Sunday, 4 December 2016

Donna Balkan: Blithe Spirit

The last time I saw Donna Balkan, she was bustling into my local Starbucks. Bustling, that's right. Donna didn't walk, stroll, or strut, she bustled.

She had a few minutes to chat -- just a few -- before a scheduled manicure. Later that day, she was off to a conference, so she wanted to look her pitch perfect best.

She told me she was retiring from her job at the Canadian Co-operative Association, a job she loved, and she and her husband Jim McCarthy were moving to the East Coast to engage in an endless number of activities which included square dancing, singing and acting.

She and Jim were also in hot pursuit of whatever Scrabble tournaments were afoot. They travelled all over to compete, and they were obsessed with word and mind games, so much so that their new home's basement was being turned into a gamer's paradise. We're not talking video games, here, we're talking games that tested a person's mind and intelligence, games that fed her competitive spirit.

At our Starbuck's meeting, Donna talked a mile a minute, as she always did, with eyes that glittered and the grin of the cat who swallowed the canary. I don't remember one instance when Donna wasn't smiling. It was just her way.

While some of us merely phone it in every day, Donna lived her life with purpose. Every moment needed to be filled, and every task needed to be performed with enthusiasm and relish. It's as if she knew that she didn't have time on her side.

And she didn't. She died yesterday from a cancer that took her quickly.

I first met Donna Balkan at Carleton University. I was an undergrad, and she was one of those smarty pants who'd already done one degree and was picking up another one in journalism. At Carleton, she was a bustler, too. She stood out, not in the way some students did by being professional ball breakers, but in a sunny, Gosh, gee, get 'er done sort of way.

When she graduated, she immediately got a job at the Ottawa Citizen as part of Nelson Skuce's odd exercise in community building called Neighborhood News. Donna and her cohorts travelled around the city like Sheiks on parade, in their own personal sunflower yellow Citizen cars. They became, if only for a brief moment in time, the newspaper's calling card.

There was no story too small for the Neighborhood Newsies, and their efforts got star billing in the newspaper. It wasn't exactly a "hip" job but Donna took it on as if she'd been appointed to the national news bureau.

Because that's the way she operated.

Donna was engaged.

After she left the Citizen, she threw herself into the union movement, then worked in human rights, and finally landed in the government where she worked for years at the Canada Council for the Arts. Finally, she found herself at the CCA, in a job she truly loved.  Donna always loved making a difference.

She told me she was retiring, but Donna could never retire. After Donna and Jim moved out East, she took a job at Dalhousie University as a communications officer. Like a shiny penny rolling down hill, she just couldn't slow down.

She was always the centre of attention. She liked it that way.

But it was her role as wife to Jim that became her star turn. When they were together, they sparkled. I hate the word "soul mate," because it is over-used but it fit them like a glove. They shared so many interests and adventures, along with a lot of laughs over the years.

In a world of uncertainty and pain, they presented a united front of joy and fun -- right to the end.

I was sad to hear of her passing today. We will miss Donna, and wish her well, as she
dances among the stars.

Here's to you, kid.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Kenny Files: A Baby for Christmas

Yesterday, I was sitting in my chair with Kenny on my lap, and she was fiddling with her soother, the one with the little froggy attached. She was worrying the legs, as I bounced her up and down.

She was having a terrible day, drooling everywhere, really crabby thanks to those dastardly teeth coming in.

Scott, meanwhile, was unpacking the fake tree, the one we got free of charge about four years ago when the neighbor put it out in the trash. It is decorated with donated ornaments and lights which have replaced the ones that my son Nick accidentally threw out.. Man, was I mad at him that Christmas.

We simply didn't know what to do. We had no money that year. And that's when we spotted the tree, out there in the snow, still in its original box.

Free to good home, the neighbor had scrawled.

I mentioned on Facebook that all of our ornaments were gone, and a few kind people dropped off boxes of them, or donated their old ones. I was truly touched. You people, you know who you are, and I am still thankful when I take them out of the boxes.

