"Thus open the gates of paradise."

In this issue

Akira Irie

06 Apr 2002

Akira Irie, Calgary, 1981-ish
Dad, taken in his apartment in Calgary on one of my first trips out to see him in the fall of 1981 or 1982.

Here a selection of the things I have written or said about my Dad in recent days, along with the inevitable self-aggrandizing commentary.

Aboard RootsAir
The Newspaper Obituary
Chris' Instruction
A Reading From The Sheltering Sky


Aboard Roots Air

I wrote this during one of the least pleasant airplane rides I have ever had, from Toronto to Calgary aboard the fledgling RootsAir. It was cramped and nasty, and the return flight was delayed for six hours due to mechanical problems. Six hours in Schiphol airport (Amsterdam, good) is one thing, but six hours in Calgary is another thing entirely. It gave me fodder for an entire week's worth of carping, at the end of which, RootsAir did the right thing by me and simply stopped flying. I'd like to think I played a part in their downfall, and of that, I am undeniably proud.  

Twenty-four hours ago, I was sitting in a beautiful woman's apartment with her lovely gray cat dozing in my lap. Surrounded by friends, the conversation shone with inquiry and explanation, with wordplay and stories, talk of food and books and every good thing. Bright and glowing, under incandescent light, I have seldom felt more content.

Now I am wedged into a seat at the gloomy back end of a jet airplane, going somewhere I don't want to go, to do something I don't want to do. The passenger in front of me is malodorous and corpulent. His seat is reclined, pinning me behind my tray table so that when the thrombosis forming in one of my legs finally floats free to lodge in a lung and kill me, I will have nowhere to twitch, and instead will just slump where I am. It would probably appear that I had simply stopped writing in order to marshal my thoughts. Certainly none of my fellow passengers would notice as they are all busy looking at a mediocre film from last year, playing on a television set which is a stranger to the idea of "vertical hold". 

How did things go so badly, so quickly?

The Newspaper Obituary

The following spot ran in the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun on April 21 - 23, 2001. I had written it in a Tim Horton's the week before, hoping that it would have some of the flavour of a CBC Radio obit. The funeral director's assistant kept changing my wording to the usual obit-speak, but I was sure (and still am) that my way was better.

It is with surprise that we announce the death of Akira Irie. The son of Akiko and Ted Irie, he died on Sunday, April 15, 2001. He was 58. Before retiring early, Akira worked as a chemical engineer in Toronto, Sarnia and Calgary. In recent years, he led a minimalist life, making the occasional trip to Ontario to visit family and old friends who miss him dearly. He is survived by his son Chris; his brother Ken and his wife Carol; and his sister June and her husband Jim. Funeral Services will be held at McInnis & Holloway's "Park Memorial Chapel" (5008 Elbow Drive S.W.), on Tuesday, April 24, 2001 at 6:00 p.m. To e-mail expressions of sympathy: condolences@mcinnisandholloway.com, subject heading: Akira Irie. If friends so desire, memorial tributes may be made directly to the Rockyview General Hospital, 7007 - 14 Street S.W., Calgary, Alberta T2V 1P9 or to your favorite charity in Akira's name. In living memory of Akira Irie, a tree will be planted at Fish Creek Provincial Park by McInnis & Hollow Funeral Homes.

Chris' Instruction

The memorial service was conducted by Bill Vandenhengel and myself. We each said a few words about Dad, then invited those who attended to help themselves to the snacks in the foyer. I wrote the following the night before the service, between midnight and 1:30 in the morning on the same nasty old kitchen table we used when I was growing up. It must be about as old as I am. 

Hi. My name is Chris Irie. I'm Akira's son. I guess you know that. In fact, I'm guessing you know a whole lot more about me than I know about you.

In the last week, I've talked to some of Dad's friends, and one thing they all tell me is that he liked to talk about me. So you've probably heard about my life back East in Waterloo -- about me going to school, or getting a job, or going on holiday to England or Egypt. 

