Cornish Chronicles – Christmas 2018
Alex Philip Memorial Edition
2018 has been the year in which we have said goodbye to our son in law Alex Philip. So much of our actions and activities in the last twelve months have been moulded and shaped around the events leading up to his passing away, that we have decided to dedicate this edition of our annual newsletter as a special commemorative edition in memory of Alex.
Travels this Year
This year we travelled to South Africa in February/March to visit friends and family. Cher stayed for six weeks to see her Mum and sister Lynne in East London and Rob took three weeks – time to see his brother and sister and families in the Johannesburg area and then a week to 10 days in East London to see Cher’s Mom. South Africa is always lovely at that time of year, so it was a welcome break from the rigors of an Ontario winter. Rob was needed back home to help in a variety of ways with keeping Alex company at home, medical visits etc.
We did get our RV out of storage for the year in the Spring, but apart from using it at Fairhaven’s in August for a week with the family, there was no opportunity to do any “away” RVing. Every now and then Rob would take the RV out, park it on our driveway, and whisper sweet nothings to it, while he polished and shone it, just to let it know that we still love it.
A turning point
In the second half of 2017, Alex had been put on to Avastin, which would not cure the tumor but would slow down its growth and improve the quality of Alex’s life. Avastin is not approved by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, and was to involve significant expense, but then God, who owns all the cattle on a thousand hills, came to the rescue. Friends, family, PCA family and a generous grant from the drug company all helped to make it possible. The bottom line was that Alex was able to enjoy the benefits of Avastin for as long as the doctors felt it was being helpful.
In April this year, a turning point was reached. The doctors at Sunnybrook hospital told Elaine and Alex, that Avastin had done all it could, there was nothing more they could do, and that they needed to go home, put their affairs in order and start make the most of their time together. The staff and medical team at Sunnybrook had done a wonderful job, over the course of five years of extending Alex’s length and quality of life.
Alex, who, with the help of Avastin, had been well enough to return to teaching, which he loved, for a couple of months, stopped working a few weeks later. It was a sad day for him. Elaine took a leave of absence from the school at the end of April and we all began to prepare ourselves for what might lie ahead. We began to be a lot more present at Elaine and Alex’s home, sleeping over a few nights a week, to help with whatever odd jobs and fetching and carrying that was needed, along with food preparation and general household running.
Country Cousins find a new Friend
When we went to Bible college in UK in 1983, we didn’t know where in the world we might end up. We wanted our girls to stay connected to their wider family of cousins back in South Africa. Rob began to tell Elaine and Julia a series of Country Cousin stories about their cousins which mainly took place on “Uncle Nev’s (Rob’s brother) farm”, where we had enjoyed a family reunion before leaving for UK. We recorded quite a lot of the stories and they have survived to the present, jumped a generation, and are now being enjoyed by Elaine and Julia’s kids. Fresh stories are still being told and a current crop of Canadian Country Cousin stories are being recounted, and recorded, whenever the occasion demands, and Grandad can find the energy to come up with another one. Miraculously and through the power of imagination, some of the key characters from the South African stories have found their way to Canada and their exploits continue along with the current crop of cousins.
When the news came out that there was nothing more that could be done for Alex by Sunnybrook Hospital, Rob felt the urge to start telling stories to the kids that included a version of Alex who never aged or declined in health. In fact, this new Alex, who would be known as “Uncle Alex” had somehow discovered an amazing source of new adventures, powers and a zany zest for life which allowed him to lead the Cousins into a whole new realm of mystery and possibility. Uncle Alex also had developed a taste for whacky dress up and each story saw him appearing in a variety of outrageous outfits which has had the kids chuckling and spell bound. We are about to present these stories on CD to each of the grandchildren as a Christmas gift in a special “Uncle Alex Commemorative edition”. In a situation in which we felt so powerless to help, or make a difference, somehow venturing off into these stories, has helped to maintain our big picture perspective.