The recycled tree is still as beautiful as it could be, at least in the eyes of Kenny, a baby on her first Christmas, who was looking at it through her shiny black eyes, laughing between munches of her soother.

I often hold her beautiful, pudgy little hand and examine it next to mine. Hers is smooth and dark, mine is gnarled from onset arthritis and age. And I think about how awesome it would be to have a shiny new brain instead of a craggy old Swiss cheese brain that has been battered by life, disappointment, bad cholesterol and a high lifetime average of red wine.

Thankfully, everyday, she sprinkles me with new baby stardust, and I feel, at least for a few hours, young again. She has taught me to see the world with new clarity, spirit and purpose. I've missed that, through the in-between years, the after graduation years when the kids went off on their respective journeys, and I was left at home, rudderless, alone. I was sure that I would die in my chair, and be found eventually, having been eaten by pugs.

Kennedy has arrived at a good time in our lives. She is the gift that keeps on giving, with her gummy smiles, her unruly curls, and her fury when she is grumpy. I spend every day with her, and I love it.

I have grown patient in my dotage. I no longer get frustrated with flying spoons of baby food landing in the pug's hair. Nor do I get mad when she cries all afternoon. I just smile at her, and try to make her laugh, and sing corny old songs to her.

I love you a bushel and a peck.
A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.

What an incredibly stupid song. What the heck does that mean, anyway?

Kenny doesn't care, she just stops the waterworks and starts bopping her head. She is so trusting, and loving, and full of joy and possibility.

She has made me famous at the grocery store. Everybody, and I mean everybody, stops and smiles when they see her, the little mixed race baby being driven around by a couple of old flabby white folks.

People are nicer to us, I swear.

It took Scott about an hour to put up the fake tree, give it light, and sweep up. I looked at Kenny with her eyes wide open, admiring the colored lights, then I looked at Scott and smiled.

Nobody is luckier than we are on this Christmas.

And I mean nobody.

I looked back at Kenny and she was sound asleep, sitting straight up, still slurping on her frog soother. I let her fall into my arms, and I hugged her for an hour.

Somedays, I never want to let her go.

Being a Grandparent is the coolest.

Ah man, life doesn't get better than this.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Ashley Simpson: Please Come Home For Christmas

It's been seven months since Ashley Simpson left her home in Salmon Arm, disappearing into thin air.

My Christmas wish for her family is that they will have some news, but it's not looking good.

I thought of this song, a war time song, that was penned for all those families who were missing their loved ones during the holidays.

I dedicate it to her family, and pray for news soon.

The cancer diaries: Smile

On a dark and crisp morning, last November, too early even for the murder of crows that normally hovers over the Ottawa Hospital, my friend Jennette and I joined a steady stream of haggard looking souls padding into the Ottawa Cancer Centre. Some people looked frightened, others simply dazed, and few looked bloody famished.

My soul cried out for coffee, but it seemed rude to slurp a Starbucks in front of the unfortunates who had been fasting for hours. So I just doodled on my iPad and watched the sleepy bunch try to amuse themselves. There we sat, the friends and relatives of the cancer gang, clutching on to our loved ones or trying to be chill, reading Smart Phones, flipping through old magazines, or watching the CBC News with no sound. This was a shitty place to cool your heels.

We all have that memory of our first surgery. Mine was tonsils, pretty pedestrian stuff. But on that morning, my six-year-old memory muscle transported me to the operating halls of the St. Catharines General where a terrifying bunch of masked bandits hovered over me, and applied ether. All these years later, I can still remember that smell and those terrifying masks.

Of course, the operating rooms of today look nothing like the one I remembered from my youth. They are friendly places with nary a Nurse Ratchet in sight.

Still, it's a place where God gives you permission to be frightened. After all, a person could wake up dead.

After a half hour of waiting, Jennette's name was called. The nurse took her back and said she'd come and get me after they'd done some tests. Five minutes later, the same nurse rushed out to say that Jennette had fainted and hit her head in the bathroom.

So instead of having scary cancer surgery, we ended up in the ER while the doctors topped up her fluids.

What a brilliant waste of time.

Two weeks later, two days before Christmas, we resumed the perp walk.

