“Red, green and gold, mom – traditional.”
Diane James remembers well the Christmas-tree decoration theme that her son Bryan requested that Dec. 2, eight years ago. He’d been calling and calling and calling – “needling me all day” – about it, she recalled this week, explaining that the festive task was something she’d tackled for her eldest son for a couple of years at that point, using her interior-design flair to add a special sparkle to an annual Christmas party he held at his Yaletown home.
This year, the trio of vibrant colours adds a seasonal touch to South Surrey’s Spirit Garden, after James and her family spent this past Dec. 2 hanging dozens of red, green and gold ornaments from branches of the Eastern White Pine that grows in Bryan’s memory.
“I always decorated his Christmas tree,” James said.
“I’m only eight years late. We got it looking sort of sweet. At night when I drive by, I always sort of look out of the corner of my eye and see it twinkling. For me, it’s just a little bit of joy at a difficult time of year.”
Bryan James died unexpectedly on the evening of Dec. 2, 2011, after collapsing, due to heart complications, at a company Christmas party. He was 32 years old. He’d texted his mom just an hour before, ending the message with “I love you” – a message James holds dear, describing it as “a gift.”
Bryan, she said, was “larger than life.” He was a longtime football coach with the White Rock-South Surrey Titans association, and a founding coach with Earl Marriott Secondary when the school launched a football program in 2004. He was the Mariners’ first-ever coach of the Grade 8 squad.
After his death – which his mom said “shocked everybody” – efforts to pay tribute were swift, and included the formation of a memorial foundation focused on raising money for KidSport, an organization which aims to get more youth playing sports by helping cover registration costs for those who otherwise could not afford to play.
Bryan was always adamant that all kids deserved to play, so directing his legacy to KidSport “was a pretty easy fit,” his mom told Peace Arch News.
The family quietly set a goal of $100,000, and began holding charity golf tournaments in the summer, to mark Bryan’s birthday.
They discovered the Spirit Garden the year after Bryan died. James’ mom read a newspaper article about a plain city lot in the 2800-block of 140 Street that had been transformed by area residents Joan and Jon Mara, and wanted to plant a blue delphinium in her grandson’s memory. Blue was Bryan’s favourite colour, James explained.
The Maras welcomed the tribute. The request came around the same time that Joan Mara says the garden space “took on a life of its own,” becoming a place not just of beauty, but of reflection, healing and harmony.
Bryan’s tree was one of the first memorial tributes added to the garden, but it was far from the last. Over the years, many loved ones have been remembered with items planted or placed, with each adding to the garden in its own subtle way.
James said it was after Joan Mara sent the family a photo of the blue perennial blooming out of season that first year, in mid-winter, that she decided she wanted to plant the pine for Bryan.
“We all took it as a nice sign that he liked it,” she said.
She chose the Eastern white pine for its connection to a much-loved tradition in her family – of Bryan and his three younger siblings spending time at a fishing camp in the Gatineau Valley with their grandpa. The camp “was always very dear” to the siblings, James said.
Planted on the far east side of the Spirit Garden, the pine has grown to about eight feet tall over the years, and bears a single “cherished” cone near its top. James said she often brings her young granddaughters to visit, walking to the garden with them from her home nearby.
And while the golf-tournament tradition has come to a close – the $100,000 goal was reached this past summer, and the family decided it was “time to move forward in other directions” – James said she is hopeful that decorating Bryan’s tree will become a new tradition in her family.
Joan Mara “really helped us through a very difficult time,” she said. “I really admire Joan and Jon for (creating the garden).”
James also hopes the twinkle of Bryan’s tree adds light to the season for others.
“If you can help someone else get through, because you know what it’s like, that’s even better,” she said.