November 11. The clock strikes 11am. At SMUS, the school at which I work, the gymnasium transforms into a house of worship and prayer. The congregation, some 800 strong, a mixture of staff, students and guests, readies for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony.
The lights dim, then go out. The darkness complete save for two spotlights which illuminate a group of red poppies high above the stage.
There is total silence. A serious and somber occasion, one I have attended yearly for more than four decades, gets underway. As always, it never fails to bring a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, and a stockpile of memories and emotions.
The orchestra performs Mozart’s "Ave Verum Corpus." The notes speak to beauty, serenity, grace, and comfort. Though an uplifting, soaring crescendo is then followed by a drop, a “foretaste in the test of death.”
Various scriptures, then the reading of a letter penned over a century ago by the school’s founder, soon follow. Wreaths are laid, students and faculty, those who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the two World Wars, recognized and remembered. As a memorable event comes to conclusion, a trumpeter presents the Last Post, a sole bagpiper a lament.
The service over, I head home. Ready to relax, I look forward to a weekend of sport. Little do I know that two stories, an ocean apart, will further tug on my heartstrings.
The first takes place in Toronto, as the city hosts the Hockey Hall of Fame celebrations. Several greats of the game are deservedly enshrined, only to be supplanted by someone greater.
Flash back to 1973. Borje Salming arrives in Canada, the first Swede to play for my beloved Maple Leafs. My favourite team, even if six years removed from its last Stanley Cup triumph. In 1099 games, spread over a glittering sixteen year career, Salming becomes arguably the club’s greatest ever player. Supremely fit and strong, a brilliant skater, a perennial All-Star. In addition to boundless skill, on his own way to the Hall he also displays mountains of raw courage in the face of provocation.
Tragically, recent years have not been kind. Now 71, Salming battles bravely against the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. More commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, this progressive nervous system disorder affects nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing a severe loss of muscle control. As things stand now, there is no cure.
Gone already is Salming’s ability to speak, his ability to swallow food. The ability to lift his arms.
Nonetheless, somehow, someway, he makes his way from Europe to Toronto. Makes his way, supported by friends and family, along a red carpet to centre ice for a ceremonial face off. Face weary and lined, eyes wet, yet still able to acknowledge the thunderous roars of love and affection rolling through the Scotiabank Arena. An absolute legend of a player now needing all of his once formidable strength just to raise his hand or drop the puck.
Back in the comfort of my living room, I watch the proceedings. The ovation afforded Salming, and his reaction, leaves me with goosebumps and blinking back my own tears.
Edinburgh. 18 hours later. A much anticipated rugby match sees Scotland host New Zealand. The Scots have never defeated the famous All Blacks, but perhaps, this is to be the day.
Anthems over, the TV screen pans the tunnel at field level. There, getting set to deliver the match ball, surrounded by his family and resplendent in his special tartan, sits Doddie Weir.
My recollections of the 6’6” second row forward go back to the 1990s, when, as evidenced by 61 international caps, he is a mainstay in the national side for nearly ten years. Long, lean, spring healed and mobile, he strides the field like a colossus.
Still, the Weir of today, victim of a nasty Motor Neurone Disease (MND), is confined to a wheelchair. Rail thin. His feet shake uncontrollably. Cruelly, though his mind remains sharp, though he displays unshakeable positivity and character, though he has already raised millions of dollars for MND research through charity work, he
remains a prisoner trapped in a failing body.
Eventually, he is introduced to the capacity Murrayfield crowd of 67,000. The players of both teams gather round. Most, if not all, of the fans in attendance have some appreciation for Weir’s wretched and luckless situation. So the subsequent tribute to him, full of feeling, is spine tingling and lengthy. Thousands of miles away I too can feel the charge.
Several hours pass by. Sitting alone, my mind wanders back to the school service of two days ago. A kaleidoscope of images invades my thoughts. Of 134 candles on an improvised altar, one for each SMUS student or faculty member who lost their lives to the madness and folly of war. 134 snapshots of young men, teenagers even, some in military uniforms but many dressed in polo shirts or jumpers, looking ready to do nothing more than enjoy an afternoon’s rugby, cricket, or tennis. Their lives soon to be cut cruelly short.
Intermixed are depictions of two sporting icons, both titans, both heroic, now wasting away. Life so unfair.
In this regard, my final image is of the SMUS middle school choir, tasked to sing at Remembrance Day. The offering, titled “Barter,” extols the beauties and joys of life, but suggests they can often come with a steep price.
Lest we forget.
Borje Salming passed away November 24, 2022 at the age of 71
Doddie Weir passed away November 26, 2022 at the age of 52.