's mom look for her daughter everyday. As a kid, I knew my friend's mom before my friend was even born. As a journalist, I had worked with my friend's late dad who moderated Canada's national elections debate on television.

After these great personal losses, it was very hard to listen to the pettier problems of life. The bullshit meter goes up. And it was not until after these tragedies, did I truly see how petty many things are. That's coming from someone who has always made an effort think bigger than petty.

So many people made their small problems way bigger than the great loss I secretly felt inside. And yet I couldn't say a word about my problems. My problems truly couldn't be fixed.

It was particularly hard to listen to someone complain (3 nights) about not getting 10 cents back for wine bottles because another friend took them. Sorry friend, it was hard for me to hear that. It was hard also to hear about people complaining about people for no good reason.

I have a photographic memory, memories linger often, and it was hard to have these thoughts embedded in my head continuously.

At least people you complain about are alive. You should be grateful. I thought. I then hated myself for being that judgmental (truth be told). This is not who I was. I was once bigger than that. That person was gone.

I was living in the shadows of my past with no future foreseen.

How could I function in a world that didn't see or care as much? I think that's why many people who lose loved ones stay in hibernation.

* * *

It was my first experience seeing a baby I had held, later pass away in life. But death is ultimately a rite of life. No one gets to choose when.


On February 27, 2008, my late brother emailed his last words to me. "Happy Birthday." We were in two cities. I was in New York City. He was north of Toronto.

On February 29, 2008, it was as leap year, I saw Kate Sland sing at Caffe Vivaldi. I would not return here again until fall of 2009. In the summer of 2009, I remember writing to Kate who reached out, and telling her, "my heart is on crutches." I truly didn't feel good about myself or life. But art still kept me going. That felt good.

I was still building things that mattered and supporting things that meant a lot.

I remember humming one of Kate's songs Sell Out while walking alone in the forest the day she wrote. She gave me the chords later.

* * *

Earlier on February 29, 2008, I got invited to visit the Tenement Museum and I remember walking by Eldridge in East Village and feelin' something bad had happened to my brother suddenly. Stolen Car was the last song I sung to him. There's a line in it that says: "I'm driving a stolen car, down on Eldridge Avenue. Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do."

I remember singing that song while he was battling cancer, thinking living life is like cheating death. On March 1, 2008, in my room at Cosmopolitan Hotel, I got the news that something horrible was about to happen at the hospital with my brother.

I took a picture of that moment, tried to write.
But couldn't finish.

I took a picture of the clock. I was told this was the moment between hope and despair. Simultaneously, I had to prepare for a meeting with the Grammy Awards and my brother's death.

I walked around bewildered at night from Tribeca to Ground Zero and photographed people standing on snow about to disappear, staring into a hole in the heart of New York City, bigger than anyone could comprehend.

The last TV show I saw with my brother was the Grammy Awards. Kanye West was singing to his late mother. The last movie I saw with him was Pursuit of Happyness. A re-run, I hadn't noticed Happyness was spelled wrong until my brother pointed it out.

Later in February, 2008, I was in New York meeting someone from the Grammy Awards for a photo project - a project to photograph the meaning of music grassroots. I had flown from Vancouver where I gave a fundraising speech for this project.

Above was the most recent 2008 vision. People would upload what inspired them in music - moments, messages, and dedications. Below was an earlier concept drafted in fall, 2007.

I showed this 4 years later to Tracy Thorne who works at Caffe Vivaldi today. I still take pictures of her:

Tracy Thorne, May 9, 2011, Caffe Vivaldi.

Originally, the Grammy meet up was suppose to be at Caffe Vivaldi for Kate Sland's show February 29, 2008. I had storyboarded the Grammy demo during one of my famous talking-to-myself sessions in front of Kate. But my Grammy friend was under the weather and we had to postpone.

We'd have our Grammy meeting ultimately at The Coffee Shop a few days later in Union Square instead. While I was there Jason Darling's Systems was playing. I literally had just seen him sing it at Caffe Vivaldi:

"We happy few, we band of brothers."

