George Smitherman and Christopher Peloso first met in Toronto in the 1990s. George was Toronto-born and -bred; Christopher was a relative newcomer to the city from Sudbury. An on-again, off-again relationship ensued until, on Christmas Day in 2006, George, by then Ontario’s minister of health and deputy premier, made a proposal of marriage.Christopher said Yes, and they began making preparations for their wedding in the summer of 2007. They called it a “Stephen Harper Shotgun Wedding,” as they wanted to get it done before the then prime minister made good on his threat to overturn the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of same-sex marriages. The ceremony took place in Elliot Lake in northern Ontario and was designed to pay respect to First Nations culture, in which “two-spirited” people are given special status. For the ceremony, Christopher took an Anishinaabe name that translates as “little yellow bird.”George Smitherman, seen in 2007 when he was Ontario health minister, and soon to be husband Christopher Peloso at their home in Cabbagetown. (CHARLA JONES / TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)Unconventional CandourThe two supported each other while pursuing their own careers — George in politics (including an unsuccessful run for the Toronto mayoralty against Rob Ford), and Christopher in the retail chocolate business. They also adopted a son, Michael, in the middle of the mayoral campaign. Soon after that campaign, they adopted a daughter, Kayla. Now with two young children to care for, Christopher left his job to become a full-time parent.In this excerpt from his soon-to-be-published memoir, Unconventional Candour, George relates the tragic events that followed.We had heard from the nice staff at CAS that Michael’s mom had had another baby — a little girl — and that mother and child were doing well. Of course, knowing that historically the mother had struggled to maintain connections despite her obvious love meant we might be called upon to expand our circle of love.What hit me about Christopher’s response to the opportunity to adopt Kayla (we dropped several other names she had been given but we liked the name Kayla a lot) was his insistence that, rather than take another leave from Lindt, he should quit altogether. I wish I could say I reluctantly went along with this, but I didn’t put up the least resistance. Rather, I concluded that if there was a point in our life where I could afford to carry us, it was then.The part I was slow to get, and that Christopher discounted or missed entirely, was the extent to which his conﬁdence was tied to his mastery of the retail chocolate environment. Oddly enough, his prior promotion meant that when he returned to the workplace his job had shifted from operationalizing the frontline to presenting the budget and plans for the frontline back at headquarters. Or, put another way, Christopher was shifting from day-to-day interaction with retail employees to a results-driven executive leadership team at head office. The latter was a tougher ﬁt for Christopher.Smitherman and Christopher Peloso outside Queen’s Park in 2009. (Nathan Denette)Now I would like to say to anybody with one kid who is feeling pressure to acquire another: think about it long and hard. Because what seemed like more than ample resources for one kid quickly became a stretch to manage two. The added pressure seemed to create an uptick in Christopher’s alcohol consumption. To try to spread the burden, I adjusted my own sleep and work patterns. I often exercised at 6 a.m. before heading to work early enough to allow me to get back and take the kids to the wading pool late in the afternoon.The deterioration of Christopher’s mental health in this period was a real challenge, and his history of attempts at taking his own life resurfaced. Before eventually succumbing to his own devices, Christopher made two bold efforts to accomplish the same pain-ending feat. One of those, his disappearance and eventual discovery in a clump of bushes along a railway line, is well-known. As is my memory of sitting down on my deck to pen some remarks that Barbara Hall was to deliver soon after to searchers on my behalf, only to have my privacy interrupted by a helicopter hovering directly overhead. It was as if they could see what I was writing.Frankly, the stigma Christopher suffered in realizing that he had created such a circus was nearly impossible for him to get over. Sad as it is to say, it was pretty much clear that at some point he would take his own life, and we had this conversation very openly in the company of his (and later my) psychiatrist. She reminded us that, if a person wishes to die, we are quite powerless to stop it.After an earlier overdose attempt where his cellphone gave him away, Christopher expressed dismay that he had left his phone on. In the latter case, he did not share my enthusiasm, or that of the kids, that Ranger the police dog had found him where he lay after bouncing off a slow-moving freight train. That same meeting with the psychiatrist was our only real conversation about the underlying trauma that made Christopher’s life so tormented. He conﬁrmed that he had been sexually abused at the hands of a trusted ﬁgure in his youth, but he delved no further.Around mid-afternoon the day before Christopher died, I pretty much knew the show was over when I received an email from him promising a ﬁnal result. He asked us not to sound the alarm as precautions on his part were going to make this a recovery, not a rescue, mission. My fervent efforts to trace debit and credit card transactions were fruitless but an outlet for my energy during a period that felt a lot like the ﬁnal hours on election day when the outcome is in doubt. Tick tick tick.My mother had swooped in and picked up the kids Sunday afternoon, and their ability to roll with the situation was tested once more. By 5 a.m. the next day, I got a conﬁrming word from the coroner that Christopher had died. I spread the word to close family, dictated the fateful tweet, and called my mother for my children’s return.By 9 a.m., I squeezed my children tightly and told Kayla, then age three-and-a-half, and Michael, 5, that Dada wouldn’t be coming home. That he was dead. Their grasp was at ﬁrst limited to the practical with Michael asking, “Who is going to feed us?” From that day until now, my crew of two hugs-and-cuddles have