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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mr. Willoughby Part 3 - 2002 to Date

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Don Willoughby. I’m from the west coast, so hopefully you can understand me.” said Don with a wink as he looked out into room of faces. “I came to know Chris when he came to work for me as a junior accountant in 1994. I don’t understand why everyone is giving him a hard time about getting old, but one thing about getting old is that you dwell less and less on it as time goes on. He was a strange fellow back then. Worked very hard and even though he was in his 20’s, he came across as a man in his late 30’s. He had a hard time relating to people at the office. But because of this we became friends and have remained so since. It gives me pleasure to wish both him and his lovely bride many years of happiness together.”

It was October 1, 2016 – over 22 years after he and I first met. Here he was, with his wife Bernice at my third wedding, wishing us well. Although he and Bernice had met and gotten to know all three of my wives, my wedding to Steph was the only one that they attended. As I sat there during his brief speech I was awaiting some embarrassing tale about my time working for him. However, it never came. He later said to me that “what happened in Vancouver should stay in Vancouver.”. I was really touched that he and Bernice came, because for the 10 months leading up to the wedding, I was fairly certain that they would not be able to. It turned out that Don’s nephew had a wedding in Austin Texas that week and in order to make it to ours, they would have to have taken an extra trip up here. But they did make the extra trip and it is a testament to a friendship brought back from the brink of destruction. As I sat at the dinner table listening, my mind wandered off and began to remember how this all came about.

Back in 2007, after my infidelity to Kay came to light, I almost immediately joined a 12-step program for sex addiction. I worked the program hard – attending meetings nearly every night for a month, and then every week for nearly three years; worked all the steps; performed service for the group and so on. The success rate of most 12-step programs is low only because the steps after step three are hard and require a lot of discipline. I’m not sure now that I was ever a sex addict. I do think, as I have alluded to in my other stories, that I was someone who handled my marital problems very badly and engaged in behavior that was clearly wrong. However, my involvement with the program would be responsible for some of the most profound personal growth that I have experienced as an adult.

One of the key steps in the program is step 8, and in this step you are encouraged, with the help of your sponsor, to contact those you have wronged, that you identified in step 4, and to attempt to make amends. Of course, some of the people on your list may no longer be reachable, or may be further harmed by contact. This is why you work this step with the involvement of your sponsor: to help you judge who should be and who should not be contacted.

Anyway, Don was on my list because of the way in which I ended my employment with him all those years ago. He and I had not spoken for nearly 5 years when I e-mailed him in 2008. I can’t quite remember the exact wording of my e-mail, but I remember I was no-holds-barred contrite and apologetic for the way I acted. I did tell him about the addiction and my involvement in the program, but only as information and not to elicit any sympathy. I may even have said so explicitly – I don’t quite remember.  His response was classic Don. He brushed it off, said that he recognized my potential as someone who worked very hard, told me not to worry about what had happened and wished me well. But you could tell that he was happy to have had the acknowledgement. We had no further contact until 2009, when a trip to Vancouver brought us back together.

In 2009 Kay and I decided to start taking separate vacations. The reason was mainly that we both liked different places and different kinds of travel experiences, though in retrospect, this was perhaps the first indication that we were not compatible over the long term.  My destination of choice was Vancouver, where my one of my oldest friends Nicole lives with her husband and two children. With my very busy lifestyle, I never really got a whole week to myself unless I was on vacation, and I was working on a comprehensive study of Nigerian postage stamps at the time. So I came up with the idea to spend one of my four weeks vacation in Vancouver working on my stamps and visiting Nicole and her family. That year, I stayed with my mother out in Mission, which was about an hour outside Vancouver.  I was still actively involved in program at this time, so I decided to contact Don while I was out there and take him out to dinner. I e-mailed Don before I came and said I was coming to town and offered to take him out. He graciously accepted, and while I was there he made the reservations at Gotham Steakhouse in Vancouver.

I remember being very nervous in the bar at Gotham, not quite knowing what to expect as I waited for Don. I hadn’t physically seen him in eight years and I just wasn’t sure what to expect. Eventually he came and greeted me with a handshake and a “Hi old man.”. The dinner was awkward though as one would expect after so many years. We ate the meal, had a quick dessert and parted ways after not having spent much more than an hour and a half together. During the meal I had told Don that I wouldn’t give up on our friendship and had hoped that this could be a new beginning for us. He seemed about as enthusiastic as lieutenant Dan on Forrest Gump, the first time that he saw Forrest after the Vietnam War.  I was glad to have seen him again though, and felt that with persistence on my part, we could form a solid friendship.

We didn’t really have any contact until the next year when I went back to Vancouver for my annual trip. This time I was staying in a hotel downtown. I had again suggested that we do dinner while I was there and he said that this time it was his turn to take me. We met in English Bay at the Fish House and had a lovely meal. This time he was more relaxed and we spoke about the book I was working on for Nigerian stamps and the business that I had started on the side selling stamps. We spent much longer together this time, enjoying wine with dinner and coffee with dessert. He gladly paid the bill and I went on my way feeling like our relationship was definitely on the mend.

