At the end of last week, amid the horrific tragedies happening every day in Ukraine, I had to face a smaller, more personal tragedy – the timely though regrettable passing of an exceptional lady who I knew as Pani (Mrs.) Zuk. I say timely because she was 97 years old and left this world content with what she had done with her life and surrounded by a large family that she had raised and nurtured, and who loved her dearly.
We were not directly related, but we considered her part of what we called our Rouyn-Noranda family. We had all been part of a tight-knit Ukrainian community in this remote mining town in northern Quebec back in the fifties and sixties. The town experienced a mining boom after World War II that saw a large influx of Ukrainian immigrants from the refugee camps in Germany who found jobs in the gold and copper mines that flourished in those decades after the war. They built a church and a Ukrainian hall, where they organized a Ridna Shkola (Ukrainian school), a choir, a drama and a dancing group.
The Zuks were close friends with my parents, and my brother, sister and I were frequent playmates with their kids (two daughters and a son). Their oldest daughter Sylvia, who was just two weeks older than I, was a classmate of mine through most of my early years at school. My older brother became the godfather to their youngest child Robert. Mr. Zuk taught at the Ukrainian school, and his wife was active in the cultural and social life of the community. In short, our lives were deeply intertwined, and though we went our separate ways as adults, we always kept in touch and cherished our original friendships.
In that small Ukrainian community of Rouyn-Noranda we got to know each other quite well, and like most communities, it had its fair share of people whose personal qualities were sometimes questionable. Many had been traumatized by war, poverty and no end of challenges, and not everybody was able to deal with their experiences constructively and with equanimity. Some found solace in drink, others became bitter with their fate, and others often took out their frustrations on family and friends.
The Zuks were not of that ilk. One would be hard-pressed to find any fault with the way they lived their lives and related to other people. Love, respect, intelligence, generosity and a dedication to family and community service were their hallmark. At the funeral service this past Saturday, the officiating priest, Father Lazoruk, aptly remarked that the mark of a good Christian is not so much based on whether someone attended church every Sunday or observed all the rituals, but in how that person lived their life and dealt with other people and the world at large. Did they focus on their own wants and needs, or were their priorities more oriented towards helping and serving others? In the case of Pani Zuk, there can be no doubt that her life was dedicated towards her family, her friends, her church and the Ukrainian community that meant so much to her. She was a role model worth emulating and reminded me a lot of my own parents who passed away some decades ago. She was one of the last remaining living members of that Ukrainian community that I grew up in and her passing is in many ways somewhat of a significant milestone for me.
I have been attending my fair share of funerals this past decade, and each one of them makes me contemplate the nature of my own life and what I have or haven’t accomplished. How would I assess the measure of my own life? Have I made the most of my own abilities and opportunities? Have I made the world a better place than what it was when I drew my first breath? Have I made even a small positive contribution towards our civilization’s progress in the grand historical flow of time?
These are all questions that unfortunately most people have little time or inclination to explore to any depth while they are alive. The challenges of daily living, the fast pace of modern existence, and the ever-present pressure to “succeed” in life materialistically, all conspire to keep us running on the treadmill of life, with little time to consider whether our choices and priorities are valid and beneficial in the grand scheme of things. Generally speaking, I think most people live life in an unconscious fashion, giving little thought or consideration as to whether they are going in the right direction, have the right set of values, and what kind of impact their lives are having on the people and world around them.
Professing to be Christian and observing all the “rituals” of Christianity without living a life that truly reflects the essential Christian teachings, is not really living, it is simply existing. Pani Zuk lived a truly Christian life and was as good a role model of that as I have encountered in my life. She will be missed.