It’s almost here! When It Matters Most officially launches this Tuesday, June 7th. You’ll be able to find it on all the usual web sites, along with the shelves of local stores like Munro’s and Bolen’s.

I’m still savouring last week’s soft launch gathering and really appreciate how so many of you took time out of your Saturday to join in the fun. Along with hearing some kind words from Pete Johnston, I shared an excerpt from the book. For those of you who missed the launch, the passage follows the pictures.

To set the scene, you need to know that Simon has just completed a funeral and slipped into his office for a restorative shot of scotch. His quiet is disturbed by a 13 year old girl at his door, who flops into his favourite chair and challenges the way he handled the eulogy for Sandra. Simon thinks back to when he first learned about the elderly woman before returning to his conversation with the young girl.

As with so many funerals, I didn’t know the deceased. There was a time, of course, when most everyone was connected to a church. Now it’s often the case that those few who do enter the doors arrive to get married, baptize their children, and be buried. The first two events are often out of order. The third is out of their control.

So my introduction to Sandra comes in the form of a voice on the phone requesting that I meet with her nephew. The next day I find myself sitting in an architect’s office, pen in hand, hoping to hear something remotely personal that I can relate about his aunt.

I already knew that Sandra had made it to the age of 83, which is good news. It means I can say that she had “a long and full life.” More than any prayer or ritual, it’s this little phrase that brings comfort to mourners. You can feel the transformation. Crying eyes are reduced to dabbed tears. Tentative smiles of recognition creep across nervous faces. Its effect is constant, regardless of the truth. Not surprisingly, it works when applied to octogenarians who lived generous and full lives. That it works equally well with those who were absolute bastards, living out their emptiness over decades, never ceases to amuse me. But loved or despised, it’s all the same. Mourners want to know that as far as deaths go, this was a reasonable one…and theirs will be as well.

“Tell me about your aunt.”

The nephew places a photograph album before me. As I turn the pages, I notice that the corners of the black matt sheets are shiny from the gentle wear of fingertips. This album had not been created and abandoned on a bookshelf. It had been carefully compiled over the course of decades and visited regularly.

“It was hers,” he states, staring at the album, his own age marked by wisps of grey hair. He’s meticulously dressed, as well presented as the drawings that line the walls.

The pages of Sandra’s childhood and youth are typical. Sitting in a bucket of water on a blazing day. Riding a pony, its lead rope running horizontally out of the frame. Smiling, blowing out candles. The pictures are vibrant moments stilled in a mix of greys.

Then a few pages later, she’s a stunning young woman. I pause. She’s roughly eighteen, diving off a three-meter cliff into a lake – a black, one-piece bathing suit set against her pale skin. The angle of the shot suggests that the photographer was in a boat, looking upwards. The shutter snaps the moment after she pushes far off the cliff in a perfect swan dive. Arms stretched. Back arched. Eyes open. Fearless.

And posed. With manual film cameras, it’s one thing to get the right combination of aperture and shutter that matches your film speed on the first try. It’s another to do so for a moving object. Add the complexity of shooting from a boat, no matter how calm the day, and you can easily blow through a roll or two to get such a perfect shot. I imagine her swimming to the surface and over to the boat, smiling as she’s waved on by her friend to try the dive again and again. The hidden process intrigues me more than the flawless result.

Turn the page. She’s twenty and seated at a round bar table with a small candle at its centre. Although she’s alone in the shot, the other seats await the return of her friends, half consumed drinks in place. Sandra eyes the camera, feigning displeasure. Her legs are tightly crossed. The swirl of smoke remains even as she holds the cigarette away from her face. More than beauty, she exudes strength. Again, there’s something very intentional about the shot. She’s more than posed, she’s positioned.

I get the feeling that I’ve lingered a little long over these pictures and move to the next page, looking for a way to reengage the nephew.

Sandra’s now 25 and somehow different. I flip back to the previous page. It’s her eyes. “Yes,” says the nephew, as if waiting for me to notice. “That’s Sandra-After. She was beautiful, athletic, smart, ambitious and then…not. Before and after, like someone flipped a switch.”

The next pages are filled mostly with photographs of other people, not Sandra. Other people and jigsaw puzzles.

The people, I’m told, were patients and staff from the care homes. In her affections, Sandra did not distinguish between the two. Meanwhile, the puzzles became her passion. After mastering the 500 piece, basic sets that depicted buildings and mountains, she ultimately moved on to the 1000+ puzzles with uniform pieces that created abstract designs.

Taking a closer look at the photos, it seems clear that these projects were a social act, drawing others into her world. Most of the shots were taken by her, but even when in the frame, she was hardly ever alone. The final picture captures Sandra at a dining table with a friend on either side. Her companions are engrossed in the puzzle, but Sandra is smiling at the camera, puzzle piece in hand. It’s a beautiful shot, though in tone it couldn’t be more different from the earlier ones.

“What happened?”

“She developed schizophrenia in her early twenties. Sandra excelled academically, and socially for that matter. She was on her way to becoming a lawyer. Six months after the diagnosis, she was out of school. In two years she was living in a home. We were all so disappointed for her.” The nephew pauses before adding, “When you offer the eulogy, the family would like you to concentrate on Sandra-Before.”

————————————————————————

Which is exactly what Simon did, other than the mandatory recognition of her age.

A voice breaks into his thoughts. “So you wrote her off as a duster, like she sat in her chair and nothing happened for the last sixty years?”

Abruptly shifting to the present, Simon’s back with his young visitor “No, I wouldn’t say that nothing happened. There’s every indication that she was loved by her friends and the staff.” Thinking of the thumb-worn corners, he adds, “and she loved them back. She was fond of revisiting her moments with them.”

The girl nods. Simon senses agreement, not approval.

She leans forward, “Where was that in your service? No mention of a tight squad in the care home. You left us thinking that she might as well have died in her twenties.”

Flustered, Simon scrambles for a defense, “Sandra developed schizophrenia. Would you have me celebrate her illness?” He expects the answer that will allow him to end the conversation and send the unusual child on her way.

“Better than an answer,” the girl eases back into her seat, “I’ve got a story for you.”

At this point, you get to read one of the fourteen wisdom tales that stand at the core of the book.

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