Digging in the Dirt: One Year In


The day after Mike died I mowed our lawn and yanked weeds.

It needed to be done. And I needed to do it.

Over the following few months, gardening became a salve for my grief.

A year later, I again found myself on hands and knees pulling weeds and trimming hedges.

This time the setting was Victoria; in the garden of Mike’s best friend Kim.

Will and I were back to see Mike’s hometown, visit his mother, and see the ocean again.

Over the past year I have tried not to pay much emotional notice to dates, anniversaries, birthdays and holidays.

Part of my casual blindness of these dates comes from the business of life. I work, I write, I raise my son.

Who has time to get jammed up about the next milestone when you’re just trying to make dinner and do the laundry?

But another part of me wonders if my ignorance is my heart’s coping mechanism.

Every day is a day without Mike. So what makes my birthday, his birthday, or name an occasion, any different?

There is longing. And there’s is always a sense that he’s missing out; we’re missing out. So what can a person do?

I get my hands dirty.

And so that’s where I found myself one year after his death.

We were in his beloved hometown Victoria, and I clawed the dirt with my mucky hands evicting weeds from a beautiful garden.

It felt good to direct my lingering grief even if — in the moment — I didn’t make that connection.

I spent hours digging, trimming and tugging overgrown greenery from the earth.

And instead of tears, drips of sweat rolled down my cheeks.


The Making of a Widow

Monday, August 18, 2008  - Calgary, Alberta  Calgary Lawyer, and dual-U.S.-Canadian citizen, Gerald Chipeur in his office on Monday, August 18, 2008. Chipeur the former head of Republicans Abroad Canada displays a photo of himself and Senator John McCain. Chipeur has a long history representing right-of-centre political parties and groups (the Reform, the Alliance, the Conservatives, Focus on the Family, etc.) and is not unknown to U.S. conservative political circles.  Photo by CHRIS BOLIN for Macleans Magazine
(Photo by Chris Bolin)


It’s very weird being a widow at age 44. It’s even weirder when people refer to me as ‘a widow.’

For context, I would rather be called the dreaded ‘ma’am’ than ‘widow.’ The ladies out there will know the horror of first hearing themselves referred to as ‘ma’am.’ It is unsettling and icky. It’s as if you cross an invisible threshold into old age. Inside, you may feel like your 20-something self, but your actual, outside 3o-plus-plus self isn’t fooling anyone. That’s how ‘widow’ feels too. It stings.

The truth is I don’t feel 44 and I don’t feel like a widow. I feel married and 80-years-old. In the past four years, I have aged tremendously, both physically, emotionally and mentally. And in my mind, I am still married.

Mike has just been gone a little more than a month. All his clothes remain in the closet and his jackets still hang at the front door. Some mornings, I catch myself thinking he’ll be coming down the stairs to join me for coffee.

Cancer changed me. My hair is greyer, my waistline is thicker and I have permanent dark circles under my eyes. Add a perpetual lack of sleep and a lot less energy and I am a perfect shadow of my former self.

Emotionally, I am hollowed out. Cancer took so much from me, besides Mike. My spirit is heavier. I feel wiser and stronger, sure, but it came at a very big cost. I have depression. It is under control according to me, my doctor and my CancerCare therapist.

Mentally, I am impaired. My brain is mushy and if I didn’t know better, I’d think I had dementia. My  therapist assures me I am not losing my mind. It’s just temporarily misplaced. A year from now I won’t remember a stitch of what I am going through right now. Grief and trauma messes with minds. So, until my synapses start firing properly again, I write everything down. My day timer has become my diary and my to-do list. This blog becomes a record of my life. (Keep on reading, I promise lighter posts are coming soon.)

Even with all that, I try not to dwell on all the things cancer has tried to take away from Mike, Will and I.  In time, my spirit will be lighter, my mind will be sharper and I will be happy. Who knows, maybe love will find me again.

But please, please, until then, don’t call me ‘widow.’ Or ‘ma’am.’

