Simpson: How we reached out to our dying friend during COVID

It was sad, but gloriously uplifting and moving, to bring our collective love to a man who gave so much to others.

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On Oct. 28, 2020, Geoff Matthews announced on Facebook that he had suffered a mild stroke, and was facing weeks of recovery and treatment at the Ottawa Hospital.

In his usual upbeat fashion, the former journalist assured his friends the stroke wouldn’t stop him from growing his usual facial hair to raise money for Movember, the annual fundraising campaign for prostate cancer research and treatment. Geoff was a prostate cancer survivor and the cause was near and dear to him. A little stroke was not going to deter him from helping others who face the disease.

He was shocked a couple of weeks later to discover that the stroke wasn’t mild after all. Geoff was diagnosed with Stage Four glioblastoma, an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. His doctor ordered 15 rounds of radiation, and told Geoff to get his affairs in order. He only had weeks to live.

If there is anything worse than getting a death sentence, it’s getting a death sentence in the middle of a pandemic, when virtually no one can visit.

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Geoff Matthews. (Photo supplied by Rose Simpson)
Geoff Matthews. (Photo supplied by Rose Simpson) jpg

A socially active, Tim Horton’s-loving man in his early 70s, Geoff normally had trouble sitting still. He was a lively volunteer who brought meals to seniors, sat cats for friends, and spent months in search of the perfect butter tart. He also served as an Elder at the Gloucester Presbyterian Church.

Now he faced the prospect of spending his end of days in isolation on a hospital ward. For days, Geoff underwent rounds of radiation with only visits from his partner, children and his pastor, Denise Allen. He had trouble seeing and reading, and spent hours sitting alone with his own thoughts.

(Geoff) was a lively volunteer who brought meals to seniors, sat cats for friends, and spent months in search of the perfect butter tart.

His best friend, Rick Logan, reached out on Facebook looking for support from the few friends they shared. I got one of the first messages and promised I would contact former members of the National Press Club.  I started the group when the Press Club folded in 2007, after 80 years.)

I first met Geoff at the Press Club more than 40 years ago when he was the national correspondent for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. We didn’t know each other well; we met once in a while over beers on Friday nights and recently reunited with an old friend from Vancouver.

I put together a list and began to contact those whom I was certain knew Geoff from the Hill days, and reached out. Within hours, I received messages from people across the country who asked what they could do to help. I then started a Messenger group so that everyone could get health updates from Rick.

“Phone him,” Rick told the group. “He’s going stir crazy in the hospital and he needs to talk to people.”

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Over the next few days and weeks, Geoff’s phone rang off the hook. He had long talks with friends he hadn’t talked to in decades. Another friend, Judith Yaworsky, asked if he wanted some treats. Geoff put an order in for homemade perogies and cabbage rolls. Judith rolled up her sleeves and spent that afternoon kneading dough and rolling hot meat in cabbage. The next day, Judith delivered the goods.

After Geoff was released from the hospital into palliative care at the Prince of Wales Residence in Nepean, we arranged a group visit. We couldn’t physically be with him so we stood outside in the frigid weather; we waved to him and held up a “Geoff” sign. His out-of-town friends were able to watch it all on Facebook Live, and talk to him over a group chat. Geoff’s son, Rob, tucked his father’s wheelchair under the window, and he managed a wave.

“Geoff is still talking about the outdoor group visit to people calling him,” Rick told us the next day.

Two weeks later, when it was clear that Geoff was getting sicker, we rounded up the gang and did it again. This time, Rob brought him into the dining room on the first floor, where we all got to talk to him, from a distance, wearing masks. He was pale and thin, and his eyes darted back and forth. His voice was weak and his head tilted to one side.

It was sad, but gloriously uplifting and moving, to bring our collective love to a man who gave so much to others. It took all our strength to keep Rick from jumping through the window to hug him.

That was the last time we saw Geoff.  He passed away on Tuesday Feb. 9 in the arms of his devoted family. Rick told us that Geoff was thinking about us the night before he died.

Rose Simpson is an Ottawa writer.

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