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Appreciating Brian Donovan

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By Bruce Ward

There’s a cheerfully defiant sign on the door of Brian Donovan’s Fairmount home, where he has lived for more than 30 years. “Smile! No Sad Faces Allowed,” the sign states. It’s Brian’s courageous response to a grim medical diagnosis.

“Good news,” he told me in a recent phone call. “I’ve got inoperable cancer. It’s in four sites and metastasizing.”

Brian wears his Catholic faith lightly but his conviction is bone deep. “I’m 68, I’ve had a good life. I’ve always had a buck in my pocket. Now I’m going to heaven to be with my wife.” Alene, known to all as Bik, was a nurse at IWK Women’s Clinic. She died of cancer in October 2011. Bik’s heart was as big as her Cape Breton birthplace, and Brian’s love for her is boundless.

I felt shattered by what my friend was telling me, but I know the sign’s message is truly meant, and I know why he did it. It’s there to keep up our spirits, not his. He’s fine with what he calls his “one-way ticket.”

Look on the bright side, Brian urged me. “Now I won’t have to renew my driver’s license, my passport or my Nexus card.”

You’ve probably already guessed that Brian is good craic — an Irish word meaning someone who is a great wit and storyteller, especially over a pint or two with friends. But about three years ago Brian had a stroke while undergoing heart surgery. The stroke robbed him of the use of his hands and arms. The hand is a marvelous creation. Thanks to three small muscles in our thumbs, not found in other animals, we can grasp and manipulate tools with sureness and delicacy. I can barely imagine living without use of my hands, as Brian must.

Brian’s upbeat reaction to his diagnosis is understandable, says Marvin Greenblatt, a Calgary lawyer and a steadfast friend since their high school days in Moncton, N.B. “In effect, he sees it as a liberation from the imprisonment of his situation.”

On a visit to Halifax several years ago, Marvin tagged along with Brian as he did some weekend errands. “We went to a Sobeys in the downtown area, and it was like the King of Kensington. Every aisle we went down, Brian was stopped by people who wanted so say hello and talk to him.”

Over the years, Brian has given nicknames to many of his friends and relatives. There’s Weino, The Boy Wonder, Wink, Slush, Freak Bone, Nain the Villain, T-Guy, Ace, and Lucky. This might seem like a collection of kooks and oddballs but, trust me, there are prominent bankers and businessmen on that list.

Growing up in Moncton, Brian was an altar boy and janitor at Holy Family Church for several years. We used to tease him that his halo had a few dings and dents on it. In 1968, a bunch of us were determined to get some “pot,” the dope we’d heard so much about. It was a bitterly cold winter’s night when we finally got hold of a couple of joints.

But where to smoke it? Brian had the answer. Using his keys, he unlocked the church’s front door and led us into the vestibule. But God had the last laugh that night. Choking and coughing, we passed the joint around but whatever we were smoking, it wasn’t marijuana. We’d paid 10 bucks for twigs and dried tea. That was the end of our experiments with drugs.

Brian once told me that, during one of his many hospitalizations, student nurses would gather at his bedside to read the medical history on his chart. They could barely believe he had endured so much suffering and survived.

In 1977, Brian was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease but made a full recovery. About 15 years ago, he broke five vertebrae in his neck in an accident while making repairs to his boat. That meant months of lying immobile with a “halo” strapped to his head. Next came a disastrous bout with colon cancer. The cancer was completely removed but the rejoined section of his intestine broke open, causing sepsis to set in. The infection nearly took his life. In a subsequent operation, Brian had a severe allergic reaction to the anesthetic that increased his heartbeat to dangerous levels. A similar allergic reaction in another operation damaged his heart. In a later operation to repair the heart damage, Brian had the stroke that took away the use of his hands and arms.

You remember the Air Canada jet that skidded off the runway at the Halifax airport? Brian was among the passengers shaken up on that flight, too. 

Brian has the gift of “salesmanship,” Marvin Greenblatt says. It’s something I saw in him when he joined his friend John Cook who had started a chimneysweep business. Brian, only 18, was in charge of marketing and sales. He called the Moncton newspaper and got them interested in doing a story. The photo that ran with the article showed his partner dressed like a character out of Dickens, leaning over the chimney on the roof of my mother’s house. 

Brian attended St. Mary’s University and served as Don in his dormitory. Campus DJ “Taps” Gallagher always ended his show with a dedication: “This is for Brian Donovan, the Don of High-rise Two.” The song was Telstar, a spacey instrumental with sound effects including a rocket blasting off. That’s how epic the parties were — out of this world.

After graduating with a business degree, Brian was hired by a national brewery with an affiliated wine business. He became territory manager, a job that endeared him to tavern owners across Halifax. He would also turn up at any “do” or celebration put on by a service club, charity, or non-profit group. He never came without a complimentary bottle or two of wine or a case of beer.

Brian and Bik were keen sailors. Some of their happiest times together were aboard their boat Free Spirits. He enrolled in maritime training programs and eventually qualified as a marine captain. In 2003, Capt. Donovan started his own successful business in Halifax, Premier Marine Services. It caters to visiting yachts from around the world. Brian always got what his clients wanted, day or night, no matter how unusual — or pressing — the demand. For one client who docked in Halifax with a foot ailment, he set up an appointment with a top doctor, arranged to have a shaggy poodle clipped, and snagged great seats at the last minute for a Beach Boys concert.

“Cancer has its own timetable,” says Steve Lockyer, a leader in Halifax’s business community and Brian’s best buddy since their grade one days in Moncton. “But right now, Brian just wants to laugh and talk over old times with friends.” 

Steve visits nearly every day. His dedication to Brian is inspiring. Brian could not have had a better friend, in good times and bad.

Brian is also fortunate to have Kimberly as his caregiver. She’s a Newfoundlander, and every bit as sharp as Brian when it comes to banter. She is fiercely loyal to him. “I’ll be with you until your last breath,” she told him recently.

Brian noticed that Steve was wearing stylish new trousers when he came by the other day. “I told him where I got the slacks, and Brian got to the downtown store. He bought three pairs of pants and three new shirts (and a Fedora). No old T-shirts and sweatpants for him anymore.”

Always a dapper dresser, Brian wants to look sharp with company coming. So if you get to see him, remember this. It’s OK if your eyes water for a moment, but keep a grin on your gob. Tell him that the tears on your cheeks are from laughter.

Bruce Ward is a former reporter with the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star. Brian and his brother Mike were the first kids he met when his family moved to Moncton in 1959. Comments are welcome below.

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