How to honour with words

Michael Wallace — husband, father of four kids, skilled surgeon — was loved in life, and for two hours at his Celebration of Life was lavished with adoration in a room of 400 people. Ten tributes were given, each rich with meaning and different from the others. I took notes, should I ever receive the honour of writing a tribute.

Relay a conversation. “When I sat down in the chair beside his bed and said ‘Mike?’ he looked up at the ceiling and said ‘I know, I am going to die. And I am so sad. For my children.’ This friend and colleague explained how Michael spoke about each of his children from oldest to youngest, briefly summing up why each would be okay without him, and how when he came to the youngest — his 13 year-old son — he attributed him with many of his own wonderful qualities. “Then he paused. “I need another year,” he said.” He got another nine months.

Re-enact a conversation like a play script. A local family doctor shared his conversation with a long-time patient whom Michael had seen through several surgeries. The elderly patient took stock of each of her surgeries and dotted the chronology with stories of how caring Dr. Wallace had been. Each line she spoke ended with “He’s my surgeon you know.” “Yes, I know. He’s your surgeon” her doctor validated each time.

Link personal and professional legacy. A colleague told Michael’s children that they will forever be connected to the many people their father served professionally. “He gave life to each of you four. He also gave the gift of life to the many people he attended to at all hours of the day and night, repairing them with skill and nurturing with compassion”. You will have this connection with these people forever.

Impersonate. A colleague acted out a common scene that resonated with the crowd. He pulled his glasses down to the end of his nose, tipped his head back and peered over his glasses as he explained that “Michael was known to peer over the top of his glasses and ask a series of questions in response to a question. It was how he empowered others to see they already had the answers.”

Tell a single story in detail. His colleague told the story of a cutting board that Michael had meticulously crafted to donate to a local fundraiser. She had gone head-to-head with another person in the silent auction to win the board and she described the ensuing stand-off in hilarious detail. “I texted Michael to let him know I won it. He texted back ‘How much did you pay?’. I confessed. ‘$2,500’. He fell silent. Then he said “Actually, that cutting board is too good to use. I’ll make you another one.” He sourced some walnut and gave her another board two days later. “He dropped it off . It was equally beautiful. When he opened the door to leave he hesitated. Then he turned to me and said ‘That board is too good to use too.’ So he came in and measured the board so that he could make another the exact same size to cover it. It was a welcome laugh fuelled by an appreciation for a man who was generous, detail-oriented, forthright and made time for people.

Dress the part. Michael’s brother-in-law delivered his tribute dressed like Michael himself did most days both at work and home; khaki shorts, long socks and leather sandals. He might have been tempted to validate why he was dressed so casually in a room full of dress shirts and ironed pants. But he didn’t. Everyone knew.

Call to Action. Many people with numbered days would start to chase unrequited dreams. But not Michael. “He continued to do everything exactly as it had been done, but dug in even deeper; kids’ judo and soccer practices, department meetings, dinners with his family. This was a man who lived his life exactly the way he wanted to.” He encouraged others to take this lesson from Michael and ‘spend your days the way you want to spend them, doing what you want to be doing, with who you want to be doing it with.”

Serve up Honesty. Michael was known for his rants about the need to improve surgical wait times. He would rant until change was made, then he’d rant about another change needed to improve patient care. He ranted to administrators, provincial leaders and colleagues. Then he would apologize. And do it all over again. Don’t forget the gritty bits that make someone who they are.

Use a Metaphor. A friend spoke of how passionately Michael valued family. Not just his wife and four kids, but his extended family too. He spoke of how Michael had brought in bigger and bigger dining room tables over the years to make space for his growing brood. A picture of the table that could seat 20 people was projected on the wall. It represented much of what Michael valued; offering a welcome space, family coming together and making time for human connection.

See into the Future. A Long-time friend and colleague spoke about and how he and Michael would talk about retirement when they fished together. They joked that they would be able to fish together all the time. “But of course Michael wouldn’t fish all the time,” he said. He proceeded to describe the wonderful grandfather that a retired Michael would have been “pacing the sidelines of soccer games and beaming in the audience at school plays”. Sad, yes, but comforting too.