This time, the operation went ahead.

Looking back at that time, I remember vividly how scared I was, and how sad I felt spending Christmas with Jennette in the observation unit surrounded by fake Christmas presents. The smells of Christmas and the sounds of carols were replaced by a waft of alcohol, and the beeping of heart monitors.

There was no turkey dinner, only water, and later pudding and Instant breakfast.

I've had a few shitty Christmases, like the time my husband announced he was leaving me with our three kids, or that other year when my Grandma died just a week before the holidays. But this was absolutely heart-stoppingly terrible.

And I wasn't the person who had surgery.

Little did I know last Christmas that months later I would also be diagnosed with cancer.

Fortunately, mine was not as serious as Jennette's.

I lost part of my ear, she lost half the bottom of her mouth.

It's been a long journey for Jennette since this time last fall. She had to learn to live on mush and goo instead of her beloved ribs and wings. Her life has been an endless pop from one specialist to another, her life made even more difficult for the fact that her father fell terminally ill just weeks after her surgery so she spent most of the winter and spring sitting vigil with him in hospice.

The timing of her father's decline was unfortunate, at least as far as the radiologist was concerned. Radiation was recommended, but Jennette refused it because she needed to spend those precious days with her father. By the time Jim passed, the window for radiation had also passed, which turned out to be a blessing.

You see, Jennette was cancer-free and didn't absolutely, positively, need the radiation which would have left her toothless.

Let me tell you something about my little friend.

Jennette has had a pretty hard life these past years. She looked after her ailing husband through a series of horrific illnesses. She waited on him hand and foot, paid for everything, worked two jobs, motored through two hip replacements and foot surgery. Then she spent her life savings burying Roger and getting her life back together.

Then she got cancer. Then her beloved father got sick.

She's had her setbacks, don't get me wrong. And she almost caved after Jim's death when, in her words "she didn't know who she was anymore."

I have worried myself silly over this nice lady because she couldn't catch a break.

But she never took her eye off the ball.

She survived cancer, she survived the death of her loved ones, she survived all of life's disappointments, but GOD DAMN IT, she was going to have teeth.

So foregoing radiation was just fine by Jennette.

Because, as my grandma used to sing, "all she wanted for Christmas were her two front teeth."

For months, the doctors told Jennette she couldn't, wouldn't have teeth. They talked about the new normal.

Jennette talked about tearing into a rib or a chicken wing.

She wanted teeth. Thanks to her Dad, she had the means to find somebody, anybody to give them to her.

Jennette found a team of dentists who were willing to take on the challenge of making her new teeth, not an easy task considering the cancer surgery had removed her bottom gum and left a weird flap under her tongue.

Trouble was, she couldn't have implants because her surgeon warned they would shatter her jaw.

The first dentist jumped back, said no thank you, ma'am, that's too complicated. The second one said, right on, let's get started.

A few weeks back, I drove Jennette to the dentist for her surgery. I was about to leave and the assistant told me that it wouldn't be long. So I sat down, had a coffee and an hour later she was done.

She walked out like she'd just gone in for a cleaning.

Jennette smiled at me through a bloody gob, but there they were, sure enough: a full set of gleaming choppers. And she looked just great.

I want to admit something. I listened to the doctors, and didn't believe she would ever have teeth. Being a friend, though, I wanted to support Jennette and help her hold on to her hopes and dreams.

I was wrong, and I usually hate being wrong.

Not this time.

I'm telling you this story because every cancer patient needs to hold on to their hopes and dreams, however big or small. They need not accept the first opinion or even the fifth. Nor should they listen to well meaning friends.

The best thing, I learned through this experience is a person has to go with her gut.

And be brave.

Sometimes it doesn't work out, but shouldn't we all hang on to hope, even when things look bleak?

Here she is, the new and improved Jennette Lovie.

Way to go, girl!

By the way, there's nothing stopping Jennette.

She's on to her next project.

She tells me next year she's going for cataract surgery and will no longer need the glasses she's worn since the 60s.