Daddy’s in the Ground



“Daddy’s in the ground.”

My four-year-old son has taken to randomly telling family, friends and even strangers this conversation stopper.

I cringe every time I hear his little voice saying those four words.

I never quite know how to respond.

Technically, it’s not even true. My husband Mike (Will’s father) is actually in an urn on a book shelf in our kitchen.

Mike had metastatic synovial sarcoma. We caught it too late. When he was diagnosed in June 2011 it had already spread to his lungs. Doctors gently but plainly told us, “It’s treatable, not curable.”

Will was 10 months old. Our son has grown up with doctors and nurses, in hospitals and waiting rooms. After he learned to speak, he told us that the doctors were giving Daddy medicine to help his cough. The cough subsided at times, but never really went away.

When Will first asked me what dying was, I told him it was like a flower that blooms in spring; grows leaves in summer; and then slowly as each leaf browns and falls off, the plant withers up in autumn. His toddler brain accepted my definition.

I am sure there are much clearer and age-appropriate explanations out there.

The day after Mike died, I sat Will down after play school on our front lawn and told him Daddy’s body stopped working. Daddy died. I explained it a second time. I didn’t get into specifics and tried to remember what phrases not to use. (Helpful tip: Don’t tell kids the dead have ‘gone to sleep.’ Ask any parent: putting kids to sleep is hard enough without the terrifying spectre of never waking again.)

It was a short conversation on our lawn. Will didn’t cry. Was that a look of confusion crossing his face? Who could tell? I certainly couldn’t. I don’t think he asked any questions. Grief brain, that fog, memory loss, and state of confusion, had already taken hold of me.

Will toddled off inside with my mother in search of a snack and his cartoons as I sat on the grass wondering, ‘what next?’

Was I in denial? No, I knew this day was always coming. But why wasn’t I crying more often; and why, after calling all the people on our ‘he’s dead’ list, was I so compelled to mow the front and back lawns earlier that morning. It was 14 hours since I whispered in my sweetheart’s ear to ‘let go,’ ‘take your rest,’ and ‘you are surrounded by love, my darling.’ His breathing slowed and he slipped away peacefully.

Tending the grass just hours later seemed like a natural thing to do. What else was there? My husband was dead, the grass was long. I could change only one of them.

Since his death in late May, our yard gives me joy.

Planting flowers, weeding, cutting the grass, daily monitoring of the growth of our carrots and peas and coaxing wildflowers to bloom lightens me.

Gardening has become a salve for my grief.

It’s tactile, dirty, sweaty and so, so satisfying. Every snip of the clippers and weed pulled from the earth delivers instant gratification.

I may be over thinking this but after four years of fighting and failing to keep my love alive, it’s rewarding to help something survive and thrive.

Mike, Will and I had a great life together. We flourished in each other’s company. But cancer was our weed. Despite all efforts to kill it, cancer always grew back. And as it grew, Mike withered, bit by bit.

So now I tend to my sunrise roses (Mike’s favourite), faithfully fertilizing my precious buds every two weeks. Sunflowers (also his favourite) have started to sprout. By autumn, they will touch the eavestrough at the back of our house. My peas are going gangbusters and my carrots are coming along nicely. Pots of mixed flowers have mysteriously appeared on my front deck.

My friend delivered a cranberry bush recently, in honour of Mike. It seems a fitting tribute. So sometime soon, armed with a spade, I will dig a new home for our new greenery. I will use the special root feed to make it feel at home. And I will sprinkle a few of Mike’s ashes into the mix.

Will and I will watch it grow, year after year. Life will go on. Seasons will change.

And maybe, just maybe it’s OK that Daddy’s in the ground.

Leaping Forward, Walking on Air

Monday, August 18, 2008  - Calgary, Alberta  Calgary Lawyer, and dual-U.S.-Canadian citizen, Gerald Chipeur in his office on Monday, August 18, 2008. Chipeur the former head of Republicans Abroad Canada displays a photo of himself and Senator John McCain. Chipeur has a long history representing right-of-centre political parties and groups (the Reform, the Alliance, the Conservatives, Focus on the Family, etc.) and is not unknown to U.S. conservative political circles.  Photo by CHRIS BOLIN for Macleans Magazine

Before Mike died he wrote a message to his friends and family. At his memorial service, Mike’s good friend Dean Jenkinson read it. Mike was a gifted writer, amazing husband and father, and a great human being. That shines through in his final message. — Robin


So, if this is really happening, I guess that last-minute cure didn’t turn up. Don’t worry, one day it will. A lot of smart people working together every day are going to unlock that puzzle. Until then, there will be gatherings like this.

I don’t know what your expectation of Heaven, is, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s like an air-conditioned mall with permanent mark-downs on upscale items. Everything in the food court is free, even Orange Julius.

I don’t know who’s here but I can picture about 90 per cent of you. I hope you’re smiling. I knew very little true sadness in my life, even during its very end. Don’t feel bad for me.

I feel bad for Robin and Will. They have the tougher job. They have to carry on. In time, Will will understand the permanence of this situation. Robin will endure. I know Will has a great foundation. I have been blessed with spending a lot of time with him for the first four years of his life — more than many fathers get. And he will continue to have a loving, affectionate, grizzly bear of a mother, who will bring him up as wisely as anyone could.

Will, I want to tell you three things. I mean them all. First, be kind to other kids. Help them if they are sad. That’s the number one way you can make me proud. Second, be the boy you want to be, and feel good about yourself. You’re pretty great. Third, always wear comfortable shoes. I had to learn this lesson twice. If you feet hurt, ask your mom to buy you bigger shoes. Do those three things, and you will see that life is not that hard.

I ask Robin’s friends who are here to continue to be a friend to her. Reach out to her. Marianne and Robynn B., I hope each of you will make sure she gets out for some much-needed fun. It will be worth it, because she is one of the funniest people I know, and by the second drink she’ll have you laughing.

But I ask my biggest favour of all of you. I’m asking everyone in this room to play a role in bringing up Will.

Grant Summerfield, who owns more books than anyone I know, please bring your grandson up to appreciate all the great books, for kids and adults.

Brian Buck, please teach Will how to tolerate bad luck and bad people with a shrug and a smile.

Bonnie – Ga-Ga. You have been a third parent for nearly five years, helping us in ways I literally can not count. Please just keep doing that. You’re in the two spot now.

Sheila O’Brien – Nana.  Tell Will about me, when I was a boy. I had no stories of my own father’s young life. Please tell Will all the things I did, good and bad.

My cousin Jeff… please tell Will the stories my mother doesn’t know about.

Uncle Scott, you could turn Will into a real little handyman. He likes to fix things.

Auntie Lori, show Will to follow your example and embrace big adventures, no matter where they take you.

Iris Yudai is the best boss I ever had. Iris, you could teach Will a lot about how to do great work through co-operation.

Dean. I never met a better joke-writer than you. Please teach Will how to tell a joke. When he’s older, show him how to write one. Or at least how to steal one.

Colleen Silverthorn and Sean Friske and Brenda and Dan Palsson are two couples we love, who were both unfortunate to have three girls each. I’m inviting you both to escape your pink-pony nightmare by spending time with my boy. Sean and Colleen, teach him to have fun on a lake. Dan, throw him a football and see what happens. And remember — no hockey!

Paul Curtis, of course it falls to you to teach him how to tie a hook and cast a line. And if he catches a fish, remind him to throw it back.

Kim Westad, you shared my love of walking along a rocky, driftwood beach, even in a light rain. When Will and Robin visit Victoria, I hope you, Adrian and Theo take them to a beach.

I’ve named some people, but I‘m appealing to all of you. I want my son to grow up armed with a little bit of the best that people can offer. Since I know only the best people, it should be easy.

Visit my little family. Go on play dates. Look out for my son.

And if you and he happen to walk past a pond or lake, grab some flat, smooth stones, and teach him how to skip them across the water. And if you can make one rock skip three or four long leaps before disappearing, tell him that is just how his father felt most of the time: leaping forward, walking on air.

Thank you.

Love, Mike


—A celebration of Mike’s life was held on Thursday June 4, 2015 in Winnipeg.

Here’s a link to Mike’s memorial service.

Farewell Sweet Man


Michael James O’Brien

Born December 29,1963 in Victoria, to Sheila and Denis O’Brien.

Died peacefully May 24, 2015 in Winnipeg at St. Boniface Hospital with his wife at his bedside.

He leaves his wife Robin Summerfield, son Will, mother Sheila O’Brien, parents-in-laws Bonnie Summerfield, Brian Buck and Grant Summerfield, brother-in-law Scott Summerfield (Deborah), sister-in-law Lori Summerfield (Mark), dearest friends Kim Westad, Adrian Brooks and Paul Curtis, and cousins, Jeff deKergommeaux (a true brother) Dawn Beck and Kerry deKergommeaux. He was a treasured uncle to eight nieces and nephews. His father Denis died in 1985 and his furry companion of 15 years, Slim, passed away in March.

Mike was raised in Victoria, which was never far from his heart, and Inuvik, NWT.

He studied Creative Writing at the University of Victoria and graduated with a degree in the History/Creative Writing Co-operative Education program, During university, he worked at five weekly newspapers throughout British Columbia.

He worked for nearly two years at the Medicine Hat News, before moving to Regina, Sk. In 14 years as a reporter at The Leader-Post he covered crime, education, health and city hall, and reported from Bosnia and east Africa. He was proudest of helping unionize the newsroom in the mid-90s.

In 1999, Mike wrote a book, Calling The Prairies Home, which is exactly what he was doing by that time. Mike loved Regina. He appeared in several amateur theatre productions, tutored English as a second language and played basketball, touch football and softball.

Mike joined CBC Saskatchewan as a radio producer, where he worked for three years. He believed CBC was a ribbon that tied the country together from one end to the other, and he hoped it will stay that way.

It was Regina where Mike began acting in film and television. Starting with commercials, he worked his way up to movies (his specialty was “straight to DVD”) and appeared regularly in Corner Gas as Wes, the insurance and liquor vendor. He also worked in the writing department for one season. He would later appear regularly as Lorne in Less Than Kind for HBO Canada.

In 2005, Mike found his dream job in Winnipeg as a comedy writer for CBC Radio. His sketches and weekly columns appeared on shows across the country. In 2011 he hosted his own national radio summer show, called Strange Animal.

It was in Winnipeg where Mike met the absolute love of his life, Robin, in 2007 (thanks always to Michelle Lang for arranging the blind date). They were married the next year, and Will followed in 2010. It all came to him late in life, but Mike finally had everything he ever wanted.

And that’s when cancer reared its head. By the time it was diagnosed in 2011, Mike’s leg sarcoma had spread to his lungs. Through three surgeries, three long bouts of chemo and three radiation treatments, Mike’s health was surprisingly good, and his spirits were rarely brought low. He used this time to enjoy Will and Robin. The family had adventures big and small, including trips to Ireland, New York and California. For four years, good days outnumbered bad days ten to one.

Thank you Bunty Anderson for your wisdom and kindness. Thank you also to Dr. Paul Daeninck. A special thank you to the staff on 6E at St. Boniface Hospital, including Dr. Ralph Wong, and Agnes Remillard. The nurses were his angels for four years, and extended his life so he could spend more time with Robin and Will.

If there’s a heaven, it must look like Scotland, because Mike is golfing and drinking scotch.

Mike O’Brien, father, husband and friend

IMG_1758 2

Michael O’Brien took his rest Sunday May 24 in Winnipeg.

If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even when we’re apart….I’ll always be with you.

A.A. Milne


Do you gotta have faith?