I went to Egypt, by the way, because I'm studying ancient Egypt in my mythical spare time. It's a lot of reading, mostly. The Egyptians liked to write. A lot. They wrote histories of great battles in the desert with neighboring countries. They wrote stories about their gods. And then there is a whole genre of instructional writing. These are things where a father harangues a son to do this or that in order to be a good son. 

Even though they were written 4000 years ago, you'll probably recognize the advice: Don't steal. Don't tell lies. Respect your parents. And: If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. 

The Egyptians were practical people -- they knew this was good stuff, and they were careful to pass it on from one generation to the next. This sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years, in any culture you can think of. 

Including mine.

Now, Dad was pretty free with his opinions, but he was very careful about the advice he gave me. In fact, I think he only said three things to me, and I want to share them with you today.

Before I entered high school, he asked me: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I looked around, looked at the floor, and said with some embarrassment that I didn't know, and that I was sorry, but I didn't want to be an engineer like him. He thought this was hilarious and he said: "It doesn't matter what you do, just find something you like to do, because you'll have to do it for the next 40 - 50 years. And make sure you can make a living from it. It's no good having a job if you can't put a roof over your head."

That was the late 70's, just when PCs came out. Remember life before personal computers? When "Windows" were things you looked through? I loved working with them, and despite those who said it'd just be a passing fad, it's turned out to be a pretty good career decision for me. Ironically, the path I took was Software Engineering, and so I became an engineer anyway. But I actually love what I do, and I get paid for it.

OK -- that's one down. Flash forward 10 years. 

"Now what?" I asked.

"Find a girlfriend," he said. 

He said more, but there are some things that should pass only between a father and his son. I'm still single, so I'm not sure how good the advice was. Yet. I'll let you know how it goes.

I went back to Dad. "Anything else while I'm working on a girlfriend?"

He said: "Plan to retire early, like when you're 40."

"But I like my job," I said.

"You don't have to stop working, but you should have the option to retire when you're 40."

Ah. That makes sense, at least to me. I don't think I'll be able to quit when I'm 40, but I'm working on it.

Good advice all around. The Egyptians would have loved it.

There's just one problem. Today I find myself asking: "Now what?" Maybe you've been asking yourselves the same question since you heard that Akira died : "Now what? My friend, my brother, or my father is gone. 

"Now what?"

You can imagine, I've been thinking about nothing else for the last week. It's been my Zen koan, and even though you're not supposed to talk about your answer to a koan, I want to tell you what I think, because I think the news is good.

What next?

Anything. Everything! Anything is possible, if that's what you want. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but it's all possible. Look at me: Ten days ago, I never would have imagined that I could be here, doing what I'm doing right now. It would have seemed just impossibly difficult. But your friends help, even the ones you haven't seen in a long time. And your family helps, even if you haven't seen them for a long time either. Before you know it, you're doing that impossibly difficult thing. And there you are.

And here are we all.

Who knows what other impossible things we're each capable of? And I'm not just talking about dealing with death; I'm talking about living, about fulfilling your dreams. It's all possible. You may not know how, but remember that you can.

Just set your mind, and make it so.

That's my advice.

Thank you.

A Reading From The Sheltering Sky

I wanted to read something at the service, and so I chose a passage from The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. As far as I know, Dad never read it, but I have, and it's one of my favorite novels. You may remember the movie version that came out a few years ago with Debra Winger and John Malkovich. I had intended to read rather more of it, but Mom dissuaded me saying that it was far too depressing, though I don't find it depressing at all. However, given that no one really came to hear a book reading, it was probably best to cut it down a bit.

The story follows a married couple, Kit and Port, who are traveling though Sudan, deeper and deeper into the desert where tourists never go. In a small town in the middle of nowhere, Port contracts typhoid fever, and dies. In this passage, his wife Kit has just found his body.

She had quite forgotten the August afternoon only a little more than a year ago, when they had sat alone out on the grass beneath the maples, watching the thunderstorm sweep up the river valley toward them, and death had become the topic. And Port had said: "Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How may more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."

I think this is one of the most beautiful ways of telling you to enjoy what life you have, and to not put off the things you want to do. "Life to the living," as the Greeks say.