Saturday, 19 November 2016

The cancer diaries: You can leave your hat on

Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today I saw one. I couldn't believe it. It got on at 42nd -- and got off at 59th, where I assume it was going to Bloomingdale's to buy a hat that will turn out to be a mistake. As almost all hats are. -- Nora Ephron

When I was younger, I used to wear baseball caps all the time.
I loved them.
When I got into my 50s, I realized that the only baseball caps made for women my age were bedazzled, and were accompanied by pot bellies in velour track suits.
That ended my love affair with baseball hats.
I haven't worn a hat since. I don't like them. They give me sweaty hair and make my head itchy.

Today, I will have to change all that.
Today, I will go out an buy a hat, maybe two, to cover and protect my ear which received a skin graft last week follow microsurgery.
I will need the hat to protect my ear and my dignity.
Don't get me wrong. The plastic surgeon did a great job, although she did make me look like a Spawn of Spock from Star Trek. At the moment, it's still pretty raw and looks like Sophie the pug got hold of it and chewed it.
So I'm hoping the hat will protect me from ridicule.
I also need the hat because, if I don't wear it when I go outside, the skin graft will turn brown and I'll look like a basset hound.

Buying the hat is good news. It means I no longer have to walk around with a big white bandage over half my head like the victim of a drone strike.
Wearing the big white bandage wasn't the worst part. The worst part was having to apply the surgical tape daily. It simply wouldn't stick, and kept sliding off the river of the Vaseline on my ear. At one point during my Trump Trauma last week, I was so frustrated that I got drunk and wrapped the tape around my head like a mummy. The next morning, I realized my folly and spent an hour pulling tufts of hair out of my head. Now, I rather resemble a half plucked Swiss Chalet chicken.

Like every other skin cancer patient, my goal is to try to look as normal as possible during the period described as "the new normal". It's the time when the person is adjusting to her new reality. Some people have to get used to having a face for a while that looks like it's been shot by kids trying out their new BB guns. In my case, it has been a time of general sliminess and such smelliness that got the dog so excited she tried to enjoy my bandage as an tasty delight.

Ah such is the world with small world problems. I am grateful that my cancer was only the maiming kind, not the killing kind, the dumbass cancer that one receives like a trophy from all those years playing bad tennis and golf, and after too many afternoons spent on sunny decks drinking swill and making fun of hipsters.
But I am lucky. It was only my ear, something that can be hidden by hair and hats.
Some of my ilk are not so lucky.
Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours in the MOHS clinic which is located near the front entrance of the old Riverside Hospital. The place was packed with patients having the same procedure I had last week, and most of them were holding big white bandages to their noses, cheeks and foreheads. The MOHS clinic is a sombre place, not like other cancer places where I've taken friends.
There is no trading of turmeric recipes at this clinic at the MOHS clinic.
This place looks like a M.A.S.H. unit.
Really, it's an amazing place filled with kindly staff with big smiles. The fine doctors are true artists who treat patients like people not colons.

I waited only for about half an hour to get my stitches out. It all went beautifully, though I was horrified to learn that the bad smell around my ear came from "necrotic" skin which was rotting.
Double gross.
The doctor gave me some ointment to make it better and to ensure my ear doesn't fall off.
Ah, the glamor that is my life.
Anyway, I am thankful that I successfully passed this leg of my cancer journey.
And I pledge to myself to stop being a dumb ass, and keep my face and ear out of the sun, or at least under a hat. It could be a lot worse. Carmen Miranda made a career of where stupid hats.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Happy birthday, Ashley Simpson: Seven months gone

Today, on your birthday, your mom and dad are lighting a bonfire in your honor.

The assembled friends and family feel the warmth, but it doesn't come from the fire. It comes from the love that embraces them, your love, which you left behind when you disappeared nearly seven months ago.

You tell us not to be sad. You tell us to rejoice.

In your short time here, you made your mark.

You say:

Do not be afraid, I am with you, forever with you.

I am at peace.

My spirit pulses through your veins, my laughter lives within all of you.

I am somewhere, catching the big fish, teasing and cajoling.

I am one with you.

Always and forever.

For I know, that I am forever loved.

And that means the world.

