A poem for Pete

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One month ago, my younger brother Pete and I stood in his kitchen, waiting for the stove-top espresso machine to bubble up our coffee. Pete was breathing through an oxygen tube, which ran down the front of his T-shirt and snaked along the floor behind him to the tank. He spoke in bursts, stopping every now and then to catch his failing breath.

“When you boil water,” he asked, “do you use the microwave or a kettle on the stove?”

Classic Pete, as I was discovering. The scientist, curious about everything.

Pete and I never really knew one another growing up, nor in our adult years. Our homes were distant; he worked in a steel factory, a far cry from my world of coaching and poetry. Communication consisted of two or three phone calls a year, a visit over Christmas and a summer barbecue. But after being diagnosed with mesothelioma (asbestos-related) lung cancer in September of 2016, Pete uncharacteristically reached out to family. Phoning each of his six siblings with the news, he wept unrestrainedly and asked us to stay in touch. And so, almost every week this past year, Pete and I talked with each other by phone, often for an hour or more. With each goodbye, he said, “Love you.” Last month, when his health worsened, I flew down to see him. For three short marvellous days, we talked non-stop, asking questions, trading stories, reconnecting our blood bond.

Over the past year, I got to know this stranger of a brother. I got to know him as a person, as someone I would have liked to have befriended much earlier in life. He was astonishingly erudite, a voracious podcast listener whose understanding of issues was broad and deep. I discovered a born story-teller. He entertained me with tales of his travels to Morocco as a teenager, his bumming through Canada and the States during the ‘70s, and how, after years of being pathologically shy, he turned to an old-fashioned dating service (long before online dating) and found romance and enduring love with his wife Maggie.

Once I sent him an extract from Mary Oliver’s The Leaf and the Cloud, about a child sitting alone on a bale of hay in a barn, “dazzled by so much space that seemed empty, but wasn’t.” “I know exactly what that felt like!” he said when we next spoke. I learned that growing up on our farm, we both shared a reverence for nature’s baffling beauty. One time, on one of my long Sunday walks to the back of the farm, I happened across a small pond surrounded by vibrant green grasses. An invisible presence sparkled the air, and I came away with the certainty that this was an enchanted glade. Despite many subsequent walks and searching, I never found it again, and later wondered whether I had dreamed it. Much to my surprise, Pete had stumbled upon the same place – in the back of the farm, a pond surrounded by green, and yes, he too had experienced a similar presence that shimmered in the air. Being the scientist, he thought the pond was the result of heavy spring rains, but he couldn’t explain the shimmering.

Pete died on Dec. 13th, the first in my sibling circle to go. We scattered his ashes in Hamilton Harbour where he loved to wind surf. Again and again, I recall our phone calls and our last visit, the fingers of my memory rolling them over like the favourite pebble tucked into my coat pocket.

Pete did not believe in an afterlife. But he appreciated the prose poem which I recited to him in the hospital a day or so before he died. His response, even through the haze of morphine, was clear: “That about says it all.” And so I dedicate this poem to my newly-discovered, much missed, and much beloved brother.

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral
~ by Aaron Freeman

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.



  1. Maureen McGahey

    December 31, 2017

    Oh my dear MaryLou!
    I am so sorry for the loss of your brother Pete.
    I am so glad you took the opportunity to respond to his outstretched hand as he reached out to you and family during this difficult illness.
    I am in tears as I think of his vulnerability stretching out for your heart and strength.
    I am so proud of you. And I have been holding you since I found out that week after my hip surgery.
    “Not a bit of you(Pete) is gone.”
    He lives fully in your big, open heart!
    Much love,

  2. janice falls

    January 1, 2018

    dearest Mary Lou, What a generous, tender tribute to your sweet brother. I am so grateful to know that you spent time with Pete, by phone and especially in person. Sharing your memories as well as poems would have been a precious gift to him. Thank goodness for the law of the conservation of energy! And thank you for sharing something of his life with us. much love to you, Jan

  3. Wendy Sarno

    January 1, 2018

    Mary Lou, what a beautiful tribute to Pete and to the friendship you found with your brother thru his illness. This was the last thing I read before turning out the light last night on the last night of the year. Brought to mind Mary Oliver’s “black rivers of loss whose other side is salvation, whose meaning we shall never know”. Something about wading thru these dark waters of grief and blessing as we both gather up and release the life of another. I love the poem. I had to share it with my Jim, my scientist who loved it and asked for a copy.

    I’d been thinking of you the last few days meaning to write a note and now feel the gift of this sharing of your thoughts. I send so much love now as we all step into the new year.

    big warm hugs,


  4. Batia

    January 1, 2018

    Thank you Mary Lou for this gift of memory and presence of your beloved brother.
    Indeed the shimmering presence vibrates in your words and poem of deep love and connection to your brother. It is almost in spite of the years a part that the bonding is strong between the two of you.

    I hold you in my heart with tenderness and love.

  5. Sherry Galey

    January 1, 2018

    Oh Mary Lou, I read this on the first day of the New Year and it gives me profound hope — while being about the greatest loss. “Not a bit of you is gone” – I will remember that and hold onto it for when I need to navigate this kind of loss in the future. Thank you for sharing your incredibly moving words about reconnection with your brother and the bridging of time, distance and differences. Your story strikes so many chords — not the least of being that my father also died of mesothelioma and we found great love and strength and meaning in our time spent before his passing. I surround you in my thoughts with great love and peace and gratitude. xo

  6. Patricia

    January 2, 2018

    Ahhh Mary Lou, this is beautiful, and I’m crying again. I’m so happy that you had such special time with Pete. His energy is very close. Thanks again, I love you so.

  7. Mary Lou van Schaik

    January 2, 2018

    Dearest friends — thank you all for your words of kindness and comfort and love. I wrap them around me, a warm shawl of connection. Much love — Mary Lou

  8. Maggie

    January 2, 2018

    Simply beautiful Mary Lou. Thank you. I’m crying in the doctor’s office…

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