SYBERSMA email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-09-23 published
Paul Dirk SYBERSMA
By John GRAHAM, Michelle SYBERSMA Tuesday, September 23, 2003 - Page A24
Family member, friend, entertainer. Born February 2, 1974, in Stratford, Ontario Died August 15, of cancer, aged 29.
Paul's birth was a family tragedy, or so it seemed at the time. Within hours it was clear to his mother, Susan, an experienced nurse, that there was something "wrong" with her new son. He was soon diagnosed as having Down Syndrome.
Our initial visions of his parents facing an awful choice between early institutionalization or unrelenting family disruption were, of course, the result of ignorance and old stereotypes. Nonetheless, parenting a Down Syndrome child -- especially following the death of Paul's father, Dirk, in 1987 from leukemia -- was no "walk in the park." Susan once noted that the difference between raising Paul and his older brother Mark was like the difference between growing a rose and a weed: The rose requires constant pruning while the weed thrives with little attention.
But what rewards! With his sparkling blue eyes and disarming smile, Paul was at heart an entertainer who loved a captive audience. He practised his show tunes with a strong, if not always on-key, singing voice and spent hours in his room rehearsing his dance moves.
Like any good entertainer, Paul had self-confidence and "presence." At weddings, his brother's prediction that Paul would dance with the three most beautiful women in the room inevitably came true. And he had a propensity to adopt new roles based on the latest movies. For example, Halloween was an opportunity not to collect candy, but to perfect new characters and to cast his obliging mother as his foil. From Batman and Catwoman, the Joker and Poison Ivy, to Darth Vader and Princess Leia, Paul and Susan were enormous hits as they visited Friends.
The close proximity of the Stratford Festival and his mother's artistic interests led to Paul's developing Friendships with professional actors and dancers. This created new opportunities for our family entertainer -- quite astounding ones, in fact. For he soon had an agent and, to the surprise of all of us (you can imagine the envy of his many cousins!), he had parts in two movies - -- one starring Marlee Matlin (Freak City) and the other with Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner and James Woods (Virgin Suicides). Following these "triumphs" Paul acted as his own agent, making sure everyone he met -- from waiters in the Caribbean to complete strangers at home -- knew about them. And his acting success led to motivational speaking engagements. On one memorable occasion, he gave the keynote address at a symposium for special-needs children.
His love of movies combined with his discovery of e-mail led to yet another remarkable development: he taught himself to read and write. Up to that point no teacher or family member had been able to motivate him. But endless watching of his favourite movies combined with close-captioning gave him the key to becoming a prolific e-mailer. Moreover, his style, with incomplete sentences and few words on each line, was distinctive, if not cryptic. One cousin compared it to the Japanese form of poetry, haiku.
Paul brought out the best in us and he also made it legitimate to become an uninhibited child again as we danced, sang, hugged, watched endless movies, played video games, wrestled, enjoyed silly jokes and carried on as adults seldom do. For this, we are forever grateful to Paul.
His painful death from malignant melanoma left Friends and family with a profound sense of loss. Uncharacteristically, his "timing" was off. He died within a few months of assuming a new role: that of an uncle. He would have played it with gusto, confidence, good humour and determination -- traits all of us might emulate.
John GRAHAM is Paul's uncle, Michelle SYBERSMA, his sister-in-law.
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