Do not go gentle

The man sitting opposite me on the subway yesterday was obviously in the wrong place. He was wearing a leather jacket and pants, gang colors and chains, a bandana on his head, and sported a beard and handle-bar moustache. Finally, curiousity got the better of me, and I asked him: “Where’s your bike?” “It’s sitting out in front of my house,” he said, with a note of sadness. “I’m only 50, but the weather’s been too cold.” He put his hands towards me as if he were clutching the grips and said, “After a few hours, they get arthritic.” He went on to lament that he’d been riding a motorcycle for thirty-five years and this was the first time his body was showing its age.¬†Even outlaws grow old.

I had lunch with a friend this week. We met in Ottawa in the 1970s when we were both involved in politics. He’s 87. He walks with a cane and now needs a ride to the restaurant where we regularly meet even though it’s only a few metres from his home. But when we talk, it could be 40 years ago. He remembers everything and stays in touch with family and in tune with current events.

There isn’t a week goes by that I don’t read three or four obituaries about people that I used to know. Dr. Bob Elgie, a cabinet minister in the Davis government for whom I wrote speeches. Tom Shea, a neighbour and friend who sold his trust company to Manulife. Tom Galt, chairman and CEO of Sun Life, who will be best remembered for moving Sun from Montreal to Toronto after the arrival of Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois. Galt was one of the last of the Establishment men to head a Canadian financial services institution before the young bucks with big ideas took over. When I wrote about him in the 1980s I said he made Howard Hughes look like a gadabout.

Time moves on and doesn’t always sit well with people. Floyd Chalmers was the crusading editor of The Financial Post in the 1930 and still coming into the office at Maclean-Hunter when I joined Maclean’s in 1978. Chalmers became a mentor to me and I watched him slowly deteroriate until he was in a wheel chair pushed by an attendant. He’d still go to events, but as he once said to me, “Growing old is no fun.” And he had all the money he needed to hire any amount of help. He lived until he was 94.

Perhaps the best counterpoint to all this is a comment a friend made recently when she quoted her father in his later years as saying, “I’m on the right side of the grass today.” We can all salute that. For a while yet, anyway.

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