What a dying young father taught a Toronto reporter about grappling with loss in her own life
Dakshana Bascaramurty's new book This Is Not the End of Me chronicles her friend's fight with cancer
A Toronto journalist who documented her friend's multi-year journey with cancer, and his efforts to leave behind a legacy for his young son, says she never predicted the experience would help her deal with losing her own father to COVID-19 this year.
"Writing about these last years of Layton's life helped me in this very unexpected way with coping with, you know, all of the grief that came with losing my dad," Dakshana Bascaramurty told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"It was very much informed by ... how I focused those last conversations with Layton."
The Globe and Mail reporter tells the story of Layton Reid's fight with Stage 4 melanoma in her new book This Is Not the End of Me: Lessons on Living from a Dying Man. Reid died in 2017 at the age of 37.
The two met in 2012 when Bascaramurty hired Reid to be her wedding photographer, but developed a friendship that lasted long after they returned to their separate lives in Ontario and Halifax, respectively.
Even before meeting Reid, Bascaramurty said she knew they would have a lot in common.
"He had a very cheeky sense of humour that came through in his photos," she said. "And we just had this instant bond."
After Bascaramurty's wedding, the pair became friends on Facebook, where she kept up with the changes happening in Reid's life. Although Reid had long been a free-spirited traveller, he had recently married his on-again-off-again girlfriend, bought a house, and was also expecting his first child.
I thought, this is just a story about a man who's about to become a father, who's doing this alternative therapy. And it became about so, so much more than that.- Dakshana Bascaramurty
When Reid messaged her and a few of his former clients out of the blue in 2013, Bascaramurty was taken aback to learn he had been diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer. And she was full of questions about what had been happening in his life.
"We started this kind of unexpected friendship and kind of journalist-source relationship where I decided that there was a really interesting story here, and I wanted to tell it," she said.
So she flew to Halifax and embedded herself with Reid and his family, where she planned to chronicle their experience grappling with the photographer's illness.
"At the beginning, I had no idea this would even become a book," Bascaramurty said.
"I thought, this is just a story about a man who's about to become a father, who's doing this alternative therapy. And it became about so, so much more than that."
Entrenched in their world, Bascaramurty found herself observing the most intimate moments of Reid's life with cancer.
She watched as his wife, Candace Weaver, devoted herself to caregiving — preparing juices, supplements and coffee enemas for her husband's gruelling alternative therapy routine, and taking him to appointments while also caring for their son.
Meanwhile, Reid gave himself purpose by toiling away at a project for his son, Finn. Inside a wooden box, he placed mementos — photos he liked, a little music box — that he hoped his son could remember him by someday.
Once a month for the first year after he died, cards would also appear in the mail for his wife. Inside, she would find a quote with a picture — each one a reminder of his support for her during what Reid presumed would be the most difficult time.
But as Bascaramurty spent more time with the family, she noticed how uncomfortable other people were talking to Reid about the fact that he was dying.
Well-meaning people — sometimes friends, sometimes others he hadn't seen in a few years — would try to find the right words to say, but fall flat. Instead, they'd end up unloading their deepest fears about how they'd feel if they were in Reid's shoes.
"He would find himself in the strange position of having to comfort them, because it made them uncomfortable that he was alive now, but he might not be ... the next time that they wanted to talk," Bascaramurty said.
With her journalist cap on, she said she found herself "shutting up a lot" and just listening to what Reid had to say.
He also just wanted to talk, and he just wanted to share what was happening with him without having to manage anybody else's feelings.- Bascaramurty
"I did that just because that's what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to listen," she said.
But, in the process, she said she learned to be a better friend.
"He also just wanted to talk, and he just wanted to share what was happening with him without having to manage anybody else's feelings," Bascaramurty said. "And I think it's so rare that we give people who are seriously ill or who are dying that opportunity."
Losing another father
In the midst of reporting on Reid's story in 2013, Bascaramurty suddenly found herself grappling with the deteriorating health of her own father.
He had a neurological condition and suddenly took a turn for the worse — losing his ability to walk, to read, to speak. Eventually, Bascaramurty's family made the decision to move him to a long-term care home.
Although a lot had changed about her dad after he became sick, Bascaramurty said her time with Reid helped her to still value her father. She continued to visit him — reading him the newspaper, talking to him about the news, telling him what was happening in her own life.
She knew her father had loved to read before he lost his ability to do so, and she had hoped to read her book to him once it was published. But she never got the chance. He contracted COVID-19 this year and died from the disease in April.
Bascaramurty dedicated the book to him.
"Like with Layton, there's a lot of mourning that happens when someone is sick, before they leave the Earth," Bascaramurty said.
"And I really do believe that the last stretch of my dad's life, I chose to spend that time with him in a way that was informed by seeing what Layton had taught me about how we should behave around people who are dying."
It wasn't easy for Reid to accept his own death. But Weaver said she and her husband had hope that something positive would come of his story.
Once he came to terms with the cancer, she said, they learned to enjoy the little moments together more — things as simple as sitting in the warmth of the sun, or holding family close.
"As his time here came to an end, all he said was, 'I just want to be home,'" said Weaver. "He just wanted to be home and spend as much time here with the people that he loved."
Today, Weaver and her son are doing well.
Finn is now seven years old and the spitting image of his father, Weaver said. He's even taken a liking to photography.
And despite being only three when Reid died, Weaver said Finn also remembers some of the moments he shared with his father — like playing with blocks.
In reading Bascaramurty's book, Weaver said she's realized that lots of good has come of it.
"Hopefully [it gives] some hope to people who are going through a similar situation in that, you know, we tried to live as much as we could in the moment," she said.
"Obviously [we have] fond memories of Layton and we miss him. But you know … you can kind of get through a tragic life event like that and come out on the other side and still be OK."
Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.