My Brother’s Keeper

Posted on September 12, 2020 under Storytelling with one comment

Road warriors


“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9

Death, that most unwelcome of guests will pay all of us a visit someday. Every minute of every day, somewhere on the earth, someone takes their last breath. Those of us left behind grieve and mourn. The pain dulls with time, but it never leaves entirely.

One year ago today, our youngest brother, Thomas Patrick MacDonald took his leave. He had suffered the scourge of cancer for the better part of 10 years and finally succumbed. Even though he knew, and we knew that his time was up, his passing left all of us bereft. I know many of my readers have had family members pass in the last 12 months. Every time you post a picture of your mother, your son, or your grandmother, the pain is visceral. It leaps off the page.

I have thought of Tom nearly every day since he died, during one of the most challenging years of my life.

In this space, I have documented Tom’s memorable life. He was a pretty remarkable guy who had boundless energy to go along with countless spreadsheets! We often referred to him as ‘Tornado Tom’ as he always seemed to have somewhere to go and something to do. More often than not, he was doing something for someone else. He was an experienced marathon runner and coached many other people to do their first marathon. He volunteered at the cancer clinic in Victoria with boundless optimism and empathy while he was dealing with his own suffering.

My brother Gerard also possesses the maniacal marathoner’s DNA. It must be a family trait as I too ran a few in my day but nothing compared to these two. I’ve lost count but I think they each ran more than 20 marathons, several of them together. Misery loves company! Of course, I mean the pain of running 26.2 miles (42km) and not sibling rivalry!

Today they will run together again.

Gerard was supposed to have collected his Boston Marathon finisher’s medal earlier this year, but Covid-19 put an end to that. Gerard is a doctor and, while disappointed that the race would not proceed as scheduled, he realized that there were bigger fish to fry with a global pandemic.

To honor Tom’s memory, Gerard is running a marathon today in Amherst, Nova Scotia. By the time some of you crawl out of bed, he will be well into his run. The P.D.’s are early birds and he’ll hit the pavement at 6:00 a.m. This is not an official marathon. Many of his friends from the Amherst Striders running group will accompany him for parts of the run. Family and friends will be there to cheer him along the way.

While there is apt to be a bit of heaviness in his heart, Tom’s indomitable spirit will lift him up when his energy is flagging as it certainly will. It is often said that there are two halves to a marathon: the first 30 km and the last 12km. I would never classify the first 30km as “easy” but it’s not too bad. Right around this time, weird things start happening to your body. I don’t have the scientific explanation of what happens when your body slowly falls apart! The last 12km can be quite excruciating.

I mentioned that Gerard and Tom would be running together one last time. Yes, Gerard will be carrying some of Tom’s ashes.

And if Gerard dares to falter, there is one other person who will be there to give him a swift kick in the arse. Mother T., our late mom, who watched Gerard run his first Boston Marathon in 2001, will join her boys on the run. I will be there in spirit.

“Long may you run”, Gerard.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

He is my brother’s keeper.

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Done Roamin’

Posted on September 8, 2020 under Storytelling with 3 comments


The late Ronnie Gillis

I interviewed Ronnie  5 years ago in early September. He died last week. He was one of the most interesting people I had met and I enjoyed hearing his remarkable life while sitting in his living room on Dunroamin Road. I thought it might be appropriate to re-post this story. Godspeed, Ronnie.

The first thing you notice when you enter Ronnie Gillis’ carefully manicured property is an old ride-on lawn mower. When you have a sizeable acreage this is understandable; and more so when one considers that the driver of this piece of equipment is within arm’s reach of 90 years of age. I am scarcely out of the car when he walks spryly onto the deck to welcome me. I am soon to find out that Ronnie has spent most of his life driving things.

There was a time when being able to drive anything seemed a stretch. When he was 13, Ronnie developed blood poisoning. For a month he lay in a hospital bed with the very real possibility of losing one of his legs. Only through the intervention of Dr. MacIsaac was his limb saved. However, this proved to be the end of Ronnie’s schooling, as the 3 kilometer walk to and from school in Malignant Cove proved impossible.

But this setback did not prevent Ronnie from living a long, busy, active life. Far from it.

While his father was in the services in the Second World War, Ronnie worked hard tending to the family farm. He raised two colts and cared for the other farm animals. During one memorable winter storm, his mother and their neighbor, a Mrs. Mac Kenzie, got stranded in Antigonish. The roads were impassable. Ronnie and his siblings managed to keep the household going. When it became apparent that the women wouldn’t be getting home any time soon, Ronnie wandered over to the Mac Kenzie’s house knowing that they had a dog. But it wasn’t just any dog. It was a beast, and some say as ferocious as the one in Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

Ronnie, although slightly intimidated, knew that the dog would be hungry. He brought him some food; the dog was appreciative and befriended him. He brought the dog bones and scraps every day of its owner’s absence.

