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The Globe and Mail

How Jack Layton touched my family without ever meeting us

dushan milic The Globe and Mail

I've spent years sitting at my desk with Jack Layton, listening as he spoke of proposition not opposition, of hard-working families and how a clean environment is possible.

And even though he was never physically in front of me, it sounded like he was right there. You see, as a radio broadcaster, I was often tasked with editing his voice into 30-second sound bites for our newscasts and current affairs shows.

I knew the timbre of his tenor, his specific inflections (with particular emphasis on passive verbs – "It is possible"), his much-used catchphrases and how the energy in his voice would often require audio tweaking to make sure he didn't sound distorted.

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So on July 25, as with any political announcement, I was at my Victoria-based desk waiting to record the audio off the TV and paying no attention to the images on the screen (this is radio land, after all). As Mr. Layton sat down and the microphones picked up his shuffle to his seat and the muddled words "hang onto my trusty cane," my first thought was, who's the old man introducing Jack Layton?

When I realized that "old man" was Mr. Layton – his voice raspy and fumbling over the words, "I'm going to fight this cancer now, so I can be back to fight for families when Parliament resumes" – I knew we had a problem.

I say we, because for the past year Mr. Layton had been an honorary member of my family, even though none of us had met him in person. The night after his announcement, my mother called me: "My heart sank. I didn't even know how to tell your stepdad the news," she said, as though the NDP leader were a brother, an uncle or father.

I was only 20 and in second-year university when Mr. Layton became leader of the New Democrats. Before that, I didn't know much about politics, nor did I care. But then, out of the mire of geriatric white guys sitting atop Parliament Hill came Mr. Layton – drinking beer, playing guitar, visiting campuses across Canada and talking about student-loan forgiveness, ATM fees and the environment. My peers and I were hooked. Soon enough, I pinned an "Orange is the new green" button on my backpack and became a leftie.

My parents didn't ride the orange wave with me. "He's a goof," my stepfather would say. "He'll ruin the economy," my mom would add. And despite my numerous attempts to try to convince two union mill workers that their views aligned more with the NDP than any other party, I was met with red conviction. They voted Liberal, as their parents before them. Plus, with our draft-dodger, isolated mill town lumped in with the towering mansions of West Vancouver, our riding was going Conservative anyway, so what did it matter?

It didn't. Not until January, 2010, that is. When one day, out of the blue, my 64-year-old, loud-mouthed, well-built stepfather practically collapsed from stomach pain. The first tests doctors ran were of his prostate levels.

He was diagnosed that spring – right around the time Mr. Layton came out with the news that he had prostate cancer. And suddenly, he and my stepdad had more in common than my stepdad ever could have imagined.

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Through painful biopsies, bruises from IV lines, news that cancer had reached his bone and a bout of radiation, my stepfather remained positive. He even joked about doctors "going up his bum" and nurses not knowing how to draw blood. The fact that a traditional Italian Catholic who before refused to step foot in a doctor's office – or even a pharmacy – was talking about his sickness floored me.

Then one day, when an old friend asked him about his cancer, he replied in his slight Italian lilt, "I feel fine. Plus, Jack Layton has prostate cancer, and he doesn't look too shabby." And I understood. Those prostate ads Mr. Layton appeared in. His openness when asked by the media how he felt. The phrase, "I, along with 25,000 other Canadian men, have prostate cancer," had almost broken through that red conviction.

In this year's May election, my parents cast their ballots. They stuck to their Liberal leanings, trying desperately to make their swing riding go Liberal instead of Conservative. But even though their riding went to the right, my parents were floored to see the orange wave – led by Mr. Layton and his trusty cane – take second place for the first time in history – even though his own triumph turned out to be so bitterly short-lived.

I didn't get a chance to speak with them on the phone that gloomy Monday morning last week. I woke up, heard the news Mr. Layton had passed away and headed straight into work. I suppressed tears while reading his last message to Canadians with cancer: "Please don't be discouraged that my own journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope." I forwarded it to my mother.

I know my stepfather won't speak with as much conviction any more about his disease being "no big deal." But after finally reaching them on the phone, I know their political leanings have finally shifted bright orange – wanting help with my stepdad's $600 hormone shots and assurances that their pensions won't evaporate. "We're voting NDP in the next election," they both said.

Reading Mr. Layton's letter, after having spent so much time with his voice in my headphones, I can actually hear him saying those words. And it's clear that they will echo through Canada, British Columbia and my two union parents for years to come.

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Sarah Towle lives in Victoria.

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