Olivia Chow walked slowly toward the flag-draped coffin. Silence pervaded the foyer of the House of Commons where her husband’s body lay in state. Just steps away inside the chamber where they had both served as members of parliament, a bouquet of white flowers had been placed on Jack Layton’s desk marking the spot where he had so passionately fought for social justice and environmental protection – a politician of compassion, courage, and integrity.
Olivia stared at the coffin as if to pierce through the wood and see once more the love of her life. Lips quivering, her right hand gently stroked the side. She raised her left hand up to her mouth, a small white handkerchief ready to mute a sob or dry a tear.
In that moment, she was alone, her beloved now gone, dead of cancer at sixty-one.
In one sense, she was not alone. The ceremonial guards stood close by heads bowed. Family members paused just around the corner ready to join her at the coffin. Hundreds of dignitaries, members of parliament, staffers, and special guests assembled in a nearby room preparing to pay their respects. Outside, thousands of ordinary Canadians waited patiently in line for their turn to file past the body. And respectfully positioned about twenty feet away from Olivia and her Jack was a phalanx of cameras and media representatives recording and beaming these scenes to a nation stunned by this too-early death of an inspiring leader.
As I watched on my television, I knew what Olivia knew in that moment. In the midst of it all, she was indeed alone now. The visceral intensity of the grief was in proportion to the profound love that she and Jack had shared.
In 1989, Olivia and Jack acted as auctioneers at Gay Pride Day in Toronto raising funds for AIDS. The two of them offered a personal contribution for the auction – Jack would provide a guided bike tour of historic Toronto for twelve people to be followed by dinner at Olivia’s parents’ Chinese restaurant. Bill and I thought that this would be a great way to celebrate our upcoming thirteenth anniversary. After a vigorous bidding war, Bill and I eventually triumphed on the Jack/Olivia offering.
On that anniversary date in 1989, Bill showed up at the designated meeting spot with T-shirts on which he had emblazoned in bright glitter the names of all our friends whom we had invited to join us. At the 2008 Gay Pride Day, Bill and I were chatting with Olivia and Jack and reminiscing about the 1989 anniversary party. Olivia threw her head back and laughed, “I still have my glitter shirt from that party – I love it.” Bill beamed.
On August 23rd, 2009 my Bill died of cancer.
On August 22nd, 2011 Olivia’s Jack died of cancer.
We have our moments.
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August Farewell – the Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance describes the two weeks between my partner Bill’s cancer diagnosis and his death. Integrated into that narrative are vignettes from our thirty-three year relationship as a gay couple. I’ve also written a new novel on love and loss entitled Searching for Gilead.
Information on both books is available on my website at http://DavidGHallman.com
A short YouTube video about why I wrote August Farewell can be viewed at http://bit.ly/jZrEbf
The photo below shows Jack, Bill and me at our 13th anniversary party hosted by Jack and Olivia at her family’s restaurant.