Sorry for the delay.  I went golfing two weeks ago and tore something in my upper thigh. It was extremely ouchy and I didn’t feel like writing. But at least it had nothing to do with cancer.

Several well-intentioned people have encouraged me to embrace Jesus Christ as part of my cancer journey. One reader observed I never write about the role of faith in my life and looming death.

Faith is earned. I have faith in my oncologists. I have faith in my radiologist, my surgeons, my nurses, my pharmacist and my counsellors. They all helped me live longer. I have faith my palliative care team will help me through my final footsteps.

After years of surgery and chemo and radiation burns and pain, I have a hard-won faith in my own body. To paraphrase E.E. Milne, I was stronger than I knew.

Above all, I have faith Robin will guide Will toward a fine life. That’s the belief I treasure the most.

Many people pray for me. I appreciate their efforts. Knowing that other people care about me is spiritually uplifting and therefore medically beneficial. I feel stronger. Thank you.

But I have to continue to believe what I always have.

I am a secular humanist. I believe we can achieve ethical, kind co-habitation, based on science, not superstition. It incorporates some of the teachings of prophets like Christ, Buddha and Muhammad (image not available).

I admit, my internal monologues sometimes turn into dialogues with unseen powers. “If you’re there, I would love to go camping one more time.” But is that faith, or bargaining? I refuse to be a death-bed convert, finding God one second before midnight. If that’s not hypocritical, it is certainly convenient.

Of course, I may be wrong. I often am. Fortunately, if God really exists, I’m confident he’ll look at my overall record and let me slide on the faith/skeptic issue. It just sounds like the kind of decent thing he’d do.

PS. If you are interested in my cancer story but don’t have time to read the past blogs, read this terrific article just published in Post Media newspapers across the country. Jana G. Pruden did a fine job weaving our family’s story together and explaining why I write this blog. Here’s a link to her story.

Physician, ‘heel’ thyself

I’ve experienced the best and worst of medical bedside manner. Four years ago, a Winnipeg physician told me in a straightforward yet reassuring conversation that I had cancer. Months later,  a Toronto doctor proclaimed there “was no real point” in treating my disease because it would just keep returning. (Hey Doc, I’m still here.)

And I wondered what might be the worst way to learn one has cancer……

DOCTOR: Hi  Mike. Let’s get right to it.  After all, you’re sitting here, and I know there’s only one thing you want to know. Is it cancer or is it not? That reminds me of a long story about a previous patient. See, the fellow —

MIKE: Doctor, please!


MIKE: The test results?

DOCTOR: Right! Now, when I deliver good or bad news, I add little personal touches to balance the impact. Like, if it’s good news, I walk in with a stern, pitying look, so they’re extra relieved when I tell them. But if it’s bad news, I enter smiling, wearing something cheery.

MIKE: You’re wearing a clown suit.

DOCTOR: Yes. Yes I am. So here’s the diagnosis, straight and to the point. Mike, do you ever worry you haven’t saved enough money for retirement?

MIKE: Not really.

DOCTOR: Worry no more. Because I can say, without doubt, you have enough money for the rest of your life.

MIKE: I have about 800 bucks.

DOCTOR: You have enough money for the rest of your life.

MIKE: I don’t follow you.

DOCTOR: True. In fact, I’ll probably follow you by a good thirty years.

MIKE: What kind of cancer is it?

DOCTOR: Oh it’s that new kind that everybody wants. Heh, just kidding.

MIKE: I mean, where is it?

DOCTOR:  Look at this MRI scan of your torso. Do you see these three tiny white spots?

MIKE: Yes.

DOCTOR: It’s not there.

MIKE: So it’s —

DOCTOR: Everywhere else.

MIKE: (Long pause) How much longer do I have?

DOCTOR: I hate to make predictions. Let’s just say, when you use a parking meter, buy the time in half-hour periods.


MIKE: What was that?

DOCTOR: I squeezed the clown nose. Feel better?

MIKE: I don’t think you’re a very good doctor.

DOCTOR: Ah, we call that ‘denial.’