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Harry's Final Days
This summary of Harry's final days, was compiled during the month of December 2016 The purpose of this summation was in response to many years of questions that I thought might be best answered on Harry's site I decided to try and recall the journey by our family during that emotional period between December 9 through boxing day 1989. I have posted 3 briefs on Harry's FB page but have decided to finish the memoirs here on his FB page as one completed article. For those of you who read the first 3 chapters on FB, you can skip straight to Chapter four and five. Otherwise, you might find it more comprehensive as one complete read.
Harry was admitted to the Queensway hospital on December 9 1989 with what he though was a case of bronchitis. They kept him in for tests and on the 10th the initial diagnosis was thought to be Leukemia. I recall each day vividly and today December 14 1989 which was on a Thursday, the diagnosis was aplastic anemia (a form of bone marrow failure). The plan now was to transport him to Toronto General Hospital in Toronto for Chemo the next day, Friday December 15 1989. I will keep you posted on the day to day events for those that are interested, from here till his untimely demise.
Chapter 2 Updated December 15 2016
Harry was always obsessed with the Christmas Holidays. As far back as I remember, Harry would have his home decorated by early November. That was long before it was common to do so.
I remember when I was a boy of 5 or 6 that Dad would not cut the tree or decorate it until a day or two before Christmas.
Christmas has many memories for me growing up and one in particular was when dad died in 1960 Harry became the man of the house and at the age of 17 he was now responsible for myself just 8 at the time and my mom. I can't image the pressure he must have felt.
Harry set out for Toronto to find work and once he got settled, he arranged for mom and I to move to the city. The date was ironically December 21 1962. We arrived at the little apartment in Long Branch and I felt like a child who had been transported to Disney World. The highways were illuminated making the evening hours seem like daytime while the yellow red and green stop lights made everything seem like a Christmas pageant. The giant snow flakes added to the magic of the event that I would remember to this day.
When we arrived at our new home. I was amazed at the shininess of the ceramic floor in the hallways and the warmth that enveloped the entire building. Never had I experienced such even warmth or lighting. But the biggest surprise was yet to come.
Harry had the tree and apartment decorated with what seemed to be a million coloured bulbs and right beside the tree was a "Fridge" yes a real fridge, stocked full of exotic foods like fresh milk, orange juice, fresh fruits and even chocolate bars. This was not the little house that I was born in on Bell Isle, there was no refrigerator, no running water or bath tub and I slept in a room known as the middle room which was devoid of any lights including windows. Yes this was Disney world to this 8 year old and Harry was responsible for the ticket.
I received a call from the Queensway hospital, on Friday December 15 at 11:AM. It was Harry and he was in a panic, "They are taking me downtown to Toronto General and I don't have any clothes to wear" I was working as a Futures Trader on Bay Street at the time and assured him that I would meet him at the Hospital which was mere blocks away.
My older brother Mike and Elena met me at the hospital on University Ave around 3 pm and we were escorted into a tiny holding room where we found Harry unable to speak due in part to an oxygen mask and possibly medication. The nurse on duty suggested that we let him rest and possibly come back later that evening. Harry motioned for a writing tablet and began to scribble incoherent messages all over the tablet. We still have these papers in the family bible and often try to decipher their contents. Some of the messages included the words, presents, Christmas, and names of family members, It seems as though he was concerned that all of his gifts weren't purchased and thus seemed to be of great concern.
We went out for a meal and upon our return we were met with a doctor who informed us that Harry had been just placed in ICU and put on life support. It was December 15, 27 years ago today at 6PM. How could this be, I spoke with him just hours ago before the ambulance transported him to this hospital in Downtown, Toronto.
Chapter 3 Updated December 20 2016
The date is Saturday December 16 1989, one week since Harry was first admitted with flu like symptoms and our family is together in a small room at the Toronto General awaiting word from the Oncologist regarding a possible start date for Harry’s treatment. Harry’s conditioned had worsened since last week and before any treatment could be started, it was crucial that his condition stabilize.
Harry’s room was very comfortable with seating for about six people at once. The sounds of the pumps beeping and the whirring of the machines that kept Harry alive, filled the room. Ironically it was hypnotic and almost calming.
My thoughts fluctuated from a feeling of hope to anxiety as our thinking in such a time of distress is very limited. We only see hope in a cure and we feel hopeless when we believe that such a cure does not exist.
