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Remembering the life of Wayne Westfall

Writer and painter Wayne Westfall, who passed away on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020 after electing medically-assisted death. Submitted photo.

On Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, The Villanelles had our last poetry group meeting with beloved member Wayne Westfall. On Sunday, Jan. 12 at 2 p.m. he left this world on his own terms after spending nearly 40 years as a quadriplegic.

I didn’t know Wayne so much as a painter, but as a poet. I first met him in 2010 when I joined a writing group that met once a month at Wayne’s house on Barrie Street. We would bring copies of our poems and critique them into something workable. All members of our group have gone on to publish many fantastic books. Insert Brilliance was often what we said when we didn’t know how to fix something, but knew it needed a change. Wayne was our Insert Brilliance. Despite his physical limitations, his mind was always active, imaginative, and oh, his humour! When we asked why he had chosen January 12 as the day he would like to pass, he said, “Well, if I waited until after February, I might be tempted by the sun to stay, and then I received a notice saying that Windows 7 would no longer be supported after January 20. So before January 20 it was!” Humorous yes, but also terribly profound. Wayne was often bed-bound, and his window to the wider world was his computer.

Born on August 15, 1948 in Sarnia, Ontario, and raised in Point Edward, Ontario, Wayne would go on to attend Western University, graduating with a degree in Chemistry in 1968. After university, Wayne travelled with CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas), teaching in Sierra Leone. After two years, he travelled throughout India, Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia, where he ran out of money and recouped his losses by teaching Aboriginal children and working in a manganese mine. After such varied travels, Wayne came back to Canada and decided to change his vocation. He enrolled in a Master’s of Social Work at the University of Toronto. After graduating in 1974, Wayne moved to Kingston and worked in the rehabilitation unit at the local psychiatric hospital.

A proponent of the ‘back to the land’ movement, Wayne purchased some property near Delta, Ontario and spent three years building his own log house. After the completion of his house, a restlessness overtook Wayne, and so in June 1979 he went to Alaska. Four days after his arrival, Wayne was declining a mountainside behind a friend when he fell nearly 30 feet and broke his neck. After several years of learning a new way of living in the world, Wayne found his way back to advocacy and social work. He found great meaning in work and giving back to the community. He taught for many years at St. Lawrence College while working with community agencies to make Kingston a more accessible community for those that are not able-bodied. Wayne was driven to help those in need, always a diligent and empathetic listener.

When I first learned of how full a life Wayne had lived before his accident and the how he continued to give back and seek a full life after, I marvelled at the courage and fearlessness of such a person. Wayne often spoke of using meditation to manage a chronic burning nerve pain, a permanent state after his accident. After receiving some encouragement from his sister, also an artist, Wayne took up art classes. He spent nearly 40 hours on his first painting and quickly realized he would have to find his own way of approaching the art form. With limited use of his hands, Wayne came to develop a distinctive and remarkable talent for making original and imaginative paintings. You may have seen some of his paintings around town without realizing they were his. Novel Idea features his painting of their establishment on their gift cards, his own take on our favourite local indie bookseller.

The well-known painting of Kingston’s Novel Idea by Wayne Westfall.

By the time I met Wayne, he was more often bed bound, often fighting infections and unable to travel around town as he did for twenty years in his wheel chair. His good friends Greg and Gini recount how he used to board the ferry in his wheelchair and drive it out to their place on Wolfe Island. Being ill as often as he was meant Wayne eventually developed a resistance to the antibiotics he relied on. In 2019, after a series of hospitalizations, Wayne made the decision to make a request to go through with Medical Assistance in Dying. For some, such a decision can be extremely stressful, but Wayne took to planning how the last few months of his life should look. He focused on visiting with friends and family, completing the paintings for a show he had planned for 2020, and furthered his meditation and spiritual studies. The opportunity to shape his exit from this world allowed Wayne to surround himself with loved ones and a full sense of gratitude.

So it was, on the Eve of 2020, The Villanelles met our brave wanderer for our final poetry meeting. We shared poems about passages. Wayne closed his eyes and listened deeply. He asked about our lives and spoke of how he wished us all the best in our days to come. He gifted us paintings, and we told him we loved him. On January 12, surrounded by his chosen family, Wayne left this world peacefully.

Sunset Softly

sun sets softly at 502 pm
on a clear february day
coal lumps of starlings r tossed high
and strung like lights
in the maple’s frozen branches
 
snow white pastel orange and
blue blankets every surface
hibernation fever attempts
2 break
 
not yet successful


– Wayne Westfall


A member of the Kingstonist Community Editorial Board, Ashley-Elizabeth Best is a Kingstonian of thirteen years. She lives with her partner, two cats, and small library’s worth of books. After studying at Queen’s University, she went on to publish her first book of poetry, Slow States of Collapse with ECW Press. An avid reader and writer, you can find her at one of her local haunts, bookstores and coffee shops, working on her next writing project.

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