Picture of Tali BairdTali Baird is a medical student at Western University.

My Zadie (grandpa) John was a loving, fun, generous, curious, and scholarly man. He taught himself French amid completion of a francophone program and showed steady dedication to his pioneering research, functioning bilingually in his support of his patients, colleagues, and above all, his family. He approached life with vigor and left a distinct mark on all those who knew him. While I knew him as a dedicated family man, through his friends and colleagues after his death, I was able to learn just how much time and passion he dedicated to all aspects of his life, in particular, his work as the Director of Research at JGH’s Institute of Community and Family Psychiatry. He, like all others, did not remain untouched by disease and like many, its effect was more than skin-deep.

What I recall best are my interactions with him during my regular visits to his home in Montreal. During my younger years, I have memories of a man who laughed easily and loved to listen attentively, travel with family, and chase his grandchildren around the garden. Increasingly, during my middle and high school years, he became more fragile and began to develop more significant hearing loss. He struggled to follow discussions around the dinner table, limited his travel to important family events, and was more economical with his movements. He continued to take joy in having individual quiet conversations with his children and grandchildren. He made me feel valued and loved as he asked about my classes, interests, and opinions, sharing his insights, some of his own experiences, and a proud smile. However, his previously impeccable patient and calm demeanor cracked at times when he required help with certain tasks or was nudged by my wonderful grandmother, which left me initially confused.

In his final decade, I was aware of his requirement for a pacemaker, the careful way he and my grandmother crafted his diabetic diet (combined with his diligent exercise routine), his need for a walker and then an electric scooter (on which he was a slight hazard at first) and the help he needed bathing, dressing and  other tasks of daily living. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, then osteoporosis, macular degeneration and melanoma.

I watched illness wear on my Zadie, unfairly forcing a sharp, capable, and independent man to deal with the daily realities of disease and to accept the help of his multiple physicians, personal support workers, the staff at a nearby rehabilitation centre and others. It challenged his identity. He was a provider unable to perform the tasks he was used to, a scholar unable to engage with his colleagues as he was accustomed to, and a family man less able to lead and physically interact with his loved ones. This frustration, bled into his interactions with his loved ones, with sharper words finding their way forward. With each hospital stay, his physical capacity decreased, and his frustration grew. He had the sheer will to live to support his family with his words, presence, and financial gifts; however, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the sense of peace and lack of pain across his face in hospital after his death. He was finally freed of his body’s limits.

My Zadie helped to form the person I am today. He helped instill the values of family unity, finding joy in small moments, and the critical importance of education and donating to charity, through his example. He taught me one of his most important lessons as he faced physical decline. Through his consistent love and active interest in life, he taught me to look for the person behind the patient trapped in their body or tricked by their mind, to appreciate the small moments and forgive expressions of frustration. The privilege of having known him in his earlier years helped develop this clarity.

I can only hope that, even on the bad days, those who cared for him could see glimpses of the man I knew, that they could see how much joy he brought, how much he had lived and had yet to give. I hope that clerks, residents and staff could see the same funny, lively man I had the privilege of knowing, even under his layers of pain and shame. Being privy to the kindness, curiosity, sense of humor, and love that lived parallel to his frustration has helped me to provide better care to patients I encounter, to bring more sympathy and understanding into the room, and to remember the importance of patience and kindness. To make time to try to see the person in front of me.