Two weeks ago, Eugène Roach decided he wanted to watch the Toronto Blue Jays play in Seattle.
Never mind that Eugène was, at that point, really quite ill and receiving palliative care. The Yellowknife teacher of 15 years had his heart set on a Jays game. He and wife Cynthia made it happen.
“I’m thinking I have weeks to plan this, and he’s like: ‘We’ve got to go Friday.’ And this was Wednesday. There was no way,” Cynthia recalled this week, shortly after Eugène passed away in Sooke, BC, following four years living with an aggressive form of lung cancer.
“Against everyone’s advice, we went.”
Palliative care nurses, not convinced by this scheme, made Eugène prove he could walk 50 metres and Cynthia prove she could insert a subcutaneous butterfly to provide Eugène with medicine. Both passed their tests.
“He sat in row 12, between first base and home plate. I’ve never seen a bigger smile on him,” said Cynthia.
“He wouldn’t put sunscreen on. He burnt his knees. And he said, ‘What’s the worst that’s going happen? I’m going to get skin cancer.’ And how do you argue with him?”
That episode summarizes the approach to life – and death – of Eugène Roach, a physical education teacher, father, musician, fanatical sportsman and extraordinary friend who passed away on Monday at the age of 45.
“Things just didn’t stop him,” said Cynthia. “He was fuelled by wanting to do something, and not sitting saying, ‘I have cancer.’ It wasn’t an excuse.”
Born in the Acadian fishing village of Saint-Louis de Kent in 1976, Eugène could bait a trap practically before he could walk. An only child growing up and a self-described “gym rat” at school, he initially harboured dreams of a career in the coast guard but ultimately left the University of Moncton a qualified teacher.
At a friend’s insistence, 24-year-old Eugène drove his Chevy Blazer across the country – the farthest west he had travelled at that point was Ontario – to Mayo, Yukon, where he taught for two and a half years before landing a full-time job as a phys ed teacher at École St Joseph School in Yellowknife. (This week, children decorated the school in a chalk-based tribute to Eugène.)
Having moved in part because he was lonely in Mayo, Eugène was introduced to his future wife almost as soon as he arrived in the NWT’s capital. Theirs was not entirely a chance encounter.
“I was running a soccer tournament,” he recalled in a 2019 interview, “and some of the kids she was coaching came up to me and asked if I was single.”
The same night, a parent did the same thing. He brushed it off.
“A week later, some mutual friends invited us out to Jose Loco’s,” Cynthia said, continuing the story and recalling a bar on the city’s main street at the time. “I was at the table. He walked in and we just giggled. There we were again, with friends trying to set us up.
“I wasn’t an easy person, then. I wasn’t the most welcoming. But he wooed me.”
The pair just celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.
“She’s an even bigger part of my life now than when I got married, if that’s possible,” he said of her in 2019. “It keeps growing, it’s amazing.”
A country music fan, Eugène had learned to play the guitar in university and performed ever since. In the summer of 2018, he was due to play Yellowknife’s farmers’ market and had secretly been practising a new song, all about Cynthia, for weeks.
Half an hour before he was due to perform, he had an appointment to go over the results of some X-rays after a nagging cough. Despite never having smoked or taken drugs, he was told he had a stage four lung cancer named adenocarcinoma.
“The show must go on,” he recalled thinking, asked about the moment a year later.
“I knew I had this song in my back pocket that I wanted to sing to my wife. She was sitting on the grass there at City Hall, listening.
“I pulled it off. I had the lyrics in front of me, thank goodness, because it was hard to focus.”
“Up until he passed away, he was telling me we were going to make it to our 15th anniversary,” Cynthia said. “He didn’t believe he was as sick as he was. And he was very, very sick.”
Having taken up hockey later in life than many, Eugène became a goalie. If he used music to communicate love, he used sport to illustrate his approach to cancer.
“I’m on the ice focused on the puck, the next shot,” he often said, explaining how he viewed his experience.
“That’s my diagnosis. It’s not a big deal, I’m just going to kick it in the butt.
“But everyone in the stands is on the edge of their seat every time a shot comes my way. They’re nervous. I’m just focused on the puck and making that save.”
Eugène suffered a recent stroke. Among his last acts, aside from the Blue Jays game, were a bike ride with friends and a drive to swim with his daughter in a lake.
“Every day had to have a job and an adventure,” said Cynthia. “Crib, sitting on the deck, something. He held on to that, right until the very end.”
In a tribute, Yellowknife Catholic Schools called Eugène – an NWT hall of fame educator – “an amazing teacher, coach, colleague, mentor, and human being.”
The school board wrote: “He was our students’ biggest advocate and their biggest fan. Students knew Mr Roach loved them, and they loved Mr Roach in return. He taught his colleagues and friends how to live life with grace and joy.”
Eugène is survived by Cynthia, daughter Courtney, son-in-law Lionel, mother Linda, father Isidore, mother-in-law Donna and father-in-law Ray.
A Yellowknife Community Foundation scholarship is to be established in his name, and a celebration of life will be held for him in Yellowknife before the end of the year. “One last music party,” Cynthia called it.
“The support is overwhelming. I didn’t fully understand the reach that he had,” she said.
“He wasn’t the guy out there in the middle of the street, in the middle of all the commotion. He was the quiet guy in the goalie net.
“His reach is further than I ever could have imagined. The love and kindness that has been shown is amazing.”