I knew Huntley for over forty years. I believe over a period of time of that length, we don’t remain the same person. In some ways we are two or three related but different people, and a friendship of that length is a complicated relationship of the people we were then and the people we became and the people we are now. In the case of Huntley and me, this was further complicated that for most of those forty some years he no longer lived in Saskatchewan. But if, as it has been remarked, Huntley was always eager to make new friends, he was equally loath to give up on old ones.
Huntley had family in Saskatchewan who he tried to visit every year, usually at Christmas time and he would always try to schedule a dinner with my spouse Cheryl and me when he was back in Saskatchewan. And of course the annual letter arrived about that time, except for this last year. And there were the postcards from his travels. Huntley could fit a travelogue onto a postcard, sometimes a short review of a play but almost always a description of a dining experience.
The last time I saw Huntley was about a year ago—a little less—and this time it was because I was in Ottawa. Huntley’s diagnosis was well over a year old, but his interests and concerns had not changed. We talked about my projects and Cheryl’s, what my children were doing and, of course, matters of public policy. But I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the meal. Huntley would. He picked a tapas restaurant and I managed to check off both kangaroo and camel from my list of foods not yet tried. Given Huntley’s love of travel and novel experiences, I expect there wasn’t much left on his list.
About the time I learned of Huntley’s death, I came across a short piece in the The New York Times by Oliver Sacks, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat among other books, who had recently learned he was going to die of cancer. The response of Dr. Sacks to this news reminded me much of my friend:
“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill [wrote that] ‘notwithstanding the great decline of my person [I have] never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.’”¹
It struck me that David Hume could well have been describing Huntley’s attitude as well as his own. Dr. Sacks went on to state:
“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. … [M]y predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. … Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”²
These sentiments are very similar to those I believe my friend would have expressed if he had paused to reflect on his life instead of passionately living it to the very end.
¹ Oliver Sacks, “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer,” The New York Times, New York edition, 19 February 2015, p. A25 and online at www.nytimes.com.