Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Marriage Master Class ... Day 22

"How did the two of you get together anyway?" I asked her.

We were sipping coffee in the little sitting area just off Brian's palliative care room, waiting for the caregivers to finish washing him and dressing him for the day.

Char's tired eyes lit up. "His office was across the hall from mine and I had been friendly with them. As a matter of fact Betty, his first wife, had typed part of my thesis.

"Then some time after she passed away he started to pop into my office and chat for a few minutes. That was something new ..."

One thing led to another and he asked her to have dinner with him. At  La Chaumiere, of course - only the best would do on the occasion when he would declare to her that his intention was to "change [her] status ..."

He took her back there to propose.

Here was a woman who was perfectly content - thriving, even - with her life. Brilliant and articulate, her career as a teacher and in the upper ranks of administration in a Christian college was pointing in an upward trajectory. She hadn't been "looking for a man!"

And yet ... 

He got it out of her that when she was a little girl she had always dreamed of having an outdoor wedding.

He decreed that she should have the wedding of her dreams. And so it was that the sun shone bright for the beautiful bride as she walked, sedately but beaming, down the red-carpeted aisle toward her Prince Charming. The carpet came courtesy of the Calgary Flames, our nearest National Hockey League team - it was the one they used when they won the Stanley Cup and somehow Brian had managed to borrow it for the occasion of her wedding. Her processional was accompanied by the joyful serenade of trumpeters standing on the roof of the adjacent building.

They had so much fun together. "You know," she continued, "Not many men back then would have been willing to take on the challenges of marrying a woman who was independent and at what people might say was a higher level professionally ..."

I interrupted her: "And not many women of your stature would have been willing to 'submit' in the biblical sense ..."

She paused, and then said, "You know, it never felt like 'submission'. It was Brian. It wasn't difficult."

He took her travelling; they moved to Calgary and started a Bed and Breakfast; and together, over the years, they integrated the family until his children became "our children." He encouraged her intellectual pursuits and proudly touted her accomplishments. She told of one Bed and Breakfast meeting where he had just been elected president of the association. The person introducing him spoke of his many professional triumphs, how he had earned his PhD., how he travelled around giving lectures, how he had been a vice president of a college, etc., etc. He sat there listening, smiling broadly, as the accolades continued. Finally, when he got up to speak, he said, "Thank you for that wonderful introduction. Everything you said was about my wife!" 

He treated her like a queen; but he never pandered to her, gave in to her or lorded it over her. He had, as my Dad says, "nothing to prove, nothing to lose." Because he came into the relationship with open hands, as did she, their marriage thrived. This was no marriage of convenience, or of loneliness, or of desperation to lose the appellations spinster and widower. This was a rare true meeting of the minds, the bodies, the hearts, the souls. This was a master class on Two becoming One, made even more impressive than watching twenty-something newlyweds because these two were already established in their own ways of thinking and habits of living and they showed how to adapt with grace and style and humour and love. 

As the first signs of his illness became apparent, she never flinched. She made the minor adjustments required for them to continue with their full lives. And she started researching and seeking medical opinions and advice.
At Lois Lewis's wedding shower. Brian was
the only man who showed up! His advice
to the bride? "Be on time!"

When it became clear that this was not going to be a temporary setback, she adjusted her mindset and channelled her formidable skillset into how to make their life together as normal as it could possibly be under the circumstances. She found the best wheelchair, one that would be comfortable for him but still manageable for her to push, even uphill and on snowy surfaces when need be. Camping had always been a particular joy for them, and so she adapted their camper with some sort of contraption that would get Brian into a chair that she could hoist into the vehicle. She learnt how to bend and lift and move in ways that wouldn't do permanent damage to her back. She got a vehicle that made it easier for her to assist Brian in getting in and out of it; when the time came, she researched and tracked down a van that had a suitable wheelchair lift. She found the electric wheelchair so that he had some control of his movements.

She got their home adapted as well, so that they could be together. There were ramps and lifts and pulleys and all the equipment that home care could supply to enable them to carry on with their days. Then there was home care itself toward the end when it became too difficult for one person to move Brian.
At Naomi and John's wedding reception

And she learnt to ask for help. At first it was just someone to hold the wheelchair as she assisted Brian out of the car. It was an assist over the door jamb. It was moving a chair for the wheelchair to be able to pull up to a table.  Then it was counting on their dear, faithful neighbour John to help her get Brian into the van for their daily coffee with their morning coffee group. It was  accepting their close friend Ted's offer to go to Vancouver to pick up the new van. It was picking up the phone and calling Arnold, or Richard, or Dad, or Len, or other people to come and work on his shoulders, to massage his feet, to press on his spine for some relief of the ever present pain, the encroaching stiffness of his limbs.

