It was cold when I arrived at the hospice. Cold and frosty. A clear winter's night. Stars littered the sky above. Glistening white in the black blanket of night. A half moon lying on its back low on the horizon. Snow covered the ground. Pristine white. It wrapped the earth in a wintry sheet. In the dark night, the hospice glowed like a beacon. Of hope. Of peace. Of little possibility of more life on earth for the man I'd come to see.
I had called around 7:30 to see how James A. Bannerman, son, brother, uncle, nephew, photographer, gardener, handyman, labourer, and homeless, was doing.
"He won't last a great deal longer," the nurse told me.
I wondered aloud whether it was appropriate that I come.
"It's up to you. You don't have to," she said. "As he nears the end, we will check on him regularly. We'll do our absolute best to ensure he's not alone when the time comes."
When the time comes.
I thought about that time. That time when death descends and life is inhaled on one last breath. That moment in time when the physical body releases its spirit to the night. I wondered about James being alone. What if... Someone else called at that exact moment and the nurses couldn't be there. What if... they timed it wrong? What if... he was alone?
I decided to drive the forty-five minutes to the hospice in Okotoks where he had been taken earlier that afternoon.
It had been the only time I'd ever heard James complain. We were in his apartment. The apartment he'd been moved into when he'd been released from hospital a couple of weeks before. The cancer was terminal. The doctor's didn't give him much time, though James was convinced they were wrong. He could beat it. He wasn't on any meds. He wasn't in any pain he said. He just needed a place to stay. The fourth floor wasn't appropriate. Too busy. Too noisy. Too uncomfortable for him. We were fortunate to have the opportunity of affording him a place of his own to call home for his final days.
I had gone over that morning as soon as I received the call. "They're taking James to a hospice. We're just organizing it now," Sharon, the Bridgeland Manor coordinator, told me.
When I arrived James was failing fast. I sat with him and held his hands. They were cold. I warmed them with mine. We sat as people came and went. I didn't want to let go of his hands. I wanted to warm them with mine, even a heart of stone is warmed in loving hands.
I'd once written that line in a fairy tale for my daughters years ago. But James' heart wasn't of stone. It was a warm, kind, loving heart. A gentle soul, he was constantly on the go. "Cleaning up the river bank," he'd tell me on my morning walk into work when I'd meet him on the river path, knapsack on his back, large plastic garbage bag in one hand. "I'm doing the city a service," he'd smile.
Sometimes I'd see him in the garden at the shelter. Constantly weeding, mowing, moving about. Or on a sidewalk of a downtown high rise office tower, shovelling snow, clearing up the mess.
It's what he did. Keep messes at a minimum.
Picture taking was his 'retirement plan', he'd told me once. "I'm getting kind of old for labour."
He was fifty-two. The years of hard living lined his face like ridges of bark rippling across a tree trunk. He always wore a cap of some sort. Ball cap. Cowboy hat. Always carried his backpack with him. It held his precious camera, laptop and photo files. It had been stolen once from the second floor. "Someone obviously needed it more than me," he said.
When it happened, a staff member, came to me and asked if we could set up a fund to help buy him a new camera and laptop. “I hate that it happened,” he said. “It makes me so angry. James’ a good guy. I want to help.”
James instilled that feeling in people. Of loyalty. Support. Caring. When I’d told a friend, Brian Willis, about James’ situation and told him about his love of photography and his remarkable gift, Brian had immediately replied. “They can steal the equipment, but never let them steal the dream. Tell me how I can help. Can I buy him a laptop?”
A man of few words, he always seemed to be observing, watching, noticing what was going on around him. Except in this instance when his backpack was stolen.
How can this happen? I’d asked him.
“It’s my fault,” he’d replied. “There are always going to be people who want what you have. I left it sitting on a chair. I went for a smoke and when I came back, it was gone.”
“How did you feel when you realized it was gone?” I’d asked.
He couldn’t describe his feelings. He had no words. He shrugged a shoulder and said with a chuckle, “It was time to upgrade my equipment anyway.”
The laptop was recovered. The thief caught and still James was looking for value in the situation. Optimism in the face of adversity.
That was James.
When I visited him in hospital and he told me he had stomach cancer, he’d laughed. “I figured my lungs would get me. Never my stomach,” he’d said. And then he’d paused. “Do you think you could bring me some of my pictures? I think I could sell some to the doctors and nurses.”
Optimism in the face of adversity.
He never complained. Never whined. Never bemoaned his fate. "I've had a good life. The life that suited me," he said.
And then, on the morning of the day they were taking him to hospice, I heard him whisper as I sat holding his hands. "Cold."
It was the only complaint I ever heard from him. It would be the last.
Early on the morning of December 8, 2009 at 12:45 am James A. Bannerman passed from this realm to another. I sat beside him as his laboured breathing grew more quiet. I held his hand. Spoke softly reassuring him he wasn't alone. 80's rock played on the radio. He'd asked to not be alone and that "Stairway to Heaven" be played. The closest we could find in that moment in time, when James crossed over and I sat in the stillness of the night holding his hand, was, "Like a Rock."
And he was. A rock. A quiet man of gentle voice and manner. A great man. A man of wondrous eyes. A man who saw the beauty in the angle of the sun hitting the corner of a building. A man who captured the awe of water dancing in the river as it passed through the downtown core to places far away. A man who was always looking up. At the sky. The cranes that litter the city skyline. The skyscrapers that defy the heavens. Birds flying in ‘V’ formation. Flowers dancing with colour in the light. A man who saw a doggie in the window, and captured his face pressed against the window and set his memory forever in time in a photograph.
James' memory will be forever set in time.
May he rest in peace. He will be forever set in our hearts.