The following year in 2011, it was my turn to take him out and he did not hesitate to accept my invitation when I contacted him. By now our two dinners had now morphed into a ritual. This time he suggested we meet in Yaletown at a very upscale oyster bar, whose name escapes me at the moment. The final game of the Stanley Cup was underway between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins and Vancouver was down, but showed some promise.  Dinner was even more relaxed this time, with us ordering and finishing a bottle of wine. The conversation was more personal as well, with me telling Don about Lea’s death just a few months before. The game was on in the restaurant, so we followed it as we ate and we watched as the situation went from bad to worse, and were just finishing dinner and getting ready to have dessert when Vancouver lost the game. As we headed out, Don remarked “I hope people behave themselves this time.”. He was of course referring to the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in which businesses were looted and there was widespread unrest after Vancouver lost to the New York Rangers. I told him that I was sure we wouldn’t see a repeat of 1994.

As we walked up Seymour St. towards Georgia St., we noticed people being rowdy and chanting things like “Burn that truck!” and “Let’s go riot!”. I looked at Don as we walked up and said “I may have spoken too soon”. “Yeah I think so” he said. As we approached Georgia St., we saw an overturned car on fire, right in front of the main post office. There was a group of people surrounding it cheering and clapping. We both knew that we had to get out of there fast. So we sped up and headed over to the Skytrain station where Don shook my hand before descending the stairs. I continued north down to Hastings St. where I waited over an hour for a bus to get back to Nicole’s place in Burnaby where I was staying. I will never forget the sight that greeted me as I got off the bus in Burnaby: looking west down Hastings St. all you could see were plumes of smoke from the many fires that were now burning downtown.

The next year, 2012 was the second last year I would be able to make the annual trip to Vancouver as my marriage to Kay would implode in only a few months time. I was completely unware of this at the time and I booked the trip with great excitement and Don and I decided this time to meet at Bridges restaurant on Granville Island. Again, I stayed with Nicole and toward the end of the week, I made my way down to the restaurant. This time Don suggested we have cocktails as our table wasn’t ready when we got there. My father had passed away a few months before and we talked about that over cocktails and about the troubled relationship I’d had with him, as well as how I had only heard about his death two months after it happened from his oldest friend.  Over dinner he talked about his challenges with the sale of his practice. I talked about my stamp business and how well it was going. He asked me if I could use an investment of $5,000. I was very honoured that he believed in me enough to invest his money in the business. I accepted and immediately began to go to work trying to grow his investment. I was successful, but found that with my work in public accounting I had very little time to devote to the business, so growing Don’s investment was challenging. I saw this quite rightly though as a real turning point in our relationship.

Less than six months after that meeting, my marriage lay in ruins and I was moving out of my family home and focused 100% on rebuilding my life. Soon after I moved out, I met Steph, and we very quickly fell in love. That is the subject of another story for another time though. That summer, my mom was anxious to meet Steph, and her best friend Beth, who was dying wanted to meet her too. So Steph and I took a series of two trips out to Vancouver to meet mom and also my friend Nicole. We went at the same time of year that I would normally have gone on my trips out west. So I contacted Don after we decided to go and made arrangements to see him again for dinner. We decided to meet at Bridges again, but this time I brought Steph with me. He was a little less comfortable given that he was meeting Steph for the first time, but he did manage to crack a few jokes and overall the dinner went well. We did discuss his investment and how I had managed to do with it, and he asked Steph a few questions about where she was from and what she did.  Steph held her own and I was very glad to have introduced her, though she always made a great impression on anyone that I introduced her to.

It was after this dinner that I saw the greatest change in our relationship. Don began to call me every few months to check on me and see how things were going. One night while driving home after a particularly difficult day at the office I got a call from Don. He had caught me on a day when I was really tired of public accounting. I told him how I felt and then he completely shocked me with what he said next. He asked me if I wanted to leave public accounting to become a full time stamp dealer. I told him that I was actually thinking of doing so and would have to prepare a business plan, but figured that with $200,000 of additional funding, I would have more than enough to become full time. He said that he would be willing to increase his investment to $50,000 and thought he could find 2 or 3 more people who would do the same thing. I was completely speechless. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For the next few nights I couldn’t sleep as I pondered what he had said. He actually believed that I could do it - enough to put his own money on the line and enough to try and convince others to do the same. How could I not accept his offer?

Not long after that I started earnestly preparing a business plan for a full time stamp business.  I began working on it in the summer of 2014 and by November, it was complete. My analysis indicated that my plan was not only viable, but that such a business could be very successful. Now I had a very difficult decision to make: do I buy into the partnership? Or do I leave and accept Don’s offer and pursue my dream? After much discussion, Steph and I decided that pursuing my dream was more important, and since July 2015, I have been pursuing the dream. I couldn’t have done it without the help and assistance of this man who saw the potential I had when I was a young, awkward man of 22, and decided to give me a chance when no one else would.  He and I now talk every few months and after 22 years, have a really genuine friendship.