Hindsight: Memorial for a Quiet Hero

UPDATE (July 24, 2015): Two days ago, the Globe and Mail printed a sweet tribute to this man in its “Lives Lived”section. It was written by the man’s sister and his widow, and I learned more about a man that I miss(ed).

I didn’t know Mark well at all. We’d only met a few times, so when his husk was committed to the earth this week, I wasn’t there. That would’ve been for the dearest of family and friends, and Lord knows there was no shortage of those.

But funerals change me. (They certainly try hard.) I hope – I knew in the teary quiet of a Sunday afternoon – that his did wonders for me. Although I’d nearly found sufficient pretexts not to attend the service, I finally did, and thank goodness and greatness and mercy and joy for that.

For me, Mark was only the quiet, smiley man who opened the door and served the tea at Linda’s place. I’d been there occasionally, sometimes to lead a discussion or give a small talk in their modest living room, sometimes to listen in on what was sure to be an elevated conversation; no celebrity gossip, nary an ounce of snark. I can’t even say I knew his wife Linda all that well, either, though she’d been a community co-worker for a decade. Mark seemed a gentle support to Linda’s calm and steely leadership. That’s what I thought I saw there. What did he do outside those meetings? I wasn’t too sure, and to my embarrassment, I wasn’t all that curious. I’d picked up that he did some volunteer work in cooperative housing in Ottawa, which seemed a thoroughly nice thing for a guy to do.

At Mark’s memorial service, the Unitarian church was packed. I’d known Linda as a Baha’i, and Mark had recently joined the community after two decades of friendly and respectful sidelining; it was no surprise to see many Baha’is there, but I was initially startled by the larger number of others. Then, I was usefully shocked, again and again, by what a series of deeply sincere and eloquent eulogists had to say about Mark. I’d seen him once or twice since returning from our five years in China. (Gosh, he’s aged, I thought. As if I hadn’t.) Again, though, I overlooked him. I felt pain for Linda’s sudden loss when I heard the news of his death last week, but I didn’t know what I had been missing.

Mark wasn’t doing some pleasant retiree’s humble volunteer service in some obscure housing co-op, as I’d vaguely imagined. He was a pioneer, a founder of the cooperative housing movement in Toronto and Ottawa and nationwide, and had worked his whole life in the field. He’d been central to the creation of thousands of units of affordable housing. Speaker after speaker testified to his leadership, laser focus, intelligence and wit, to his passion for social justice and his relentless yet dignified advocacy for the disadvantaged. (Confession: I’d read Mark’s obituary, and at first was incredulous. Really? This makes him sound like kind of a big deal. I must have skipped over the part about him receiving the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal, a lofty Canadian recognition for outstanding community service.) At least figuratively, my jaw hung open as I learned, through that long and fascinating funeral celebration of his life, about what Mark Goldblatt had meant to a stunning number of accomplished people.

I gasped in wonder when his widow stood in front of many hundreds of family, friends and well-wishers and offered her condolences to us. I was just coming to a limited sense of whom she had lost, but Linda had the grace and strength to empathize with her grieving, grinning, nodding and sniffling audience. She knew better than anyone what sort of man his sisters, colleagues and friends were missing: his humour, kindness, brains, guidance, humility, and his unceasing concern for others.

The funeral lifted me up, galvanized me, as they often do. It was, of course, what you might expect: the call to truly live while the heart keeps beating. It was an expression of the best of love and honour. It was a reminder of what really lasts. It was something else, too. It was a rebuke. Might I have had a slightly larger slice of Mark in my life – this unsuspectedly great and noble man — if I’d had the wisdom to sense the depth behind the humble, softly grinning downward glance that I would see in the limited moments when we were together? What if I’d shown greater interest in who THAT dude was, instead of blandly and blindly receiving the quiet curiosity he had showed about my life and work?

Lesson learned. (Again. Forcefully.)

Never never never never never never judge.

Never never never never never never never EVER think that you actually know another person. Don’t even think you know yourself, because even from our own close-up view, we can still make such painful and heedless errors in judgement about the reality of our own lives, and the ways in which our being is connected with every thing and non-thing around it — never mind how opaque the lives of others generally are to our limited perspectives. We are never so likely to be ignorant and mistaken as when we think we know someone.

Mark, I hardly knew ye. This week, I learned to envy those close to you, who truly appreciated you. Maybe I was just unlucky, though I’m pricked by my own lack of perception. I wish I’d known you better so that I could miss you more.

[Poignantly, one of Mark Goldblatt’s last accomplishments was to have lead the formation of the Funeral Co-operative of Ottawa, an alternative to the expense and pressure that can come from dealing with the bereavement business. Twenty bucks gets you a membership in Ottawa, and maybe your city has something similar. We’re in. Thanks, MG.]

Comments (5)

  1. Linda O'Neil

    James, thank you so much for this lovely (and excellently written) tribute and call to action about friendship. Several people have commented to me how much they appreciated it. Look forward to seeing all the friends before too long.

  2. Thanks for this, James. Mark also contributed enormously to the worker co-op movement in this country. We have lost a hero & pioneer on many levels, and an unbelievably humble guy. This is what I wrote about my dear friend Mark.

  3. Karl King

    I love and admire the anonymity and humility of the man that you’ve described. I think many of our greatest and true leaders lead from the rear.

  4. Buck

    Still learning. Still learning. Still.

  5. Heather Harvey

    Thank you for writing this. I too was deeply touched by the funeral, and lamented that I should have known Mark better. I was lucky — I had had a very few conversations with him, but nowhere near enough. He talked to me of the Funeral Cooperative with passion, but also listened with great care to my meager offerings to the conversation. Not many people do that now.

    This earthly plane has lost a great person. His life of thoughtful and informed service is an inspiration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *