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My story – Part I

My friend Bona dropped by for a visit recently and in the midst of our usual go-everywhere conversation she shared a few thoughts.

– I’ve finally read all your blog posts. It’s good stuff and I’m thinking about all the women I want to send it to. (Pause.) But here’s the thing: I don’t think there’s enough emotion. You tell the stories well but they’re very matter-of-fact; I don’t get a good sense of the range of emotions these women must have felt as they went through their ordeals. Emotions are important.

You need to know something about Bona. She is one of the warmest, friendliest people I know. What she is not is a sentimentalist. I’m not sure if it’s her upbringing or her military background, but either way she is one brisk, practical lady who carries an extra dose of efficiency in her purse for good measure. When Bona says there isn’t enough emotion I do a double-take.

She’s right: I have stripped away much of the charged emotions associated with every one of the stories I’ve published to date. And I have done so deliberately. From my exchange with Bona I realized that I need to explain to you why I’ve done that. Then I’ll tell you my story with no emotional punches pulled.

One of the questions I ask all interviewees is this: If I could strip away all of the emotions from your loss or divorce, wind back the clock to a few years before the trauma and tell you what will happen, in a ghost-of-your-life-future type of scenario, what would you change about your situation?

The reason that I talk about stripping away the emotions is very simply because grief and shock paralyze our ability to think and to act. We all know at an intellectual level that loss of any kind comes with awful emotions. My goal is to focus on the lessons learned so that we can help all women, including and perhaps especially women in happy relationships, to better protect themselves. So I need to take the emphasis away from all the emotions and to place it squarely on the sorts of things we should all be thinking about in our lives, things like “Do I have a valid will?”.

For those among you who do not have a good sense of what it’s like to lose someone you love, I will share my story for the first time in fourteen years. My first husband, Malcolm, died on August 10, 1998. Here then is our story.

Meeting Malcolm

They say that the best things in life happen when you’re not looking for them. When I met Malcolm, I had just arrived at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario after having spent a year teaching in France. Before that I had spent three years at the University of Alberta. I was entirely focused on my career path, intent on becoming a professor of Neurolinguistics. Then I met Malcolm. I had a goal and a plan, he was brilliant but rudderless. I was a careful financial planner, he was a financial disaster. What got me was his wit. He was the cleverest man I had ever met and our attraction was immediate.

The first week of our life together Malcolm presented me with a ring that he had fashioned out of a beer cap. He was uncharacteristically somber when he told me that he wanted to marry me but that there was something I should know: He had cancer, Hodgkin’s disease. He was 22. He had developed cancer as a young child and while he was currently in remission, his doctors hadn’t expected him to make it to his 18th birthday. There was no guarantee therefore that he would remain in remission and he wanted to give me a chance to walk away at the beginning.

I can’t remember which thought came first: That he was insane to talk about marriage in week one or that it was crazy that he had cancer. I do remember thinking that surely he could beat it if it came back. Optimism or delusion – the jury’s still out on that one. I stayed.

It took six months for the cancer to come back. First came a biopsy, then radiation and more time was bought. Again, I thought we would be fine.

I graduated from Queen’s and went to McGill to pursue a Master’s and then a PhD. Malcolm stayed in Kingston to start a wholesale/retail business based on designs that he had created. He was an incredible artist with a unique style that found its niche. We were married shortly afterwards in May of 1991.

Always Cancer

The problem was that his cancer kept coming back. From 1990 to 1997 he underwent some form of treatment – cancer, radiation and/or surgery – every single year. It became clear by 1992 that he could not continue the business by himself. I did the only thing I felt I could do under the circumstances: I took a one-year leave of absence from my doctoral studies, which eventually turned into a full withdrawal. There was no way that I could leave Malcolm in Kingston while I pursued my studies in Montreal. The business would have died and Malcolm’s health would have taken a sharp turn for the worse. Necessity turned me into a business woman.

In the meantime, our business thrived which meant that we needed larger premises in which to do the production. Shortly after we signed a lease for a 3,300 square foot industrial space Malcolm became very ill. Our plan had been to have Malcolm build the inside of the production facility with his father and a couple hired men. When Malcolm was unable to work, Malcolm’s father Ron handed me a drill, showed me how to use it and sent me off to install drywall and floors. That’s how I learned to use power tools.

It was a dreadful time. I was trying to support my sick husband, run a business and build a production facility. I was in my twenties, a time when most people spend their free time enjoying themselves. All I remember of that time is overwhelming fatigue.

One day, Malcolm and I were crossing the street to get to a restaurant. Halfway across Malcolm collapsed. He couldn’t use one of his legs. I rushed him to the hospital and we discovered that he had a tumour wrapped around his spine. He was given a choice: Have surgery and run the risk of paralysis with no guarantee of full removal of the tumour; or avoid surgery and face certain paralysis. So they opened him up, removed most of the tumour and bought him a bit more time. Then his cancer spread to one of his lungs, necessitating another massive surgery. Pain was a constant in Malcolm’s life at that point.

I was away at a trade show when I received a panicked call from Ron. Malcolm had collapsed in the house but he’d had the presence of mind to call 911. Firemen kicked in our front door so that paramedics could get to him. He was rushed to hospital where it was discovered that one of his lungs had hemorrhaged. By the time I got to him he was in stable but serious condition at the hospital.

I was in shock. There was another trade show coming up which required a great deal of preparation and my husband was in hospital facing a very serious condition. I went into survival mode, which means that you do, you do not think. I worked twelve hours days and in between I spent roughly six hours a day with Malcolm in hospital.

Journey to the lake

During one of our visits, Malcolm told me about a dream he had just had in which he found himself in a clear blue lake. He was floating peacefully underwater and for the first time in years he did not feel pain. It was a beautiful, safe, welcoming place for him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had woken up feeling so light and relaxed.

