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Farber: Death and life and the whole damn thing

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Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and anti-Indigenous discrimination are all rising. The coronavirus has instilled yet a new level of fear driving us further into social isolation. With all these worries we sometimes lose sight of the small but important things in life: our personal relationships with family and friends.

The past few weeks, have thrust my wife, Karyn, and I dramatically into the real world of pain and loss, happiness and joy. In mid-February we heard of the death of a dear friend of over 35 years, Tom Stewart.

Stewart was an early part of my circle. We met following graduation and both of us worked at the Youth Services Bureau in Ottawa. There he met David Kelley. They fell in love and became life partners. Both were active in the LGBTQ community and when they left to greener pastures in Toronto, they continued their work.

Kelley was the executive director of the People with AIDS Foundation. The same disease which sadly took his life in 1996. Stewart was devastated, but his indomitable spirit carried on. He continued his work with a telephone peer counselling service, a couple’s support group for gay men and a bridge club for gays and lesbians. Later, Stewart co-founded an association for LGBTQ employees at Bell Canada.

He loved all things royal. In the early 2000s when the Queen and Prince Philip visited Toronto, the Canadian Jewish Congress participated in a multicultural festival in their honour. We made Stewart an honorary Jew for a day and he had the opportunity to speak with both monarchs.

He familiarized himself completely with the Canadian Jewish community and when the Queen and the prince stopped by our booth, Prince Philip asked him about the number of Jews in Canada. Without missing a beat Stewart responded, “Your Royal Highness we Jews are found in every corner of this country from St. John to Victoria and we are proud Canadians.”

Stewart was diagnosed with leukemia in 2015. His prognosis was poor. Yet his enthusiasm for life, and love of people seemed to drive him onward. He quietly passed away on Valentine’s Day this year; his last words called for his soulmate David Kelley with whom he has now been reunited.

A few days later, Karyn’s uncle, Ivan Silverman, succumbed to lung cancer. Ivan had been diagnosed with Stage 4 of this disease five years ago. Doctors gave him less than a year. He defied the odds.

Silverman’s life was not always easy. He worked at his father’s upholstery store for a bit, then got into the restaurant and catering business. He had other business ventures some successful, others not so much. But it was Silverman’s big heart and warm smile that we all remember.

Silverman was my mother-in-law’s baby brother. She was more than 10 years older than him. He quickly became that uncle who was there for his sister, a single mother juggling three young children. Silverman became the father figure who taught them how to water ski, ice skate and to enjoy life.

However, it was in his later years that Silverman would embrace a vocation which truly demonstrated his mettle. He entered a course at Toronto’s Humber College to obtain a diploma as a funeral director.

Upon graduation he returned to Ottawa where he worked with a large funeral home. Silverman was the go-to funeral director for the Ottawa Chevra Kadisha. There he excelled. His big heart, warm smile and genuine love of people brought so much comfort to so many. Listening to the stories during the recent week of shivah gave his three wonderful sons, his two loving sisters and the rest of us a whole new insight into Silverman’s soul.

READ: FARBER: WE NEED MORE ‘UPSTANDERS’ IN THE WORLD

As we were struggling with losing Silverman and Stewart, we received the wonderful news that later this summer Karyn and I will be grandparents for the first time. We are consumed with joy and happiness. It’s that circle of existence helping us understand the vagaries of death and life and the whole damn thing. May the memories of Ivan Silverman and Tom Stewart be for a blessing. 

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