Making the time Count
Elaine and Alex have enjoyed the support over the years of an amazing variety of friends, family, church and PCA (People’s Christian Academy) school families. Alex had attended PCA as a student from the age of four, until he left high school, for university and then returned directly to teach and be the school chaplain for the last 15 years. During that time, he had accumulated a massive support network of alumni, parents and teaching colleagues.
As the need arose, this diverse support group kicked into gear in the form of meals, and other practical help. The level of care that Elaine and Alex have experienced has been moving beyond words. For at least a year, Elaine has not had to worry about coming up with meals. The PCA parents’ group has come up with a Facebook type page which allowed them to schedule who was doing which meals and when. People from the church and wider support network have turned up to do plumbing jobs, mow the lawn every week, and help in other practical ways. Rob’s brother Alan built a wheelchair ramp to help with getting Alex in and out of the house, which had become increasingly difficult. Everybody, who loved Elaine and Alex, pitched in. Someone, hearing of our situation offered us the loan of a motorized scooter for Alex, to get around in. When Alex first test drove it, he cracked a massive smile – he had desperately missed not being able to drive, and this gave him his wings back to a certain extent. His first comment was “I’m going to drive down to the store and buy a loaf of bread, just because I can.”
In May Elaine was contacted by Alex’s graduating class and asked to bring Alex and the kids to the school one evening. They had a surprise for him. Alex over the years had kidded his graduating classes that they spent way too much time, money and angst on their high school prom each year. He suggested to them that they should skip the big expensive meal in favor of a Big Mac, drop the limo and replace it with a horse drawn carriage which would be way more romantic. So, on the evening in question the students presented Alex and family with an Alex version of a high school prom. They were treated to a horse and carriage ride, Big Macs for dinner and then the students “Punished” Alex by treating him to a pun filled evening of fun and laughter. Alex laughed in a way he hadn’t for months and enjoyed being smothered in the love of his students.
An enjoyable moment was taking the family to a live showing of the Magician’s nephew at Niagara on the Lake in May. Alex and Sammy had enjoyed reading the whole Narnia series together over the previous year or so, so this was a special moment. When we got out of the car at the theatre, Alex was exultant. “They told me I’d be dead by now, and here we are”, he said. His smile told the whole story.
One of the PCA parents donated Elaine and Alex a few days at a luxury condo in Collingwood. In early June we accompanied them, to help with all the logistics of getting Alex in and out of cars, hitch up trailers for the scooter and so on. For a few days we lived in luxury. Alex was keen to get into a swimming pool and enjoy the relative weightlessness of being in water. We found one of the hotel pools that had the least number of stairs to contend with and managed to get Alex into the pool. This was a great victory and Alex was delighted.
By August, it was getting harder to move Alex around. One final adventure remained. Alex and Elaine were invited to the wedding of one of their ex students. It was held at the Old Mill in Etobicoke. Rob was asked to accompany them to help with driving, wheel chair and so on. The Old Mill is a beautiful old conference and hotel complex which has developed over the decades. As such it is a rambling old building built on a variety of levels and with not much thought given to wheel chair access or ease. The entrance we disembarked at turned out to be a distance from the wedding room. The manager assured us it was not a problem, and that he would help us get Alex out of the car. I don’t think he realized what he’d volunteered for. Alex was quite weak at that stage and the logistics of getting in and out of a vehicle was stretching to say the least. The manager and Rob eventually manoeuvred Alex into his wheel chair. We thank the Lord for averting a fall which would have been disastrous. The manager then led us through an amazing variety of rooms, levels, kitchens, storage rooms and service elevators and finally with a great flourish delivered us to the reception room, which was deserted. We asked him where the wedding service was happening. Crestfallen he told us it was just around the corner from where we had entered the hotel. We retraced our steps and enjoyed the wedding service. That was our last out and about adventure. It had become too challenging and risky to be moving Alex around in and out of cars.
In August, we spent a second week at Fairhavens minus Elaine and Alex. Sammy joined us for a couple of days, but Esther stayed at home as she was reluctant to let Mom and Dad out of her sight. The week at Fairhavens was good, but not the same without Elaine and Alex. Part of our family was missing, and we felt it.
