My dead husband haunts me

I'll be back.
I’ll be back.


For a serious chunk of my adult life, I have worked in newsrooms.

In early February, I was hired as an associate producer for a national media company. It also happens to be where my husband Mike worked before he died. I had visited him there many times. My son called it, and still calls it, ‘Daddy’s office.’

Since starting there, I have never questioned my decision. I love it for all the same reasons I loved my former newsroom at The Calgary Herald. I am at home.

My only trepidation? How would I cope with working in the same place as my beloved? How would it be working with Mike’s colleagues?

For the first few weeks, it felt odd. While walking the hallways solo, I’d get an odd feeling, a presence walking with me. OK, to be clear, I’m not talking Poltergeist here.

Instead, competing feelings of discomfort and comfort battled. I have fought back tears and then caught myself smiling, thinking of Mike walking these same hallways.

Turns out, Mike is still walking these hallways. Mike has a doppelgänger.

The first time I saw this man, his back was turned to me. He was standing 20 feet away, fiddling with a TV camera. He has the same body shape as Mike, tall and lean. He has the same curly black mess of hair that Mike once had. He wears black-framed glasses, like Mike once did. And he has the same, beautifully wrinkled face and fantastically bold nose that Mike had.

The first time I spotted The Twin, my heart leapt with joy. For a beat, my brain, heart and body forgot Mike was dead. And then, just as quickly, my heart hurt.

In the ensuing weeks since that first sighting, I now see this man everywhere. We have even exchanged a few words. He caught me raiding notebooks from the TV staff’s stash. I defended my filching and we had a chuckle.

Another time, we nearly ran into each other in the hallway as we cornered the same turn from opposite directions.

He’s everywhere. That’s not exactly surprising. The newsroom isn’t gigantic. I see everyone, everyday, I’m sure. But The Twin, jumps out at me from across the room, every time.

I know his name. (Someone mentioned his name one day in passing.)

Other than our notebook ‘drama,’ I have never spoken to him.

And that’s fine. He’s not Mike. And maybe he’s really a jerk. That would suck.

Somedays when I spot him, I think about running up to him and throwing my arms around him for a long, sweet hug. It’s a thought I would never act on.

Stalking and harassment aren’t my jam. Silently, staring at him from across a room is my jam.

The Twin does his thing, and I do mine. We live in the same world. And for whatever quirk of the universe, we work in the same space.

And, he’ll never ever know that his presence haunts me.

Our dangerous nuts are in the candy

(Image by
(Image by

I get a little starstruck from meeting Americans. I mean, they’re at the centre of everything, including solipsism.

Whenever I cross the border, I hand my wife our camera, throw my arm around the first American I see and yell “Yankee Doodle Oprah Pop Tarts!”  They usually play along until I try to feed them peanuts.

After spending two weeks in California, I think the biggest difference between their nation and ours is the price of cheese. If we could get mozza that cheap, we would have an obesity epidemic too. (Even their landscape has a higher BMI.)

Culturally, Canada exists somewhere between Europe and the U.S. On the surface, Americans  seem closer to us. There’s the proximity, the common language, and the prevalence of their popular culture, best represented by the 24-hour availability of The Big Bang Theory. Europeans are closer when it comes to values: health care, accessible education, acknowledgement of curling as a sport, awareness of the existence of curling.

Who’s ruder? Europeans, hands down. Especially that old bitch on that train in Amsterdam. Who’s more confounding? Americans, because of the gun thing. (Thanks to Sandy Hook, we finally have an answer to the question: “How many children have to die before Americans are willing to even discuss firearms regulation?”… “More than 20.”)

There are qualities about Americans that I envy: their drive, friendliness and ambition. Then there are the characteristics I do not admire: again, the gun thing.

After two weeks in their midst, I am left with one question above all. Why does the richest, most powerful country in the world have such crappy candy bars?

Go into any corner store or gas station, and the same dozen mediocrities stare back at you. Almond Joy, Butter Finger, Milky Way. I mean, Baby Ruth? Canadians select from a cocoa cavalcade that is bigger, better and far more varied: Mr. Big, Crispy Crunch, Sweet Marie, Caramilk, Aero and the cavity-inducing magic of a Crunchie bar. It’s just a matter of time before someone comes out with Curling Crunch.

And don’t get me started on quality. Eat a Hershey Bar. Savour the waxy goodness. Now bite into anything bearing the word “Cadbury.” That’s chocolate good enough to kill for (but only using a knife or club—no waiting period).

Lastly, I just wish Americans would take a smidgeon of interest in our history and culture. We’re worth learning about. Oh well. Happy Third of July, America!

One wobbly step sideways….

Need these in a 36" waist in a cotton- spandex blend.  (photo:
Need these in a 36″ waist, cotton- spandex blend. (photo:


Two weeks ago I began to experience vertigo. It wasn’t as interesting as in the Hitchcock movie. There was no murder and no Kim Novak — just a lot of swaying from side to side.

On Monday, it was worse.  I walked the dog around the block and I’m sure my neighbours concluded I’m a drunk.

Luckily, I was scheduled to enter hospital Tuesday for three days of chemo. I told them about it. They said, don’t worry, it’s likely an inner ear infection, not a brain tumour. They ran a CT scan on my head.

