What makes a person ‘significant?’
It’s a good question for all of us as we strive to live lives that matter.
Two weeks before he died, I found my way to RVH and 4CNorth where the nurses pointed to a room near their station. As I tip toed in, there lay Alf Lower. In his final days of cancer, this horrible disease that struck swifly and coursed through his body, Alf became an elf.
His little nose became more pronounced. His ears perked up. And his body, strong on the tennis court, strong during a Terry Fox run, strong on the ski hill, strong when holding his baby boys and then his baby grandson, his body had shrunk to a shadow of his former self.
While his body was preparing for its leave, Alf’s significant spirit was not.
I sat quietly at the end of his bed while a nurse adjusted one of half a dozen tubes lacing themselves across his body. She stood to leave and he said, “the best writer in Barrie is sitting right there!”
“How did you know I was here?” I asked.
Now it would not have mattered whether you were a teacher, a nurse, an engineer, a doctor… when you were in Alf’s presence he would call you ‘the best.’
And here’s the significance…
Alf meant it.
With a long, meaningful career in education that spanned schools in Barrie and in Germany, Alf was that rare bud in a school, the individual whose radar screen registered only the goodness in people. The weekend before he died, over 300 people crowded into the auditorium at RVH… Alf’s life went up on the large screen in a fabulous DVD presentation, which he himself got to watch. His friends told him how much they loved him. His son Ryan, who lives in Viet Nam with his wife and baby son, was there. His son Matt, who lives in Barrie, was there. His wife Mary, herself a determined teacher, principal and unique educator, was there.
Alf’s tennis friends, his Terry Fox Run friends (Alf had 27 years of service to Terry Fox, from the very first run in 1981), his former students, his fellow teachers from all over Simcoe County, his neighbours, his skiing friends… they all gathered to tell this man he held great significance.
In life’s scheme, Alf lived an ordinary life as a teacher in an ordinary neighbourhood and worked at ordinary schools teaching ordinary kids. No great medical discovery. No artistic endeavour that would outlast the world.
No, in his daily life, Alf Lower’s contribution was sheer goodness. It was all he could ever see in any person. It was what he appreciated, what he verbalized. He groomed potential in people. He saw their future and gently nudged them in their best direction.
Alf’s simple approach to living well had incredible results. Literally thousands of students are better people today because of what Alf saw in them.
His Celebration of Life, held with his presence three days before he died, paid respect with a final song: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” That wonderful ballad from the 60’s. And Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway” from the 80’s. Both are vintage Alf.
Back to my final visit with him…
So there he lay, 9 days before his death on April 2, and what were his final words to me? “The doctors in here have been incredible… they are doing everything they can to make me comfortable. The nurses are unbelievably kind. Even the people who bring in our food–Alf couldn’t eat food at that point–everyone is so wonderful. I’ve had a wonderful life.
Alf had nothing but praise for his surroundings and for the journey that brought him, at age 71, to his final flight path.
I took his hand. He was tired and his eyes were melting into their sockets.
“You matter,” I said. “You really matter.”
And that is a significant life.