If one can have a good death, then Neil Desaulniers characteristically excelled at it.
He was born in 1931 in Kimberley, British Columbia — a little settlement in the southeastern corner of the province — resting between the Purcell and Rocky Mountains, a bit north of Cranbrook.
It was the same year the town held the second annual East Kootenay Music Festival — a year in which Billy Richardson and Peter Gallpen brought home prizes and little Vivien Norton bravely rendered a violin solo.
Music was a big deal in Kimberley.
While Neil showed some vocal ability from time to time throughout his life, it would be athletics that would eventually showcase his special abilities — no doubt inspired by the Kimberley Dynamiters hockey team who, in 1936, defeated the Sudbury Falcons to win the Allan Cup. That team would go on to capture the 1937 World Ice Hockey Championships.
Kimberley was home to the Sullivan Mine, one of the largest lead and zinc mines in the world. It’s said folks made a good living working there, hunting and fishing and trapping on the side. Looking at pictures of the town in those days the shapes of pioneer life fill each and every frame.
Neil’s father Lou, a millwright by trade, moved the family to Vancouver before Neil had reached his teens, and by then his parents’ marriage had begun to fall into ruin. An only child, he soon became self-reliant, and he built strong extended family ties within the athletic fraternity where respect came quickly.
And rightly so. He had speed, great hand eye, intelligence, and an utterly fierce competitive instinct. At 5’10” he played guard for the UBC Thunderbirds, and then went on the play for the 1955 Canadian championship Alberni Athletics, a team now enshrined in the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
I recount this to you not because I am about to list Neil’s lifetime achievements, of which there were assuredly many, but because I want to remind you of how, and when, and where his character formed.
The achievements, like footprints in sand, recede into the past eventually to be taken by the tides of time. The character, the essential man, his values…. these are the enduring legacy.
It is obvious, however, looking back at the achievements in career and sport and at moments shared with family and friends, that Neil was driven, energetic, intelligent, dedicated, and one hell of a competitor.
He shared his generosity of spirit easily and often. He gave time and energy prolifically coaching adults as well as juniors in the finer points of numerous sports. He won many championships and many friends.
He gave thousands of hours to association and club work. Yet he really reserved the best of his time and energy for family.
I think perhaps because his childhood family experience had been as it was, that he determined to go a better road. And did.
His strength, his self assurance was, ironically, also his flaw. He had a certainty about the order of the world. When confronted with ideas that were not fully formed in his view, outside of his frame of reference, he was given to criticism that could inflict real pain. When he shot down your ideas it left you with a nagging sense that he didn’t respect or like you much. I think that diminished his close personal relationships, and probably rippled out in circles farther from home. It cast a long and lasting shadow.
Lately, he seemed to be coming to terms with it, although I do not know that he ever entirely understood.
Over the past couple of years, Neil’s quality of life slipped away. In the summer of 2014 he suffered what was at least his second cardiac event, the first having come more than 20 years ago. He survived a stroke in 2012 with little visible effect. His kidneys were failing, and for a reason nobody could determine, he was rapidly losing strength in his legs.
Between those ailments and the battery of medications he had to take every day, he could no longer do the things in life that gave him happiness. He could not golf, play tennis, or even get a sweat up on the treadmill because of medication to keep his heart rate low.
For a man, so much of whose life, had been athletics and all that surrounded it….
On Sunday, April 3, Neil decided to make his way to the Tennis Club for a sauna. He’d been feeling low, and thought a trip to the club might elevate his mood. He needed help to get from his locker into the sauna. I was there.
The men’s locker room in places like the Vancouver Lawn, the inner sanctuary of a club, steeped in jocularity, the comfort of the facilities, memories of old friends and good times—an oasis really….
Neil spent much of his life in this environment. I can imagine few places where he might feel more at home.
He did not spend his final days in a hospital bed or a care home, surrounded by strangers. He left his own home, and came to the club just as he had thousands of times before.
That afternoon he went to his locker, disrobed, and began to make his way slowly, in onvious physical discomfort, to the sauna. This time, he would not get there.
My sleep has been a bit disturbed since April 3, and I have had a number of lucid dreams involving Neil.
I’m not exactly in shock, because it was apparent for some time that his will to live was ebbing.
I’m glad that he chose the when and where that he did for him, and for me.
I see his moment of passing as deliberate, as though he felt comfortable enough to let go of life then and there, in my presence.
Being there at the time snaps mortality into sharp and immediate focus. So the feeling of living at the mercy of nature, and the permanence of that moment, that it cannot be undone, that time cannot move but forward brings me to a pause every so often now.
Moments before he collapsed, I trudged behind him, watched his body weak and emaciated as he struggled to make his way from his locker to the sauna, and I could not help but ponder his dying. As I watched him struggle I thought “now would be a good time.”
Apparently, we shared that thought.
Four days after he died, in the middle of the night, I awoke. I picked up my tablet to check my inbox. There, I found an email from Neil’s address, time stamped that very hour.
In it, a message. I want to share that message with you.
As you are no doubt aware, I have recently stepped down from my post as Dad. I depart with a sense of pride in the fine human beings you have each turned out to be, and the promising children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren you’re working to raise.
Each of you has his own unique virtues, and it’s only through the kind of teamwork I have seen you demonstrate so many times in this life, that the true potential for our Family can be achieved.
I have a vision of a Family that nurtures all its members, during every stage of their life’s journey; shining a beacon for those who may have strayed off path, bolstering those who soar, and drawing all around a communal fire in life’s wilderness. You are each stewards not only of your own fates, but indirectly the fates of those that your experiences reflect most brightly upon.
Strive to live each day in awareness of your own power to inspire greatness in all the family’s members.
Remember always that life is short, and time moves in only one direction. Use your strengths and talents, not only for the pure joy of it but always with an eye to the greater good. I have loved each of from the day you were born until I left. You are all Dad, now.
Show the world your best.
and he signed it….
Here’s to Neil Desaulniers. Friend, husband, father. A true Champion!