My brothers and I, we all share his name. Geekiyanage Wijayawardhana. He was born in a small house in a tiny village in Millewa, Sri Lanka, late December 1931, in a room specifically prepared with cow dung as was tradition then (listen to the audio file at the end to get this). And I truly wish you had known him. Those that did… well, let me just tell you a bit about him.
My father was born to an avyuredic doctor and housewife. He would eventually, in a rather roundabout way having worked through a cheeky adolescence, find his way to medical school after graduating from Ananda College in newly independent Sri Lanka. He would sit the medical exam twice, not because he was inept but because he was so tired from studying the first time, he fell asleep. He would finally pass that exam with honours at the top of his class. He married my mother in November 1962 and they celebrated 50 years together in 2012. His entire life was in the public sector serving health institutions in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong. He travelled the world, went to the USSR in the early seventies, to Europe, lived in Liverpool, UK, Australia and further, not to mention dragging wife and kids to live in Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong.
I cannot tell you much about his youth, I was born much later in his life. In many ways, I was an accident and therefore was lucky to witness what he had made of himself rather than the man who was trying to find his way. I’ve heard stories of elephant stampedes, crazy university trips, parties and more. My earliest memory of him is standing at the base of massive Jetavanarama, holding his hand (I was 4 I think) and asking him why trees were growing out of the giant stupa. Rather innocuous, but probably why I feel so attached to the giant stupas of Sri Lanka.
If you knew my father, you were one of many and he cared about each of you deeply. You were family. His circle of friends was unbelievable. He was a born extrovert, a fantastic storyteller, generous to a fault and if there’s one thing he liked, it was a good party. He would be there to help any friend or family member. Many a night he would get up and drive over to a friend or family member to solve whatever medical crisis without complaint. He might never have been rich in the traditional sense, but if you measured wealth by his relationships and how much people cared about him, he was wealthier than almost anyone I know.
The curse of being an immigrant in another country is that you only get to see your parents age from a distance with snippets of short visits sprinkled in for added measure. Over the years my father battled the onset of old-age, sciatica, diabetes, a massive heart attack (whence he famously refused the ambulance) and even a bout of severe dengue fever at age 78. Through all that he continued working and helping to run the University of Kelaniya Medical Centre till November, 2013 at the age of 80. Unfortunately, cancer is not something you can easily battle away. In late November, my father was diagnosed with a massive brain tumour. Such was the love for this man that while waiting for brain surgery to remove the fist-sized mass, so many people crowded his room between 6am and midnight for a solid week, the hospital finally instructed my mother to put a “No Visitors” sign.
His sense of humour is legendary. As he was being pulled into the operating theatre his parting words were “Well, in Sri Lanka sometimes they take off the wrong leg. At least I only have one brain!” He did survive the operation and the congestive heart failure following that. He even made it to mine and Jenna’s wedding a couple months later. In a wheelchair and truly in pain, he gave a speech and forced everyone to get up and sing. That is my last memory seeing him in person and it is a great one. Three weeks later my father has passed away, his body riddled with cancer and likely a resurgent brain tumour. His final words on the phone to me a few nights prior was “I am not doing that great” when I asked him how he was. His speech had slurred, his ability to swallow had been compromised. He passed away peacefully in the early hours of March 5th at a small coconut estate 4 hours north of Colombo with my mother and brother at his side.
I know he was proud of all his sons and our accomplishments and always wished he could have done more for us and our mother. He would always say he wished he had made a lot more money. But he made us enough, we never went hungry or want of anything.
As with all of us, our parents live inside of us. My father will live inside of me and my brothers and it is up to us now to make sure that he is remembered with every action we do. He was a giant of a man and I want you all to know he was very human, very flawed, and to know me or my brothers is to know something of our father. It is because of him that I am a Canadian. How often he would talk about the love he had for Pierre Elliot Trudeau while I was growing up. To him Trudeau was a leader that the world should aspire to. When I came to Canada he said I was coming to the land of Trudeau. He was so proud when I received my Canadian citizenship. I am a Newfoundlander because of my father. His friend who was as close as a family member lived and worked at Memorial University and is a large part of why I went there over Saskatoon. It is because of him that I write, love economics and stock markets, love history, love trains, love old British cars and even climbed Kilimanjaro. It is because of him that I love Guinness.
He truly cared about others’ health both mental and physical. Even while waiting for his operation I witnessed him asking a visitor if the medication he had prescribed was working. Years after he arrived back in Sri Lanka from Hong Kong he would often sit in the small porch in the coconut plantation in rural Sri Lanka and see patients from around the village. Theoretically he practiced medicine for free. One day someone came with a bag of lentils as payment and my father took it. I asked him why he did that; after all this man was poorer than we were. He said: “Never forget. The most precious thing someone has is their pride and dignity. To a proud man, charity is a degradation of his pride and him forever feeling I am his debtor. This man is holding his head high and paying what he can, now he will not owe me anything and he keeps his pride and dignity. That’s worth a bag of lentils.”
My father passed away as he wished: outside of a hospital with pride and dignity and relatively quickly. He always said the day he stopped working was the day he would die. My father died without officially retiring from the University of Kelaniya, I suspect he was still “employed” there.
He hoped, he said, that I would one day write a eulogy that captured his life and a biography from his many diaries. I am sad to write the first and I hope I have done him justice. The biography will be mine or my brother’s pleasure.
I leave you with a recording I made with my dad, my brother Harsha and my niece Panchali a few years ago on Christmas Eve in Sri Lanka. My Dad loved Christmas music and he loved BoneyM. It’s 11 mins and he talks about his birth in 1931 and we sing. It’s a small slice of life with my Dad.
Dr. Geekiyanage Wijayawardhana, MBBS (Ceylon). Born December 1931, Millewa, Sri Lanka. Died March 2013, Wariyapola, Sri Lanka, He is survived by his loving wife of fifty years, who knew him better and has lost more than his sons will ever know. He is also survived by three sons of whom, my brothers, Harsha and Miuru I couldn’t be prouder of. They did everything for my father in the last few months. He is also survived by one grand-daughter who thought he was pure awesome, two wonderful daughters-in-law, three sisters and countless family members. Finally, he is survived by the deeds he accomplished and those that he helped cure, save and changed the lives of on a daily basis. I will miss him, but I know he’s there when I need him, within me and my brothers.