ﬁlled the void and saved the day.George Smitherman and his two children Michael, 5, and Kayla, 3, at the celebration of life for Christopher Peloso on Jan. 3, 2014. “I have personally skipped many funerals since Christopher passed,” Smitherman writes. (Bernard Weil)People have different strategies about how to approach the complicated matter of death with children. While I didn’t then explicitly tell Michael and Kayla that their father had taken his own life, I did tell them that his brain let him down, not his body. It’s not my style to bull—t around subjects to begin with, and so I have been gripped with fear trying to balance my need to be the ﬁrst to tell them, with the attendant reality that another kid’s Google search could lead to schoolyard humiliation. Get the spelling of the family name right and it’s not too many clicks before you ﬁnd the full story about Michael and Kayla’s Dada.Only more recently have I explained to Michael and Kayla that Dada took his own life because he was in pain and sometimes our brain can send us the wrong messages. “How did he die?” they asked. “He stopped breathing,” I said.The real details of his death are left to be a burden shared between me and very few others, and I repeat what I said at Christopher’s memorial about the good fortune I experienced by actually knowing the deputy coroner who attended to Christopher. About Christopher’s taking of his own life, Kayla recently said as we crossed the street to school: “It’s sad and it’s a little bit mean.”In organizing the memorial for Christopher, I unearthed the really sad reality of his life: the underlying unwillingness on the part of his parents to let him be who he was and truly respect him for that. “Don’t bother going to Toronto for his memorial,” his parents told everyone in Sudbury. “We will do something for him here in Sudbury.”And what they did for him in Sudbury was hold a Catholic funeral mass. This for a man who had a pronounced and undisguised disdain for the Catholic Church and was notably an atheist. I protested to his mother, who in the same sentence blamed me for his death and proclaimed that he was baptized with his god and that he shall be with his god in death. To say any more about the matter would not shed any more light on it.Christopher’s Toronto memorial was attended by hundreds, including dignitaries and, especially, the many he had touched professionally over the decades. Our yellow bird was free, but his ﬂock was deeply burdened by the events. I don’t really know how we have survived. The depth of despair I felt was intense, but the saving grace was the pitter-patter of feet on the ﬂoor. Because my kids are such good cuddlers, they wore my sadness away in the comfort of love.We headed for Florida. Our customary 24 hours of driving put some real distance on the pain. Anxious as I was to get there in my stepmother’s Chrysler 300, we attracted attention from two separate representatives of the constabulary. One, an OPP oﬃcer near London, took a look at my driver’s licence, offered condolences on our loss, and wished us a good day. Not sure how exactly, but about 10 hours later a similar courtesy was offered by the police as we slipped from Tennessee into Georgia. Perhaps my sadness was etched in my face.My best advice to anybody facing the devastating impacts of trauma is to respect it for what it is, and I hope you have kids. The former is to help people escape the guilt they feel from having no motivation to do anything. The latter — having kids — is because, no matter how sh—y you might feel, you can’t just climb back under the duvet, or in my case chase a longish high down a funnel of self-fulﬁlling despair.The emotional needs of the kids forced me to adjust my work away from the oﬃce and toward home. The ideal of everyone ﬁnishing a night’s sleep in his or her own bed was shattered, and despite the annoyance I needed the comfort as much as they did.Our language has taught us to say things like, “We will be there for you” and “Anything we can do?” and “Don’t worry.” Almost all of those expressions are sincerely uttered but largely unfulﬁllable. I have personally skipped many funerals since Christopher passed because my trauma quotient has remained so high. But when I do attend, I try very hard to tell people: “Respect the trauma.”It’s been tough on my little people. Michael quite understandably suffers from fears of abandonment, and Kayla longs for more attachment. For all that we have been through, however, we get stronger and better every day. But not a day goes by that we don’t make note of Christopher’s presence or sometimes moan about how different things would be if Dada were still with us. He found his peace, and everywhere we see yellow birds we feel his presence.There are just so many music anthems to rely upon, each one a soundtrack for my life inside and outside politics. The great gay anthem, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” comes to my mind often, especially the lines, “Did you think I’d lay down and die? / Oh no not I / I will survive.” Also Kanye West’s “Stronger,” which paraphrases Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “N-now th-that that don’t kill me / Can only make me stronger.” Michael certainly seems to identify with Shawn Mendes’s song “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back.”At various times, I have had people tell me how great a man I am for sticking it out and not walking away from Michael and Kayla. It is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. The truth is that Christopher’s death revealed to me that, without Michael and Kayla, I am nothing. Their existence is my sole purpose in life.Others have told me that it is remarkable I don’t view Christopher as having been selﬁsh. Of course, in quiet moments of anger and despair, some of this sentiment might take hold, however brieﬂy. But I love Christopher and I will forever hold him in that special place that views him as a great partner, lover and father. As for his brain and the terrible tricks it played on him, it reminds me always of our need not to judge others too harshly. Not everyone is capable of processing the same facts and drawing the same conclusion.Excerpted from Unconventional Candour by George Smitherman ⓒ2019, George Smitherman. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn PressTOP STORIES, DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX.