by Jack McLean
His grieving spouse Wynne knew him best of all. Others knew him much better than I — those who lived in his community or worked with him professionally. Peter was one of those individuals who over some four and a half decades wove in and out of my life. But when I recollect now the strands of my various encounters with him, I realize that a fine pattern that I will always remember and admire, one that has formed my appreciation of the rare human being that Pete was, has been spun. The words of songstress Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi (1970) still ring true. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Peter was a character. He burst the bounds of those usual, polite but pleasant social encounters we share with most other friends. A medical doctor, he had a fertile mind that excelled in the normally incompatible fields of medical science, literature and music. If that were not enough, he also ran marathon races. Well heeled in earlier runs, later in life he covered the distance in bare feet. He wrote fantasy novels, as thick as bricks, under his unlikely nom de plume, Haji van Chang. He edited professional journals, composed nothing less than an actual pop-opera late in life, and lived to see it performed, sang in a church choir, read philosophy and kept abreast of science. His father, a professional writer, passed down his literary gene to his son. A Russian-American, his sire changed his name when he emigrated to the “great Republic of the West.” Peter remained imprinted with his European background for the rest of his life.
His was an intriguing face that drew your gaze. The soul of the man beckoned you behind the mask. The frank, facial features, the broad, slightly flared nose, the high forehead were definitely Slavic. At times, the clear, round, alert blue eyes seemed to twinkle, as if he were enjoying a private moment, especially when he was on the verge or in the midst of an emerging intellectual or spiritual insight. A tall man, he reminded me of a Russian nobleman, who was no doubt complex, but who possessed at the same time the child-like simplicity of an elf. I can imagine that he sometimes had his brooding moments.
He spoke a little German, Russian and French. German was useful for both opera and philosophy. We used to amuse ourselves in banter, sometimes trading phrases in French and German. He had a keen appreciation for what the French call “general culture.” One’s culture générale referred to familiarity with the musical, intellectual and fine arts. If it is a duty in life to develop one’s “general culture,” Peter never flinched nor failed in that duty.
Not that cultural development was a duty. Pete relished the arts. What might be a duty or a bore for some, was for him a joy, a living stream that nourished him with new insights, high ideals and aesthetic and ethical considerations. His love of the arts kept his life fresh and fair. But the fact that he signed his novels Haji van Chang indicated that for all his seriousness, and nobility of soul, Peter took neither himself nor life too seriously. His sense of humour was subtle, wry and ironic. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh out loud, but his humour was always working unconventionally — sometimes to your disadvantage.
Although I never felt his anger, Peter could be irascible, especially, I’m told, when he was hungry. Once my conscience coupled with a hurt sense of pride, impelled me to take issue with someone he obviously admired. It was one those battles that finally fades away and seems unimportant now, but at the time, I just had to do it — at least so I told myself — for reasons of intellectual honesty. I gave my justification, but Peter did not approve. My openness was no advantage: “You mean you did that?” was his rejoinder. I did not make an issue of it, and it never spoiled our friendship.
Some opinions he held and defended dogmatically. We had several conversations about the validity of alternative medicine and homeopathy. But Peter could not be moved, despite my best arguments. For him, medicine was science, not “the medical arts,” as that noble profession was once called. The minute, active ingredients in homeopathic remedies could not possibly affect one’s organism and restore it to health. He was convinced it was the placebo effect. He stood by what he felt was the solid evidence of allopathic medicine.
My first memory of Peter is still as clear as sunshine on a bright day. We met 42 years ago at Beaulac, a property in the hilly Laurentians, not far from Rawdon, Quebec, about 60 kilometres north of Montreal. Long gone the way of progress, the “facilities” had been donated to the Bahá’í community and used for summer and winter schools. We made our introductions late one summer afternoon, standing in the field outside the farmhouse, where seniors Bill and Priscilla Waugh used to work so hard to keep us all healthy and happy as we enjoyed our courses — just as they kept us in line with their no-nonsense attitude and strong work ethic. To my best recollection, I was 25 years old. Peter must have been 43. What I recall from that conversation was that he was a medical doctor newly arrived from the United States. It was the beginning of a long but desultory friendship.
