Nice shot, Randy – eulogy for a friend
My friend Randy called me last February, shortly after he received the news that his cancer had metastasized and his condition had gone from “hopeful” to “terminal”. He was worried, and although his spirits were sagging he was also on a mission.
He asked me if I would organize and MC his “celebration of life,” as he wanted to call it, and deliver a eulogy. (Would I? Seriously. Was there anything I wouldn’t do for Randy?) Then in early March he sent an email to a handful of people, also soliciting their help and giving all of us his instructions on the tone of the gathering, the speakers, the music, the venue, etc.
(It sounds like Randy was a control freak, but that wasn’t so. In fact, his management philosophy was Good Enough, Move On – his version of, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” He sent us his vision of the celebration and left it at that.)
His email ended with an apology of sorts: “I know it’s weird to talk about something that could happen nine months or even two years from now,” but, “I have some energy today and l have to take advantage of it.”
From there, the trend line bent quickly for Randy. The rapid spread of his cancer once all the treatments had stopped caught even him by surprise I suspect. There was talk of experimental drug trials, but he never qualified for them because of his badly depressed immune system. Initially, the palliative doctors predicted “a year”, then “months”, followed by “weeks” and finally “hours.” All of this in the space of a few weeks this spring.
Randy died finally in the wee hours of May 12 with his wife Asha closely watching his last, slow breath. He wasn’t in pain – a steady injection of the opiate Fentanyl under the skin of his upper arm took care of that – but I wouldn’t characterize his death as “peaceful”, which is now an obituary cliché. (Would we call childbirth “peaceful?” Is the death of a soul any different?)
It was shitty. It hurt. It pained his back tremendously. It was unfair after all he’d had to endure in life, with a semi-disabled body. And it scared him – not the fear of death itself, which he accepted with an equanimity that astonished even his jaded oncologist – but a terror of not being able to breathe, of suffering at the end. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, but it wasn’t placid either. As far as I could see, it was bewildering, destabilizing and confusing.
• • • • •
So, I’ll try to honour Randy’s email instructions. Like this one: “Be as positive as possible – laughter and funny stories are welcome and encouraged.” Randy told me I could save time on a eulogy – just recycle the remarks I made 17 years ago at his wedding, where I was his best man.
Or better yet, he suggested I boil it all down to a single sentence: “The Leafs killed Randy Heasman.”
You have to remember, if you don’t know already, that Randy lived and breathed hockey. I found it more than a tad ironic that his cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was often referred to by its acronym: NHL.
Randy was born in Peterborough, and we attended Trent University during the same period (the early 1980s), but we never crossed paths there, even though we had many friends in common. Instead, we met at a dinner party hosted by a joint Toronto friend in 1986, where we’d both settled. My wife Nichola – who can coax secrets out of total strangers – spoke to his partner Alex, who confided that she and Randy were expecting a baby in the new year.
Later on at the dinner table my discreet wife blurted out the news to the other guests and asked, “Do you have any names picked out?” A look of horror passed between Randy and Alex, who hadn’t shared their news with anyone else. Our host burst out laughing.
They couldn’t have been all that offended because when their baby girl was born in early 1987, they altered the spelling a little and called her “Nikkola.” Our first child, Zachary, was born a few months later.
Our friendship grew with our kids: Evenings spent with rented VHS movies, take-out pizza, and all the kids in the back room, everyone with ears cocked when a cry broke the silence – “That’s not our baby!” Summers at a friend’s parents’ cottage, a trio of toddlers in a playpen in the middle of a pontoon boat, wearing life jackets as well in case the whole craft somehow flipped over on the tiny lake.
Randy’s first partnership faltered early on. We grew closer to him as he struggled to make sense of it and to navigate the difficult process of co-parenting his young daughter. By then we lived in different cities – he in west Toronto near Dufferin Grove, and us in Fergus, then Elora, then Guelph. But we stayed close, with visits, calls, summer holidays and camping trips together.
• • • • •
After a promising beginning, I nearly lost Randy’s friendship about 15 years ago. It was an innocent prank, an April Fool’s joke, but the subject was hockey, and for Randy, hockey was serious business indeed.
I called him early on a Sunday morning, disguised my voice, and told him he’d been entered into a contest by some hockey friends, and … guess what … he’d won two hours of ice time at the Air Canada Centre! That very night! For him and all his buddies! And that Tie Domi, who was on suspension at the time for sucker punching an opponent, would be joining them!
There was a kicker: the ice time was at midnight, and he had only about 12 hours to organize things.
“Call back to confirm, once you talk to your friends,” I said. “The number is 1-800-Go-Leafs-Go.”
I was sure he’d see right through my little joke. Either he’d guess my voice (this wasn’t the first time I’d fooled him on April 1), or realize the absurdity of the offer. I hung up, waited a minute, then called back to confess.
Only, I couldn’t get through. The line was busy, and Randy didn’t have voicemail yet. I tried for almost a full hour. Apparently, Randy was, predictably, on the phone to all his hockey friends at 8 am on a Sunday, announcing the good news and enlisting their attendance that night. When I finally reached him, he didn’t laugh. He just muttered, “Oh, I gotta go” – presumably to call all his hockey buddies back.
Our friendship survived that little faux pas on my part. In fact, a decade ago we went through a crucible together: both our mothers were dying from cancer at the same time. We talked lots on the phone, commiserated about the progress of the disease, and attended our respective mothers’ funerals, only weeks apart that spring. Then we compared notes as we sorted out our parents’ respective estates.
It brought us close together. We shared what our parents meant to us, how they helped us, and how they also sometimes failed us. It was an advance course in mortality and gerontology, one we studied together.
• • • • •
I’m going to shift gears here. I don’t have time to describe all the ways Randy was a friend to me. And I’m not going to trace a chronology of Randy’s life, his work, his sports passions, or his romance and then family with Asha, which gave him two more beautiful kids. There are several more speakers, and you can connect the dots yourself from what they all have to say.
Instead, I’m going to talk about the Randy I discovered only very recently, as he tried to make sense of his life once he’d learned it was nearly over. I spent an afternoon with Randy in late February, armed with a eulogist’s mandate and eager to ask him all the questions I’d always wondered about.
I learned two things you need to know, if you’re to understand the essential Randy Heasman. This goes much deeper than hockey, games, music – all those things we easily associate with him.
The first was Randy’s sudden realization, a year or two after high school, that education could change his life. He was working on the unloading dock at a Peterborough Dominion store. It was winter, and by the end of his shift he was frozen. He talked to his high school buddy John Burrett, who was also working outside that day on a construction site. The two of them devised a plan to escape a lifetime of what looked like hard labour: they decided to go to an open house at Trent University the very next day.
Randy came from a background that he termed, quite proudly, working class. His dad Keith operated heavy equipment for the Peterborough Utilities Commission. His mum Lois was a cleaner. She delivered three boys in succession, each one more premature than the last: Randy, Brian, and finally Wayne, who at 30 weeks was born at the edge of viability for the time. He and Lois nearly died, and she was told not to have any more babies, but she was soon back at work. It was the 1960s, and she wasn’t working by choice – it was a necessity for the family finances.
When Lois was hired as a custodian by the school board she became a union member, with better pay. Now there were two union incomes and the family could afford to move from a rental home in the north end to a house they purchased in the south end of the city. Lois never called herself a “women’s libber”, but she fought for equal pay for female school custodians like herself, new entrants into what was then a male-dominated profession with dual pay scales. She eventually became the first female head custodian of a school board in Ontario.
Randy’s dad always taught his boys to be modest and humble, that “you’re not better than anyone else.” It was a valuable life lesson. But his injunction also carried a flip side, according to Randy: don’t try to rise above your station in life. This meant a disregard for the new institution of higher learning right on their doorstep in Peterborough: Trent University.
So Randy’s sudden decision to attend Trent was a “north star” moment for him – he used that metaphor one day when we were chatting about the Polynesians navigating from Bora Bora to Hawaii, discovering the valuable North Star when they crossed the equator. It was something he discovered for himself and it changed his life. (Both his brothers would follow him into post-secondary education, and Brian would eventually become a lecturer at Ryerson University.)
After Trent, Randy got a job in sales at Quaker Oats, a premium industrial employer in Peterborough with a factory in the centre of town, right beside the Otonabee River. But even though he was earning $20 an hour in the early 1980s Randy soon took the bold decision to move to the field he felt was his calling, taking a $6 per hour entry-level job at the John Howard Society in Hamilton.
He escorted young offenders on field trips to African Lion Safari, which was no picnic, he reports. “Don’t open the doors, don’t open the windows!” They ignored him and soon his car was full of monkeys.
Randy took his working class background and used it to inform his work in social services for the rest of his life, in the youth employment division of St. Stephen’s Community House. He was especially attuned to the needs of youth, the underprivileged, immigrants and women – anyone he could identify as benefitting from a hand, or just a lucky break. He believed in people, he encouraged them, and he always assumed that personal change was possible. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that Randy had a winning, charismatic personality, a captivating smile, and pretty stunning good looks as well.)
• • • • •
There was something else that was central to Randy’s identity. Like me, you probably ceased to notice it after about 15 seconds in his presence. Or maybe you never thought about it again because Randy never mentioned it, didn’t seem to identify with it, and treated it as irrelevant. It seemed to disappear, and if a stranger ever asked you what was wrong with him you were genuinely puzzled by the question.
