Photo: Credit: Nigel Dickson
Love or Die Trying
In an excerpt from his memoir about life, death and addiction, Toronto writer Bob Ramsay, 72, explains how he and his wife, Dr. Jean Marmoreo, 79, found 50 new friends when their social circle started shrinking / BY Kim Honey / September 10th, 2021
In his engrossing new memoir, Love or Die Trying, Toronto writer, blogger and speaker series host Bob Ramsay recounts his childhood of “privilege” in Edmonton, the son of a florist whose parents saved enough to send him to private school and then to Princeton University. By 40, Ramsay was a hopeless cocaine addict when he met Dr. Jean Marmoreo, a recently divorced family physician with three children, who swept him off his feet. After a stint in rehab, he moved in with Marmoreo, and the fear of losing her helped him stay clean. The soul mates could not be more different: Ramsay, 72, loves a huge social gathering where he can flit from person to person, while Marmoreo, 79, grew up on an Ontario farm where there was lots of hard work and not so much talk. In this excerpt from the book, Ramsay talks about aging well and how the couple decided to expand their shrinking social circle by starting Killer Young People’s Dinners.
In my zeal to connect people I will sometimes skip the preliminaries and go directly to the climax. I may be at a reception, a concert, even a movie and spot two people who I know share a great love for, let’s say John le Carré, or kayaking, or kidney transplants. I will cross the room and grab one of them and say, “Follow me. It’s important.”
They reluctantly do. I’ll drag them over to meet another friend, and sometimes not even a friend, but just someone I met ten minutes earlier, and I’ll say, “You two read Jared Diamond and are lawyers. You should talk.” I’ll then introduce them and leave. True, they’ll stand there a little gobsmacked, but they’ll soon start connecting via the little information they have about each other. Lawyers and Jared Diamond. More often than not, those two slim vectors will turn into a deep web.
Once, I ran into a woman I vaguely knew from business at a board of trade lunch. She was in her early sixties and had cut her hair almost to her scalp.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s an amazing haircut.”
“I had a brain tumour, so the surgeons had to shave my head.”
But rather than leave it at that, I said, “Do you know Jane
Somerville? She has a brain tumour, and they shaved her head, too. You should get together.”
Yup. That bad.
Yes, part of this is an age-and-stage thing. Part of it is that, like pretty much everyone’s, my friends share my values. But part of it also is that they’d better reach for a deeper connection.
I don’t think I have a passion for deep connection with people. I think I have an addiction for deep connection. Did it start when I was both starved for affection and then overwhelmed by it when I was growing up? Who knows? At this stage, it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that I’ve become good at something I love doing, and the more I know people and the more people I know, the deeper my own connections get.
Like any self-respecting addict, I can get too easily drunk, even on people and bringing them together. The price of my addiction is exhaustion at some level and the fear of not being able to stop.
While Jean can be very social, she’s also able to operate pretty much on her own steam. She loves her patients. She lives the torments and delights they go through. But she’s much more private than I am and is happy to remain so.
The fact is, most nights Jean and I are at home. We’ll have dinner and then bury our heads in our computers: me catching up on the day’s emails and writing whatever short assignment that I can get done before I start to mentally shut down, Jean filling out forms and writing notes for her patients who want medically assisted death — a hard, exacting protocol that can involve the patient’s families, their hospital, and even the coroner, who pronounces on the validity of every medically assisted death in Ontario. Best to get an opinion in advance, Jean’s learned. In this field of medicine, getting one afterward has a different set of consequences.
We actually follow this routine most nights, despite my reputation for always been out at concerts and parties.
One night in 2019, Jean looked up from her computer and said, “You know what, honey. We’re losing touch with people.”
I looked up.
“What did you say?”
She repeated her claim. She’ll occasionally do this, commenting out of the blue on what, in this case, was clearly something she’d just read online.
“We’re losing touch?”
That was preposterous. Was she dementing?
“Yes, we’re losing touch with people, and especially young people.
We only know old people.”
“I don’t really think that’s true, honey.”
Where was she going with this crazy notion?
“Who do we know who’s under forty?”
“Uh … our grandkids?”
She was not amused.
“So why don’t you have a dinner party just for young people?”
By “you,” she meant “we.”
“Well, we have dinner all the time for your speakers. But the focus is always on them. Why don’t we invite ten young people to our condo for dinner and the focus will be on them?”
And thus was born the Killer Young People’s Dinners.
We’ve had five KYPDs over the past year. They were all wonderful in a strange and exhilarating way. We learned that men and women between thirty and forty need no lessons from us in making connections, except our impetus to bring them together. They also drink much more than friends our age.
Best of all, we have fifty new friends we never had before. With lots of invitations to enter their world that’s just not open to people of our age and stage. And a heads-up on how much they’re like their hosts who are thirty to forty years older than they are — in the eternals like making your way in the world, being accepted, having kids, paying the rent, etc.
But also, and much more important, we learned how very different these young people are, as well — in rejecting the values that drove us so incessantly when we were that age, like buying a home, driving a car, polluting the environment, and believing that tomorrow would always be better than today.
As James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, said when he was eighty-five, “I’m often asked how to stay young at heart. I reply: ‘Avoid old people, at all costs.’”
Love or Die Trying: How I Lost It All, Died, and Came Back for Love was published by Dundurn Press on June 29.