National Post Barbara Kay: Finding hope in the unlikeliest ways

National Post - Friday February 26th, 2021

Timely stories of loss and trauma that offer hope for the future

In January 2014, Harold Heft, a successful writer, educator and communications executive, learned he had inoperable brain cancer of the kind that killed the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie. He had less than two years to live. In that precious time, working with his beloved wife Suzanne Heft, a social activist and fundraiser, and his close friend Peter O’Brien, journalist, author, entrepreneur and fundraiser, Harold saw his envisioned legacy project — a collection of personal stories by Canadians of diverse background about trauma, loss and other forms of suffering — begin to take shape.

A Perfect Offering: Personal stories of trauma and transformation, is now a published reality. But what timing! The editors couldn’t have known about COVID-19 when they planned the book, but surely this is the worst time to bring out a compendium of sad stories?

No, says Suzanne Heft in a phone interview, it’s a good time. “We are in a state of collective mourning for our lost norms and certainties.” Telling stories is how we make sense of what Ms. Heft calls our “forced awakenings.” It is the expression of loss that “propels us forward in coming to terms with that loss.” For the writers in this book, telling their stories — some for the first time — has been liberating.

My own takeaway from the book tended not toward the suffering endured, but to the will of the narrators to make peace with their fate if necessary, and, where possible, to swim up from the depths and turn their face to the sun again. They were one person “before,” another “after.” They radiate survivor empowerment.

Neena Saloiya has been blind since birth. She lost both parents and her brothers before she was 30. She does not ask for pity — I should say none of these writers is asking for pity — but she often feels she is not seen by others. She writes, “I hate not having braille labels on public washroom doors.” (Of course! Such a small thing.) Because she has to ask, and “The more I have to ask sighted people questions, the more they feel they can comment on my life.” She has several educational degrees, a home-based business, a husband, a loved guide dog, Fargo.

Too often, it isn’t the writer’s own onrushing death that’s at the centre of the story, but a child’s. The parents’ anguish is incalculable, but in their love-drenched, tenderly written stories of doomed babies and children, they do these tragically short lives great honour.

Other times it is the writers themselves who have struggled with disease, mainly cancer. Some writers chose poetry to express their feelings about illness. In “Awaiting biopsy results,” poet Kenneth Sherman quotes Simone Weil: “Suffering is time without direction.” In “between destinies,” artist Charles C. Smith writes of his mother’s agony in the loss of a previous child while pregnant with him: “you must have felt torn as no other/ between destinies with a small heart at work in your womb.”

You can tell immediately when you are reading an Indigenous writer’s story. It has a unique cadence. Jules Arita Koostachin’s story of intergenerational resilience, an homage to her Cree mother who survived a “notorious” residential school in Fort Albany, James Bay, slips fluidly between the prosaic, the poetic and the spiritual. Her ancestors inhabit this short memoir, their presence noted with reverence, a sense of the sacred.

Celebrated photo-journalist Paul Watson graciously contributed a set of poignant photos of children traumatized by war, earthquakes, cyclones and other forms of ineluctable external violence, accompanied by moving testimonies to the appalling conditions under which the photos were taken. The faces!

The book was brought to my attention by my friend Judith John, whose own story — beautifully rendered — appears here. I have followed Judith’s multiple (benign) brain tumour-related surgeries and debilitating side effects over the years of their unfolding, and my admiration for her ever-positive response to adversity — “I am the most stubbornly glad person, ever” — is boundless. Judith hates burdening friends with her pain — what, after all, can they do for her? — and writing about it — connecting with the world — opened the vault of her suffering’s isolation. As a former hospital executive and caregiver for her husband during his own tense sojourn in Cancerland, not to mention a seasoned communications expert, Judith is uniquely qualified for her “after” role as a globetrotting ambassador for patients’ rights.

In Harold Heft’s story, written in extremis, he poses existential questions: “What is a definition of a life well-lived under (my) circumstances?” and “In what way am I still the person I always was?” Peter O’Brien’s father died when he was two, one of 10 children. His astonishingly resilient mother married a widower with 12 children, and then warmly welcomed an ailing brother and blind aunt with Down syndrome into their home.

Don’t read the stories back to back. The range of tribulation — disease, rape, addiction, severe autism, terror attack, grave injury, imprisonment and torture — is wide, but the book is not meant to be a victimhood Olympiad. Every experience is unique and worthy of contemplation without comparison.

In modern societies, the inevitable deaths of the past can often be thwarted by medical advances. Paradoxically, we are far more terribly afraid of death than our ancestors were. A Perfect Offering invites us to confront, and may even help us to overcome, our deepest fears.

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