I’m talking about his scoliosis. Here’s the secret: in actual fact, the condition was central to Randy’s sense of self ever since it first developed when he was 10 years of age, even if he never talked about it. The spinal condition was a humiliating thing for a sports mad youngster. It meant that at 13 he was banished from organized hockey. It attracted teasing and bullying and it caused him to feel from an early age that he was an “outsider” – that’s his term, one he repeated many times as we talked about his early life.
He had a friend in high school with a severe stutter. The two of them would commiserate together, wondering if they’d ever lead a normal life, attract wives, have families. As a teenager, Randy was terrified of his own reflection and equally afraid of public speaking. He said his childhood boxing hero was Joe Frazier, the brawling underdog and son of sharecroppers, not the gifted, artistic Muhammad Ali, the “butterfly” everyone else loved and expected to win.
By the time Randy was offered medical treatment as a teenager, it was too late. He was left with a permanent curvature of his spine and reduced lung capacity on one side because of the asymmetry of his torso. His breathing difficulties gave him a lifelong fear of suffocation.
Can you imagine how it felt when they strapped him into a molded chest device at Princess Margaret Hospital last fall to immobilize him for radiation on a thoracic tumour? For him, it was the most frightening part of all his cancer treatments; he had to take anxiety medication to cope with three weeks of daily radiation.
I’m not sure when Randy ceased to be self-conscious about his body. He certainly wasn’t at 28, when I met him. But the sense of being outside the mainstream, of having to work hard to achieve what others might take for granted – that never left Randy.
It manifested itself in all sorts of ways. Take sports, for example. Randy was aware that opponents on the tennis court probably underestimated him because of his awkward appearance. He told me that he loved to turn the tables – to move opponents around the court with consistent groundstrokes and heavy topspin. He knew that physical stamina wasn’t his strong suit, so he made sure he didn’t give away easy points and that the other guy did the running.
I told this story to Michel, one of Randy’s close friends from Red Pine, the family sports camp near Pembroke where he attended every summer with his kids and Asha for 20-plus years. Michel pointed a finger at himself as if to say, “Tell me about it!”
He then recounted the story of an early paddle tennis match against Randy, one Michel assumed he had in the bag. (Paddle tennis is a curious form of mini-tennis, played in the northeastern US, at the Ottawa Y, and at Red Pine Camp.) At 5–0 (for Randy), Michel suddenly found he was in the game. Down love-40, Randy rushed the net and Michel hit a forehand down the line that seemed within Randy’s reach, but went by for a winner. Game to Michel.
“Nice shot!” Randy said to Michel, in that completely disarming, smiling-face way that so many people know. After the set was over (6–1 to Randy) Michel thought to himself, “Nice shot? Or did that guy just give me a game to make me feel better about myself?”
Probably the latter, Michel. Better work on your paddle tennis. Randy might throw you a single game but never a whole set! Sure he was a nice guy, but he also liked to compete. The fun was in playing to win. “Nice shot” was meant whole-heartedly, even if you suspected an ironic edge.
But that wasn’t Michel’s main point. He says that Randy touched the lives and attitudes of countless teenagers at Red Pine. They initially saw a guy who looked odd. But they came to know a competitor who was a consummate sportsman and a champion of underdogs. A guy who had come to terms with the cards he was dealt and always played them to the best of his ability. Not only that, he did so with humour and fun, making it all seem perfectly easy and natural. Everyone wanted to play with Randy, or against him – it made no difference.
• • • • •
Randy coped with cancer the same way. Grace, dignity, honesty, and very little self-pity – probably none outside the four walls of his home. Randy didn’t set out to be a role model, a leader or a boss. But he was, simply through his force of personality and the way he set an example without boasting or drawing attention to himself.
Despite all my accolades here, Randy wasn’t perfect. He could be stubborn – he didn’t change his mind very easily once he settled on an opinion. Sometimes, he talked more than he listened. He got set in his ways: he loved ritual and traditions, but sometimes insisted on them when maybe it wasn’t the best thing. Like when he sent his wife and kids to camp last summer – can’t miss Red Pine! – as he was about to go into the hospital for a stem cell transplant in an isolation ward, assuming they’d rather be away playing games if they couldn’t be with him.
But that was Randy too. He always wanted the best for the people he loved. That’s the Randy I knew. That’s the Randy I’ll always remember.
I mourn the fact that you’ll never get to be a granddad Randy – OMG, you would have been such an awesome granddad! I can imagine you tutoring your grandkids in euchre, or Stratomatic fantasy baseball. Helping them learn to ride a bike, or to skate, or to throw a baseball. Telling them stories or making them laugh with your corny European accents.
But I’m so glad we met at that dinner party nearly 30 years ago, and that we sustained a friendship through thick and thin. That we had a quiet night together in Grace hospital the day before you died. That your family allowed me into their precious inner circle these past months. And that your end came with your immediate family close to you – with no regrets, no anger, no maudlin drama, just gratitude for the 58 good years you had and for the enormous reach and influence of your life.