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February 20, 2009

  • Robbin
  • imageI posted this note to Facebook the morning I discovered my dear friend Robbin Burry died way too young of cancer. Robbin was a big fan of my column when I was writing it regularly and I thought she would be tickled if I included my note here…


    One time Robbin and myself were auditing a class at the graduate school we worked at. The professor was fond of icebreakers at the start of every week and this particular week he asked about our favourite television program. Robbin was somewhat abashed, but not too much, to admit that her favourite show was Dog The Bounty Hunter. She talked a little bit about the show and then concluded, “It’s even educational. It’s on A&E.”

    Pause. I turn to Robbin and say, “Robbin… the E stands for Entertainment not Education.

    Robbin erupted into laughter. Over the next day or so, she retold that story to others, with almost the same amount of laughter every time. She was generous with laughter, even when the joke was on her.

    It worked both ways. A couple of months later, I went up to Ottawa to spend time with my girlfriend (now my wife) for Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t admitted to anyone I was seeing her at the time, so I said (because it was a busy time at work) I was helping a friend move. Robbin saw through that immediately. “How was ‘moving’?” she asked me the next day—only my prose cannot convey how ironic, and how suggestive, she managed to make the word ‘moving’ sound. When I went public with my relationship, she never let me forget that time I helped a ‘friend’ ‘move’. I can still hear her laughter.

    Robbin and I spent a lot of time together over the two years I worked at the Institute for Christian Studies. She was at first receptionist and admin assistant for the department I was in, then she became academic assistant and registrar. We hung out a lot together because we had a similar sense of humour and the same people and things annoyed us. More often than not around 11:45 one of us would call the other and have this conversation:

    “Ein Stein’s?”
    “Yeah, okay.”

    Ein Stein’s was the pub in the basement of the building ICS was based. We frequently decamped there, often with our colleagues Ansley or Natasja (or some students) in tow and order really bad pub food and grouse about work or gossip about students, or she’d talk about her kids, Devon and Desirea, or I’d talk about my non-existent social life. She’d encourage me to go out with her friends (I think she wanted to fix me up).

    “Come on. It’ll be great. We play cleaveage ball.”
    “Cleavage ball?”
    “Yeah, we move a melon ball using our breasts.”

    She did that because she loved to make me blush. And she succeeded every time.

    Robbin lived to shock people. Not in a bad way, just in a way that mixed things up. And a Dutch Calvinist graduate school gave her ample opportunity. A student once invited us to a Halloween Party. She told people she was coming with a twonie taped to her forehead and a sign saying “All you can eat for $2”.

    There was more blushing. From even more people this time. And she laughed even more.

    As much as Robbin loved to tease and shock, she loved people even more. She played Agony Aunt to the student body, dispensing wisdom, relational advice and genuine affection when she could. The students treated Robbin and myself as one of the gang. We both loved that. Robbin kept talking about how one night she’d have everyone over to her place for a good old-fashioned Newfoundland night-in with screech. It never quite happened—though I wish now that it did—but I’d like to think we more than made up for it with other get-togethers.

    One of the biggest things Robbin did, I think, reminded students and faculty at a graduate school for philosophy to not be full of themselves as academics tend to be. You didn’t put on airs around Robbin. I think one of her best contributions was that she kept people real. And, in spite of her protestations to the contrary, she was a smart cookie herself. I remember the class we audited together, an introduction to biblical studies, she struggled with the concepts—she once told me “My mind continues to be blown to bits by people who know too much!”—but by the end of the course she was becoming more and more intrigued by what she would do a paper about. As she did, this paper seemed to grow and expand into something the size of a graduate thesis. I don’t think she ever wrote it, which was a shame because I remember thinking it was good. She volunteered—or was ‘volun-told’, I can’t remember which—to speak in chapel once. She lost her nerve and had me read her notes. It was very good.

    In my life, I have met few, if any, people who were as loyal as Robbin was. If she believed in you, she’d do anything up to and including standing in the middle of the road for you. While I worked at ICS, a couple of disgruntled employees attempted to ferment dissent in the ranks around a number of issues. Robbin was appalled by this, not because she was a supporter of management by any means (talking with her about why management got extra vacation days demonstrated this amply) but because she knew the particular managers the disgruntled staff were rallying against and knew in her heart they were doing the best they could. And she made that view known. There is a spot in a meeting room at 229 College Street where things will not grow anymore.

    Robbin demonstrated this loyalty to me personally. One day in May 2005, I got called out of lunch at Ein Stein’s with Robbin and was sent upstairs to meet with the President and was informed I was being laid off. I went back to my office and tried to absorb the news. An hour later Robbin showed up. She was in tears. She had been called into a meeting where she was told the news of the layoffs and she informed all present, I gather, that she was not impressed. Actually, I think she said it a little stronger than that. There is another spot in a meeting room at 229 College street where things will not grow.

    A couple of days later I came and packed up my things. I gave Robbin my desk chair. Robbin asked me for the nameplate to my door.

    “Why do you want that?” I asked.
    “I’m going to put it on the back of your chair.” She told me. “Because I want people to know what they did and who they got rid of.”

    I don’t think my nameplate stayed on the chair for long (I doubt the adhesive stuck to the leather) but certainly it was long enough for her to tell one co-worker—who suggested some time later that it might be time to take it off—that it wasn’t.

    It was the sweetest gesture I think anyone has ever made for me.

    After ICS I kept in touch with Robbin—she was the only person to know I was going to propose to my wife—but as often happens in life, less and less. It became something of a running joke that I would come to get-togethers with former students when they came to Toronto and Robbin would say she was coming and, for various reasons, Robbin couldn’t make it. This went on for the past couple of years. The last time was when a student from our time together at ICS finally defended his thesis last summer. She found out I was there at Ein Stein’s and said she’d come. An hour passed. I finally called her back.

    “You suck!” I joked.
    “Devon has the car. I’m sorry.” And then she laughed that awesome laugh.

    I found out Robbin had cancer in September—she sent me a note via Facebook where she said “I am trying to let the important people in my life know. I want to be the one to tell them even if I can’t must the strength to talk on the phone.” and concluded her note with “How is Ottawa treating you other than the bad pad thai????” I wanted to try and see her. But I was now in Ottawa and when I was in Toronto she was in chemo, and at Christmas things didn’t quite work out and I thought. “I’m sure we’ll find the time.”

    How wrong I was.

    Robbin was larger than life. She was brash, she was direct, she was honest, she was mischievous, she was smart, she was not afraid to tell you where things stood, she was fun.

    She was larger than life because she was full of life.

    I miss her so much.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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