During my daily visits, I reflected on my positive memories of Harry. The Harry I knew, the Harry that raised me from an 8 year old boy when my father died. The Harry before the Caribou club.
Most of you know Harry as a celebrity or musician, but Harry was much more than that. Harry was a very introverted sincere young man who lived in the shadow of his father, Michael Hibbs. Being one of three boys, Harry was the last to leave home, he found himself thrust into the role of provider of his mother and myself when Mike Hibbs died at the age of just 49.
Harry Hibbs, as anyone that met him will attest, was without a doubt one of the humblest people I’ve ever known. I know it may seem dubious that a seasoned musician, with his own TV show was shy but, I will relay a secret to you the readers.
When Harry moved to Toronto in the summer of 1962 he began work at a factory in Etobicoke and was earning $0.90 cents an hour. Harry rented a 3 bedroom apartment in the west end of Toronto and made it a home for his mother Margaret and myself along with his two sisters.
In December 1967 Harry began a new job. Within the first week, misfortune befell him and Harry had a press fall on him crushing both of his legs. Harry, just 25 at the time, was hospitalized during the entire month of December 1967 and was released in January 1968 albeit with steel pins in both of his legs.
For the next two months Harry convalesced and starting walking with the aid of crutches. It was around this time that a few of Harry’s close friends, suggested that he get out of the house and attend a big Newfoundland dance. Harry had never in his life played before an audience. I remember the day very well as I attended that dance with him. It was in March of 1968 and the massive auditorium was electric as more than 1200 Newfoundlanders packed the room to hear such notables as Dick Nolan and John White.
During intermission, Harry’s friends knowing of his talent suggested that he do a number. The answer was a definite no as Harry was feeling ill equipped and overwhelmed at the mere thought of getting on stage, especially on crutches. After much coaxing, Harry agreed and made his way to the stage where he sat on a chair. I helped him on the stage and knelt beside him holding the microphone to the accordion. With the signal from the band, Harry did what Harry knew how to do. Sounds of “I’se da Bye” echoed through the building from the squeezebox that was loaned to Harry for this his first public performance. That appearance would change his life in the blink of an eye. When Harry finished his tune, the roar of the audience was deafening. More, more, more, they chanted until Harry got the nod that he should indeed do one more..
That was the beginning of the entertainer as most of you know but it was also the beginning of the end of the young man that only close friends and our family knew. You see Harry told me shortly before his death that he didn’t know who he was anymore. He had tried for years to emulate his father, Mike Hibbs as his idol but now he was this fictional character that people could relate to and in Harry they could recall their own memories from their native land that they were forced to leave, through his music.
Truth is, most entertainers that I’ve met over the years and there have been a few, had a life long ambition to become that entertainer, singer, poet or possibly a musician or song writer. The truth be known, Harry Hibbs the son of Michael and Margaret from Bell Island had no such wish. Harry came from a musical family and his only wish was to carry on the tradition of his father and mother by playing and singing at family functions and Christmas parties. The timing of Harry’s encounter that led him to the auditorium that faithful night and the overwhelming need for “music from home”, was the catalyst for the “Newfoundlandia” movement in Ontario.
Harry’s appearance that night by default, appointed him as the representative for “All things Newfoundland” as he was selected by ARC records to eventually record 16 albums, many of which became gold records and later that same year his own TV show which ran for 7 consecutive years on CHCH TV. Yes Harry was the chosen one to comfort the displaced Newfoundlanders abroad. A place where every Newfoundlander could experience the feeling of home any weekend simply by visiting the “Caribou Club,” the “Conceptions Bay” club or the “Galt Newfoundland club”.
Ironically while many found comfort in his music, Harry, in the process, lost himself.
To better explain Harry’s true identity, I think Morty Starr owner of the famous Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, best summed it up. Morty once asked me, “Marty, I like Harry, he does very well for us and I don’t mind paying his fee but I have to ask you one question. Why is it that Harry plays at the Sagamore Hotel ( a local beer hall in West Toronto) for free”.