It was like some strange force had traveled with me from Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village to The Coffee Shop in Union Square to inspire this meet up. Music has a way of getting around in special ways.

I had already found out my brother had only a little time left in life. And I think the song helped me focus.

My Grammy Awards friend visiting from LA told me she was moving to New York. We had discussed the Grammy Awards technology partnership with Apple and Google already in place, and how we could be placed next. I was humbled we were being considered. Live Earth which reached 2 billion music fans spoke highly of our photo project which powered Live Earth photos. She asked if I could meet her in Los Angeles on March 19, 2008, to be introduced to all the management there face to face before she moved to New York soon after.

I didn't know when my brother would die, so I told her I would have to get back to her. I didn't even know when I could get back to her. She didn't know then what I had known about my brother. Who tells the Grammy Awards you will have to get back?! I knew I had to go to LA. I had written so many notes to people there whom I had never met who really loved the stories of Artists I saw who sang/played their hearts out in New York. This was what music was about.

After the Grammy meet up in New York City, I drove through a blizzard (zero visibility before Buffalo) to make it back on time in Toronto.

It was March 6, 2008. I went to Il Gatto Nero, my sports hangout, and sat next to Leo. Leo had seen the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1967, when TV was black/white. I told him my brother would not have much longer to live and I wanted to give him his last Toronto Maple Leafs play-by-play and was here to watch the game to do so.

Been sitting next to Leo and the boys for years.

Miraculously, the Toronto Maple Leafs pummelled the Boston Bruins 8-2. The Leafs have never played that well ever since. That was the longest play by play I would have to give him in my life.

Knowing the purpose of my night, Leo and I jumped up and down as if The Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup. Brian McCabe scored and had an assist!

I drove to the hospital. It was a cold but visible winter night. Princess Margaret hospital is practically synonymous with cancer patients. I remember the waiting room had a lot of paperback books on murder and true crime. I wondered if that was therapeutic somehow.

My brother was in and out of morphine, in and out of consciousness. I gave him his last play by play. I still remember his words as he came to sometimes. "The Leafs won?!" "8-2?!" "Bryan McCabe scored?!" He had a look of disbelief. I know. Who would believe that game summary. It never happened again since. Uniquely, he left life a winner as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. The score was so incredible I wondered if he thought I was making it up. But I never make sports up.

After midnight came, March 7, arrived. It was our mother's birthday. He said, "Happy Birthday, mom." Those were the last words I heard come out of his mouth.

On March 7, he couldn't talk anymore. His followers and friends came to visit. He was a championship swimmer in Ontario, an award-winning performance car owner, a night club promoter (1500-3000 people weekly), and President of a charity (10,000 members).

November 18, 2006...some of his people.

He didn't have a real job ever aside from helping my second cousin launch two hotels in Beijing for the Olympics. It seemed he was in school, forever. I never remember him complaining once in his life, not even until his last breath.

And as I told my friend (who asked the question), it never looked like he was even going to die, until he finally died.

* * *

Earlier, I was waiting at Gladstone Hotel trying to chillout for the moment of death. It was hard. Sandra Oh was actually at the next table rehearsing around 3pm on March 7, 2008. A friend we sponsored to bike 1000 miles to interview and photograph people in rural communities accompanied me. She took pictures for us at Live Earth. She later worked for Obama's digital agency (same person I lent my car to go to job interview). We had partnered with the Obama.com team at Live Earth. They asked people at 11,000 locations to take pictures using our service around the world. At the Gladstone Hotel, I finally got the call. I remember telling my friend, "I have to go, my brother's about to die." Sandra Oh overheard.

She might have even recognized me. She followed me to the bathroom (coincidentally or not I don't know) and we gave each other looks, but i couldn't say hi. I was focused on what was happening next. I first met Sandra in 1994 when she was working on Mina Shum's film Double Happiness. I then randomly saw her - i think new year's eve 1997-1998. That was 10 years before.

