Saturday, April 15, 2023

In Remembrance: Vance Benjamin Elliott

Some obituaries can convey a good deal even when they tell almost nothing. In mid-February of this year my partner Maureen and I realized that Vance—a friendly but frail old fellow who had for years been stopping round pretty regularly to take away our empties—hadn’t been by for at least a couple of weeks. We thought that perhaps something might have happened to him—more than once before he’d not been round for long periods when (as we would discover later) he’d been hospitalized. But he had been getting more and more frail over the past year, and of course another thought occurred to us.

We knew his first and last names and we knew he had family down the road a ways in Duncan. When Maureen googled, the search engine quickly brought up “Vance Elliott Obituary - Duncan, BC” and this notice on the Dignity Memorial site:
Obituary Vance Benjamin Elliott August 12, 1960 – January 29, 2023 In the care of First Memorial Funeral Services Vance Benjamin Elliott, age 62, of Nanaimo, British Columbia passed away on Sunday, January 29, 2023.
That was all. The notice said that “fond memories and expressions of sympathy” could be posted and shared “for the Elliott family,” but there was nothing posted, from the family or from any friends.

How had Vance died? Had there been any funeral service? Or any “celebration of life,” as such things have for the most part come to be called? (There is a dreary inevitability to this sort of twenty-first century positivism, with its insistence on “passed away” or “passed” in place of the plain truth of “died,” and its implicit refusal to acknowledge the reality of grief, of loss, of death itself.)

Maureen and I worked out the dates; we must have last seen Vance on Saturday, January 28, the day before he died. He would usually show up at some point on a Saturday morning, his loud “Bam, Ba Ba Bam; Bam Bam” on the door always seeming to belie his seeming frailty. I would usually answer the door, say hi, and ask him how he was doing—though that was generally fairly evident from his appearance. Even at 11am on a Saturday morning, Vance would sometimes be swaying a little and slurring a little; occasionally he would be swaying and slurring a great deal, but more often than not, particularly in his last few years, he was comparatively sober when he called. The last few years too, he usually bore no signs of having been in a scrap; when he had started calling round—perhaps in 2014 or 2015—it wasn’t uncommon for him to look a bit beaten up, and to say, laconically, “yeah, I got into a bit of a fight the other night.”

Other things changed as well. At first Vance had come round with a small shopping cart, and showed obvious pleasure if we had a large bag of empties for him. But then he broke his hip. After that he could only get about shuffling quite slowly, with the help of a walker; the most he could manage at any one time was a pretty small bag of empties, tied to one of the handles. (If there were a larger bag, we’d leave it at the side of the house; “I’ll come back later,” he would assure us, and he always did, though it sometimes took a few days. The odd time he would enlist the help of a relative who would bring him round in her car to pick up the empties; she never looked too happy about that arrangement.)

His spirits held up remarkably well despite everything; his smile was almost always lopsided but genuinely warm. If it was me answering the door he would always say “How’s Maureen?” or, more frequently, “How’s the missus?” I would tell him, and often Maureen would join us and she and Vance would chat for a short time about the weather or about life in general while I fetched the empties. I would always fetch a bit of cash as well—"a small thank you,” I would call it as I pressed it into his hand, assuring him that he was doing us a favor by taking away the cans and bottles—as he truly was.

As time went by and Vance’s condition was obviously deteriorating, the small thank-yous became a little larger; instead of a couple of dollars or a five-dollar bill it would be a ten, or, for the last couple of years, a twenty. (That was no big deal; as things appeared to have gotten steadily tougher for Vance financially, they had gotten slowly but steadily better for Maureen and me.)

Vance never said thank you for the “small thank-yous”—not directly, at least. What he did instead was to begin bringing us gifts. One time he showed up, looking triumphant, with a couple of large ornamental planters, made of some light plastic in an odd shade of faded yellow. “They’re for you and the missus!” He announced with a big smile. And it was with a big smile too that he brought us six months or so ago a set of forty-year-old medical reference books, published I think by Reader’s Digest. One gift I will treasure is a poster mounted on a sturdy wood backing. It’s one of those British Columbia tourist posters with the old slogan “Super. Natural. British Columbia.” But instead of the usual mountains and ocean, the photo on the poster is of faces on a totem pole—faces that look far more realistic than most Pacific Coast totem pole faces, far more human. “I got it from a friend,” Vance reported; “he only wanted twenty bucks for it.” I assured him that we would give it a place of honor on our walls—and we have.

He kept offering to give more. He would often comment on the flowers in front of the house—clearly he liked flowers. And then he would look at the grass and say “I could cut that for you; why don’t I cut your grass for you?” One look at how his frail body tottered was enough to make clear that Vance could never have pushed a lawnmower. But I think he still believed that he could; I don’t believe it was an empty offer.

With his shopping cart or walker festooned with bags of empties, Vance could easily have passed for a homeless person, but he was not homeless. He lived in a small apartment, I believe, though Maureen and I never did find out in what building it was. For a while he had a companion—like my partner, named Maureen, though she kept separate quarters in the same building; “my old lady,” he would call her. But his old lady died a year or so ago; Vance had been alone since then.

Had he ever been married? Did he have children? We never knew. But some months ago we did find out something about his early life. When the horror of Canada’s residential schools had been much in the news for some time, I asked him one Saturday morning if he’d been in one of those schools. His voice dropped and deepened, and his lips tightened. “Oh yeah. We were cold. We were always hungry. I was beaten. We were all beaten. I was raped. The priests…” That was about all he could say.

Though Maureen and I were never on the receiving end of his anger, it was clear that Vance could get into a vicious temper. I remember one day when he stood on the sidewalk, trying to tell me about something he clearly saw as an outrage in the building he lived in. “Those bastards!” he growled, “they won’t keep the stairway clean. It’s filthy!” he spat out the word, and I thought that I wouldn’t want to meet him in that mood on that stairway.

Had he often instigated the fights he sometimes got into? Had his anger led to Vance becoming estranged from some members of his family? (He had an aunt living nearby who he saw frequently and who helped him out, he would tell us, but he also had relatives in Duncan and in Port Alberni, and he didn’t seem to see much of them.) There was a great deal about Vance that we never knew. I had thought I might gradually find out more as our chats became more frequent; as he had become older and frailer, he had started coming round more and more frequently to the houses where he could reliably find empties. Now that won’t happen.

A month ago Maureen and I posted a comment on the funeral home’s site:
We were so very sorry to learn today of Vance's death. For several years now Vance has been dropping by every week or so and helping us out by taking our empties; we have always enjoyed chatting with him. He clearly did not have the easiest life, but he managed to persevere. We will greatly miss his good humor and his generous spirit.
I checked in at the site once more today. It’s the only comment posted. Yet his was a life that had real meaning to it, that had real warmth to it, that even in its odd way had some richness to it. He made something with some richness to it out of very, very little. And, despite everything, he kept real kindness alive in his soul. I will miss his slow shuffle and his smile and his “How’s the missus?” I will miss him.

There’s one other gift I haven’t mentioned—a horseshoe that Vance presented us with about eighteen months ago. It’s a horseshoe for throwing, not for shoeing horses with. But, according to Vance, it will bring good luck if we nail it up above our front door. It’s been sitting on a shelf in the front hall ever since he gave it to us; this weekend Maureen and I are resolved to finally nail it up above our front door. We won’t ever take it down.

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