As Halifax’s Layton Reid faced terminal cancer, he archived his life for his infant son—author Dakshana Bascaramurty documented his journey and they became close friendsW
hen Dakshana Bascaramurty was planning her wedding in 2012, she sought a Halifax photographer to capture the happy occasion. She came across Layton Reid’s website and knew he was the perfect fit.
His refreshing perspective—unusual, funny, and slightly mocking—captured her attention. They built a friendship as the Globe and Mail journalist gravitated to his unique sense of humour and free spirit. He loved to travel and have new adventures. “He was very curious and empathetic and you could see that in the pictures that he took,” she says. “As we became closer, I saw the way he evolved.”
In 2013, Reid got the diagnosis of terminal cancer. At that point, he was married and about to become a father. Bascaramurty saw a unique storytelling opportunity, and what began as a long feature for a newspaper evolved into her first book, This is Not the End of Me (McClelland & Stewart).
The book chronicles Reid’s three-year journey and the transformation from fighting to live to building a lasting legacy for his son Finn.
“The first part of the book… was very much spent assessing how he would stay alive for Finn,” Bascaramurty says. “It was all about ‘let me make these sacrifices in terms of doing this very involved and taxing alternative therapy now so that I will live and I can see Finn growing up, graduating high school and going on to be an adult in the world.’ When the cancer spread to his brain and he saw the writing on the wall, his focus very much shifted and it all became ‘what can I do now to shape how he understands me.'”
Bascaramurty recalls how Reid created a Finn Box, containing mementos from his upbringing that played a significant role in his own life. He asked people to post Facebook video clips and messages of how they would remember him while he recorded brief video diaries and wrote many letters.
“He wanted a real range of stories, not just ones that elevated him to sainthood but embarrassing stories or stories that show the full complexity of who he was,” she says. “He became committed to this idea that he wanted Finn to know who he was after he was gone. It was both a beautiful thing to witness in this and tragic because of spending so much time on this. I think he so badly wanted to show his son not only who his father was, but to also see him as part of a flawed human being and to maybe get some understanding of who Finn was from seeing what his dad was like.”
Penning this story was hard. Bascaramurty had to wear two different hats: journalist and close friend. “He was unusually an open book, and he wasn’t worried about being portrayed in an unflattering light,” she recalls. “I don’t know what it was about me that made him trust me so quickly and so fully, but I am so grateful for it. When I was checking in with him for the story, I was also checking in because I cared about him a lot.”
Friends worried that the emotionally charged project would be difficult for Bascaramurty to handle. At first, she told them that she could take it.
As time went on, she became deeply involved in Reid’s life. While she knew what the ending of Reid’s journey was going to be, a part of her was still in denial. Reality hit when his wife Candace sent Bascaramurty a texted in 2017 informing her that he had died. In the weeks after, she came to Halifax for the memorial service and realized the daily routine that she came to know for the past three years was gone.
“I had this strange instinct to call him or email him and tell him about the experience of going to his service as bizarre as that sounds,” she says. “I was so used to talking to him so, so often. It was a relationship that was unlike any other that I’ve had because so much of it was based on these Skype calls or these written communications, it was harder to adjust to this new reality that I wouldn’t have that anymore. It took a couple of weeks, if not a couple of months, to wrap my head around that.”
Dr. Simon Sherry is a Halifax psychologist specializing in depression. He explains that sort of reaction is normal. Each person finds their own way to deal with such grief but losing someone at a young age to a terminal illness is particularly taxing.
“It’s important to realize that grief is a normal reaction, and most people cope effectively with their grief and their loss,” he explains. “Humans have a natural ability to overcome grief.
Sometimes there are blocks and barriers to overcoming grief, but people are resilient, are resourceful, and can cope with even painful grief and loss.”
Pandemic public health restrictions called into focus the importance of such coping tools. “COVID-19 has disrupted our usual rituals of grieving by undermining events like funerals,” Sherry says. “At the same time, it’s important to return to some of those individual aspects of dying and grief, involving the reaching of acceptance. So even when we’re cut off from our usual rituals of dying and grief, there are still ways to move forward backed by our natural ability to overcome grief and loss.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic looming large, Bascaramurty believes people are thinking more about their mortality. They wonder about the time they have left, how they want to spend it, and what they’ll leave behind.
“He was denied a lot and there was a lot to mourn in his life before he was gone,” she says. “It was a really beautiful thing to witness, especially in the last year and a half of his life. When he accepted it: there was very little time left in his life for him. He realized there could be pleasure in the tiny, everyday things. It was very interesting to see his perspective; a lot of us could gain a lot from following suit and not making this about things denied but the things we still have.”
While writing the book Bascaramurty experienced two major life events, being pregnant with her first child and her father’s death.
“I was resurfacing Layton’s writing about becoming a father, how that had changed him, and about the things he wanted for Finn, all of that was on my mind as I was having this baby growing inside of me, ” she says. “It made me think about parenthood and legacy. Being so close to Layton at the end of his life, I learned a lot about how people treat people who were dying. Death is on their minds each day. The people who love them don’t need to add to that and force them to dwell any more than they already do.”
Bascaramurty hopes once people read the book, they will have a different perspective on mortality. “I want people not to be afraid about talking about death and analyze the way they treat people in their lives who are sick or are dying, see the value that they still have,” she says. “And see that this shouldn’t be the only thing that defines them.”