Later, when Peter and Wynne moved to Ottawa, he did double-duty working as associate-editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Alta Vista Drive, while serving on the editorial board of the fledgling Journal of Bahá’í Studies located in the Association for Bahá’í Studies building on the University of Ottawa campus where it still stands. Peter was the only person on the board who had professional editorial experience. Managing editor, Christine Zerbinis, whose solid competence helped steer the Journal successfully for twenty years, was grateful for Peter’s hands-on, practical experience.
It was just one of a number of mentorship roles that Peter played throughout his lifetime. While Peter and Christine managed the Journal, with the assistance of a skeleton staff and academic advisory board, they were able to publish four issues a year consistently, a marvel compared to other journals who did no less but enjoyed fuller resources. Those were easily the most productive years of JBS.
For this friend at least, the best was reserved for last. It was during the past decade, when he was heading into his twilight years, that I had the pleasure of getting to know Peter better, thanks to some earnest exchanges and social moments. He read an early draft of my A Celestial Burning: A Selective Study of the Writings of Shoghi Effendi (2012) and was very encouraging in his evaluation. While he was never lavish in his praise, he made it clear that my in-depth study was worthy of publication and the attention of intelligent readers. While his standards were high, both he and Wynne always remained generous in their praise. More than one email told me how much they enjoyed my weekly responses on the Religion and Ethics page of the Ottawa Citizen. In the autumn of 2012, at a fireside in a private home in Almonte, the subject of which was the writings of Shoghi Effendi, Pete introduced me. It was not a long introduction, but then I didn’t expect one. It was not the place to stand on ceremony. It was enough that he said I did a good tafsír (commentary). During the discussion, he expressed his views with unusual frankness. It was not unknown for him to cause the odd little shock.
Kindness and generosity of heart were a hallmark of Peter’s large “Russian heart.” Sometimes when he came to town from their country home in Lanark county, he would call in advance and say that he would like to visit or get together for dinner or coffee. Most often Peter would take the bill. He allowed me only once to return the favour. Our last meal was at the Lemon Grass on Elgin Street only months ago. We sat next to the window looking on Elgin Street, chatting as we ate, when a strange, random occurrence happened. A street person suddenly appeared at the window just opposite Peter and began shouting nonsense wildly at him. Peter scarcely took notice and shrugged it off.
I recall a few years ago, during a large Bahá’í Regional Conference in Toronto, I felt particularly tired one evening. Peter immediately took the hotel room keys from his pocket, held them up and said: “Here, go and have rest in my room.” A while later, he knocked on the door and there he was. We had a brief conversation and I left.
Peter did not curry anyone’s favour, and he was very much his own man. Unlike some people who crave the limelight, he did not feel the need to cultivate opportunities to appear in public so that he might expound his views and receive the adulation of others. He had no sense of entitlement, other than what he had earned by dint of hard work. He needed no pulpit from which to preach, but he remained faithful to his God and to his covenant with Him to his last breath, serving Him in all the ways that He knew best. He lived fully until he died. Wynne’s gnomic comment, made after Pete’s passing, requires reflection. “Living with Pete, she said, “was like hanging onto the tail of comet.” Comets are heavenly bodies that are unusually bright: the tail is light, and it moves fast. Try to catch one.
Pete had a stroke on November 4th, the same day that Shoghi Effendi left this world behind. He died peacefully four days later on November 8th. Although he did not regain consciousness, he remained aware, squeezing Wynne’s hand from his hospital bed. He died while receiving the demonstrable expressions of love and care from his loving wife Wynne, and a few close friends. He was 85 years old. Intuition told me that Peter would live to 90, but I was wrong. Regardless of our vain imaginings, Muhammad says in the Koran that the moment of your death is fixed by God. God’s wisdom was at work in Peter’s relatively brief passing. Thankfully, he did not have to linger long in pain, or face in his old age what surely would have been a long and difficult rehabilitation or virtual incapacity.
