Remembering June Callwood – and a special evening we shared


“The beaver, which has come to represent Canada as the eagle does the United States and the lion Britain, is a flat-tailed, slow-witted, toothy rodent known to bite off its own testicles or to stand under its own falling trees.”

This is one of my favourite quotes attributed to June Callwood because, although I do not know the context in which she said it and she has been, I know, much more elegant and profound in expressing her vision for Canada and the world, her sense of humour here was unmistakable.

Many more people and organizations will, with greater eloquence, pay tribute to June in the coming days following her death yesterday.

On the few occasions I had the opportunity to meet June I never expected her to remember me so I would jog her memory with a couple of touch-stones.

“I was a friend of Jim St. James, and you and I also shared the podium at an AIDS vigil at MCC (Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto) in 1995.” (I met her for the very first time at Jim’s funeral in 1990, if I have the year right. June’s biography “Jim” was being pieced together while I was getting to know him. Another whole entry could be written about my relationship with Jim!)

“Oh, of course,” she would exclaim, squeezing my hands. “And I told you that you should have been a preacher!” she laughed.

Now, given June’s views on organized religion, I was never quite sure how to take that so I decided she meant it in an “if/then”, nothing-but-complimentary sort of way. Such was her style.

I wish I had my notes from that night at MCCT, if only to see how I might edit them today. I do remember I spoke before June and she responded to my words with warmth, sincerity and gratitude and drew parallels between the work of the church’s AIDS ministry and community efforts such as Casey House.

Now I will attempt to cobble together my memories. (Somewhere there are pictures of me with June and some of my friends.)

The evening was special for so many reasons. Not thinking of myself as a public-speaker, I was nervous and excited. However, and I’m sure this was reflected in my remarks, this was an AIDS vigil for friends I had come to know, and others I had not, who had died as clients (although I’m sure that’s not the word that was used) of MCCT’s AIDSCare Ministry of that time.

One of the people honoured that night, with a patch on the quilt, was my other friend Jim whose death in 1994 I made tearful reference, I am sure, when I spoke.

The evening was also the beginning of a very special friendship which continues to this day, long past a time I thought I would ever live to see, given my frail health at the time. AIDSCare, like many AIDS service organizations then and since, had a “buddy program” in which someone with HIV/AIDS (that would be me) was matched up with a volunteer who had offered to be a companion.

That’s my friend Stephen. We had only recently been ‘matched’ by the program coordinators and, prior to this particular evening’s vigil, had not met. In fact that was not to happen until immediately following the service so I had just shared my story, in the customary self-revelatory way that I do, and was now meeting my new ‘buddy’.

We were fast friends and this has been such a gift to me ever since beginning, as it did, when most of my companions were either dead or dying and I had a tough time believing that I would not soon be joining them. Stephen and I started spending every Saturday together chatting, going to movies (lots and lots of movies), or just “hangin’ out”. I’m still so fond of both he and his partner, Byron and their young family of two growing boys. Family life, and my hesitation to intrude, has meant we have not spent as much time together as we used to, but then so much has changed, too, in terms of my life and my health. We have long since dropped the formal relationship of AIDSCare “buddy” and have remained friends, pure and simple.

It began on that evening with June.


2 thoughts on “Remembering June Callwood – and a special evening we shared

  1. jessicagottlieb

    Oh Kenn if I could scoop you up into the worlds biggest hug I think I would right now.

    These remarkable men and women are woven into your life and it’s so difficult when the gift feels taken away.

    You are so tender. And you preaching in a formal setting would have been good. It still would be.

    Preach kindness.

  2. Nice post Ken. Joan was a very special person and for me she embodied the spirit of Canada as I want it to be. And I’m glad that you pointed out that she had a great sense of humor…..although she was often very sad herself. And what a beautiful AIDS buddy story. Those people are special too….

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