Farewell Pete

Last updated 13:33 13/01/2014

On Christmas eve my friend, Peter ''Pete/Pepe'' Douglas died of an invasive cancer.

I first met him in 2002 when then editor Paul Thompson hired him as a sub-editor at The Press where he worked until he had a stroke in 2004.

On his first day at The Press he rolled over my foot in his wheelchair after I got in his way. I was apologetic. He made a blonde joke and sped away laughing. Our friendship was sealed.

Diagnosed with the disease osteogenesis imperfecta, his parents were told soon after he was born that he would not live more than a few weeks. He died of an invasive cancer aged 35.

Pete was tiny in stature but had a big presence.

The last time I saw him we shared sushi and he talked about an occasion when he wasn't allowed to read books while in a care facility.

''I'm in a wheelchair so they talked to me as if I can't read and as if I was deaf. They spoke slowly and they wouldn't let me read books, it was demeaning.''

He said that when his ''wheels fell off'' he wanted me to write that down and share it. Job done, Pete.

His closest friend at The Press was a girl from the United States called Ginni Phillips. She returned home many years ago but she and Peter remained close.

Recently I tracked Ginni down on Facebook to ask her to contribute a few words about Peter for this blog.

We agree that he is easy to write about and yet so hard to write about at the same time but Ginni's beautiful words echo my own sentiments.

Ginni writes:

I was a young college graduate who had decided to work overseas one more time before I "settled down". Prior to my move to New Zealand I had been working at The American Red Cross in Tulsa, OK following the 9/11 attacks in New York City.  It was about a year and a half after the 9/11 attacks that I felt it was time for me to go on my last adventure before having to really "grow up".  

New Zealand it was. Through an agency I was placed at The Press. I had seen Peter working with the editors but I hadn't approached him - he approached me. So confidently and kind he just strolled (rolled) right up and introduced himself and politely asked questions about me - my name, where was I from - those sorts of things.  He welcomed me to the team and it didn't take long for us to become friends.  I believe later it came out that he was in fact hitting on me rather than just being a nice guy. LOL.

Peter's confidence was just what I needed to get over any anxiousness in being with him. I was young and my friends up to this time were all able-bodied.

I knew that disabled people were the same as me and my friends on the inside but I hadn't had the chance to interact with someone disabled yet and as much as we know they're really just the same as you and me they are, in fact, not the same.  It's like the elephant in the room - there were questions in my mind that I wanted to ask right away but didn't want to offend.  "What's your story Peter?  Why are you in a wheelchair?  Why are you so small?  Can I offer you a warm touch, or will that hurt you?..."  We all go through that awkward period with someone new who is DIFFERENT. Able bodied or not - if we're different from each other there's a sense to approach with some caution.

I've found that the more we just trump the awkwardness and just say ''hi'' we really are all the same on the inside (we just want to be accepted and known) and the ways we're not the same can help us all grow as humans in the matters of empathy, respect, knowledge and understanding.  It's a beautiful thing... and Peter was my first teacher.

As our friendship grew he and I had several conversations about being different and the way he was treated by others vs the way I was treated.

People he didn't know, had never met, would buy him drinks and (this one still amazes me) just give him money.  Just walk right up and wish him well and give him some money.I said "Peter!!  You can't take their money!!  That's crazy!"  And he said: "If they want to give me money then why not!"  I think in some ways he thought it was a little funny - a sort of "well, aren't you the sucker!" and other ways I think he may have understood their sentiment in that they wish him well and it was an offering to him in a way.

There is a sense of guilt on the part of an able bodied person when they see someone who has disabilities to overcome. Perhaps like a survivors' guilt in a way.

It was always very interesting to hang out with Peter to see what others may say or do in his presence.  Some days I think he rather enjoyed the "social experiment" (for lack of a better phrase) but other days he just wished he could be "normal".

Peter and I had a standing "date" each week and that was to watch Survivor together. We'd get Pizza and hang out in his room watching each week to see the drama unfold. I'd show up early, or stay late, and he'd show me things on the internet that he thought was interesting, or we'd talk about life - our dreams and hopes and aspirations.He wanted to write a book about his life. He hadn't written the book because he didn't want it to be edited. As he was a sub-editor I found that ironic but he was adamant that whoever was going to edit his story wouldn't really be able to understand his perspective and therefore he wanted it to be HIS words, and his words only. In his own way of telling about his life.

As cheery as Peter was there really was some anger and disappointment deep down regarding his disease. I remember being really caught off guard at this because he was almost always laughing, smiling, ready for some wild night out or a good cup of coffee and conversation.  But why shouldn't he be angry? Why shouldn't he be disappointed? I can't honestly say I'd not be the same. He had struggles that we can't fully appreciate unless we're in his shoes. But what I loved most about Peter is although he had those hurts and disappointments and SO many obstacles to overcome he continually pulled himself up by the bootstraps and made the best of it.

He really did have the best laugh...his whole chest would heave with laughter and it was contagious. I loved laughing with him. Sometimes his laugh would make me laugh, which would make him laugh more, which would make me laugh more, which would make him laugh more... and our bellies would hurt from laughing until we just couldn't laugh anymore.I've not laughed like that with someone in a long, long time.

Once I went deep sea fishing off the coast of Kaikoura and brought home some fresh fish. I invited my friends over for a big meal that I spent several hours preparing - I was so excited to share the experience with everyone.In the end Peter was the only one who showed up and he didn't even like fish. He was such a good friend to do what he said he'd do. We had a lovely evening, just the two of us - again lost in conversation. As disappointed as I was that what was to be a large meal with several I will always cherish that it turned out to be just Peter and I. He even tried the fish and he said he liked it.

We had lunch dates together, Survivor dates, coffee dates, and dancing. I just LOVE that Peter would go dancing with me. I'm a better person for having known Peter. He taught me more than anyone else ever has. He was an amazing young man, a true friend and I already miss him very much.

Peter Robert Douglas, born Dunedin, May 15, 1978; died Christchurch, December 24, 2013.

- The Press


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