David Fernandes
Producer, Director, Writer

Archive for August, 2011

Remembering Jack

Mon ,22/08/2011

My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer back in 2006 and it was a terrifying revelation for me as I had lost my brother to pancreatic cancer when I was thirteen. My brother always told me he’d beat it. There’d be a day when he was better again and he’d take me to Disneyland.

Over months of incomprehensible discomfort and pain, I watched my larger than life brother evaporate before my eyes. He became so weak, so emaciated that he was barely skin and bones by the time he finally passed. Danny fought tooth and nail, but in the end, we never got to go to Disneyland.

Dad was a fighter too. He soldiered through months of radiation treatments. All the while he looked and sounded healthy. Every visit to his house was met with a glass of homemade red wine and a lung crushing hug. By early 2007, all signs where that the cancer was in remission. He’d beat it.

But on what would turn out to be our last trip to Portugal together, dad started noticing a black spot growing on his arm. He was soon diagnosed with melanoma and within a year and a half, the cancer had spread across all his major organs. Like with my brother before him, our family could do nothing but wait for the inevitable. In spite of his strength and his resolve, the cancer just couldn’t be beat. On April 6, 2009 – my birthday – he passed away.

Last year on a sleepy February evening, I got a text message from a friend at NDP federal office in Ottawa. They wanted someone to go to Jack Layton’s house and videotape his Chinese New Year’s greeting for 2010. It seemed kind of last minute, but a lot of political requests are, so we didn’t think much more of it.

The next day we got the camera and lights set up but not realising they needed a teleprompter, I struggled with one of Jack and Olivia’s many laptops to try and get the software working. Wrong password on one, not enough permissions on another. Finally Olivia came down and in about two minutes had everything working.

I loaded the script and literally felt my heart sink into my stomach. This wasn’t a new year’s greeting. Jack had cancer: prostate cancer. And he was going to tell everyone about it. Right now…

Greg Bennett and I worked silently getting the microphone adjusted while we waited for Jack. Twenty or so awkward minutes passed and then finally he came downstairs and took his seat.

He looked amazing. He cracked a couple of jokes, answered a few questions from his assistant and then got right into his message. If I hadn’t read the script ahead of time, I would have just assumed it was business as usual. Another day in politics, another greeting, another policy announcement. Nothing out of the ordinary. Which is what made it all so surreal for me. This guy has cancer… and he was smiling.

I fought back tears as he spoke. My own dad’s fight with cancer ended tragically and I was acutely aware of the gravity of what Jack faced. And yet there he was, sitting in front of me, speaking to camera with the energy and hopefulness he always did. He could have been talking about pensions…

Jack read his statement a few times until he felt he got it right. And without a tear or even a deep breath, we were changing the shot to record the Chinese New Year’s greeting. And even though he was already running late for a press conference where he would tell the nation about his struggle with cancer, Jack went over the greetings in Mandarin and Cantonese again and again until he got it right. Until he got it just about perfect actually.

That turned out to be the last time I saw Jack Layton before election night back in May 2011. Like thousands of others in the room of the NDP victory party in downtown Toronto, I was just stunned. Harper got his damn majority, but Jack Layton – the guy with cancer – beat all the odds and brought the NDP to its greatest electoral victory, demolishing the Liberals and making himself Leader of the Official Opposition. It was momentous. People were crying, screaming, chanting his name. And then he came on, passed his cane on to an aide, thanked the crowd and said, “Spring is here my friends, and a new chapter begins…”

It’s now the end of summer and in what felt like the blink of an eye Jack Layton is gone. It’s hard not to feel the vaccuum of this moment. Like some enormous bright light has been snuffed out and we’re standing in the darkness waiting for our eyes to adjust.

I found out on my way to work this morning. I pulled over my car and cried on the side of the road.

Like thousands of others who had known him in any way, if you’ve met Jack Layton you know he was the real deal, and chances are good that he left a lasting impression.

The very first time I can remember meeting Jack was shortly after Audrey Mclachlan stepped down as federal NDP leader. A small group of us – then NDP youth wingers -sat with Jack over beers brainstorming about who could run for leader. “It’s gotta be somebody young,” Jack said. “Like that Jian Ghomeshi.” Jack loved Moxy Frvous and thought Ghomeshi would be the next leader of the NDP. If Jack had any inkling that it might one day be him, he certainly didn’t let on. I took an instant liking to him. Here was the politician that you could literally have a beer with. He was as comfortable with a group of awkward youths as he was standing in front of a convention of thousands.

And speaking of beer, the second time I met him was while cleaning beer that I spilled off his kitchen floor. Jack had recently bought a beer fridge that had a keg inside and a spout on the front door. It was the damned coolest thing I’d ever seen. He instantly filled my glass back up and made sure everyone else had a full glass too.

I met him again at a fundraiser for Svend Robinson’s campaign to become federal NDP leader. It was the first time that I bore witness to Jack’s incredible skills as a fundraiser. Like some laser-tongued auctioneer from an old movie, in a mere two hours Jack had milked the room for tens of thousands of dollars, and when anyone claimed they couldn’t give more, Jack proved them differently.

In the late 90′s I lived in a small rental apartment across the street from Jack and Olivia. I can’t tell you how many times I would be sitting out on my balcony at night, weary eyed, finishing a smoke and there would be Jack, just riding his bike home from some meeting or event. I was half his age and falling asleep and this guy is jumping off his bike after a 16 hour work day. What the hell… If we all had resolve like that, there is no doubt the world would be a much better place.

I think like so many others I’m just stunned. When I saw the news clips from Jack’s July statement, I could tell that things were going badly. I’ve seen those gaunt cheeks in the face of my father and my brother. I knew at that moment that despite his unrelenting optimism, that this was his final fight – a fight for his very life.

When Jack said back on election night that spring was here, he was right. His own chapter may have closed, but what he helped create is a new kind of politics in this country that will grow deep and strong through his memory. It’s a politics of hope, of optimism and of the unassailable truth that when we work together for a common vision, we can and do change the world.

There are millions of people who have been touched by Jack. Touched by his unbelievably brave and public fight against cancer. Inspired by his bottomless well of energy, his positivity and his relentless fight for so many good causes.

I personally will remember him fondly as the rarest of politicians: ambitious, but humble; visionary, but practical; strong, but never afraid to talk about the power of love.

I’m gonna have a beer in your honour tonight Jack.

Rest in peace.