She continued, as long as possible, to enable them to travel. Their greatest joy was going to visit Rebecca in British Columbia and Bob in Texas. How they delighted in their grandchildren and prayed for them daily!

But above everything that they accomplished together, the most admirable of all to me was this: she never saw herself as the caregiver or him as the patient. She would subtly direct the behind-the-scenes in order to enable him to participate as fully and as normally as possible, to retain his dignity. For example, as he was navigating his way into the TH on his motorized wheels she would come over to me and murmur, "Brian will need a larger spoon today ..."

A typical Saturday morning at the TH ...
And she continued to respect and admire and fully engage his formidable mind, which remained as strong and as sharp as ever until the very end. Even when his voice became weaker and weaker, she never spoke for him, and she never rushed him. In the hospital, when no one else could really make out what he was saying, she would put her ear right up to his mouth; invariably she would be able to transmit his exact words.

Lastly, what she gave to all of us who know and love them was themselves. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable, funny, ascerbic, serious, inclusive. No one who came to visit was ever turned away. They knew that people longed to help; and in accepting our help they showed us that sometimes it is okay - sometimes it is more blessed - to receive than to give.

One of the last times they were out and about was Prairie's homecoming this summer. Kim Wong, one of Brian's Hebrew language students, captured this "one brief shining moment." This extraordinary picture has been a great comfort to Brian's family. "He caught the old expression in my Dad's eyes ..." exclaimed Rebecca.

Shortly after the doctors told them that it was now more of a matter of eternity than of time, she met me at the entrance to the long corridor that would lead us to his room. Her face was drawn, ashen from days of vigil at his bedside and nights of snatched minutes of sleep. "I think we're losing him," she whispered and crumpled into my arms. We wept together for a few anguished moments. Then she straightened her shoulders, blew her nose and with deliberation walked the length of that hall, about the length of a great red carpet on a sunny day, to meet her groom. "Honey, I'm here!" she called out in a voice of cheer and love, showing not one iota of the wracking grief of moments earlier.

She is the one who, when the time came, planned the service and took care of the arrangements. She wrote the eulogy. She even spoke at the funeral, thanking people for their friendship and what they meant to Brian and her ... 

She will celebrate two Thanksgivings this year: the first, Canadian Thanksgiving, was spent with Rebecca and Tyler and their boys. The second, American Thanksgiving, will be spent with Bob and his family.

She is valiantly learning how to carry on in this amputated life. She carries herself with dignity and with poise, just like he would want her to.

And yet ... "I miss Brian desperately," she quietly admitted yesterday evening. My mind immediately cast back to about three and a half years earlier when we had a 20th anniversary morning tea in the TH for them. We went around the circle and everyone said how they knew Brian and Char and what they as a couple meant to the speaker.

Then it came to Char. She looked at Brian, who had just experienced one of those plunges into worse health a few days earlier. He was sitting in a chair near the fireplace, next to her. His voice was extremely weak but his eyes were sparkling as he looked back at her.

She thanked people for coming and then she fixed her eyes on him. "And I want to thank Brian for the past 20 years," she said softly. "If I had to go back and do it all again, I wouldn't change a thing."


  1. Thank you. Unbelievably beautiful, and yet they made it believable and do-able.

    1. And Karyn, thank you for spelling out the practical steps Char took to create the path of hope and faith on which to walk. A template; truly a masterclass. Thank you, gracious, courageous Char ... and Brian. Your teaching, in and out of the classroom, lives on.

  2. What an incredible woman Char is! I miss those mornings at the tea house having coffee with them. This is a beautiful tribute to both of them, Karyn, and a challenge and an encouragement to me. Thank you for posting this.

  3. Thank you for inviting us to participate in this wonderful celebration of a brave, thoughtful, intelligent, kind woman. A real capture of this; A rich Marriage, both so well loved.

  4. I truly enjoyed reading what you wrote. I am very honored to have the picture which I took as part of your story, and was pleasantly surprised to see my name being mentioned. Thank you for what you wrote about Mr. Brian and Miss Char. Life is beautiful. Thank You, Jesus.


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