The End of the Beginning
It was getting harder to manage Alex at home. Even a simple trip to the washroom became a bit of an ordeal as he was weak on his feet. Elaine was on constant alert in the middle of the night to help Alex get up and down when needed. She managed, but was not strong enough on her own, she was exhausted, and her back was getting sore. PSWs began coming in three days a week to help with dressing, showering and prep for bed time. The PSWs were angels in disguise. Alex lost no opportunity to share the gospel with them and pray with and for them.
We moved in full time with Elaine and Alex the week after we returned from Fairhavens. Elaine needed extra help and the moral support. Early one morning in late August, Elaine called us. Alex was significantly weaker and unable to speak. The tumor was progressing, causing brain swelling and resulting symptoms. We called 911 and they came and amazingly got Alex downstairs and into the ambulance and to Emergency. From here, Alex was admitted into the palliative care ward at Markham Stouffville hospital, which “just happened” to be a five-minute walk from Elaine and Alex’s house. Over the next 10 – 12 weeks this proximity proved to be a great blessing.
Overnight our lives changed significantly. Elaine started spending most of her waking hours at Alex’s bedside at the hospital. Alex was given medication to reduce the brain swelling. This brought him back to consciousness and he could communicate again. He never suffered any pain. The care given to him in palliative care was wonderful. The team of Nurses, Social Workers, Occupational and Physio Therapists did a remarkable job of caring for the whole family. Elaine spent her days and many nights at the hospital. We looked after the kids and kept the household running. The kids had moved into Elaine and Alex’s bedroom and when Elaine was not there, Cher was needed to sleep with them. A group of Alex’s male friends and cousins took it in turns to sleep nights at the hospital with him, so he was never left on his own. Elaine has commented that she and Alex enjoyed their days together at the hospital in a special way as they had each other’s undivided attention. One night the social worker arranged for the kids to have a sleep over at the hospital with Alex and Elaine. The nurses wheeled in two extra cots, a giant screen TV and arranged for each of the kids to have stuffed toys, colorful blankets and lots of snacks. Such love and care were wonderful to behold.
Alex was desperately keen to come home. Practically it wasn’t feasible ongoingly, but it was remarkably easy to put him in a wheelchair and walk him home for an hour or two before he got uncomfortable in the wheelchair or tired and needed to get back to his hospital bed. At the hospital Alex was often blessed with a steady stream of visitors to pray and encourage him.
The family pulled together for the final part of the journey. Wesley, his cousin, would sometimes arrange a worship time in Alex’s room on a Sunday afternoon. Alex’s brother, Charles, who had been coming up on many weekends to help, took a leave of absence from his work in New York State and came and helped daily for a couple of months. Jacob Uncle was a regular at Alex’s bedside, keeping Elaine company for a few hours most days. Julia took a week off her home-schooling routine and came and helped Elaine with funeral arrangements when the time came. It has been a privilege to be part of a family that is so supportive. We have all grown closer together.
Inevitably the end had to come. In the weeks ahead of his passing, Alex would occasionally get a bit confused, but then would snap out of it and be back with us. In his final week, he slept most of the time. It became apparent that the end was drawing near. On the evening before he passed away, Elaine called us and asked us to bring the kids to sleep in the room with them. During the night Elaine climbed onto the bed and held Alex in her arms. He passed away peacefully around 4am on Sunday November 4th. We are so grateful that his end was peaceful and that he was surrounded by those he loved most.
Send off fit for a king
The visitation and funeral arrangements were something to behold. A large crowd was expected at the funeral and as Elaine and Alex’s own church would not have managed the numbers, the People’s Church, where Alex had had some connections, was arranged.
On the Friday, two visitations were held. The funeral home was a short distance from PCA, the school. In the afternoon, the two-hour visitation service was dedicated to the high school students and teachers. It was a remarkable and inspiring time. 350 or so students and staff turned up and the time was filled with story after story of students and teachers recounting how special Alex was to them and how their lives had changed because of him. After every few stories a different group of students would come forward to greet Elaine and view Alex’s body. It was a powerful testimony to a life well spent.