After three days, the road still weren’t open and so Mrs. Gillis and Mrs. Mackenzie decided to walk on foot from town to Doctor’s Brook, going the back road through Cloverville and Big Marsh. They waded through hip-deep snow and found accommodation each evening along the way. Two days later they arrived home. When Mrs. Mackenzie got to her house, the dog was very happy, needless to say. When she entered the house, she gasped, for there on the floor stood a small pile of bones. Her immediate thought was that an intruder had broken in, only to be eaten by her four legged friend.

In his late teens Ronnie bought his first truck from Phonse Sears at Eastern Auto. And no, this wasn’t for driving around to impress young women. This was a working vehicle and it didn’t take too long for Ronnie to find employment hauling pulp. He worked for a spell with the Department of Highways and credits his supervisor, Rod “The Highways” Chisholm, for much of the good fortune that would befall him in his work career. You see, Rod gave him a letter of recommendation which turned out to be his ticket out of Nova Scotia to the “Boston States”.

His first job in the mid 50’s in Boston was with Railway Express, where he worked for 20 years. The work day only started at 9:30 A. M. But Ronnie was an early bird because of his life growing up on a farm. A friend suggested that he take a job driving one of the early morning school bus routes in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. When Railway Express went out of business in 1975, Ronnie became assistant superintendent of transportation for the entire Wellesley School Board. His knowledge of the streets in and around Boston became legendary. He continued to work for the Board until his retirement in 1986.

During his time in Boston he met some very prominent citizens, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology being one of them. The first time they met, the president asked him the routine questions one would expect in a first encounter. “I’m from Canada,” said Ronnie. Upon further prodding he explained “I’m from Nova Scotia; a place called Doctor’s Brook”.   The president’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you must live between Dunn’s Rock and The Brook!” Needless to say, Ronnie was flabbergasted. You see, for over a quarter century, geologists and other scholars from the New England States had made an annual pilgrimage to Crystal Cliffs to study, among other things, the composition of rocks. They were intimately aware of the coast line along the Northumberland Strait.

After his retirement in Wellesley, Ronnie and his wife, Celestine, decided to move back to Canada. He hinted that it might have been his wife who made that decision. I asked him if they ever quarreled. He was quick to point out that “Celestine was the boss of the house.” (A good answer – the Editor). They lived at first in the town of Antigonish but eventually built a house out on Dunroamin Road in Doctor’s Brook, where he still resides.

Celestine died in 2007 and Ronnie remains in their home, tending to all of the household duties and the yard work. He figures that his active lifestyle has contributed to his longevity. He goes to church regularly, something that his mother insisted from an early age. He is a dyed in the wool Boston Red Sox fan and enjoyed their World Series wins in 2004, 2007 and 2013. Ronnie never took part in sports because of his leg injury as a teenager, and because he was simply too busy for most of his working life.

He is resourceful and independent. His upbringing demanded both.

As he escorts me to the door, I ask him about the lawnmower. Apparently he has taken it apart and put it back together more times than one can count. Has he ever entertained the thought of buying a new one, I muse? “No. Someone might steal it,” he replies, with a twinkle in his eye. I ask him to pose for a picture.

The boy from Dunroamin is done roamin’.

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Air Inuit – A Lifeline to the North

Posted on March 15, 2020 under Storytelling with no comments yet


Isolation is a double-edged sword.

During this pandemic, several people have commented that it must be comforting to be in such an isolated part of the country, as if we were somehow immune to Covid-19.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of anywhere that is 100% safe these days.

Many people in our village travel to Montreal on a regular basis and some people vacation in other parts of the world.

Living in the North requires many things including great faith in the system, especially the airline industry. Particularly in the winter, we rely entirely on airlines to provide us with goods and services. Our food is flown in as well as cargo that is essential to keep the communities in the north running smoothly. They are particularly crucial when it comes to health care. While many northern villages have well run medical clinics, they are not equipped to handle more serious medical matters.

I walk to the airport in Kangiqsujuaq nearly every Saturday and Sunday. I know most of the workers and they know me. They either call me MacDonald or Len. These are great people. They work for Air Inuit.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the folks at Air Inuit for providing a vital service 12 months of the year. During a serious situation like the outbreak of coronavirus, one is more conscious of just how important these people are.

This morning I dropped by the airport to thank them.

One other thing. There are still skeptics out there who think that this pandemic is overblown and exaggerated. I thought this comment by a Superintendent of schools in Halifax, Nova Scotia spoke volumes:

“In the end, it will be impossible to know if we overreacted or did too much, but it will be QUITE apparent if we under reacted or did too little.”


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