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: email@example.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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.