From those who miss you, know this.

You will always be with us, in your special way.

To you, my cousin, whom I never met, but feel I know. To you, I say this.

You are the girl who touched my heart, and the hearts of so many.

We love you.



Know, too, that we will not rest until you are found.

Happy birthday. Sleep well.

You will always be young and beautiful.

You are remembered in our hearts forever.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The cancer diaries: Ear today, gone tomorrow

In the spring of this year, I was diagnosed with skin cancer on my right ear. It had been growing on the top of it for years, and had been misdiagnosed as a minor bedsore by my family doctor who will be forever known as the Worst Family Doctor in Ontario.
He left town in the spring, fleeing a malpractice suit not doubt. That's when I showed the painful bump to a young walk-in doctor who literally jumped back after she looked at it.
"You have skin cancer," she told me.
Not shit, Sherlock.
She quickly found me a dermatologist who confirmed the diagnosis and lopped off a big chunk of the offending tissue and referred me to a MOHS clinic, one of the first of its kind in Canada. The wait time was eight months, and I'd almost forgotten about it.
This week, I got a call.
"Can you come in within the hour?" the receptionist asked.
"Can I?"
The stars had aligned. My granddaughter is usually in my care but her dad had decided to work from home on Wednesday. My friend Jennette had called just minutes before the doctor's office called, inviting me to lunch.
Instead, she was treated to yogurt from the cafeteria and a two hour gabfest with other patients, most of whom looked to be in their 70s. It reminded me of the time I got cataract surgery five years ago, when I was the only non-geriatric patient in eye surgery daycare.
There was no time to be nervous. I planted myself in the chair of Dr. Jillian Macdonald who is one of the only doctors in town who does this MOHS stuff which is a methodical, and highly sophisticated process, which involves a tag team of surgeons and a pathologist who take layer after layer of skin from the offending area, and get it analysed on the spot. Each layer is taken until the pathologist can no longer find the cancer -- in my case, basal carcinoma. At that time, the patient is declared cancer-free and is discharged to go and either get more skin cancer, or smarten up.
Dermatology has come a long way from the days when a surgeon would take a scalpel and lop off your ear, only to have you come back in a few weeks to have more cut off. Old fashioned surgery was kind of like flying only with instruments in a storm. JFK Jr. did that, and look what happened.
Today's MOHS surgery is much less painful and much less stressful.
My procedure took less than two hours even though it required the assistance of the tiny fingers of a plastic surgical resident who "closed me up" and dressed the wound with a piece of the back of my ear -- virgin skin from place where the sun don't shine. That graft was able to repair the top of my ear which lost about a baby finger-sized piece of humanity. The longest part of the surgery was the transplant, and the time spent suturing me up like a trussed piglet.
I learned something about myself. The plastic surgeon told me my right ear stuck out more than my left. Now they were even. It was like God left me a little extra room on the right side so that I might learn my lesson.
It was pretty easy-peasy, though the sight of me did scare my daughter when she dropped off little Kenny the next day. Kenny was non-plussed and spent the last couple of days trying to rip my bandage off with her little seven month old fingers.
You really can't scare a baby with that stuff.
The worst part of it is having to wear a big bandage which is designed to keep the surgical site moist, and ensure that the skin graft doesn't shrivel up and plop off over dinner. The bandage isn't easy to put on -- and keep on -- and doesn't do much as a fashion statement. I didn't care much -- I was just happy to be declared "cancer-free".
As I sat there on the surgeon's table, I thought to myself what I dumbass I have been all these years. I spent decades playing tennis and golf, and frolicking in the surf wearing a baseball cap, with never a thought to the fact that my ears, indeed, were made of the same skin as my nose and chin.
From now on, the ear will always been a reminder of all the risks I've taken over the years.
I have many scars including one on the other ear from the time I fell of a couch and landed on a coffee table ending a spirited conversation during a political convention.
But this one, I will remember the most.
Skin cancer is payback for dumbassery.
Thankfully, basal carcinoma won't kill you. It will just kick your vanity in the nuts.
Still, I'm grateful the cancer was one the outside.