A Love Story
I fell in love with my husband Barry in part because of one of his favourite books, The Kissing Man, a wise and strange book of Canadian literature in the magic realism tradition. Many of the small, seemingly simple stories in this slim book feature a stranger who perceives the hidden ache for love and understanding which lives in most people. When the man kisses the inhabitants of a small Ontario town, he opens them to a wider life. Give love every single place you find it, says George Elliott, the author of The Kissing Man, and never count the cost.
This was the message which Barry lived all his life, and one which he passed on to me. My biggest life lesson ever was watching Barry’s warmth and caring, always reaching out to everyone, everywhere, often unwisely, with his generous heart.
Understandably horrified to see him bend over a baby in a shopping cart in Toronto and then engage the exhausted mother in sympathetic talk, my son Jeremy used to splutter “Dad, you can’t do that! You just can’t! You’re going to be arrested!” But always Barry just kept on reaching out everywhere he went. He simply couldn’t help it. Along the way he was making friends of cashiers, babies, old ladies, school principals, troubled teenagers and football stars, leaving people feeling more understood and less alone, gathering everyone up into his motley tribe. And somehow he got away with it.
My family used to joke about how impossible it was to walk quickly down the street in his beloved Westport if you were going with Barry. Inevitably, a cluster of school kids who knew him from Foley Mountain, wheeled their bikes around him, to tell him their news, what they’d seen lately, possibly a newt under a rock, or a new puppy. Then someone whistled to him from across the street and off he went. Everyone left him feeling like they might just be the best person in the world after all. Or that’s how it seemed to me.
He’d slip into the Hardware “just for a minute”, and burst out twenty minutes later, followed by an outburst of boisterous laughter coming through the open hardware store door. “Good heavens!” a tourist would exclaim, taken aback by the joyful exuberance. “Are you people always like that?” He’d lean over an old lady with her walker, flirting with her shamelessly, her with a pleased look on her face. Who knew she missed that kind of attention?
I remember him encountering a man he hadn’t seen in a few years outside the gas station, someone who was newly sober after a long, hard struggle with addiction. Both of them stared at each other like long-lost brothers, yelled, slapped their hands on their thighs, hugged sheepishly and settled in to talk about how moving away from Westport to Alberta had gone.
One summer Friday I was dismayed to overhear him ask that year’s education teaching student, Bridget, if she had plans for the weekend. She said she did. She was going to Peterborough to visit her boyfriend. Then she shrugged. Admittedly this boyfriend was kind of boring, but anyways, that was what she was going to do for her weekend. To my dismay, unasked, I heard him offer “You’re better than that. Don’t settle for second best.” Later I stormed downstairs: “You can’t do that. You can’t tell her what to do.” Fifteen years later though, when she heard Barry had died, she wrote to me to say his advice had changed her life. She was happily married to a new man in BC, and they had two daughters and she had an environmental teaching job she loved. As always, some instinct in him knew what he could do, had to do. And it was always about offering love, albeit sometimes in the most outrageous ways. And surprisingly, people got it. It was as if he was lit from within.
Evidently, this ridiculous but all-encompassing loving had been going on all of his life. His best friend Umberto once told me their lifelong friendship had begun the day their grade eight class had formed a circle around this Italian immigrant newcomer, taunting Umberto “the Wap”. Without hesitating, Barry, the star athlete of his school, stormed into the midst of them and suggested he and Bert could take them all on. Which they did. And they won, through canniness and sheer determination.
When he was a teenager, his beautiful girlfriend Betty got mad at him when he’d pick her up for a date and get stuck in the kitchen listening to her middle-aged mother telling him about how life looked to her.
At the end, when we were hopelessly blindsided by Barry’s approaching death, (He was given a month and survived for six,) I whispered, “The only thing we’ve got left, the only thing we know how to do is to give love. So let’s do that. Any chance we possibly can.” And that’s what we did. Even in his last two weeks of life, his hospital room was crowded with a constant flow of family, residents, specialist doctors sitting on his bed, grabbing a few moments of respite from stressful jobs, the then head of Radiation Oncology telling him about the choir which gave him joy, hospital volunteers, friends coming for one last visit. There was a brightness. “How come you two have so many visitors? asked a nurse. “Many of the other patients don’t get any.”
Coming as I did from a more reserved tradition, Barry was my teacher.
Last Fall, still looking for Barry, as I often do, I revisited The Kissing Man, wondering whether I still would find him there. And yes, George Elliott’s everyman stories deserve a place with my family of shining teachers, along with Thornton Wilder’s profound play Our Town and Wendell Berry’s unspeakably fine Jayber Crow.
Let me end with an encounter with an unknown woman:
The kissing man looked at her back for a long time. Tears came to his eyes. Then he walked right up beside Mrs. Muncey.
‘You poor woman.’ His voice was a whisper, all compassion. Then he bent close to her and kissed her full on the mouth. His fingers touched her elbow for a moment. He walked out of the store. Nobody saw.
Mrs. Muncey could feel the weight of her sagging and knew her grey hair was straggling. ‘No, it’s not. It’s not fair at all.’ She said. She held to the show-case for support a moment, worked her lips in and out, then left the store.
It turns out that the lessons revealed in The Kissing Man, Barry’s lessons, are ones which have kept me true all my life, and I hope they always will.
Give love wherever and whenever you possibly can. That’s all that matters.