I calmly drove to the hospital not knowing what to think. A friend of Tom Morello and my Live Earth friend told me they would take me out for a happy dinner on Spadina Avenue later. It made sense. Who wanted to feel crushed later?

That March 7, I saw my brother shake 100-200 hands, unable to speak, and die. That was the last thing I saw. Wordless, but so classy.

When the funeral was booked March 15, 2008, I was able to tell folks at the Grammy Awards that I could arrive for a March 18/19, meeting, in Santa Monica. The funeral overflowed into the parking lot where attendees had to listen on outdoor PA. I had no idea what state I would be in, in LA, but music mattered most to my brother. His last text message to me explained lyrics of Talib Kweli while I saw him sing live at the Highline December 30, 2007, in New York City.

Driver asks me when Talib Kweli is coming out after the show.

After the funeral, I had to prepare a speech and presentation about what photos meant in music and what music meant today in photos. In the Grammy board room, I remember surveying how many people had read Eat Pray Love. I forget why I referenced it, but i know it was to feel a pulse during the speech. Many in the room had "just" read it. Things like that time stamp a year or even a month. I remember there being grand piano behind me and I imagined Eric Lewis and Kate Sland playing piano behind me to give me strength to speak about what made music matter. Speech-makers always search for strength.

Grammy Awards (NARAS) board room

I had written about shows performed by Eric Lewis at old Zinc bar and by Kate Sland at Caffe Vivaldi to Grammy team, which inspired them. One November 16, 2007, email was written at 6:06 am after a very late set by Eric Lewis at Zinc. He played a 12-15 minute riff that put everyone in a trance. I wrote a speech on why music is the hardest job in the world after watching his upright player walk home with upright on back & 2 speakers in each hand. I remember asking him, after 4 am, "you're going to walk home like that?" When I arrived into the Grammy board room, after emailing all these stories, the first words the boss said to me to break the ice were: "I feel I already know you."


Life changed after my brother died. I buried my head in creativity and just let it take me where it would. We launched an Arts Patronage movement before Kickstarter was known. When I did return to New York in the Fall of 2009. Kate Sland sang for me, Lake Erie.

Kate's character has been tested many times. And like my brother, I've never seen her complain when many do. She helped me heal so much.

In January, 2011, suddenly Kate lost her sister at age 34 in her sleep. I couldn't believe it. How could this happen to us! Knowing what I had gone through, I told her to get back on the horse immediately and start singing and quoted one of her songs. "There's enough time to sleep in the grave." It was too easy to sink in life otherwise.

Our family at Caffe Vivaldi has been so amazing. When you see life and death flash before your eyes, you start to see which people really stand out in life. And that is all you can see at Caffe Vivaldi. Thank you so much, good people.

The special friends and kindness of strangers who keep faith in the human race make life so worth living.

P.S. This is only covers Part I of II. Part II would probably ask what happened to that company I launched from scratch that partnered with Live Earth, an event inspiring 2 billion people. I take music photos to this day because of that project. I found out I had raised $250,000 in Vancouver, the day my brother died, to do more, but life had other plans.


X said...

After I posted this...i saw Eric Lewis tagged at Zinc Bar!! Long live Eric Lewis.

X said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
X said...

It was inspiring to hear what the Grammy team wanted the Grammy brand to mean. Although NARAS is known more for the Grammy Awards show...the grassroots gem inside the organization is MusiCares. This organization helps musicians in need...musicians who lost instruments in the NOLA flood, people who need dental work, people who don't have access to learning music in their neighborhood...and so much more http://www.grammy.org/musicares

X said...

I also want to put in a good word for Donna - aka @ElementsofJazz After her friend passed away, she wanted to take a strong interest in music (her friend's big passion). Her authenticity and effort to go for it generated a following of now nearly 14,000 people on Twitter - and this is for jazz! Soon the Grammy folks asked her to blog http://www.elementsofjazz.com/ http://twitter.com/elementsofjazz A great pick!

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