The Doc Project·First Person

No weddings and a funeral: How I flopped at being my girlfriend's romantic hero when her mom died

You know how in every romantic movie, there's a scene where the guy drops everything and rushes off to get the girl? Well, in college, Bob Kerr was that guy. And it didn't go so well. Now, 20 years later, Bob is reaching back out to his ex-girlfriend Zoey to find out what she really thought of his bid to win her heart.

A young Bob Kerr tried to be the quintessential leading man, but found himself on the cutting room floor

(Illustration by Ben Shannon and Althea Manasan/CBC)

This story was first published in November 2020.

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You know how in every romantic movie, there's a part where the guy drops everything and rushes off to get the girl? 

Well, when I was 22, I was this guy. Except for me, the credits didn't roll the moment I got the girl. My movie kept on going — and it didn't end well.

I was in my last year of college in Toronto when I met Zoey. She was cute, quirky and kind. We started dating near the end of the school year, and it was a whirlwind. We spent every waking (and sleeping) moment together. 

Then after a lengthy three weeks of courtship, Zoey and I found an apartment in downtown Toronto and moved in together.

Bob Kerr and Zoey Onn, circa 2002. (Submitted by Bob Kerr)

Unfortunately, our fledgling romance intertwined with tragedy when Zoey's mother was diagnosed with cancer. Zoey left to be with her family in Blyth, a small theatre village in Southwestern Ontario.

I'd call Zoey every other night to check in and see how she was doing, how her Mom was. One night I called, and her father answered. He gave me the news: Zoey's mom had a week to live. I hung up, shocked.

I scooped up my car keys and without telling anyone — least of all Zoey — I got in my '95 Dodge Spirit and drove two hours west to Blyth.

The grand romantic gesture

It was around midnight when I got there. Zoey's brother was up and got her out of bed. Zoey was stunned to find me there. "You're a keeper," she said. 

Good move, me!

Zoey and I went to her sister Cappy's boyfriend's apartment and spent the night there. When I woke up the next morning, Zoey was gone. I got the horrible news: Her mom passed away.

We drove to the family's house where we found Zoey, her sister, brother and father busily mourning. Phone calls were made in between crying spells. Photo albums draped the dining table. Old family movies played on the VCR.

Soon, family members began to pour in. Some favoured me with curious looks. I became increasingly aware that I had become a part of something intimate, like a theatre-goer who has somehow stumbled onto the stage and must now play a part that didn't exist in the script.

Enter Don.

The (other) knight in shining armour

Don was Zoey's ex-boyfriend. They had been together for years and Zoey's mother loved him. He was tanned, rugged and very muscular. I, on the the other hand, was pale, smooth and as frail as a dried-up tree leaf. My cheeks burned with jealous shame.

Don started helping out around the yard, hauling gravel around, chopping wood — generally hunking it up. I decided to also make myself useful... by doing dishes and washing windows. As I wiped Windex off the glass, I looked through and found Don, sweaty, slicing thick cords of wood with an axe. "Go away, Don," I thought, bitterly.

(Ben Shannon and Althea Manasan/CBC)

The long, long drive

Zoey's grandmother arrived from British Columbia. She didn't talk much, though her eyes did plenty for her. Who the hell are you? they asked. I felt myself cowering from her, despite the fact that she seemed frail and world-weary. Zoey and her family doted on her. 

One morning, Zoey asked if I could pick up some dry-cleaning in Stratford. I perked up, seeing the 45-minute drive as a chance to get out of the house and clear my head. But then Zoey  suggested that I take her grandmother with me. I nodded, reluctantly. So much for head clearing.

Three of us helped Zoey's grandmother into the car and we set course to Stratford. Zoey's grandmother was not much for conversation. So I tried to drum some up.

"Not a bad day out, huh?"

Silence.

"Do you want the window up or down?"

"Up."

"How about the radio? You want the radio on?"

"No."

It was the longest 90 minutes of my life.

(Ben Shannon and Althea Manasan/CBC)

When we returned, Zoey asked her grandmother how the drive was. "He was fishing for compliments the whole time," she grumbled.

I attended the funeral, sitting alone. I was miserable. I could tell Zoey was pulling away. Thinking of our time together and how it was fleeting, I cried in my pew. I imagined some of the family members looking at each other and saying, "Who is that guy?"

Shortly after attending the burial, I drove back to Toronto to our sweltering apartment. Weeks later, Zoey broke up with me.

Bob Kerr and Zoey Onn, talking in summer 2020 via Zoom for the first time in 20 years. Zoey's wearing her stepson's gaming headphones. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)

Eighteen years later, I called Zoey up to recount this weird period of our lives. Zoey didn't remember much, but admitted that during the time, she had checked out of the relationship. 

"It wasn't what I wanted anymore," she said. "I didn't know the difference between being in love and just loving someone."

The surprising thing is Zoey doesn't remember much of that time or my part in it. It makes sense; when someone close to you dies, it's hard to keep track of things when your world is imploding. I would learn this hard lesson 13 years later when my dad lost his battle with cancer.

"I desperately wanted to come to your dad's funeral," Zoey told me on our recent call. "But I thought in my head, 'What are you doing? You're not a part of his life anymore."

At that time, Lara and I had been dating for two and a half months, and Lara showed up at my Dad's Celebration of Life, unannounced. She was nervous about being there. It brought me back to how nervous I was when I showed up at Zoey's doorstep.

"So it's a good thing, I didn't show up," Zoey said. "I would have been Don."

Maybe… but Lara is also better at yard work than I am. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some windows that need wiping down.

About the Producer

Bob Kerr has written and performed for hit television comedy shows such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Comedy Inc., The Nikki Payne Funtime Show, Hotbox, and Satisfaction to name a few. The web series he co-created, "But I'm Chris Jericho," won a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Writing In A Web Series. Bob has also won a Canadian Screen Award and a Canadian Comedy Award for Best Writing in a Variety or Sketch Comedy Program or Series for his work on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Bob is the only one in his friend circle that still watches Survivor.

This documentary was co-produced by Jennifer Warren. It was edited by Acey Rowe.

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