Three weeks ago, David Galloway rested on his Victoria Street porch late on a Sunday afternoon, and talked about his friends, how much they meant to him, and how much they were helping him, in his garden, which he loved, and also to stay in his home for what he knew to be his final days.
He died late on another Sunday afternoon just two weeks later, and a few days ago, a small group of those friends of whom he spoke with such love gathered on his porch to talk about how much he had meant to them.
Gary Zanner, Sally Adamson and Virginia Mainprize, three of the many people who were important to David, described a scene of family members and friends who came and went, along with palliative care nurses who popped in regularly, one on her own time, on her way home from work — another person drawn to helping David.
When he could no longer leave his bed to sit on the porch, his friends dragged his hospital bed up to the front window, where he could look out onto the street, and hear the birds singing.
He could also hear the chatter of his friends, who continued to meet on his porch, where they could be close to him.
Zanner, one of those closest to him, says even when his dear friend could no longer communicate, he believes David could hear their conversation, and be comforted by the sounds of their voices.
“The voices would have been soothing,” says Mainprize. “And when we went in to see him, he’d give us a wink.”
“I never got a wink,” jokes Zanner, but then adds, “he did have some time of understanding we were there, I’m sure. How many people get to die at home, surrounded by their friends and family?”
“He died where he wanted to die,” adds Mainprize.
There were issues to be sorted, especially about medication, “but we seemed to figure it out as we went along. The care he received was excellent.”
The professional caregivers gave them a good idea of what to expect, and left them with cell phone numbers for one of his nurses and a doctor to call if needed.
Zanner describes a scene of dozens of people coming and going during the last couple of days, even after David was carried away from the garden he loved so passionately, having fulfilled his wish to die at home, surrounded by those who loved him.
It’s not for everybody, and won’t work in all cases, “but for David,” says Sally, “it worked.”
A landscape horticulturalist, David came to Niagara-on-the-Lake leaving behind a dissolved marriage that led to dissolving his business, a garden centre in Listowell. He had friends here in town, and although he came for a visit, planning to stay a few weeks, that turned into years. He bought his Victoria Street home and immediately began work on his gardens.
He also did work for others, building up a small clientele of people who became his friends. Six years ago, he began a battle with leukaemia, which led to a bone marrow transplant. In February, after his last radiation treatment at the Juravinski Cancer Centre, he was told there were no further options for treatment. The prognosis was three weeks to three months, and plans were made for palliative care to start at home.
His friends began coming regularly to check on him and help him out, mostly in his garden, as he became more reliant on others for the physical labour. He continued to be very involved, working hours every day he could manage, and alongside others who helped with the heavier work. He developed a routine for himself that included pouring his heart and whatever energy he could muster into what he knew to be his final days outside, where he belonged, in his garden.
“Up until five days before he died, he was outside working in his garden,” says Zanner.
By then, he’d had a few falls, and one of his nurses suggested palliative care. David had resisted that, knowing he would only be allowed one visitor because of the pandemic. He said he couldn’t possibly choose — being able to see his friends was much too important to him.
His son Alexander was able to spend time with him, and had left the Victoria Street house about an hour and a half before David died.
He was also able to speak to his daughter, who lives in Nova Scotia, Zanner said.
Apart from his daily naps, his late afternoon rest involved sitting on his front porch, having a glass of wine with friends, and watching the world go by.
He had helped many with their own gardens — that was how they became friends — although Zanner says he met David when he was sitting behind him at St. Mark’s Church.
Sally Adamson and Virginia Mainprize both talk about David’s visions for their gardens, which always seemed to involve bringing them more plants, even though their vision was for fewer plants.
“Once you were his friend, he was always your friend,” says Adamson. “He attracted people to him. No doubt about it.”
“He always made you feel special,” added Mainprize. “He had lists of of things he wanted to do for people, dozens of people.”
He had plants he was determined to pick up for another friend and client, Judy MacLachlan, says Mainprize, listing off the plants he insisted MacLachlan needed for her garden.
“It was the last thing he was able to do for a client,” says Zanner.
And there was the rainbow dogwood he insisted Mainprize needed in her garden. By then he wasn’t well enough to help plant it, but he came the next day to inspect it, she says.
When she first met him, she wanted help minimizing her garden.
“He made it bigger,” she says.
She talks about his friends calling him the Robin Hood of gardens. He was always digging up plants in one friend’s garden if they thought they had more than enough, and planting them in another friend’s garden, where he felt there was an empty spot.
“All of his friends have plants from each other’s gardens,” she says.
They all worried about him falling in his own garden, “but that’s where he was happiest,” says Mainprize.
“The thing that always amazed me,” adds Adamson, “was he had no small thoughts when it came to his garden.”
Nor when it came to hers. When he first saw her back garden, his eyes lit up with the possibilities, she says.
“My poor husband. He’d say, ‘what is he doing?’ He’d consult with us, but he was just being polite. He’d do what he thought was best.”
As a friend, he was generous with his time, and as a gardener, he was generous with his knowledge.