Although it was late at night when I read the notice of his passing, I decided to phone a friend of Peter’s to inform her of his passing. Only seconds into the conversation, I suddenly began tearing up, voice breaking. I cried my way through the announcement. I was surprised by my own reaction. Peter was not family, yet it must be that in some real sense he was. When I had regained my composure, later in the evening, I was able to say a prayer for the departed.
That night as I turned out the light, and settled down to sleep, I asked God, as I sometimes do, for a sign. I asked God to reveal to me what state Peter was in; what his condition might be. A serene but pensive dream revealed itself that night. It unfolded in two brief scenes. I realize now that these dreams were only intimations, mere clues of the beginning of a journey, signs that were limited to the measure of my capacity in the earthly realm that I still inhabit. In the first dream, highly symbolic as most dreams are, I found myself standing on a street in a sunny land. I stood before a house in what appeared to be a Mediterranean country. I looked up to a balcony that rose above my head. I saw that the entire railing of the overhang was decorated with a rich profusion of multi-coloured, tropical flowers. Those flowers were announcing a festive event. In the next scene, I had a closer look, although I was not allowed to enter. I stood at the gate of an outdoor, upstairs patio, not far from the sea, and looked over to where a small but dedicated party of quietly serene people were moving about, preparing for the reception of a guest of honour. They seemed deeply thoughtful as they prepared, oblivious to anything else, as if they were at prayer. They thought only of their sacred task, the welcoming of another soul to the realm they inhabited.
It was a cold, windy, but mostly sunny, November 13th day, when about 50 mourners gathered to lay Peter to rest on the hill of the sparse, Roman Catholic cemetery in the rural village of Lanark, some 80 kilometres southwest of Ottawa. Despite her grief, Wynne stood by the gravesite, holding together, and directing the final ceremony. At the appropriate moment, she stepped forward and placed over the casket a gorgeous, Persian, tightly woven, brown, multi-hued tapestry, showing the Arabic invocation, “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha!” (O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious!). Then friend Sandy approached and placed a small picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in its engraved picture stand beside the Greatest Name. Susan Tamas of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada read a letter of condolence that outlined some of Peter’s many contributions to Bahá’í life. Prayers and readings followed. During the program, a sudden gust of wind blew ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s picture over, and Sandy hurried to replace it. Old friend of the Morgan’s, accomplished artist Joyce Devlin, balancing herself with her cane, read the prayer in a voice breaking with emotion, “From the Sweet Scented Streams of Thine Eternity.” A man whom I did not know read in a dignified voice the congregational Prayer for the Dead. It was not a long ceremony, and music played continuously in the background. I was moved most by the gentle repetition of the song “Allah’u’Abha” that played in the background.
When the program ended, Wynne encouraged us to approach and touch the casket or place a flower to wish Peter “God’s Speed”. As the friends approached, I placed both hands on the coffin. After the mortal remains had been lowered into their resting-place, I lingered a moment and looked down to see two, lonely, white carnations resting on the walnut casket. Then we turned and made for the home of the venerable Beth and John Kerr-Wilson in nearby Balderson, to share memories of Peter and to enjoy what can only be called perfect hospitality. In Perth this July, Peter’s favourite month, there will be a memorial during which we will remember him and sing some songs from his pop-opera “Our Town.”
It is the mark of any great soul that his of her association with you has left you richer, wiser, more loving for the experience. To be the cause of another’s enrichment is no mean thing. In one sense, no one could ask for more. Pete’s riches will live on in the hearts of those who know and love him. When God called him, Haji van Chang made at last the final pilgrimage to the shrine in the land of his heart’s desire. There, sublime worlds are unfolding before the eyes of the blessed, the vision of which those of us who remain here cannot yet imagine.
- Jack McLean (Ottawa)