This tribute deals with mental illness and suicide and could be triggering to some.
Herb Nelson conjured things from nothing, produced smiles on all who knew him, and was a magician with words, music and mechanical things. But his world of magic was also the domain of demons.
At the age of 60, on Monday, Feb. 11, Nelson made himself disappear, forever.
Ask 100 people to describe the larger-than-life artist and bon vivant, and you would get 100 versions of “creative genius.”
“There was nothing he couldn’t do, nobody he couldn’t help,” says Nelson’s very close and very devastated friend, Klaus Reif. “He was an absolute genius in music, art, he created sculptures. When I was losing my head over something with a car, I would call Herb — he would look at the car, touch something, and it was perfect.”
“He was a brilliant guy,” says another close and shattered friend, Penner MacKay. “Herb’s mind worked faster than anyone’s.”
“We lost somebody who had a wild spirit and creative streak that expressed itself in many different ways,” says friend and former bandmate Hank Wissenz.
Nelson’s careers have run the gamut. He was by turns a set-builder, welder, electrician, mechanic, artist, musician, handyman, entrepreneur, and, most recently, transport truck driver. But “when he had had enough, he’d had enough,” says Eva Kessels, Reif’s partner and another friend of Nelson’s. After several years behind the scenes — literally, in that he was building them — at the Shaw Festival, Nelson surprised everyone (and no one) by leaving a very respected position.
MacKay says, “Herb was known as the ‘wizard of the scene shop’ at the Shaw. He could do anything.”
Anything to do with hydraulics or pneumatics Herb was all over it — creating moving sets was his thing,” says Wissenz.
His many, many friends are left wondering why Nelson decided he had had enough of life.
A teary Reif — who says he felt Nelson was more of a brother than a friend — says pensively, “He suffered so badly. He always felt he was lonely, even though he had so many friends.”
“I knew he was lonely,” says Michelle Dundee, Nelson’s closest friend for the last eight years. “There were nights when we’d all know he had too much to drink and was crying out to all of us. He would text, text, text.”
“With depression, sometimes it’s hard to help yourself,” says Reif of the isolation caused by mental illness.
“Maybe his light banter and quick wit were a cover for his depression, like Robin Williams,” says Wissenz.
Candidly, Reif explains he accompanied Nelson to some counselling sessions after his friend had been diagnosed at age 50 with clinical depression and/or bipolar disorder. “It’s one thing to diagnose depression; it’s another thing to try to treat it,” he says. “They gave him so many pills, he was on a rollercoaster trying to find the right one.”
Dundee confirms this. “He was bound by his depression,” she says. “He didn’t like his meds. He would say, ‘They make me feel nothing, and I want to feel things.’”
“Pills or no pills, you just can’t solve depression,” says Reif. He goes on to describe his and Nelson’s involvement in the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride last September, a global event to raise awareness of prostate cancer and — ironically — male suicide prevention. “It was cold — so cold — and there was no way we weren’t going to do this,” says Reif. Thirty-eight finely-dressed motorcyclists cruised along the Niagara River Parkway and ended the ride with a party behind Reif’s winery, entertained by MacKay and Nelson. “It was like magic,” says Reif, with a child’s wonder.
His eyes shine with delight as he describes Nelson’s musical talent. “He played music, but couldn’t read notes. Can you imagine how complicated that is?” He goes on to describe a song the musicians improvised at the event, calling it “The Parkway Funk.” As Reif plays a video on his phone, Kessels says, swaying her body, “You can feel the curves of the Parkway when you listen to it.” She pauses. “We lost a good one.”
MacKay describes playing music with Nelson as “two minds, one thought. We’d look at each other and just know.”
The Niagara chapter of the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride raised $7,737. A glance at the website shows the top three riders; Nelson was number three.
Kessels remembers great joy. “His happiest times were when he was under a car or playing music,” she says with a smile.
Nelson also seemed to have found joy working for Ted van der Zalm and his Wells of Hope organization. Dundee says, “Ted was the most important person to Herb in the world. He thought Ted was a saint.” Dundee and Nelson followed van der Zalm to Guatemala for the first time last year, and had only just returned from their most recent trip before Nelson died.
“Herb completely gave of himself to Ted,” Dundee says. “Ted was his spiritual mentor. If Ted called, Herb was there. ‘Anything you need, Ted.’” She concurs: “Ted is my greatest mentor.”
Dundee says Nelson was doing mechanical work in Guatemala, helping with the drilling of wells and the building of bridges, houses and schools. His death “hit Ted hard; he had a very special place in his heart for Herb. Like with Klaus, it was a brotherhood.”
A larger-than-life person leaves a larger-than-life-sized hole when he decides to go. This very substantial person left a legacy as well. “I learned so much from him,” says Dundee. “I’m glad he was such a vibrant person that he won’t go away.”
“We’re going to miss him for a long time,” says MacKay. “He just impacted so many lives in so many ways. Everywhere you look, he built that, he made that — he built a lot of stuff all over town.”
Kessels also says, “Not many places you can look and not see Herb.”
The light and dark, the ups and downs, the good and bad all existed in Nelson, in extremes. “Herbie filled a room,” says Kessels. “He was smart, articulate, worldly.”
“He was a teacher, a mentor,” says Reif.
“There was so much to him,” says Dundee. “He was the best person I ever knew.”
“He could play music, take your car apart and put it back together, race your car, build and make anything,” says MacKay. “He made a porch, a metal gate — Herb looked at metal as being malleable, like a piece of wood — he could weld, could fix electronics, and in his 50s he got a licence to drive semis,” he continues. “And Herb was just such a beautiful friend.”
These people who were closest to Nelson also reflect on the flip side, the darkness. “I’ve watched him suffer,” says MacKay. “One minute he’s crying, the next he’s laughing—he was the poster child for this s**t.”
Reflecting the complexity of her friend, Dundee says, “Suicide was always a possibility.” She also says, “I’ll never forget how joyous he was.” And, “I know he’s not suffering anymore.”
“He was a genius walking the line of sanity, veering slightly from one side to the other,” says Reif, weaving his hand around an imaginary line. “Maybe he’d just had enough of this. He’s gone to live in a different dimension.”
Nelson wrote many songs, one that became his signature: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.
“No it’s not,” says Reif, looking at the ceiling. “Look what you did.”
“There were times when I knew he was close to the edge. We texted and texted until he would say ‘everything’s gonna be okay.’ But this time, nothing,” says Reif, in tears again. “He had stuff planned with cars, with Ron [van der Zalm] and the greenhouse, with Penner. He was making plans. There was no indication… . It’s still hard to find the right words,” says the stalwart German businessman, overcome with emotion.
“It’s easier to deal with death if someone dies of old age, even of an accident, but this takes it to a whole new dimension,” says Reif. “As a society we need to look at ourselves: Why so much suicide? I’m asking myself. We need to ask ourselves.”
Dundee concludes: “How we love is our measure. Herb loved well.”
A celebration of Nelson’s life is tentatively planned for June.
If you are depressed, in distress or in a crisis, call the Distress Centre at 905-688-3711. If you are in danger, call 911 immediately. If you need urgent medical or psychiatric attention, go to the the nearest hospital.