In Memoriam: Damian Firth, A Hidden Treasure (May 16, 1941-May 15, 2013)

by Jack McLean

May 26, 2013

Hear are some prescient words from one of Damian’s poems, one of the last that he wrote — on March 15th to be precise. I read them at the request of my cousin, poet and author, Heather Cardin:

A haze of memories clouding the sudden dawn
plucking at my sleep
A flurry of voices calling from some limbo half forgotten
a place I cannot catch except in dreams and retrospect
I shall not bid them farewell
Until I too haunt the half light
and dwell in another’s reminiscence.

I first met Damian at the Jack Purcell gym. As near as I can remember, it was about 10 years ago. I remember the moment like it was just his morning. He was walking on the treadmill getting some cardio. Within minutes we were talking about Heidegger’s philosophy of being and disagreeing about some aspect of it. I said to myself that here was someone with whom I could have interesting exchanges. I didn’t know, of course, when I met him that day at Jack Purcell that he was also a very skilled poet.

It was that type of good chemistry that sometimes just happens between people, be they men and men, men and women, or women and women. His sudden death hit me much harder than I can say or could have imagined. The explanation lay too close at hand for me to see. Damian was so much a part of my life: a virtual neighbour, a coffee buddy, a telephone friend, a confidant, and a respected member of our writers’ group, and a long-standing attendee at Baha’i gatherings—all in all—a friend, spiritual brother and colleague.

Our serious conversations were often punctuated by raucous laughter. Some jokes would make me blush, although I am no prude, and I am sure would make a few of you blush, the result of his having spent too many years in bars and rooming houses before God got hold of him and turned his life around. We would be discussing something transcendental, when suddenly, feeling ill-at-ease because of too much gravitas, Damian would say: “Well, Jack, did you hear the one about the ….” and off he would go with another joke. I sometimes responded with the comment that he was a strange mixture of the sacred and the profane. Sometimes when he called, he would say jokingly: “Are you there, oh holy one?” And I would respond: “I am here el toro.” Such was our friendship.

I remember when I first saw Damian with that monk-like shaved head of his and that rather flat, serious expression that he looked like a bit of a scary character. I first wondered if he were a member of a biker gang. But if a first impression can be wrong, mine was 150 percent mistaken. David Erickson, who has been known to come up with some gems worth quoting, has said that Damian was a hidden treasure. He was indeed. While that saying in its original context is part of an Islamic tradition attributed to Muhammad, referring to God, it can no doubt also be applied to human beings.

Damian represented what “respectable” society might consider to be a marginal person: a man who never married and had no children, a mentally challenged individual, who because of a disability, was not able to work full-time, although he did work one day a week. But for those who are able to look beyond social status and outward appearances, and who get to know the person inside, you discovered a human being who was rich in human resources: a man who was full of the knowledge of literature and philosophy, who was acquainted with the spirituality of several world religions, who had memorized scores of pithy sayings and lines from poems and plays, who wrote nostalgic, evocative, imagist poems, full of allusions to past memories, passing time, our changing world, and ever-encroaching death. His deft lines were couched in hauntingly beautiful natural imagery, some of which you will hear tonight.

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak to you about Damian’s spiritual transformation, for it was the essential part of his life, the part that is now bearing fruit in realms that we cannot yet see. I have already referred to his considerable mental challenges, challenges that he faced with great courage, and to a considerable extent, to his credit, overcame. He never knew his father, an aviator named Kevin Flynn, who was shot down by ground-fire while doing aerial reconnaissance in an unarmed plane in 1941. Damian was born a month after his father’s death. Damian’s mother remarried another pilot during the war, and both he and his half-brother Michael were raised in military fashion. He was once-upon-a-time a down-and-out alcoholic who had lived on the street, and who had beggared the means of his survival.

But somehow, about 20 years ago, the Hand of God touched him on the shoulder and steered him in a different direction. It was just in time, as it turned out, for his liver was verging on dysfunction, and too many of his friends were dying around him of acute alcoholic poisoning, or were living out the severe impairment, and semi-madness that comes with wet brain syndrome. The moment that Damian decided that he preferred life to a disgraceful death, was the moment that marked the beginning of his sobriety, and his slow but steady transformation: the beginning of a lifelong spiritual search, the beginning of the spiritual practice of daily meditation, the beginning of a life devoted to learning about high thoughts and culture. He was always eager to attend another lecture to learn something new.

There were four groups with whom Damian felt at home. The first group was the Ottawa Creative Writers’ Group. The second group consisted of the mentally or physically challenged folks living on the margins of society, who need the welcome services of the caring staff at the Jack Purcell Community Centre. The third group was his friends at the gym. The fourth group was the Baha’i community. I have no doubt that during his long association with the Baha’i friends that Damian felt welcomed, at ease, and loved. I know that the Baha’is were for him a haven and refuge. Did Damian consider himself to be a Baha’i? Well, no, not officially. He was a friend of the Baha’i Faith, a friend in the best sense of the word. But I am sure that by the end of his life, he considered the Baha’is to be his home spiritual community, albeit with that little space of independence that he needed and cherished. I feel so grateful that he was able to learn about the progressive teachings of the Baha’i revelation before he suddenly left this world.

Before closing, I must say something about Damian’s beloved and talented Nina who predeceased him by a couple of years. For Damian, it was true love, unconditional love. Nina and Damian had once been a couple, but even when the relationship ended, he remained true. It didn’t matter to him that she went from boyfriend to boyfriend. He loved her in spite of it all. He was there when she needed him. He grieved deeply when she sent him away and cut off all contact. I felt his pain. It made him depressed and for a time hopeless. He was devastated when she suddenly died. I remember all too well the day he called and left a message with such urgent anxiety in his voice. He never got over it. And if Damian is not here today, I am sure it is in part because he wanted to be with his beloved Nina again. He told me that after Nina died, one morning he heard her voice in the room clearly and distinctly say these words: “I’m sorry.”

The day after I learned of Damian’s death, I had a dream of him, a dream that came through fits and starts of a night punctuated by grief. In that dream, I saw that Nina was spoon-feeding Damian, a symbol, no doubt that she was helping him to adjust to the unfamiliar conditions of his new, spiritual home. But I am sure that before long Damian will be eating full-course meals with great relish, and that he will be greatly enjoying his new found freedom in the boundless spaces of paradise. Only this morning I had another dream of Damian. He showed, as we stood face to face, that he was happy — very happy. He has now found the joy that eluded him for most of his life.

I cannot find the heart to say good-bye to such a dear friend. So to you my brother, I will only say auf wiedersehen, au revoir. Till we meet again.

    Jack McLean, The Ottawa Baha’i Centre (May 26, 2013)

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