And as a member of the community, he was adamant about supporting local businesses — he felt very strongly about that. Whether it was food for an event or plants for a garden he was looking for, the people whose businesses he supported also became his friends.
But most of all, says Mainprize, “he was a lot of fun to be with. He could always make us laugh.”
When he was at Juravinski, they said, he had so many cards from people, including St. Mark’s parishioners, staff had to come and look. “That made him the big Kahuna at the hospital,” says Zanner.
He tells the story of a woman from Listowell, who saw the story of David in The Local, and came looking for him. She found him by driving down the street and looking for his porch that was on the photo.
“Not too many people have a bicycle hanging on their porch,” says Zanner.
David was well enough to visit, and they started talking about all the people they had in common.
“This porch has become famous,” says Zanner, who loves the old style of front porches where you can sit and watch people walk by.
“I think people who come to NOTL to visit picture themselves sitting on a porch, and end up buying a house here. NOTL has so many well-designed porches, front or wrap-around porches, and you don’t see that any more in other communities.”
The three agree David’s porch is perfect. There’s a large tree on the front lawn, and lots of plants on the porch, with just enough space to see what’s happening on the street. You can call out and talk to passers-by if you feel like it, or you can sit quietly, if you don’t feel like socializing.
They were all quite amazed by another friend of David’s, whom he hadn’t seen for a while, who arrived at the porch the day before he died.
Dianne Nesbitt became an instant friend of David’s in the hospital.
A mother of three, she was admitted to the hospital one evening, in shock, not understanding what was happening, and terrified.
Her husband couldn’t stay — he had to look after the kids, and go to work the next day.
“David was my roommate,” she says. “He was right there beside me from the time they brought me in. I was there for five weeks, and at first, my husband was shuffling work with caring for the girls. I was alone, in shock and scared. That first night, I broke down, and he sat up and talked to me all night. He actually made me laugh. He had such a great spirit. If he hadn’t been there, I don’t know what I would have done. He really was special.”
They ran into each other occasionally after their treatment, and “no matter what he was going through — and what he was going through was hard — he always had a smile on his face. And he could always make me laugh.”
She says he must have found out from one of the nurses that she was having a stem cell transplant, and came to see her.
She was in isolation at that point, but they let him come in to see her, “and we had a little bit of a cry together. He told me they had given him six months at that point. It was heartbreaking to hear.
I thought, this is not fair, that this should happen to such an amazing person. But five minutes later we were laughing together.”
She bumped into him once more after that, “and he had tears in his eyes, happy to see how well I was doing. He was so happy for me.”
Her story gets “pretty weird” after that, she admits.
At a later visit to the hospital, she asked a nurse if she remembered David, and was told he had passed away. This was months ago, and she felt very sad that she hadn’t seen him before he died.
Last week the day before he died, she was sitting in a restaurant having lunch with her husband.
“I ordered deep-fried pickles. They were always a joke between David and I. When we were in the hospital together, we’d go to the cafeteria to have deep-fried pickles. We both loved them, and we’d laugh about that.”
She mentioned to her husband that ordering the pickles reminded her of David, and she wondered whether there had been a celebration of life for him. He picked up the phone to look online, and came across the article in The Local.
“It seemed so strange. I thought how could this make sense. He’s still alive. I said, ‘we have to go and find him, and we have to do it now.’”
They had plans to meet up with friends later in the day, but instead they left the restaurant and drove to NOTL.
Nesbitt said she remembered talking to David about NOTL. She had worked years ago at the Pillar & Post, and she knew he lived nearby. They found Victoria Street, and drove along it until they found the porch with the bicycle.
“I was thinking maybe he’d be on the porch, and I could say hi to him.”
Instead, she found his friends. She talked about how much David had helped her get through a very difficult time, and she wanted him to know she’d come through it.
His sister Carolyn invited her in to sit with David.
“I sat and held his hand, and talked to him. It seemed like he responded with eye movements, and made a little sound. I felt like he knew I was there. I told him I loved him.”
Nesbitt, becoming emotional at the memory, explains that when you go through cancer, you bond with others who experience and understand the emotions you feel, in a way that nobody else can.
“We had this special bond, this strong connection with each other. It’s something not even caregivers can understand.”
As fortunate as she feels having survived, with no further health issues so far, she still has days where she can’t help remembering she had cancer, and feeling some anxiety about it.
“With David, I could talk about anything, and however scary it was, it would always end with a laugh.”
It was his laugh she remembers him for the most — that, and the way he talked about his friends and family.
“He had lists of all he wanted to do for them. He was such a good friend.”
He was a good friend to her, as well, she says. “I’m so glad I was able to spend that time with him.”
His friends talk about wanting to hold a celebration of life for him, but how, or where, is difficult.
For now, his sister Carolyn will look after his ashes, that will remain in a frog until he’s buried — he loved frogs, and had quite a collection given to him by friends.
His ashes will be buried beside family in a cemetery in Exeter, and his NOTL friends hope that at some point before then, they will be able to gather in some way, and toast him on his way.
In the meantime, they toast him from the porch that will always hold good memories of the dear friend they will miss.