Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

MARTIN'S ROOM (continued)

Gradually, Martin forgot everything: how to use the toilet, how to walk, how to stand, how to speak. Martin is a large man, over six feet tall. When he fell, his 200 pounds became dead weight; getting him back on his feet was no easy matter. At different times three of his children — John from his first marriage; Bob, the son he and Joy adopted; and Nicci, their youngest — gave up their lives in San Francisco and Vancouver to look after Martin at home while Joy was at work.

In the courtroom that day, Martin had no idea where he was or why, but Nicci and Joy thought it was important for him to be present. Twenty years after he first initiated legal action, the Supreme Court of Canada awarded him $208,872 plus costs. There were no further appeals although the University of Regina continued to assert that the “Cohnstaedt case” proved how difficult it was to get rid of a faculty member. To which Joy responds, “The fact that they breached two basic principles of university life — due process and academic freedom — seems to have escaped them.”

Joy and all five of Martin’s children (and one of his six grandchildren are gathered on the grounds of West Park Hospital, to celebrate his 80th birthday. Martin sits in a wheelchair and delights in the birds being fed by his daughter Dolores. Those assembled share tributes from friends — including the one from Ursula Franklin — and from former students. Margery Robinson, one of the low-income single mothers he’d helped, wrote that she was glad to have been “one of his students...not in the classroom, but rather in the ‘school of hard knocks’ where the practicality of concepts were tested and not found wanting.” The most moving tribute was written by Nicci. “Dad never wanted to be a burden,” she wrote. “I know that he would rather be dead right now than living as he is. Suicide is common in the last generation on my father’s side. Not only is it common, in some ways it is a mark of honour. I realized that he decided against suicide because of the toll it would take on our family. It took me longer to figure out that his gift to me is his life. If I allowed myself to feel burdened by his living, he would have given his gift in vain. As my Dad has moved further from me, I have somehow felt closer to him. When Dad stopped speaking, I began to hear him.” At one point during the party, Martin said “Joy,” a word he hadn’t spoken in months and has never spoken since.

Martin never talked much about what he’d lived through. His closest friends and his children were unfamiliar with large portions of the story told here. His Quaker faith had taught him to accept whatever life dealt him and to look for the spark of God that was to be found in every human being, even those others might think of as enemies. Difficult though that ideal was, he tried to live up to it.

At some point Martin must have recognized the limits of what one person can do. Among his papers, I found this quotation by William James: “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets...which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”

According to the Talmud there are thirty-six just men and women — tzaddikim — alive at any one time. They are the pillars of society, holding it up. No one knows who they are, not even the tzaddikim themselves. I didn’t know Martin Cohnstaedt when he was well. But when I’m in his room, I feel that I’m in the presence of tzaddik. Even when he’s trying to eat his stuffed cow.

I have lived with Joy Cohnstaedt since September 1998. I wrote this piece so that Martin’s children from his first marriage, the children he and Joy raised together, and my children will know the story of this remarkable man.

This is a slightly altered version of the article that appeared in Toronto Life in October 2000.

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