Learning by listening

I remember the light on the wall. The way it sparkled across the room in late September as it set in the west. The windows were tall, almost reaching the ceiling and there was a door that led to the small back deck and the driveway. It was the easiest way to move in and out of the Riley House which is why Tullio insisted upon living there.

Tullio Persio de Albuquerque Maranhao lived in the Riley house when I moved to St Paul, Minnesota in 1999. He was a professor of Anthropology having earned both his Masters and Ph.D. at Harvard. Originally from of Rio de Janeiro, Tullio lived in the Riley House along with my uncle Bob, cousin Evan, and our mutual neighbours, Beth, Tom and the newly arrived Jacobsons. It was a massive home divided into 6 condos and when I moved there Tullio lived in the second floor unit across from Beth. I was impressed at how the six separate neighbours lived as a mis-matched family who often gathered on the large front porch laden with large wicker chairs and a porch swing. They all took me in so quickly and seamlessly as though we were all meant to gather for that profound period leading into the fall of 2001.

Tullio spent much of his time teaching whether he was in a lecture hall or sitting with us on the porch. He was always deep in thought and curious to know and argue the opinions of others. As a young delinquent student, Tullio did not hesitate to adopt me and become my Proctor. The plan was to get me to finish my BA. I had struggled in Montreal with academics because I was lazy and had poor attendance. The academic team of my Uncle Bob (a sociologist), my cousin Evan (an anthropologist) and Tullio intended to make me succeed at a new form of learning: Distance Education. So, with great strain and study on my part I was admitted by the University of Waterloo in the winter of 2000 to complete my English Language and Literature degree. It felt like a jail sentence. There was no escaping or slacking off. I was up at 7 am every morning and studied through each and every day. I listened to my lectures through a tape cassette on a Walkman taking notes on my laptop. When I finished my first essay my Uncle Bob and Tullio asked to read it. I was so proud of myself having written a piece on Aristotle and felt I was about to impress… until the red pen came out and the first sentence until the last was shredded and crossed out.

Uncle Bob said plainly, “It’s ok, Chrissy. You’re brain is a muscle and as we get you working more on writing you will improve just like you can improve any muscle in your body through exercise.” He then handed me two books to read along with the fresh stack already waiting from the University.

“The essay and thought needs work,” said Tullio later on the front porch, “I’ve got a wonderful book about Aristotle for you to read. It will help your essay and thought process.”

There was no escape and I continued with them backing me up for the first few years until I found I was stronger in my thoughts and writing and noticed that red pen came out less and less although their books never ceased. Tullio always had something for me to read or listen to for music was also greatly important to him. He had such a different approach to academics and I excelled under his tutelage.

One day, as I was coming out of our storage room in the basement, I found Tullio struggling with a suitcase on the stairs. He had just returned from Germany where he had been teaching for a semester and I was happy to see him again.

“Chris, my back hurts I think I pulled a muscle. Will you please help me take this suitcase up the stairs?”
As I did, I noticed his pain in making the simple steps. He was such a strong and robust man. It always humoured me to see him doing his deep lunges on the pool deck of the Y in nothing but that tight little Speedo.
“You ok, Tullio?”
“No, not really. I’m going to see the Doctor and get a muscle relaxer.”

By the next morning we learned that Tullio had a tumour growing through his hip. Within two days the signs of chemotherapy were already showing their devastation and his hair began to thin, he lost weight and his skin turned grey. I found it hard to wrap my head around. I wasn’t even 30 and had never seen illness set in so fast.

“What are we going to do?” I asked my uncle and cousin at dinner.
“Tullio wants me to ask the Jacobsons to move,” Evan confessed.
“What?! We don’t even know them. They just moved in!” I was amazed.
“Well, he doesn’t want hospice or hospitals. We’re his family. He wants to stay here.”
“So, are you going to ask them?”
The silence felt heavy to three people who never shied from discussing Death and Dying over dinner.

It made sense. Tullio needed that first floor for a walker and wheelchair. He was still able to get out to the front porch and even taught his students from home as the bone cancer spread through his body. While he had a refuge of privacy, Tullio was able to make decisions based on what was best for his health. He was his strongest advocate and we did our best to meet his needs as they were unpredictable and challenging. He maintained dignity, strength in character and left a legacy in his dying that I found more insightful than any of the books he had passed to me. I sat with Tullio for many days during his palliative care when he was reduced to speaking only one language, his first, Portuguese. I was one of several who held his hand in those final hours when we knew death was close and as the western light began to fade on that pale yellow wall I lost one of the greatest Professors I had the pleasure to know.

In Memoriam

Even if you survive 12 years with a brain tumour it is most certainly not long enough especially when there are small children to raise.  I’ve grieved the past week with a new and dear friend of mine, Sue who lost her husband and best friend of 20 years to the same brain tumour as Matt.  She, like her husband, Kris, are young (under 40) and have two small children who are friends with Ellie through an incredible facility called Gilda’s Club.  It is a hub for families and children who either have cancer or, who like Ellie, is a small victim when cancer strikes the family.  We take Ellie to Gilda’s weekly and she has gained much more of an understanding about tumours, radiation, chemotherapy, surgeries and now death than any small child should ever have to know.  Gilda’s has provided us a place of solace and has allowed us to know that we are most definitely not alone with such a frightening diagnosis.

