Shortly before midnight on Mother’s Day, May 12, 2013, my stepfather Peter Worthington, 86, died in his sleep at Toronto General Hospital, after briefly fighting a staph infection and other medical complications, including failing kidneys.
I’d like to write briefly about his final days and share a few recollections of the best of times we shared over the years.
But first, if you like to read a short and accurate article that summarizes just a little of his amazing life, you can read the obituary article from the Toronto Sun, and view a lovely slide show of photos, here:
My stepfather was Peter Worthington, the famous Canadian newspaperman and founder of the Toronto Sun newspaper and media business. He was also an award-winning foreign correspondent for the defunct Toronto Telegram, and a decorated soldier who fought in World War Two and Korea.
Peter had what is sometimes called a “big life.” He wrote an autobiography of that life, at least the part before old age, which is entitled Looking for Trouble: A journalist’s life… and then some which may be out of print but I’m told may soon be available on Amazon as a downloadable e-book. I suggest you check it out — it’s a heck of a tale. Growing up with Pete (as we called him) was like having James Bond as your dad (of the Sean Connery vintage, with all the athleticism and sense of danger and intrigue).
After a collapse at home, on Friday, May 3, Peter was admitted to hospital with an infection and other complications of the heart and kidneys, which steadily worsened. He remained lucid enough to enjoy visits with family and grandchildren, and we all had a chance to say our goodbyes.
On Friday, May 10, after discussing options with doctors and palliative care nursing staff, Peter requested that no heroic efforts be made to prolong his life, which would have led to a poor quality of machine-assisted living. He made it clear he was ready to go, and asked to simply be sedated enough to be in a coma-like state of sleep until the final end came. I know he did this not to avoid suffering on his part, but to spare his loved ones the pain of watching him suffer and hallucinate from the toxins building up in his body due to kidney failure.
Peter entered a deep sleep and never regained consciousness.
I was thankful to have been able to say goodbye and thank Peter for everything he did for us, leaving us all able to care for and support our children, the next generation. I have never (and I mean NEVER) seen someone face death so pragmatically and with so little self pity as my stepfather. He gave us all one final life lesson in that regard that will stay with me forever.
And now a few quick memories of the best of times:
— Remembering the first time my mother Yvonne pointed Peter out on the TV, where he was being interviewed. We hadn’t met him but she told us she was starting to date this man. I remember saying his ears looked like Spock on Star Trek. I was eight.
— Riding on the rear hood of the car on the drive from the main road to the cottage Peter and my mom used to rent from his Aunt Nora near Baysville, Ontario. Peter owned a succession of Dodge Darts which were always different variations of puke green. We played with Michael, a young boy who was made blind and mentally retarded from drinking cleaning chemicals Aunt Nora had failed to secure in an unlocked cabinet below the sink, for which she never forgave herself. His older brother Steve used to take us for rides in his family’s speedboat, even when our parents said we’d had enough. Steve was 16 with long hair but seemed so much older to us.
— Jumping off the town bridge into the river in Baysville, my stepbrother Casey and my sister Danielle egged on by Peter who always dove while we jumped feet first. We did this from many small Ontario town bridges, the tallest and most terrifying being the bridge at Dorset. Peter swam around and checked that the bottom was deep enough, which it was, he told us, “as long as you bend your knees after you hit the water.” I still recall hitting the cold black water and my feet entering the soft mud bottom.
— They say it always rains in Baysville, and it’s true. It rained and rained and rained. When it went to visit a few years ago on a sentimental journey it was raining! I still fondly remember the Sunday buffet at the local restaurant that advertised itself as “The Best Restaurant By A Dam Site” (because it was beside a dam).
— Throwing the softball with Peter after he came home from work. I was a slightly introverted kid and loved art and playing guitar, but Pete got me outside and used this ritual to unwind from the stress of the day, and make sure I became a “man’s man.” I also enjoyed going to his baseball games, first with the Tely (the old Toronto Telegram) team, and later the Toronto Sun team, for which he played shortstop. I recall that cartoonist Andy Donato played catcher, and Mark Bonokoski (“Bono”) had the strongest throwing arm. Sometimes I’d play catch with the guys to help them warm up and whenever Bono would throw to me, my hand would sting inside the glove.
— Snorkeling in Jamaica and Bermuda, and riding around on Moped scooters. Peter taught us to snorkel, which I still prefer to scuba diving even though I’m certified. The reefs were beautiful and teeming with colorful fish. I recall Peter stepping on a skate on the sea floor near Montego Bay, and another time I stupidly touched a sea urchin; one of its spines went into my finger tip, and Peter later told me to pee on it, to neutralize the pain and infection.
— In Bermuda I recall Peter, Dani and Casey and myself standing atop coral at low tide, above the water. There was a sink hole into which ocean water rushed in and out, rhythmically. Peter told us to count the number of seconds between the highest and lowest water levels, so as to time our dives safely. That was one of Peter’s main themes: having adventures, but calculating the risks to stay safe. How many times in my life I’ve applied those lessons in other contexts!
— Peter breaking his leg jumping out of a tree in Bermuda, while my mom captured the whole thing on her 8mm film camera. He was always doing silly stunts, and my mom was always filming them. We used to watch this film at home, and see Pete’s leg bend when he hit the ground.
— The day in 1971 when the Toronto Telegram folded and all four of my parents (mom, dad, stepmom, stepdad) were out of a job!