On the Friday evening, about 700 people turned up and for about three hours or so, we sang and listened to story after story of the impact Alex had had on their lives. Rob spoke in memory of Alex. He commented that we had learnt more about Alex that day than we ever knew of him in person. Others too made similar comments.
The funeral service on the Saturday was very special. It was attended by around 1000 people. The eulogies were moving and inspiring. Sammy, Esther and Elaine courageously went forward for the final eulogy. Sammy spoke very briefly. Elaine delivered a fifteen-minute tribute to the love of her life. It was a remarkable piece of writing and she delivered it with poise and confidence. We were heartbroken on her behalf but immensely proud of her. Proceedings ended at the graveside, followed by a meal for about 250 people who attended that part of the day.
It had been a two-day marathon, but Alex had received a send off fit for a king. It was a celebration which was uplifting and yet tinged with sadness.
The heroes of this story have been Elaine and Alex. Alex has borne the hardships, disappointment and indignities of his situation with remarkable grace and good humor. Up until the last time I heard Alex speak, his response to how he was doing was “Great. How are you?” Elaine has stuck by her man through thick and thin during the last five and a half years that the tumor took its course. She has advocated for Alex, cared for him at every level and literally barely left his side in recent months. She has shown strength of character, courage and loyalty to the end. We salute them both.
Moving Forward from Here
We have continued with much of our ministry related responsibilities in 2018. Cheryl oversees our ministry in the Durham Region where we live, and Rob oversees the work in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) which is a massive sprawling metropolis which is becoming increasingly hard to move around in because of congestion. We helped with the logistics of putting together a National Conference, which ended the day before Alex passed away. These activities kept us busy and occupied, but our pre-occupation and priority has been with Elaine, Alex and their kids, which has sometimes found us frantically juggling and dropping a few balls here and there.
Right now, we are all in recovery mode. The kids are back into their school routine. Elaine will go back to teaching at PCA at the end of January and we will do our annual pilgrimage to South Africa to see family in January. We are having a toned-down Christmas. For the first time in 27 years we haven’t put up any Christmas lights on or in our house. We are still living between Elaine’s house and ours, but slowly moving back into our Port Perry home. Longer term we will stay with Elaine a couple of nights a week to help with practicalities and rides in the busiest part of her week. We are all working towards a new normal. Time will be our best friend in that regard as we figure out the shape of things to come.
Other Family Matters
Julia and Chris continue living a very hectic life in Oshawa. Julia home schools her three rambunctious boys, John (7), James (5) and Peter (3). Home schooling, done properly, is not for the faint hearted. Julia is kept busy arranging activities with other home-schooling parents and involving her boys in a Rolls Royce version of school outings which only the most exclusive private schools could ever hope to offer. We look after the three boys on Thursdays for the day and get to help with supervising some of their homework. We note that Peter, who is three years old is absorbing, sponge like, what the other boys are learning, and he sometimes astounds us with what he knows.
The three boys are at a stage where they are fascinated by Lego. They have a whole bedroom in their home dedicated to Lego and we are often invited in to this holy of holies to come and join in the fun.
Julia and Chris are very involved in their church and neighborhood and there is never a dull moment.
Chris’s work situation has been fluid as his company is now enjoying its second take over situation since he joined them 2- 3 years ago. Chris has survived the cut and thrust of these moves and in fact has enjoyed a nice raise which is a good sign. He also now is required to spend a week at head office in Minneapolis from time to time which is a new twist. We have warned Chris that a transfer to Minneapolis will require written permission from both sets of grandparents and we wish him good luck with that request.
This has not been our normal newsletter, but for us it has not been a normal year. Life is an adventure, and not all the twists and turns are welcome ones. We remain thankful for all the friends and family members who have been so supportive of us as we have stepped through the challenges of the last twelve months. Mostly we are thankful, that when our loved ones pass away, they move on to a better place. Death has lost its sting, because Jesus came and presented Himself as a living sacrifice for each of us who choose to accept His generosity. Thank you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for all that you have done, to turn the tables on death and decay in favor of Hope and Joy.
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Joyful New year.
God Bless from Rob and Cheryl.