That’s the Harry Hibbs, our family knew and loved. Harry the musician that just wanted to play. He didn’t ask for recognition, awards, gold records or even money. Harry’s notoriety was dumped in his lap without him even looking for it. Harry was happiest when he was among true friends that wanted a sing song and reminded him of his childhood growing up in Newfoundland at Christmas time. This young man didn’t ask to be a celebrity as a matter of fact he found it very stressful as he didn’t want to disappoint. It was for that reason Harry Hibbs couldn’t say no and for that reason, Harry needed something to help him cope and alcohol eventually became his nemesis.
About 9 pm the Oncologist entered our room for his update. “I’m afraid the news is not good. Harry’s organs are failing and all efforts are proving in vain”. Those words were not what any of the family was prepared for. There was a deadening silence as we knew we were out of options.
Our instructions at this point was to discuss the next step as a family. If Harry’s condition didn’t improve, we needed to come make some hard decisions that we would have to live with for the rest of our lives. We were told that we should go home and discuss the decision but he made it very clear that if Harry were to be taken off life support, that he would not last more than a couple of hours. The possibility of a resuscitation was an option but it was deemed totally selfish as we were informed that if he could come back, it would be for a very short time as his organs were shutting down. How could things go downhill so fast in just 10 short days?
Chapter 4 UPDATED CHRISTMAS DAY 2016
Thursday December 21 the family gathered at the hospital knowing that this would probably be the last time that we would need to do so. I remember that evening very well, mostly because of something that didn't happen. The doctor in charge that day, suggested that each one of us visit privately with Harry to say our good byes after the breathing apparatus was removed from his face. One by one the family took their turn but when it was my time, I couldn't do it. Till today I wish I had but at the time it wasn't happening. I had the same issue in 1975 when my mom died while visiting my sister in Texas. Upon her return to Newfoundland to be buried, I couldn’t bring myself to view her before she was interned. I'm not sure even today whether it was a fear or just something else that prevented me from saying a final goodbye to both of them.
The description from my family that best described their private goodbye was the sense of total peace without the noises of the support system. They likened it to simply being in a peaceful sleep. I remember leaving the hospital around 9 pm as each family member accepted Harry’s passing and returned to their homes. I remember driving along the Expressway and receiving the call from the hospital. It a about 10 PM just a short while after we left his side. Harry had left us, said the comforting voice on the other side of the phone. The one thing that sticks out in my memory was that the snowflakes were unusually large. The next couple of days were a blur as my brother Michael and I made arrangements for Harry's funeral.
Ridley funeral home on the Lakeshore was chosen for Harry's wake. The funeral parlor consisted of three viewing room but ironically during Harry's time from December 22 until boxing day, the other two rooms were empty. The funeral director was quite surprised as he told me it was very unusual that the three rooms were available at one time. This proved to be a good thing as the crowds were very large and more than 1200 people passed through the facility and signed the visitor’s book in the 4 days that Harry was wakened. Harry's music played quietly in the background as guests talked and reminisced.
Christmas day fell on Monday that year and the funeral home was closed as was funeral services. Harry would not be buried until boxing day. Meanwhile, Harry's apartment was decked out for the holidays and the family decided that like all years since dad died, the family party was held at Harry's. The entire family and close friends gathered together and ate dinner and sang songs until well into the evening. Ironically, there was a joyous feeling that Christmas day as memories of Harry were recounted. We respectfully laughed and told stories of years gone by. The best part of the celebrations was the fact that our entire family from all parts of the globe ends were in attendance to celebrate his life. This alone made the Christmas of 1989 a very special celebration.
Boxing Day 1989:
It was a bitter cold day as we congregated at Harry's local church on Royal York Rd for the final services. The church was directly across the street where Harry had just 15 days prior had cancelled his Christmas dance. The procession of cars moved north towards "Queen of Heaven Cemetery" where Harry's remains were interned in a mausoleum.
There was a manger scene in the middle of the mausoleum, reminding us once again that every Christmas, we would vividly recall Harry’s passing.
Once the services were over, we all headed back to that hall across the street from the church where Harry played on many occasions. There the family spent the day chatting with friends and strangers alike coming to terms with the fact that Harry was now just a part of our memory.
Notes: An autopsy revealed a final result of death as being stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. According to the surgeon that performed the autopsy, “it was unlikely that Harry was unaware of his condition”. “You can’t have stage 4 cancer and not be aware of the symptoms”
This simply meant that he suffered in silence for two or more years and didn’t confide in anyone of his symptoms.