The Last Days

15 mins read

Abridged from the Nov. 21/13 edition of Indiewire

PETER AND I have been to dozens of places around the world, but I’d never been with him in Montreal. This could be mainly due to the fact that he was hardly ever in Montreal!! He spent so much time on the road devoting his life to documentary.

But…(after hearing the news that Peter had liver cancer), I was off to Montreal. I stayed in touch with Peter over the next few weeks—he was always in good spirits, joking and laughing and as sharp-witted as ever. He said the doctors couldn’t believe his positive attitude in how he was taking his terminal diagnosis. Whenever he came for tests or treatment in hospital, they asked him to go around the ward and spread his joyful attitude to all the other patients.

As I got to Heathrow on November 15th, I received a message that Peter had been rushed to hospital that morning. I was just boarding the plane. When I landed in Montreal, I got a text that Peter was now in a palliative care ward, in a deep sleep, not really conscious although he would sometimes open his eyes. I got to the hospital and there he was.

It was a shock at first. It was hard to accept that Peter Wintonick was lying there in the bed like that. In the room were his family: his beautiful daughter, Mira, looking so brave and strong, his wonderful life-long partner Christine. Other family and friends, including Martin Rosenbaum, a fellow documentary filmmaker who Peter had known since teenage years. Francis Miquet was there, who had worked on Manufacturing Consent and later ran the company Necessary Illusions with Peter for decades. Kat Cizek was there; she had made Seeing is Believing with Peter. A few other people were in the room too. I walked up close to the bedside and held his hand. Peter looked peaceful, I said, “Hello, Peter—it’s Heather.” His head turned slightly toward me. He squeezed my hand. It was heartbreaking. But I knew Peter would want us all to be positive, so I was trying very hard to smile.

The next morning I headed to the hospital with Mila Aung-Thwing from EyeSteelFilm and Hussain Currimbhoy from Sheffield Doc/Fest. We bumped into Christine in the hospital lobby. She sat us down and explained that she wanted to make sure the room was right for Peter. She knew there would be an onslaught of visitors, and she wanted it managed in a way that felt peaceful and respectful. We assured her that we would manage it and she did not have to worry. Upstairs in the Family Room, Hussain wrote a short guide for visitors based on Christine’s wishes to ensure the place stayed peaceful and calm. Kat and I managed the flow of guests in and out of the room. The EyeSteel boys were all there and Peter’s old friend Marc Glassman and others, all trying to help make the situation as calm and peaceful as possible.

Christine announced, “I think we need a tree. Peter would love to have a tree in the room; the smell of it will be good too.” The problem was that Christine was pretty sure the hospital would not allow a tree in the room. Nevertheless she headed off to find one.

Hussain went in to see Peter. He emerged from the room rather shaken. I gave Hussain a hug. He said, “I wasn’t prepared for that.” I said, “Try to feel positive, Hussain. Peter would want us to spread love and even laughter right now. Try to be brave.” I looked up behind Hussain; down the hospital corridor I could see Christine on her way. I whispered, “OK. You have to be brave now, Hussain…because here comes Christine. And she’s got a bloody tree!!!” We both laughed. Christine had the top of a pine tree tucked under her arms—her coat was hanging over the tip of it in a (rather unsuccessful) attempt to conceal the tree. I loved this sight! Christine was smuggling a tree into the hospital! This was the spirit Peter would have wanted!

On Saturday, a Buddhist monk came to Peter’s bedside. Christine had remembered a monk from years ago and he was the exact one she felt was needed. Martin Rosenbaum’s sister-in-law, Tee, had also met the monk. They couldn’t remember his name but Tee went on a mission to find him out there somewhere in Montreal. She found him within an hour.

The monk arrived and went into Peter’s room. Christine and Mira and the monk stood at the foot of the bed. Martin, Tee and I stood off to the side near the door behind a curtain. The monk started to talk. I suddenly realised everything he said was so amazing so I quickly started to note it down. This is what the monk said: “I don’t see form. I don’t see a man. I see love. I see light. I can see he loves life and brings positive energy. He enjoys himself [laughs]!”

Early the next morning (Sunday), Mira sent a text saying Peter had had moments of being lucid through the night. Tom and Christine and Mira had spoken with Peter in the early hours. He had been clicking his fingers, clapping along to the music and generally having a mini–Wintonick dance party in the bed. By the time we arrived about 9 AM, Peter had gone back into a deep sleep.

