By Mark Kennedy
2:30 a.m., ante meridiem – the 2:30 that’s too early in the morning. It’s a time when babies make their debut on the world’s stage wailing from the shock of fresh air in new lungs.
But at 2:30 a.m. on August 11th one old man, my ‘old man’, was making his final exit, gasping for each remaining breathe. At 2:30 I sat beside my 83 year old father’s bed, held his hand and waited for that slow train that comes for all of us sooner or later.
“All the world’s a stage”, says Shakespeare, “and all the men and women merely players.”
If that’s true, my father’s best performances were given on a stage made of ice.
From 1942 to 1957, he was part of the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team. Statisticians will tell you that Ted “Teeder” Kennedy played his first Leaf game at age 17, that he was the youngest Maple Leaf captain, that he led 5 Stanley Cup winning teams, that he still holds the record for most Leaf playoff goals and that he received the Hart Trophy in 1955 as the NHL’s most valuable player. But numbers and trophies don’t tell the whole story.
His audience, the people who saw him play, talk about his unflinching courage, his unremitting hard work and his indomitable determination in the face of adversity – character traits that produced the statistics and a lot more.
Where do personal qualities like these come from?
No one is a self-made man. There are no demigods with genetic codes pre-programmed to accomplish great things solely by their own abilities. Events and circumstances enter into it, but more than any other factor, human influences shape character and inspire achievements. Parents, teachers and heroes matter.
“Who was your hero when you were growing up?” I once asked my father, expecting him to name an old time hockey player, like maybe Charlie Conacher.
“My mother.” he said, “The things she did were absolutely unbelievable.” We both sat silent for a while and I thought about that little Irish woman who immigrated to Canada almost 100 years ago. Margaret Burns was a teenager then, full of hopes and dreams for an exciting life in a new land. It was a beautiful fantasy - a song of innocence. Fifteen years later, tragedy was the theme of her song of experience.
She began her new life as a maid in what were wryly dubbed ‘summer cottages’ – American owned mansions on the north shore of Lake Erie in the town of Port Colborne, Ontario. Cooking, cleaning and mending were familiar duties for her and for so many other women of her generation and at least they provided her with a living.
At a community event she met Tom King, a worker at the local cement plant. They fell in love, married and had a son named Joseph. But while Joseph was still a toddler, tragedy struck. Tom King along with more than 20 million other people worldwide died in the flu epidemic of 1918. As a young widow with a little boy to raise she persevered through her grief. A few years later another local man came into her life. She and Gordon Kennedy married and began building a new family. Over the next five years Jessie, Jim and Gordon Jr. joined Joseph, as part of a rollicking, boisterous, happy clan of children.
But tragedy continued to stalk Margaret. At the age of one, little Gordon Jr. tried to climb a ladder, lost his balance and tumbled to his death.
Another heartbreak followed soon after. Weeks before the birth of my father, Gordon Sr. was critically wounded in a hunting accident. It took several agonizing days for him to die in hospital.
Hamlet’s stepfather Claudius said it eloquently, “When sorrows come, they come not as single spies but in battalions.”
How could anyone bare the weight of these accumulated sorrows? Margaret faced a future without any significant work skills or government safety net and with 4 young children to support.
To solve the critical problem of financial survival she turned her home into a restaurant and, in off hours, cleaned floors in local office buildings. In summers she operated a beachside snack bar and for the rest of the year at night she ran the concession booth at the local hockey arena with the help of her children. After all the teams had left her children would lace up their skates and play shinny.
It was a hard and wearing life for Margaret. Her daughter Jessie recalled often hearing her come home weeping in the early hours of the morning. “I’m so tired!” she would cry out, maybe to God. Nonetheless next morning she would be up early for another day of wearying physical labour.
And there it was. She was the personification of unflinching courage, unremitting hard work and indomitable determination in the face of adversity - it’s no wonder my father brought those character traits to the Maple Leaf hockey team. He learned them from his hero and he chose his hero well.
But there was something more, something that carried Margaret far beyond normal human capacities.
The New Testament book of Matthew records an amazing event that took place in the middle of a wind swept sea. Jesus astonishes and terrifies a boat full of his disciples by walking on top of the water toward them! He then challenges his friend Peter to step out of the boat and walk on the water too! And Peter actually does it for a few seconds! When he looks at Jesus he does the seemingly impossible but when he looks down into the tempestuous depths fear replaces faith and he begins to sink. Jesus has to rescue him.
Margaret turned to God in the tragedies that threatened to overwhelm her and her children and He lifted her above them. I know that because I knew her and because I found a remarkable letter in a box of jumbled correspondence and bills. She wrote it to my dad when he was struggling to finalize the purchase of his first home – a pretty minor thing in comparison to her troubles:
“Dec 28- 1948
Dear Theodore,” (She always used his full, formal name) “I am so sorry you have run into so much trouble with the house but dear don’t be discouraged. If you put your trust in God He will help you to overcome all the difficulties you run into. You will realize that as you get older.”
She wrote that after having lived through the deaths of two husbands and a beloved child. She knew what she was talking about. She had lived it.
2:30 August 11th came and went. I would sit up for two more nights with my father before the spirit left his worn out body. Even in those last hours he wouldn’t give up easily. How could he with the heritage of his hero always in his heart.
As I wrote this I couldn’t help thinking about the heroes teaching in some of our Christian schools – the folks who, like my grandmother, work so hard and without ever receiving public celebrity status. Maybe some of them come home late at nights exhausted, maybe sometimes in tears. Maybe in the day to day grind they just don’t see any fruit from their efforts. For them I hope this article is an encouragement. Their work is not in vain. They are heroes for children who may just change our world for the better some day – and chances are many of those future world changers are the children from whom they would least expect it.