Blue Skies: A fourth exception

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by Vance Gutzman

I make it a practice in this column not to write about people dying, though I have made three exceptions over the many years I’ve been writing this column.

Three columns I wrote about my mom dying won second place for Humour Columnist of the Year back in 2009.

Three columns I wrote about my dad dying won first place for Humour Columnist of the Year in 2018.

Not bragging, just putting those facts out there, though it does lead me to suspect the people who judge that competition smoke way better dope than I do.

I also made an exception for writing about the death of Lemmy, the iconic frontman of Motorhead, who had the prescience to write “Killed by Death” 30 years before he actually was.

I didn’t win a damn thing for that one, but I’m sure Lemmy got a chuckle out of it in rock and roll heaven.

But I can’t write columns about everybody who dies because, as my father always used to say, people are dying who never died before, and then he got killed by death too.

The reason I wrote columns about the deaths of my parents and Lemmy is because they were three people who impacted my life the most – my parents through their parenthood and Lemmy through his music.

I’m making a fourth exception now in writing a column about the passage of my cousin Neil, who impacted my life in a different manner.

My memories of Neil date back to when I was a boy, back in the day when both of us were boys.

That’s not to say I’ve transitioned into a girl in the time since then, though the wife begged to disagree with that yesterday when she saw me wearing a training bra.

And the wife she never begs for anything, though as of late she has been pleading with me to stop wearing her lingerie into work.

Neil and I grew up together on the Wylie Road, back in the day when there was just a handful of boys growing up together on the Wylie Road, though I must admit Sally Tibbits could hold her own when it came to a rock fight.

But, yeah, there weren’t as many houses on the Wylie Road back then as there are now and so there was just this little gang of us kids doing things that kids did back then and we did them 100 percent of the time outside because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet.

Besides which, all we had was rabbit ears, which was great for our parents because they didn’t have to spend much money on Halloween costumes as a result.

Of course, Easter was a cinch for them as well.

Having been born autistic, Neil had a limited vocabulary, but, being the oldest member of our little gang, not to mention the biggest, when he spoke we listened.

He was a tall, strapping, handsome blond-haired German boy, with big, sparkly blue eyes, a movie-star smile and a heart of gold.

And he walked a lot.

Along the Wylie Road or the Bronson, the railway tracks, through the fields and in the bush, Neil walked everywhere.

Often he would walk the mile or so it was down the Wylie Road to our house and show up unannounced to ask my mom, Teresa, who Neil called Tweeter, to make him some macaroni.

“Tweeter, macaroni?” he’d ask with that movie-star smile.

Neil knew what he liked and he liked Tweeter and he liked Tweeter’s macaroni, and Tweeter sure liked Neil as well.

“Why of course, Neil,” Tweeter would say. “Come on in.”

Neil rarely took part in the reindeer games the rest of our little gang played, but no matter where we were playing them, along the Wylie Road or the Bronson, the railway tracks, through the fields or in the bush, Neil was sure to make an appearance because, like I said, Neil walked everywhere.

One of us would say, “There’s Neil!” and we’d stop whatever we were doing and say “Hey, Neil, how’s it going!” and then Neil would make deep observations of whatever it was we were doing and continue on a-walking, most likely to Tweeter’s for more macaroni, because all that walking surely must have worked up his appetite.

Neil was also a stickler for time.

Two more kids joined our little gang when they moved to the Wylie Road and while their stepdad was building their house Neil would supervise the breaks he and his crew would take.

Those breaks were supposed to last 15 minutes and if they ran even a few seconds over those allotted 15 minutes, Neil would point to his watch and shout “Time!”

Neil got that house built quick.

Eventually we grew from boys to young men and our little gang left the Wylie Road behind and Neil, being part of our little gang, did so as well.

Neil moved to a group home in Tweed and, in addition to playing a Wise Man in the Santa Claus parade there, also worked at many businesses, including 27 years at Hydro One.

And he remained a stickler for time.

The wife and I used to pop in and visit Neil on our way to and from Trenton where her mom lived and I remember on one of those Friday visits telling Neil we’d pop in and see him again on our way back home.

“We’ll pop back again around 11 Sunday morning to see you again, Neil,” I remember telling him.

But, as fate would have it, we were about 15 minutes late popping back in again that Sunday morning and sure enough, there was Neil, standing outside as we pulled in, pointing to his watch and shouting “Time!”

Fortunately, Neil was mollified by the fact he was able to point out the fact my wife was wearing “funny shoes” and then Neil the man giggled like Neil the boy used to giggle when Tweeter would tickle his tummy while inviting him into our house for macaroni.

Unfortunately, Neil suffered a number of health issues in recent years which reduced him to a shadow of his former self.

Still tall, but not strapping, Neil was, the last time I saw him, and he shuffled more than he walked.

Gone was the sparkle in his big, blue eyes. Gone too was the movie-star smile. 

In their place was a vacant husk of the happy boy I remember growing up with on the Wylie Road.

Neil died last week. He was 59, for people keeping track of time like he always did

And this, then, is my fourth exception.

For I feel it’s incumbent on me to speak for a friend who couldn’t speak for himself.

To tell you that, before he spent the last few years living in shadows, Neil brought light to the lives of many.

He impacted our lives with his smile.

And I picture him knocking on heaven’s door.

“Tweeter, macaroni?”

Why of course Neil, come on in…

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