Jacob Diegel, with whom I have hung out in the Morala coffee shop on Bank street in the Glebe in the last few years, has died. In his memory I posted the following piece in the window of the coffee shop. Since I wrote it I have been told by his son that he was not only a man of amazing resilience and spirit, but in his younger days he had tremendous physical strength, having been known to lift a 45-gallon oil drum (500 pounds) on to the back of a truck by himself.
With that small addition, which certainly hangs together as all of a piece with what I knew of him, my piece stands:
Jacob Diegel, a regular customer of this café, and a friend and inspiration to many of us, has died, and these few words are designed in memory of him.
What made Jacob remarkable was his indomitable spirit. In 1985 he suffered a severe accident when working one of the machines he owned as he worked in the bush close to Thunder Bay, and from that moment until his death a quarter of a century later, he was in constant pain. Somehow or other he contrived to ignore this, and to maintain his cheerful outlook on life, until almost the end. His suffering was intense, and would have stopped most men from being ambulatory, but nothing could stop Jacob.
A few years ago he fell over and broke his leg in several places. His doctors doubted that he would ever walk again, but after a longish stint in hospital, his leg healed, more or less, and he was back among us, now hobbling on two sticks instead of one, but still ready for a joke and a laugh.
I enjoyed his company many times, and my memory of him is of the many laughs we had together. We were the same age, within a month, and pretended to be wiser than those around us. At one point I had Jacob and the others who usually gathered around schooled to react when I would say on arrival. “You know what it is out there?” Jacob was always ready with the answer. “It’s bloody criminal out there,” he would say, borrowing my antipodean slang.
Jacob’s wife, Mrs. Diegel, came into the café occasionally, and although she was not in the best of health was always able to carry on with us a serious conversation not only about their life together, but about the affairs of the world --- a charming, good-humoured woman, the essential life-long partner needed to help Jacob through his many trials.
How many times did he tell us how, when his son was a teenager, he gave management of one of his cutting machines to him during the school and university holidays, and told him he could keep the profits from his work on the machine, which, Jacob proudly added, was evidently good training, for the boy had become a successful lawyer in Ottawa?
How many times did he tell of his three grandsons, of whom he was so inordinately proud as he introduced them to us when they came into the café in search of him?
Jacob came to Canada from Germany in 1951 as an immigrant, but after a few years during which he worked in the bush, enjoying the outdoor life, he was called back to manage his family’s large restaurant. It was not work that he enjoyed --- “too many drunks,” he used to say --- and one day, as he was passing a Canadian consulate, on an impulse he went in and began the formalities for returning to Canada. Then he went back home and told his wife, who had no particular wish to return to Canada. (A brave man, Jacob, to do such a thing, but Mrs. Diegel, however reluctant she might have been, was up to the challenge, went along with his decision, and they returned to Canada for good).
He built a good business close to Thunder Bay, bought a small shack on 12 acres of land in the countryside, worked it over and expanded it in the succeeding years, and when he left it to join his son in Ottawa (his effective working life having been cut by his accident) he had a beautiful home, the fruit of his and his wife’s labour and their love of the countryside he had always worked in.
Once again, after that recent severe accident, he fell and again damaged himself: one would have imagined that would almost have finished him off. But within a few weeks he appeared again, even more shaky than before on his two sticks, but always with his customary bright smile and cheerful greeting.
Often he came into the café on his way back from the frequent visits he had to make to the hospital. In his last few years his health problems became intense. If it wasn’t his leukemia, with which he had lived for many years, it was his internal bleeding that required him to have numerous blood transplants; or just the need to take such care not to knock his arms, or bang his legs against anything, which could create severe bruising.
I can say one thing for sure, for everyone who knew him in the cafe: we were all cheered to see him appear at the door, put away his two sticks, and make his way painstakingly to the counter to order his coffee. He had that gift for bringing optimism and good cheer with him, just by the sheer doggedness and unquenchable spirit that kept him going, and smiling.
We will all miss him terribly. He was an inspiration to all of us, and we extend to his wife and family our sincere condolences in their loss. We know how much he meant to you all: and I can say he meant as much to all of us.