My living wake

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A "Living Wake" for Derek K. MillerA dying man can wish for many things, but one of them might be to have a party with many family and friends: like a funeral, memorial, or wake, but actually being able to be there, before he dies. That's exactly what my wife Air put together for me a couple of nights ago, on March 3. We had a "living wake" at the newly-renovated Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver, with a couple of hundred of the people in our lives joining us for a great Lebanese buffet, lots of mingling and chatting, and some fine live rock-n-roll music from my old bandmates and me, as well as my friends in Vancouver's legendary group Odds.

We couldn't throw the invitations wide open because fire regulations restricted how many people were allowed in the grand tiki-themed room in the Waldorf's basement—and we wanted to make sure that the people who came really were those I knew, and didn't get crowded out. After all, it was a wake, not just a party. Luckily, we didn't have very many uninvited door-crashers (and a few guests missed out because of flu and other illness), so we stayed within the limit, and it all worked out.

A dress-up crowd

Amazingly, in fact, few people I wished I could have invited if I'd had contact info, and others I never expected to make it, showed up anyway. Some I hadn't seen in many years, or came from very far away, so that was a nice bonus too. There were family members I've known my whole life, and friends I've had for 10, 20, even close to 30 years. I think I had a chance to say hi to almost everyone. My apologies to the few of you I missed.

Most of them had their pictures taken in the photo booth set up by the awesome Miranda and Reilly of Blue Olive Photography. There are other pictures appearing on Flickr, YouTube, and elsewhere (such as blog posts) with the tag penmachine, with more to come (if you have any from the event, please use that tag yourself). You can also tag pictures and videos with my name on Facebook. We had this slideshow projected on the wall all night too:

I was shocked at how well I survived the evening. I did plan carefully: I took the right combination of medications at the right times, napped in the afternoon, avoided eating too much during the day, and simply ran on endorphins until almost the very end of the evening. During dinner I went upstairs and ate in the hotel room we booked, lying on the bed, to recover some energy. Then, after far more stints on the drums than I thought I'd be able to tolerate, I finally burned out and announced to everyone that I needed to lie down, then disappeared to let them wind things down. I paid for it afterwards, and all the next day, but it was entirely worth it.

Speaking of that announcement, yes, I still had (and have) complete laryngitis. Through the PA system, I rasped out a very few words, sounding like Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight. Out on the loudness of the floor, I was completely inaudible unless I whispered directly into people's ears. I sometimes resorted to typing stuff out on my iPhone for them to read. It was bizarre and frustrating, but somehow appropriate—it was like being a speechless ghost, drifting in the semi-background at my own wake. It also kept anyone from trying to monopolize my time, since I couldn't engage in any serious conversation.

The thank-you brigade

Others made up for it. My wife Air coordinated the evening (and avoided crying, somehow), the guys in the band cracked the usual jokes, and there were four extremely short and touching speeches from those close to me: my friends Tara, Dennis, and Johan, and my (pregnant!) cousin Tarya (MP3 files, between 1 and 4 minutes each). We had tremendous help from my parents Hilkka and Karl (he made the slideshow too), our friend Steven, current and former members of The Neurotics and other bands I've been in, Pat and Craig and Doug from the Odds, the staff at the Waldorf, and our kids Marina and Lolo, who couldn't come because of B.C.'s stupid liquor laws, but who kept themselves and another friend's daughter entertained at home until we got back late.

My biggest thanks, of course, go to Air. It was all her idea, and her work that made my living wake happen. She has kept our family going through my four-plus years of cancer, through surgeries and fear and chemotherapy and a prognosis of death. She made this party happen now, while I could enjoy it and join my friends and family, instead of after I die when I can't. We've been married more than 15 years, and I've said before: that is not nearly enough.

Thank you, too, to all of you guests who could come. I'll remember it my whole life. I hope the rest of you will remember it even longer.


It was a fantastic party Derek and I consider myself lucky to have been there. It was also nice to see you on the drums and not be at the Sun Run.


I was honored to be part of it, and the thanks should be given to you and Air. I will remember it forever too.

Much love.


This is a great idea. I'm glad and so moved by this. I really love the slideshow your Dad put together, too. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family.

So glad your friends got to say "Derek is ..." instead of "Derek was ..."

Raising a glass to you tonight.

derek *IS* awesome! thanks again to you and air for the wow-tastic "wake"!

Thanks for inviting me - I too was honoured to be there with you! I never thought I'd say this, but you guys sure know how to throw a wake!

The night went perfectly. Great to see you rocking hard and having fun. The food was great and the company was awesome! See you soon.

Awe. That's GREAT! Kudos to Airdrie for the idea and arranging it. Two thumbs down to BC's stupid liquor laws, preventing your daughters from attending.

It was an honour to have been a part of it, and to jam with you again Derek. You continue to inspire.

Thanks so much for the invite. It was an honour to be a part of it. Seeing you on the drums (and, according to Roger, not rushing the beat, which is your secret, I understand) was truly delightful. The speeches were some of the best I've ever heard.

It was a wonderful life-affirming time.

Thanks again.


That slideshow made me cry. What a beautiful piece of work. Thanks Karl! - Fiona

Oops. I'm sure that Karl had something to do with it (I'm guessing the baby pictures :) ) but what I meant to type was "Thanks to all". Fiona

What a Fabulous Night! It was fun, joyous, sad, happy, bittersweet. Just like life. I was happy and honoured to be a part of it. Thank you. Love to all.

we did something like this for my step dad some years ago. this looks amazing - so glad YOU got to enjoy the party!

It was an honor to be a part of this night with you, as brief as our visit was. Since I didn't have a chance to say more to you at the wake, I put together a post here:

What a brilliant idea! It sounds like it was a wonderful occasion, and how great is it that your energy lasted as long as it did. That's fate.

Who we love, and how we celebrate them is the most simple & brilliant Legacy. Fellowship documents our Journey in gentle strength. Love defines our existence in bold frailty. we need not be present to trust it Endures. Thank you for sharing friend.. affirming indeed.

It was a privilege to come along and celebrate your life with all your friends and family, and seeing you play at your own wake will go down as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And I agree with the comments above, being able to celebrate you in the present tense instead of the past tense was the best part.

It was my great joy to be there, Derek. I've never heard you play before, I've only heard you guys practicing in the basement. It was a pleasure.

Hi Derek

I wasn't at the wake, the 5th was also my 1 yr wedding anniversary, but there's loads more reasons for me not being there...I'm in Scotland and a total stranger to you. I am however, deeply moved by your reality, your brave fight. I'm scared shitless at even the thought of dying, let alone dying alongside the Big C. You're a wonderful person, doing what many others are doing, living & dying with cancer, but being so honest and open, and blogging it so very well. My heart goes out to you and yours, thank you for sharing


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