Yesterday, Kris passed at home with Sue and his family around him.  We mourn with them.  We feel their loss significantly because he, like Matt, was a wonderful guy who faced incredible and devastating challenges over the past several years while his wife and children were helplessly caught up in the familial struggles which is cancer.  We wish them peace, much love and a hope to find laughter again when the days seem too dark to go on.

Nov 1, still a birthday

Some properties are like members of the family.  A cherished property encompasses the development of a family.  It is a place to gather, exchange ideas, provide comfort, laugh and find peace. We cook, eat and invite friends to share our divine space.  They help us build memories and deepen bonds.  Certain properties can become such a part of our lives that we walk through them as though they reside within our subconscious.  They only jolt us to our deepest senses when they are threatened to depart our lives.  Then each room, each tree, every angle pulls at our heart and wrenches our gut.  It is never easy to say, “goodbye” because to do so is a threat to our memories, our building blocks of who we believe we are because for without that space we become separated and distanced from the life we knew and our house of cards will need to be built again.


here and now

Year One done.  Packed up and put away.  We were fortunate to have this year in all it’s confusion, heartache, struggle and unyielding love.  Relationships are stronger.  Friendships tightened. Family drawn close.  Matt moves on with optimism, resilience and a fortitude for Year Two.  He pushed through this year with self-discipline and determination.  We never expected anything less.  We believed in him and rallied around him.  So loved, so cherished and so grateful.

christine kavanagh

Angels and Blue Jays

Baseball, huh?  Grandpa said, “It’s like watching paint dry,” but when you live with true baseball fans those words are just fuzz in the background; unnoticed and lost behind the voice of the announcer.  Despite his dry comments he faithfully followed Grandma to every game she wanted to see and smiled through it because names of players and all the teams were part of his consciousness.  It was impossible for it not to seep into his psyche.  Also, he loved to make her happy and he did for 33 years.

During this time he agreed to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York; listen to games over the radio on car trips and conversations about who was traded where during Christmas dinner. He endured his step-son’s crazy obsession with the Angels.  He watched with pride as she went on the Blue Jays field on Community Living Day.  He understood that baseball was a connection which bound her to her father in her childhood and made for a mutual interest with her son.

Now he is gone but the roar of the Blue Jays grows louder each day.  While she sat in the stadium during game 5, hailed the best game ever in her eyes, I could not help but believe he had joined the Angels by shining down on her with pure love and a little baseball mischief.  He kept her distracted from grief and gave her a chance to remember that life can still hold excitement.  Sports fans have always carried strange beliefs and superstitions and finally I have mine.



Fathers 3

It took 3 Dads to raise me: my biological Dad, my step father, George and my uncle Bob.  George Beard became my step father the year I turned 11, in December of 1982.  I was overwhelmed and distrusting of Dads so was not easy on him but George maintained great patience with me.  He was a steady support through my development; from turbulent youth into my adventurous to finally settled adulthood.  Through it all George was unwavering and solid.  His character was clear and reliable.

For you, he was Grandpa George and each of you adore him beyond words.  Emma, your first response when you see Grandma is, “Where’s Grandpa George?” and James, one of your first distinguishable words was “Anpa” after spending several days at the condo while Daddy and I were in New Orleans.  You were only 9 months at the time and very heavy to lift but George persevered.  Ellie, you have many more memories shared with Grandpa. You spent time at the cottage and had countless visits with him at the condo or driving around in the “Subaru” listening to Grandpa music such as Artie Shaw and Pavarotti.  “Hey, I know this song! I listened to it in the Subaru with Grandpa George!”

I wish Grandpa George could be a steady force for your future as he was for mine, especially in these uncertain and scary days.  I will channel as much of him as I can for you and he will be shared with you in memories and stories from each of us that are left behind to process this quick and painful passing.

May you Rest in Peace, George.  We will miss you dearly.  Xo


I want to call you. Every night I do. I think of you all the time and wonder what is making you smile? What is occupying that brain of yours? You’re so full of humour, intelligence and wisdom. I want to record it all down. Soak it in. I wish you could answer all my questions. It makes me feel safe when you do but it’s hard to call. The kids don’t go to bed easily and I get so tired. It takes time to pick up and go; to pick up and call.

We all pack in the car to drive Daddy to his therapy downtown. There’s a lot of back and forth. There’s a lot of up and down. We work hard to steady the wild emotions and keep on. The trick is to keep our slow and keep together. We don’t participate extendedly like we used to. He gets tired so easily. He needs to hibernate and sleep and our lives move like heated molasses. Some days are more active than others but there is always a limit to his exertion. He’s just not the same as he once was and now we all slow to the timing of the patriarch.