My dear cousin and close friend, Steve, passed away on a recent October morning, one month shy of his fifty-seventh birthday. I visited Steve a few times during the final months of his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive and fatal motor neuron disease that has taken the lives of five of my family members.
As the inevitable end drew near for Steve, I found myself reflecting on the years that we spent together growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, and the unforgettable adventures of our youth. We played little league baseball and road hockey together. We were in the same Boy Scout troop and spent hours playing in the ravine across the street from where he lived.
In our mid-teens, we both bought our first cars (Steve's was a candy apple red Chevy Nova, mine a sleek Pontiac Beaumont), which was like a rite of passage and a ticket to freedom. To help pay for gas and insurance, we both worked at a local gas station, and the stunts we pulled during that period gave new meaning to the phrase 'misspent youth.'
By the time we hit our late teens, we hung out and did some travelling together (Florida, Virginia Beach), but we also started to develop different interests. Steve attended Centennial College and was eager to pursue a career in his chosen field, while I spent my early twenties writing poetry and wandering through Europe.
One thing that united us - from childhood until middle age - was music. During our teens, we spent endless hours listening to and discussing our favourite bands: Queen, Supertramp, Bruce Springsteen, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Chicago, Peter Frampton, The Alan Parsons Project, and many more. The 1970s and early 1980s were a golden age for experimental rock and pop music and it gave rise to dozens of classic songs and albums. Steve always got a thrill out of discovering new bands and artists and he loved sharing these treasures with his friends.
Steve had a special ear for lyrics and was drawn to songs that told stories. He introduced me to such classics as Harry Chapin's "Taxi," Billy Joel's "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" and Bread's "Everything I Own." He once asked me to listen to the words of an obscure song by Styx called "This Old Man," which spoke about the dignity of work and how you shouldn't be afraid to express feelings of love for others. Indeed, this was a pretty mature theme for a 20 year old kid to understand.
Another time, Steve urged me to buy an album by an artist with the unlikely name of Meatloaf. So, we rushed over to the record store and I bought Meatloaf's "Bat Out Of Hell" album. We cranked the volume on his stereo and played it over and over until the grooves wore out. A few months later, Steve and I got a chance to see Meatloaf perform at Massey Hall in Toronto; it was one of the most memorable concerts of my life.
It is those memories of enjoying music together that has been such a comfort to me, in the months leading up to - and after - Steve's passing. I'll put on a song that reminds me of a moment from our past, be it the Scout trip where Steve tossed an unopened can of pork 'n beans onto a roaring bonfire, Steve driving us in his mother's car to Virginia Beach or Steve briefly piloting a Cessna as we flew over the cornfields of Markham. My wife asks me why I keep playing songs that remind me of Steve and that make me so sad. Yes, these songs evoke feelings of sadness but they are also a way of connecting to the past and keeping it alive.
We often hear that a picture is worth a thousand words, but music can be just as powerful in connecting the past with the present. Songs like "Candy's Room" by Bruce Springsteen, "Holdin' On To Yesterday" by Ambrosia and "Do You Feel Like We Do" by Peter Frampton remind me of where Steve and I were at a given time. Listening to these musical gems, four decades later, is a way of holding onto Steve and reliving our youth.
One time, Steve and I were driving to Orillia, and the Bee Gees' "Tragedy" came on the radio. Steve thought the song sounded cheesy, but that didn't stop him from belting out the lyrics, "When the feeling's gone and you can't go on / It's tragedy..." in a high-pitched falsetto as he worked an invisible mic. Every time I hear that song, I laugh and think of Steve's exaggerated rendition.
At that time - we were both 20 - we didn't have a care in the world. We were just two guys cruising in my car and enjoying a moment that would become part of our shared experiences. All those years ago, Steve could not have imagined the special place those songs and moments would one day hold in the heart of a cousin whose grief today is beyond words. I'm sure there is a song in there somewhere, and when I hear it, I'll be reminded of the great man and friend that Steve was, and I'll be the first to tell others, That's a song for Steve.