— Swimming with a herd of sea lions in the galapagos islands, and playing underwater tag with them trying to recover our swim fins, which they’d tug off your foot and then hold inches away from your face, only to swim away quickly when you tried to grab it. They were just like dogs, and were smart and kind enough that when they saw you were tired, they’d give it back.
— The whole family having blisters and sore feet after walking 27 miles throughout Toronto in the Miles For Millions fundraising walk back in the 1970s.
— Driving or bike riding to Basking and Robbins (when it was new) for ice cream after baseball games. Pete usually ordered a pineapple milkshake.
— Playing pickup (“shinny”) hockey at the temporary ice rink at Moore Park. The rink was lit at night and the neighbourhood dads and their sons would come out to play, and hold back nothing. There were some winters where we’d play every night for weeks on end, for hours and hours. I got to the place where in the dim light I could skate down the boards and pass the puck to Peter, knowing intuitively just where he’d be without looking, to score.
— I remember Peter tightening my skates with a hook-shaped “lace tightener” when I was young, and then graduating to the stage when I could do it myself. Pete was not one to make Hallmark card statements about how much he loved you: he expressed it other indirect ways, usually playing sports or teaching you things, like leading you and your siblings on a walk behind a waterfall.
— I recall Peter’s slightly blue-ish faded tattoo on his forearm of an old-fashioned tall ship. My mom told me that Pete said he got it when he was in the navy. On shore leave he and his mates got drunk, and the next morning he woke up with the tattoo, with no memory of having it done.
— Peter was a “cold warrior” and talked a lot about communism and especially his recollections living in Russia, where he was one of the first western journalists to realize what a failed system existed in the former Soviet Union, while the liberal press were still giving Uncle Joe Stalin a pass, along with Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro. At the dinner table he sometimes asked provocative questions of us kids like, “If there was a war, which one of you would fight for your country?” Casey and Dani usually volunteered that they would, but I’d often say something like, “It depends” just to piss him off. When I was in university I took this game to new heights (or depths) and bought him a copy of Marx’s Das Capital for his birthday. I actually thought it would be interesting to discuss, and wasn’t saying I agreed with it, but Pete was pissed off just the same.
— Riding horses in the early morning mist in Kenya, and being told by my mom and Peter to look up. there were heads above and around us high in the sky — we among a herd of giraffes!
— Pete lying on his lounger on the deck of our summer home in Prince Edward County, his skin deep brown, flies buzzing, a thick history book or tome about politics covering his face while he dozed.
— Playing Risk at the cottage and Pete starting off slow but always winning. He always chose the red board game pieces, and he always ended up controlling Australia and New Guinea, that seemed to always lead to winning.
— Peter teaching me chess and being very good at it. Him telling me all about the great masters and their biggest games, like Boris Spasky and Bobby Fisher.
— Standing around the family upright piano, my mom banging out broadway songs while my sister sang or played a tin flute, me on my guitar and Pete playing harmonica, not too well, but well enough.
— Peter getting his teeth drilled at the dentist with no freezing.
— Peter fighting his political campaign to win the federal riding of Broadview-Greenwood and knock out the NDP stronghold and (hopefully) become a threat to then-leader Joe Clark. Pete became a bit insufferable during that campaign, and losing seemed to make him a little humbler and nicer. I always thought that episode was his midlife crisis.
— The collection of bizarre artifacts strewn about our otherwise typical middle-class home, relics of Peter’s days as a foreign correspondent. There were nesting Russian carved dolls, of course, and other bric-brac, but my favorite was (and remains) the hand-carved wood and stone axe he brought back from New Guinea. Oh, and the delicate centuries-old pastel drawing of the French king by Clouet that Olga, his translator, had given Peter after he helped smuggled her out of Russia. (There’s the James Bond thing again.)
— Peter’s stash of candies and jelly beans all over the place. He had a real sweet tooth and hated spicy foods. He lived his whole life with the pallet of a nine-year-old boy. And he always had a horrible soup concoction bubbling on the rear element of the stove, a habit he maybe picked up in the military or Korea or somewhere. Sometimes I’d make the mistake of looking in there and see turkey necks and stuff. Yuck.
— Pete’s always doing 20 pushups each day, a habit from his navy days.
— Peter diving, either in Muskoka lakes or municipal swimming pools. He wore a dark Speedo type bathing suit, and had the body to get away with it. He dove with great style, usually entering the water with hardly a splash, either from great heights of granite or limestone rock, or from diving boards after completing astonishing somersaults and turns.
— The six-shooter he kept inside a frame in his home office; it had been his dad’s gun, the famous Major General Fighting Frank Worthington, who founded Canada’s Armored Corps. It had three notches scratched in the side to signify the three men “Worthy” had killed with it.
— The story of how Peter and my father Max went for a beer together after my father separated from my mother Yvonne, and Yvonne and Peter became engaged. That was a class act all around. Both men worked at the Toronto Telegram and, interestingly, when Peter would file his articles from around the world he insisted that my dad be the one to edit them.
— Peter and my mom coming home late at night, and Pete hurrying up to the bathroom on the second floor, thereby thwarting my intention of re-entering the house from where I’d been climbing the roof Alpine style with skipping ropes thrown around the chimney, along with my brother and sister who made it safely back to their bedrooms ahead of me. Then eventually entering the house like a cat burglar, undetected, after my parents went to sleep.
— Thanking him for everything he did for us and Peter squeezing my hand and mumbling something about having “taught you kids” and “being proud of you all” as he lay in his hospital bed, just before he was administered drugs that would make him unconscious forever.