That day there was to be a screening and a tribute brunch for Peter at the RIDM festival downtown starting at noon. Peter had originally planned on going to the screening and the brunch. But obviously this was not possible now. The event was going ahead as planned. Lots of people were on their way to Montreal for it. It seemed so perfect that this man who devoted so much of his life to documentary film festivals would have his final days at the exact time the documentary film festival was going on in his own hometown.

At about 11 AM pretty much everyone left the hospital to go to the screening. Kat and I and Mira stayed in hospital with Peter’s sister and her husband. Around about 11:15 AM, Peter woke up. He started talking to us all. First he saw Kat Cizek. He looked at with her with love and surprise and exclaimed, “WOW!!!” as if to say “Fancy seeing you here!”

Then he saw me; I said, “Hello, Peter Pan” and his eyes opened wide with wonder and he said, “WOW!!!!! YOU’RE HERE!!” I said, “Yes, I finally made it to Montreal”… he repeated my line back to me in my husky Australian accent (as he always did): “‘I fiiiinally maaade it to Montreeeeeawl’.” Everyone laughed. We couldn’t believe our eyes and ears.

Mark Ellam came in and told him he had just got back from the jungle. Peter made ape arms, starting scratched under his armpits and said, “Ooo, ooo, ooo.”

His brother-in-law Bob came up to the bedside and said, “Hi Peter.”

Peter said, “Hi.”

Bob said, “It’s Bob.”

Peter said, “I know.”

Bob said, “I know you know.”

Peter replied, “Yes, but I know you know I know you know I know”.

Christine came back. She was with a priest. Christine and Peter had planned to get married this week at home. But circumstances had changed so much and it all looked unlikely. But now that Peter was awake, the priest married them there and then at the bedside.

Kat came in to congratulate Peter. She leaned in and kissed his cheek and said “Congratulations.” She was wearing a lovely red and orange gingham shirt. He said, “PIC-NIC!!!!!” Kat said, “Huh?”. Peter said, “You look like a PIC-NIC”.

We told him the film was about to start downtown. “Oh,” he said, a little disappointed, “I wanted to go to that.” “Well, luckily you’ve seen it before Peter, and hey! They’ve got a full house!” He looked at me. “A full house!?!” “Yes, Peter a full house. As audience members had entered the cinema they had been given a photocopy of the monk’s words, which had become very important now. Christine gave a moving introduction before the screening. At the end, the film got a massive standing ovation. Someone recorded the standing ovation—the clapping, the whistling the whooting and the whooing—and then they texted the audio file to Kat.

We played the audio file to Peter in his bed. As it started, a grin came across his face from ear to ear. He was so happy. The applause went on and on and on. His face looked more and more surprised at how long this applause was going on! It was all surreal, there he was, listening to an audience applaud his film but—really they were also applauding HIM, they wanted to acknowledge him, his life, his incredible achievements and thank him for all he had done. Trust Peter Wintonick to organise his own farewell with such grace.

Then Mira and Kat went out to Skype the people gathered down at the festival. I was left alone in the room with Peter. He was awake although he dozed in and out sometimes and couldn’t move much at all. I took the chance to tell him about all the messages that were coming in from around the world, I told him that so many people were eternally grateful for his influence and mentoring, that he had inspired them, encouraged them, kept them going. I told him he was a candle who had lit thousands of other candles in his lifetime. I said, “And that’s why you will live forever.” He smiled. I told him how much he meant to me and how I will forever treasure our memories and carry his energy and spirit with me wherever I go. I told him he was a mentor to me. He said “No! You are a mentor to me.” I laughed. “Peter Wintonick, you are my brother and I love you forever.”

The next morning, Monday, November 18th, Peter passed away. He looked incredibly peaceful. People started to stream in to pay their respects. Kat Cizek stood at his door and let people in one at a time. As they entered the room, Kat gave them a little piece off the tree that Christine had smuggled in a few days earlier, so they could lay it on Peter. We all loved that tree by now. Peter looked absolutely beautiful. He lay there like a sleeping Buddha covered in gorgeous bright yellow flowers and little green pine tree branches. It was a very windy day outside. The Buddhists say a windy day is the best weather for a passage to the other side. Peter’s spirit blew up over Mont Royal and out to every corner of the earth where his thousands (I mean, millions) of friends will forever feel his energy and presence.

RIP, Peter Wintonick. Peace be with you.

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