I can’t go on, I’ll go on: for Derek

April 12, 2014 by · 7 Comments 

1.

Maybe you miss someone even more when you can’t figure out what your relationship was. Or when it seemed unfinished.

– “The Seals,” Lydia Davis

Derek_WeilerOn this date five years ago, my friend and colleague Derek Weiler died as a result of a congenital heart condition. His death came as a shock to many people, since Derek did not talk about his health issues. I can remember walking into the office at Quill & Quire following the Easter long weekend and noticing his empty desk, but not thinking anything of it. The first day back after a long weekend: even the most diligent worker could be forgiven for being a little late getting in to the office.

And Derek was nothing if not diligent. He worked nights and weekends. He could often be seen sitting alone in the muted light of one of the office conference rooms, long after most others had left for the day, poring over proofs for an upcoming issue. He demanded a lot from himself, and he demanded a lot from his co-workers.

He was also one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. Equally well versed in literature, popular music, film, philosophy, politics; it sometimes felt as though there was no subject he did not have mastery over. His intelligence was formidable and intimidating, but also invigorating. Working alongside him was like attending a master class in … whatever subject happened to be on the table at any given moment.

And he was one of the warmest people I’ve known, quick to laugh and supportive in times of need. In retrospect, it is no surprise to me that his heart was what killed him. It was, after all, indescribably large.

2.

Once she was gone, every memory was suddenly precious, even the bad ones, even the times I was irritated with her, or she was irritated with me. Then it seemed a luxury to be irritated.

– “The Seals,” Lydia Davis

Derek taught me to be a better writer. To write with greater concision, clarity, and honesty. To be more exacting. To be less cruel.

He had no patience for self-indulgence, in writing or in people. Once, at a book launch, he asked me to take a picture of him and Gord Downie for use on the Quill & Quire website, but he made me promise to frame the shot in such a way that it would be possible to crop him out before posting it.

As an editor, Derek had the ability to cut directly to the core of an argument, to identify illogical writing and factual misapprehensions. He also had the ineffable quality inherent to great editors of any stripe: he knew when to do nothing. The writer and former Quill staffer Nathan Whitlock is fond of telling a story about one overzealous copy editor who struck out a witty passage from an article, on the assumption that it wasn’t germane. In the margin beside the deletion, Derek wrote: “Stet. Funny.”

He was tough, and direct, and did not suffer fools, but this also made his praise, when he bestowed it, intensely gratifying. It was a badge of honour to receive back a marked-up galley with the word “nice” scrawled at the bottom in Derek’s hand. I once ran a review of a collection of Mavis Gallant’s stories, gathered together from rejects and B-sides written over the course of her career. I ran the review with the hed “Mavis’s staples,” prompting Derek to send an e-mail complimenting me on the pun. I wish more than anything that I’d kept that e-mail.

3.

It’s such a strange thing – that once you are dead, you do know the answer, if you know anything at all. But whatever the answer is, you can’t communicate it to the ones who are still alive. And before you die, you can’t know whether we live on in some form after we die, or just come to an end.

– “The Seals,” Lydia Davis

I never got a chance to say goodbye to Derek. He left early on the Thursday prior to Good Friday to go to the emergency at St. Michael’s Hospital, and that was the last time I saw him. Perhaps I should have known something was up, but he had a history of health issues that we knew about in the vaguest of terms; I certainly had no idea, prior to hearing of his death, that things were so serious.

Derek did not speak publicly about his health problems. He was intensely private in that regard. The lone exception was a blog post he wrote in 2007, explaining why he did something that at the time seemed utterly uncharacteristic: acquired a tattoo. In the post, Derek outlined in general terms his lifelong struggles with health issues, and explained the tattoo as a kind of reclamation over his body, a defiant assertion that he was not going to let it go without a fight.

The tattoo on his forearm comprised the last two lines from Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnameable. It read, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

I’ve been thinking about Derek a lot as the fifth anniversary of his death approached, especially in light of Lydia Davis’s story “The Seals,” which I just read. The story, which takes up the narrator’s musings in the present about her experience with grief following the deaths, in close succession, of her sister and father, made me cry, in part because it cut so close to the bone, a reminder of fiction’s power to crystallize emotion and reassure its readers that, appearances to the contrary, they are not alone in their experience, or their pain.

I hope Derek would appreciate the connection between his memory and the feelings arising out of an engagement with a work of fiction, especially a work of short fiction, a genre that was close to his own heart.

There is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful for having known Derek, and for having been the beneficiary of his tutelage, albeit for too brief a moment. He was a friend, a colleague, and a teacher, and his clear-eyed honesty and lack of sentimentality remain an inspiration to me.

I have tears in my eyes as I write this.

I miss you, man.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

Comments

7 Responses to “I can’t go on, I’ll go on: for Derek”
  1. Panic says:

    We should all be so lucky as to have you remember us.

  2. Ross McKie says:

    He was just wonderful. Of all the work he needed to do, he still always found a space to talk to me if I had a review in Quill. And, yes, that music knowledge. And that gentle laugh…

    Sadly, you and I first met, through Nathan, at Derek’s funeral, but somehow it has always made me feel–perhaps childishly– like some fellow word-soldier. On indeed…

    This is a beautiful piece on Derek. Thank you and peace to him, his family…

  3. Derek McCormack says:

    Thanks for this. I think about him often, and wish he were still here.

  4. Clare says:

    Beautiful piece, Steven.

  5. Marc Côté says:

    Excellent piece, Steven. Excellent. True to Derek and true to you. It’s a shock to realize he’s been gone five years, and a bigger shock to think that we’ve all muddled through without him. His was a very bright light, and your words have added oil to his lamp. Thank you.

  6. Barry Jowett says:

    This is a very nice piece. I’m glad you wrote it. It takes me back to the unforgettable awfulness of hearing the news, but it also reminds me of the truly good guy Derek was.

    I’d just started doing reviews for Quill and, not long before, had received my Quill-reviewer contract. I’d known Derek for years — we started in publishing around the same time — and he added a personal note to the bottom of the contract. When I got home after hearing he’d died I saw the contract, and the note, on my desk and I didn’t have the heart to send it back. I can’t remember if someone sent me a new contract or if I just went ahead sending you reviews without an agreement, but that last little hello from Derek was something I was going to hold on to.

  7. Finn Harvor says:

    Ongoing condolences to Weiler’s friends and family. Loss is hard.