Remembering Karl

Karl King, 1969-2020. (courtesy of his family)

[Shorty: 3 mins. Full story: 20-minute read. Tea time.]

The blank screen intimidated me. So did my own inadequate expressions of friendship, and the futility of making up for them with words of inadequate tribute after his passing. I filled the emptiness with things I had written under no expectation or goal except to tell somebody. Describing Karl’s departure to Dave (who knew him, and his family) or Louise (who didn’t) – that was necessary, urgent, and without the chance to overthink. Easy.

(That was in October. I didn’t think my written farewell to a friend would be excruciating – I’d had months to prepare and several hospital visits. I’d said my goodbyes, hoping that he heard them at some level. But here I am, in the middle of a grey and chilling December, our tenth month of living small in the midst of an Earth-wide pandemic, and finally I’m ready to punch ‘Publish’ after fitful months of squeezing words from one of life’s bitter fruits.)

My blood brother and sisters are living, so lucky me. Fifteen years back, I was startled (though not surprised) to lose what felt an awful lot like the good kind of Big Brother. “Donny’ coached and quietly guided me early in my circuitous approach to manhood; I later worried over and covered for and, maybe, helped him a little, in his final years of circling the drain. He was a basketball coach who gave far more to the game and his players than it or they would return to him. Rest, Don.

This farewell also began with basketball. Again, that ever-so-American game drawn up by a displaced Canuck foregrounds another bit of Howdy family history, this time a gradually-acquired Younger Brother. I first knew Karl King when he was that southern Ontario rarity, a 1980s small-town hoopshead, and I was learning to teach English and coach high school ball. The good news: we got much farther than basketball in the ways that we knew each other, though until recently we still annoyed our puck-centric buddy Mike with hoops chatter. The bad news is that he’s gone, as we were beginning to deepen and better understand what bound us together. Worse, he has left behind a surprised and surprising second wife, widowed a bewilderingly short time after love and devotion suddenly bloomed. Karl’s mother has now buried her eldest, and his genuine siblings mourn the eldest child. Also pacing about is Karl’s 17-year-old son, slowly becoming aware that his pops might’ve been more than he suspected.

This is what I wrote to Dave to share with other retired staff of that 1980s rural high school, the Home of the Hurricanes, who had just heard of his death:

Karl suffered a shocking double-diagnosis of two cancers, one of them advanced and rare, early last fall. He and his second wife Savinna were a sweet if doomed story (they weren’t married that long ago) as they went together through all the rigours of treatment, hopeful possibilities and painful reverses. He went home from St. Joseph’s Hospital to die at home on the Credit Reserve, directly across Indian/Town Line Road from the house where Max and Karen raised him. He found great solace and inspiration in marrying the Anishinaabe heritage he had via his father and grandfather (and which he explored deeply and passionately), with his embrace of the Baha’i Faith. He was a gentle soul, a whip-smart mind, a helluva teacher, a man of the people and a global citizen.

I jump ahead to this piercing irony: on the very day that he died – October 13, 2020, the first day of school after the long weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving – the Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit appeared on Karl King’s doorstep. (Lots of Kings on the Credit. Saults. Laformes.) The “New Credit Eagle”, as Karl’s email address proclaimed him, had just come home from weeks of palliative care in a Hamiton hospital to spend his last days. Chief Laforme was be-ribboned in the formal attire of his office, and he had just missed out on his intention to confer honour upon Karl while he yet lived. I can hear Brother King having a quiet chuckle about the timing, but it tore me up when I heard about it.

Reading the letter from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (MCFN) eased my heart: “has worked to increase the quality of life of our Community”; “significant and continuous service”; “promote[d] health and healing”; “role model for young people”; “ongoing dedication to teaching our young people about their culture and heritage”; “demonstrates integrity, generosity of spirit and collaboration”; and finally, its tribute to Karl’s demonstration of “the Seven Grandfather Teachings of Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth”. Covid-19, unsurprisingly, had delayed the MCFN Council’s process. They had hoped for some form of public ceremony. The letter Chief Laforme delivered spoke of possible media availability – it’s poignant, and given how long and how sturdily Karl had hung on before his sudden dip in the previous months, perfectly understandable. Sigh. The MCFN had everything right but the timing. That wasn’t the only temporal glitch, even beyond the obvious fact that Karl died before he reached his 52nd birthday.

That’s the short version. If you’re willing, I’d like you to know more.


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Suzhou 2: Trapping, Snapping, and Talking With the Dead

This is the second part of an account of a day in the “Venice of the East”, Suzhou. (Read the first here.) I left off at the point where we were getting off the tourist boat, with me thinking we were nearly done but with the worst to come. Toward the end (spoiler alert!), we take a slight detour between my ears. I hope it’s a pleasant place to visit, though you wouldn’t want to live there.

“There’s a silk museum? We’re going there now? I thought –“

It's scenic, and has lots of evident history, and I often liked the older part of Suzhou. Really!

It’s scenic, and has lots of evident history, and I often liked the older part of Suzhou. Really!

We disembarked and climbed up the banks, and there again were the street vendors, and buses lined up to enter through the same narrow gates that we were. (Did I mention that the aggressively employed air horns on Chinese trucks and buses make me vaguely homicidal? I don’t think I mentioned this.) The ultra-amplified guide brought up the rear, and now even I understand his message: kuai yi dianr. (“Hurry up!”) Even if my Chinese hadn’t been up to that minimal speed, I’d have understood. Move along, folks. There’s stuff to buy, commissions to be earned. That’s where bemusement began to turn to anger. The museum was chintzy, but could’ve been diverting, at least briefly; I don’t know much about how we get from tree worms to gorgeous outfits and bedding. However, the museum was a false front, and once the guide had hurried us into the duvets-to-go area, I’d had enough. I signalled my son toward the exit. He didn’t resist.

“Dad, why are we taking an escalator up to the exit? We came in on the main floor.” Right. I have a bad feeling about this. We got to the top. Oh, no.

Oh, yes. Silk shirts. Silk bedding. Silk pyjamas. Silk ties. Silk showrooms, one after the other after the one after the first.

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I Have Friend (Possibly Even Plural)

You may not have a Deirdre in your life, but if you ever have the chance, get one. Through no fault of my own, I did and I’m a grateful writer dude. I have My Own Private Deirdre and she’s great, even if I have to share her with everyone she’s ever had at hello. My kids like her kids, some of her friends are my friends — it’s just the best kind of ridiculous luck.

Lunch with her was my little treat for myself this week. She’s a Bahá’í friend, she’s a writer, she was my predecessor at Rideau Hall and the reason I knew there was an opening there (and thanks, Wendy!). She’s one of the best people I know in combining brains and encouragement. Somehow, it’s not as common as it might be, as it needs to be. I came away feeling good, feeling happier and (consider the odds!) smarter. It’s strange, the power of Deirdre. And then I hung out at the Running Room, buying nothing but soaking in that old feeling of athletic camaraderie with strangers who know sport and respect those who know it in return. Good afternoon!