Then our conversation turned to a more practical consideration: the next trade show taking place in a few days. I wanted to cancel it. Something inside told me that I needed to stay with Malcolm but he wouldn’t hear of it. He made the case that the trade show was very important for our business and besides, he would be right here when I got back. No big deal.

The next day when I came to say goodbye on my way to the trade show (4 hours away) I couldn’t do it. I could not say the words “good bye”. I began to cry without really understanding why. Malcolm took my hand and reassured me that all would be well.

– You’ll be back in a few days. We’ll talk again soon. I love you.

Those were the last words he ever said to me. Two days later I got another panicked call from his father. Malcolm was in the Intensive Care Unit, unconscious and intubated. I needed to rush back right away.

I don’t honestly remember the drive home. I’m grateful to whomever kept me safe as I sped directly to the hospital. I was not prepared for what I saw: Despite everything that I had seen over the years, I had never seen him looking like that. It was heart breaking. I held his hand and gave him hell for breaking his promise to me. We were supposed to talk again soon, remember?

My sister, a doctor, flew out to be with me at the hospital. She asked to see the latest x-rays of his lungs. As soon as she saw them she began to cry. It was over.

Then came the hardest decision of my life. The doctors needed permission to unplug his machines. Our closest friends were summoned and given a chance to say good-bye, then Malcolm’s family had some time with him. Then it was my turn.

As I held his hand I was mute. How on earth could I put nearly ten years into words? How could I convey exactly what he meant to me? For the first time in my life no words came. After some time, I heard my voice speak.

– It’s time to go to the lake Malcolm. You’ll be happy and well there. I’ll meet you there someday many years from now. For now you go and know that I will always keep talking to you. I love you.

Malcolm’s family were called back in. I nodded to the medical staff and the machines were unplugged. Within seconds the heart monitor flat-lined. He was gone.

My next post will be Part II of my story – Life after loss

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24 Responses

  1. Doris, I vaguely knew what you went through but your story is heartbreaking. I am in awe of your strength and I am proud of you for sharing your journey for the good of others. You are already making a difference.

  2. Ras and I remember meeting you and Malcolm for the first time at one of those trade shows, in Collingwood I believe. We also remember that last trade show almost like it was yesterday. After having read your story, I have to comment on the incredible strength both you and Malcolm showed during those years. Even though we were aware of Malcolm’s cancer neither one of you ever presented the challenges you were facing to the public. You always made it look easy, for lack of a better word. You both always exuded optimism and were a joy to spend time with. It’s that strength that carried you through the loss of Malcolm in your life. And it’s your strength that still amazes us today. You are, without a doubt, an inspiration.

  3. Doris, I am amazed at your strength, and the courage to share your story. It brought tears to my eyes. I am certain that this book will be a help to women, and thank you for sharing your own personal story.

  4. What a story Doris, Malcolm and you are both exceptional people. It is heartbreaking to read. You definitely knew what true love was, even at a young age. You were and still are an exceptional woman. What you learn in those ten years are more than some people ever experience throughout a life time. We are fortunate that you are writing your story, it will help so many people.

    1. Thanks to you all for your touching comments. You know it’s interesting for me to hear people complain about getting old. From my perspective, bring it on! I had my mid-life crisis in my twenties and early thirties. Forty-something is a party. Be grateful for every day and welcome the passage of time. That’s why I celebrate every birthday in a big way. I’ve just had the gift of another great year.

  5. Not only did you confirm your strength during such a critical time, but you confirmed as well the lessons in time and the sages along our path who make sure we learn them well. Malcolm was definitely one of those sages for you and definitely destined to meet. Your love for him was unwavering and is truly demonstrated in the sharing of your life with him, including the sacrifices you made. Your life at that time has transitioned into helping everyone you touch through your work, this blog and upcoming book. Now that is wisdom in its truest form.

    1. Yes, that’s right. I say in my post that I’m going to present my story with “no emotional punches pulled”. I’m doing that to give those who have not experienced loss a sense of what one deals with. My case obviously does not represent all women’s experience, but those of us who have lost partners all go through varying degrees of shock, grief and anger. The idea here is to give a sense of the emotion involved and to reiterate that all of the women I interview have experienced their own panoply of terrible emotions. My book is not about the emotions of loss and divorce but rather the lessons that we’ve all learned going through our own experiences.

      Part II of my story will show the extent to which I was paralyzed after losing Malcolm. I simply could not function. Emotions can hi-jack our ability to think and to act. What I’m hoping that women will get from this book is a call to action, and I sincerely hope that they take the time to look at their own lives to ask some uncomfortable questions with a view to fully protecting themselves and their families. The challenge for me is in getting the tone right: conveying what my interviewees have gone through while emphasizing the wisdom that they’ve gained and the lessons that they wish to share with others.

      I appreciate your feedback. All of your comments help me as I progress in my work.

  6. This post, as personal as it is, puts into perspective how quickly your world can change. Although we (or maybe it was just I) thought we had everything absolutely squared away with respect to finances, wills and insurance, your book sparked some discussion on “what if?” And surprisingly we were not on the same page in all cases.

    We are now. Thanks.

    This book will help a lot of husbands like me who want to do the right thing, but perhaps, don’t really want to think about it.

    1. It’s great to know that men are reading these posts too! Robi, thanks for your input. It’s gratifying to know that the posts have sparked a “what if” discussion that resulted in greater understanding between you and your wife. I genuinely hope that more couples will begin to discuss the issues raised in my blog.

      Thanks so much for your feedback.

  7. Wow, Doris. Powerful writing – you have a great way of conveying your story. Thank you for sharing this. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2.

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