For Estelle Bogoch Stelmach, it’s a time of great, and understandable, heartache and loss.
Her husband of 10 years, Robert Stelmach – also known as children’s entertainer Max Tell – passed away on Dec. 13 at the age of 70 after a short battle with cancer.
But there has been some comfort for her, too. She said she marvels at the way Robert remained positive right to the end of his rapid decline – even leaving her a list of typically caring messages and reminders to look at every day.
Most of all, she is happy knowing that Robert’s last four wishes were granted before he passed.
The storyteller, writer, singer and songsmith extraordinaire was a familiar face to generations of White Rock and South Surrey residents who had experienced his gentle nature and upbeat presence at many gatherings and events around the Peninsula.
Like others around the world, they’d sung along with him as he crooned his catchy, delightfully silly songs to his own guitar accompaniment; they’d been engaged and inspired by his imaginative stories, which never failed to entertain even if they had a deeper educational purpose – often connected to his long-standing passion for encouraging literacy.
Even before he had any thought of having cancer himself, he had contributed a fundraising song to Peg’s Pals, a group of women volunteers with whom Estelle partnered in the White Rock Cancer Relay For Life.
As Estelle wrote in her last update to friends and family on Dec. 18, he was “a special man with a big, warm, loving heart.”
She told Peace Arch News she found those emailed updates – there were five in all – were the best way to communicate with the many people who wanted to call or email and offer their support.
In the brief time since Aug. 21, when she and Robert learned his condition was terminal, they wanted to concentrate energies on fighting the disease, recuperating from the effects of radiation and chemotherapy and “living one day at a time.”
Now, Estelle has more time to say how much she and Robert appreciated the support from family and friends – even well-wishers who were virtually strangers to them.
“I don’t know anyone who had so many friends,” she said. “It was astounding the number of people who called up to ask, ‘is there anything I can do?’ I couldn’t stop them.”
She can also say how much they valued the work of staff at the Peace Arch Hospital hospice, the palliative unit in Surrey Memorial Hospital and the BC Cancer Agency.
And she has thanks for all those who helped Robert’s last wishes come true.
Robert wanted them to renew their vows and place his wedding ring on her finger – which they did in the hospice unit, a few days before he passed, complete with music, cake and ‘bubbly’ and a few close friends.
And though his daughter Anna was able to visit throughout his illness, he also wanted to see his son, Aaron – who lives in Toronto. The day after the ceremony, Aaron arrived unexpectedly.
Robert also wished he could see his collection of stories for young readers, I Double Double Dare You To Read This Book (complete with illustrations by Estelle) in print.
Although it and a young adult fiction collection, A Fist Of Bees and Other Stories, are scheduled to be published at the end of February, it it didn’t seem as though typesetting and layout would be ready before then.
But just 15 minutes before Robert and Estelle renewed their vows, a proof copy of the first book was delivered to Estelle, complete with a difficult-to-obtain Canadian Archive number.
“I walked into the lounge and placed it in his lap,” she said. “He was thrilled beyond words.”
The fourth wish seemed even more unlikely – an admirer of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, for whom he had written a song, Robert was convinced he would meet him.
Though a face-to-face meeting was impossible, thanks to the intervention of friends of friends, the improbable happened a day before Robert passed – Hadfield called Robert direct from Britain, where he was about to deliver a speech.
“Although Robert couldn’t talk by then, Chris was so sweet and so kind – he talked to him for, at the minimum, 20 minutes.
“I said, ‘May I play Robert’s song for you and he listened and laughed and said ‘I love it.'”
While Estelle said she isn’t religious or a big believer in the supernatural, she said it’s hard not to feel Robert’s presence every time the old mantel clock chimes in their White Rock home.
“One of his brothers came to visit him in hospital three weeks before he passed, and I asked if he wanted to see our home, and he saw the clock – which they’d both grown up with – and said he was so glad it was working.
“The next day it stopped working, which wasn’t really surprising – the last time it was repaired was probably 80 years ago and there would be a build-up of dust in all that time.
“A week-and-a-half after Robert passed, I was home at night and the clock started chiming, and I said ‘Robert?’ It’s been chiming two rings every quarter of an hour since then.”