Bidding adieu to an old friend

A long-time friend and worker at the Fort Frances Times passed away last Tuesday. He was a person who had a heart of gold and his arms were never too short to take in another family member in need.
Most of his life he had a spirit of optimism. He also seemed to live a life of tragedy that seldom kept him down.
I sort of grew up with Darrel Whitefield. His family returned to Fort Frances in the early 1960s, when his father returned to the Times as a pressman after spending time in the western provinces.
Darrel often would be a substitute carrier when another carrier was ill or away on holidays. Back then, all carriers had to pick up their papers at the newspaper office. Those from Robert Moore School would bustle down back alleys and along Scott Street to pick up their papers at the Times building (located where the Canada Customs’ facilities now sit).
We were part of that gaggle of young boys who hustled to the paper after school.
A few years later when I worked at the newspaper on weekends and summer holidays, we would tease one another.
Darrel dropped out of school shortly after his 16th birthday and began his apprenticeship under his father, Reg, to become a pressman at the Fort Frances Times. Sadly, it was around that time he discovered he had an unquenching thirst for alcohol, which was to be a demon for the rest of his life.
He became that successful pressman under the tutelage of his father. Many never knew that Darrel had one poor eye and really could only see out of one eye.
To get press registration right, and colour correct, is difficult with good eyesight. Having only sight in one eye is an extreme hardship to overcome. Yet that disability never held him back.
He eventually left Fort Frances and travelled west with his trade to Alberta. The alcohol demon followed him there. One day he woke up in a Calgary hospital with a huge bandage on his neck. He learned how lucky he was to be alive from the nurses and doctors who treated him.
He had no knowledge of how he had come to be in the hospital—nor of the circumstances of his injury. He had been found lying on the street, with his neck cut open.
He recovered from the injury and joined AA.
I have no idea of the will power and drive it takes to overcome addiction, but Darrel persevered. He then chose to return to Fort Frances and begin afresh.
At the newspaper, when someone celebrates a birthday, they bring cake or goodies for the rest of the staff to enjoy and celebrate the occasion. Darrel never celebrated his birthday after he came back to the newspaper. Instead, on the anniversary of his sobriety, we all celebrated that day with him.
He always believed it was his most important achievement—something he was forever proud of.
Darrel was married to Cecile Big George, and together they raised her younger children, her grandchildren, and many nephews and nieces. The couple didn’t live in a big house, but the home was never too small for any of his adopted children and grandchildren.
He took great pride in their achievements and followed their progress through school, always promoting their need to finish high school—something he wished later in life that he had done.
Evenings or weekends, one often would find Darrel in rich conversation in one of the restaurants surrounded with many of his friends that he had made. He particularly enjoyed the round table in the corner of Robin’s. With a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he would be in animated discussion.
With the smoking ban, those friends and conversations were relegated to cars and to bars.
He had enjoyed his road trips and cruising in his car on evenings and weekends. Those trips took him across Canada and the United States. At one point, he owned a big Cadillac that he just loved and he kept it motoring long after it should have been taken off the road.
On weekends, the car would be loaded with his adopted family and they would travel to pow-wows across the area.
Darrel enjoyed his tobacco and was never able to kick that habit, although he made a valiant effort hoping he could make his body whole enough to have his back operated on.
He had developed a severe back degeneration problem in his early 50s. It may have been heredity or perhaps it was a result of a lot of abuse he had inflicted on himself in his earlier years.
He was told he was going to have to live in pain for the remainder of his life. He attended pain management clinics and, over time, the pain became more and more severe. In the end, only the pain-deadening drugs made living tolerable.
He loved to come to work and chose that over sitting at home on disability. The number of hours he spent at work depended on how well he felt on a day-to-day basis.
At the same time, his marriage dissolved and he lost his home and car to debt. It dramatically changed his life. He became separated from many of the children he had helped raise.
The freedom to travel and to cruise was taken away with the loss of his vehicle. The loss of his home made him dependent on others.
He may have fallen back into bad habits. Often the painkillers blurred his abilities. His health deteriorated. He stopped eating well. He lost weight. Then last Tuesday, he didn’t wake up.
I could dwell on the tragedies in his life, but the real Darrel lived a life fulfilled, with friends, family, and achievements. The real Darrel lived a life of hope and love.

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