Aurele Thomas and the Joy of Life

'When I came back home, I said I feel like I’m in heaven.’

Aurele Thomas has brushed alongside death several times over the decades, staring it down from the side of dirt roads in the forests of Northern Ontario and in hospital beds in the province’s larger cities to the south. He admits that in his darker moments, he’s contemplated taking control over death by creating the moment of his own reckoning and ending the pain that began when a motorcycle accident landed him in wheelchair in 1974. 

Aurele pops a wheelie in his chairBut those dark moments never lasted long and the freewheeling optimism that Aurele is known for in the Village of Riverside Glen is what comes across when I sit with him in his suite discussing life and the risks and rewards that come from living it fully with passion.

On this Wednesday morning, Aurele says he’s feeling better than he has in years. A few years after he was paralyzed, a strange pain in his abdomen developed, pain that by all logic he shouldn’t have been able to feel and yet, it was constant and the doctors he saw never dug deep enough to find the cause. Aurele muscled through the pain, working alongside his wife to raise their three children in the rugged land.

It can be hard carving a life out of the bush in Northern Ontario – much harder still if you’ve lost the ability to walk – but that never stopped Aurele. His arms were hard like cement from propelling himself in the wheelchair, clearing the deep winter snow and woodworking. He could balance himself upon two wheels as if they were two feet, navigating stairs if necessary and even dancing.

“I cut my lawn and I cleaned my snow,” Aurele says. He may have spilled out more times than he can count, but he always got back in.

The pain, however, was always there and in 2014, about two years after losing his beloved wife, his son in Guelph convinced Aurele to move south and finally seek new treatment for the pain in his abdomen. While lying in Hamilton General hospital, Aurele faced death yet again – he was sure he wouldn’t make it and he prepared to say goodbye to his children.

The main kidney stone that was eventually removed was massive, hidden by the growth of infection that had covered it over so many years. Instead of saying goodbye, Aurele found new comfort and pleasure in the simple joys of life. “I lived with that pain for almost 30 years,” he says. It’s no surprise, then, to see him smiling broadly, and he says the new friendships and companionship he’s found at Riverside Glen bring added joy to his life every day.    

“I never thought I’d be in a home,” he says. “The home up north was so bad that I’d rather be dead than in that mess, but here it’s just all family. We have a ball with everybody – I get more hugs than I ever did.”

To anybody else considering a move such as the one he made three years ago, his advice is simple: “Right now, the way it’s going for me, I’d say jump on it,” he says. “When I came back home (to the Village) I said I feel like I’m in heaven.

“It’s a whole new life.”

He looks at the manual wheelchair tucked into the corner of his suite, tells the story of how he gets in it sometimes and, despite the risk, shows off some of his balancing tricks.   

He smiles.  

On a day like this, the joy of life emanates from the suite of Aurele Thomas.