By LENNOX FARRELL
It was the death and funeral of yet another Caribana and community stalwart. It was the funeral of Dr. Ralph Agard. To most of us, he was among some special professionals whom we’d known during the mid-1980s to the 1990s. These included other stalwarts like Dr. Odida Quamina, Dr. Hilroy Thomas, Dr. Enid Lee, Dr. Akua Benjamin, Dr. Clem Marshall. Not only were these academics, they were ‘working professionals’; that is, they were linked with those on the streets of protest, to the entrails of academia and the corridors of power.
Ralph was an individual who advised those in the North York education system on negotiations with that board over the systemic streaming of Black students. I recall a meeting sponsored by Harambee – the first time I`d heard of the organization – in the Jane-Finch community centre. This was during the height of the anti-Apartheid movement and during the era when Jane-Finch wasn’t a community, but a ‘corridor’; one in which the ever-present police were outflanked only by the drab, concrete spectres of impoverishment.
After being introduced by community reps, Ralph opened the meeting. His, as I recall, were words that were precise, clinical and down-to-earth. He then turned it over to his riding-partner, Leyland Gudge.
Leyland was the unassuming guru from Guyana with the diagrammatic know how of power, its terms and its nuances by which to gain attention, respect and access; access by which the un-empowered could lay claims, legit and overdue, on justice.
Where have these sorts of academic/street-smart folk gone? Or, maybe, folk as I, have grown too old to congregate, now unaware of the newer staging grounds of community assertion and self-empowerment.
The last rites for Ralph were discreet, clad in funereal black. Most of us carried senior bulges. And venerable grays. I reflected on how his memorial was also about us; we, that cast of Caribbean people who’d migrated to Canada during and after the 1960s; coming fresh out of our Caribbean salt-waters of rigorous scholarship, into a fresh-water Lake Ontario of civil unease.
Here, many of us had been peremptorily told to re-do the English of our advanced GCE certificates by officials, many of whom oft didn’t know a verbal noun (gerund) from a verbal adjective (participle). T’was odd, we’d wondered, how it was that we could understand their speaking, but were told that our accents weren`t comprehensible. Is it because accents aren’t as lucid on the tongue as much as on the ear? We were faced with unfamiliar racial categories. And we`d persevered.
In attendance at the service were former Caribana chairs like Leslie Forbes and Churchill Piggott. There were other community representatives as professionals, politicians, journalists: Joan Pierre, Arnold Auguste, Alvin Curling, Rita Cox … As I recognized one face after another, unseen in decades; names unremembered and diplomatically tiptoed over, I thought of sedimentary layers of rock. I thought of how, over time and under weathering, each layer is eroded, reduced in area to eventually vanish, washed away by unkind wind and whimsy waters.
I reflected on how, we too, like our parents, grandparents and ancestors gone before, were this first layer of Caribbean Canadians, now also being washed away. And knowing that as those ahead of us had vanished; as their memories had faded, so also would we and ours. But though we were being washed away, like our brother Ralph, we were simultaneously re-creating new landscapes of learning, history and opportunity for others; as others had also done for us.
But this wasn`t time only for grieving. For Ralph, his spouse Renette, his siblings Rawle and Carol-Ann, his family: children, Stacey, Sheldon, Kenny and Renette (Jr.); nephews/nieces, Jamil, Kafele and Kiswana; colleagues and countless others. No, it wasn`t time only for sorrowing.
The remembrances were apt, as if he had been in the preparing. Family spoke. Broke down, awash in speechless tears, grieving. Others, not family, but professional colleagues like Osborne Barnwell, also spoke as family, impassioned, personal, informed.here were the hymns, two renditions from soloist Sammy Jackson, and some congregational. And the discreet greetings before and after among us, attendees from far, and from farther away. Tentatively looking each over, like curious undertakers, self-assessing.
T’was life and death. His living, his family sorrowing, our community acknowledging.
Of course, there was the sermon – much of it my paraphrasing … that life from birth to death is like a run around a track, a track stalked by an adversary who will harm you to the max; finally overtaking, and shutting you down with ruthless aplomb.
The extended metaphor is mine; the idea is the preacher’s: Dr. Fitzroy Maitland, pastor of Scarborough’s Philadelphia SDA church.
‘Therefore,’ he said, ‘while you didn’t have any say over your arrival at birth, you have it over your departure at death. And you also have your, ‘what then’? Based on how you have lived, and for what purpose, your departure while being a time of mourning by those left, should also be one of celebrating. Not celebrating your leaving with sighs of relief, but celebrating the fact that you had been.
Ralph, as will all of us, had met his, ‘what then’!
There are two certainties, the pastor continued, which face us all: those of death and taxes. But while these are sociological certainties, there are, in addition, those theological. Because of these, and the life Ralph lived, the world remains a better place. Private regarding his religious persuasions, these nonetheless guided Ralph’s determination to serve the community: professionally provided, and clinically certain.
The theological certainties earlier referred to and the message listed by the preacher, are as follows: that Life is short; that Death is certain; that Sin is the cause; and that Jesus Christ is the cure.
The Preacher, to introduce the fleeting aspects of life, against goals we might set, used a verse from the Rubaiyat, the writings of the 10th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyám: ‘The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on …’
The Preacher to anchor his theme of our ‘what then?’, cited lines from Thomas Gray’s, ‘An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
So, while there is both meaning to life, all lead to the certainty of death and the grave. Therefore, our certainty about our living affects our approach to our dying: ‘O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy vict’ry?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55).
To reinforce all of the above, to wit, that not only is life short, but death is also sure. Again, ‘the living’ according to scripture cited, ‘know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing’. And the difference between the living and the dying is a mere heartbeat.
Each of us, to conclude, has an imminent date with death, for ‘it is appointed unto man once to die, and after death the judgement’. That is, after death, regardless of your beliefs, you still have to face, your ‘what then|?’
The qualifying question then is, ‘what will we do with life and about living?’ Because, after life is lived, and death is inevitable, there still remains, regardless of who you are, and what your beliefs be, the ‘what then?’ question. The realities become more urgent.
One is that simply because you believe something, doesn’t make it truth; that Truth is objective … even in a world where ‘Truth is relative’ to whatever you do and think.
The Preacher described, with humour wry and apt, the example of a young teacher who, seeking a position, after being interviewed by the principal was asked, how much did he truly desire to be a teacher? ‘For example,’ the principal asked, ‘if you were required to, could you teach anything? Could you teach either that the world was flat or that the world was round?’
To which the eager-to-please young teacher replied, ‘Whichever way you want me to, I can teach it.’
The Truth, be it about the shape of the earth or of spiritual values which inform us on our relations of life, before and after death, remains absolute. Again, you didn’t choose how you arrived here, but you surely do choose how you depart.
Ralph Agard, by his tireless advocacy, oft pro bono on behalf of the defenceless, is an example of someone who’d ‘walked worthy’.