Tumours. Two of them, both small, sitting on the back of my brain, causing no ill effects at this point. (The vertigo was completely unrelated, which leaves me wondering what cosmic force gave me the spins in order to find two tumours no one knew existed.)

My oncologist called me with the news and did his best to put my vandalized mind to rest. These are tiny, very treatable, and “a minor setback.”  He told me I am an excellent candidate for a gamma knife procedure. That’s a newish technology that burns tumours with focused beams of radiation, without opening up the skull.

It sounded good, but later that evening I was struck by a frightening epiphany. Gamma radiation. Gamma rays? I know what that means. I’ve read the literature and I’m well aware of the risks.

I could transform into a hulking green rage monster with super-strength and an affinity for purple pants. I might turn into an elasticized man, a flaming torch or a walking pile of orange rocks. I could end up an invisible girl.

Where would I even find a pair of purple pants? I guess I could go clothes-shopping with my mother; she always found me clothes I wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Maybe my powers would be less jarring. Given the advances in medical science, they may have gained some control over the side-effects. I could, for example, gain semi-super-hearing, allowing me to listen in on conversations a full 20 feet away. (Maybe not the whole conversation, but enough to glean the gist of it.) Maybe I’ll be able to predict which elevator door will open first.

And then, how would I use those powers to benefit mankind?

With mediocre power comes a sliver of responsibility.

All right gamma rays, do your worst. Or best. And to the surgeon, please, don’t drop the gamma knife and cut my brain in half.

And thank goodness for vertigo. Now please make it go away.


Bucking the Bucket List

Number 8 on my bucket list: This lovely model from Home Depot. (photo:
Number 8 on my bucket list: This lovely model from Home Depot (


This weekend we bought the Globe and Mail because of an article headlined “The Good Death.” It chronicled a Canadian woman who spent the past year preparing for her death, which came this month. Hoping for insights that would spur me into some inspired final gesture, I read her story. And was disappointed.

Here was her  “good death”: she wrote her will, went on a final family holiday and maintained an upbeat attitude. Isn’t that exactly what most palliative patients do? Dying 101. I am criticizing the newspaper, not the woman. The Globe’s headline promised depths it never plumbed.

Ever since my diagnosis, I’ve been putting legal and financial affairs in order, writing letters for Will to read some day, and scouring the house for flaws to fix. As for leaving behind a heroic final legacy project, I’ve got nothing. Some nights I don’t have the energy to watch the shows I’ve PVRed.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had a year ago, while recuperating from lung surgery. My roommate was a 60ish gent with many health issues. His wife was a younger, somewhat impatient woman who reminded him “this was not what I signed up for.”

One day she peeked around the curtain and introduced herself. She was civil, but blunt and brassy, like the monthly sales leader at a realty office. She asked why I was in hospital. And then: “So Mike, do you have a bucket list? Something you really want to do?”

In fact, I do have a bucket list—dubbed the Fucket List—that describes small projects, big trips and classic books I want to savour before I go. The most important item on the list is to do more things with Will, since we’re likely to be short-changed some father-son time. And I told her that.

“Honestly, I just want to spend every moment I can with my son.”

She looked at me as if I said I didn’t eat food.

With her chin in her hand, she said “Hmmph.”

I guess I should have said “I’d like to swim with dolphins while skydiving and learning a second language.”

I think she would have understood that answer, but it’s a lie. I would much rather teach my son how to skip a flat rock on a lake.

While the Globe oversold its story, the woman in the article had it right.

A good death is much like a good life. It doesn’t have to be a huge production.


Why me? Why not them?

One phrase forbidden in our home is “It’s so unfair.” Of course cancer is unfair, but saying that aloud is self-pitying and likely invokes bad kharma. There’s nothing fair about cancer. Short of smoking or using your microwave to make a roast, there’s not much people do that invites this disease.

That said, I am granting myself a one-day exception. Today, I am asking:  “Why me? Why not one of them?”

Here are ten people more deserving of cancer.

10) That guy who talks on his cell phone LOUDER than in his normal voice. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lower his voice during a private conversation? If there’s any justice, he will catch cancer from his phone.

9) Anne Hathaway. Everyone loved her, and then everyone hated her. I don’t know why, since she seems really nice, but I’ll go along.

8) Movie talkers. Every one. Cancer of the tongue. When their doctor enters the hospital room for the first time, they can whisper “Who’s this guy?  Have we seen him before?”

7) Vladimir Putin. Because he’s lived a good, full life, and yet it still seems like there’s so much more he wants to accomplish. I know this one seems really unfair, but that’s cancer.

6) People who generalize. All of them.

5) Hitler as a baby.

4) Anne Hathaway as a baby.

3) The world’s oldest living person. I mean, come on!

2) A mean blind person’s seeing eye dog.

1) Former leaders of the Khmer Rouge who talk in movie theatres.

And that’s it! If they can’t get cancer, maybe a really bad toothache or dial-up internet.

Thank You MJ

egg by robin summerfield

Thank You, Michael Jordan. Thank you for that day in the 1980s when you showed up on court without your thinning pelt of barely-there hair.

Instead, you gleamed, the court lights reflecting off your smooth dome, like a halo. Your sweat even looked regal.

Gone were the days of Fudd-like comb overs, as practiced by every balding NHL player n the 1970s. Instead, here was a new, unashamed look. This was bald, and it was beautiful. From that moment on, men actually shaved away that which they once tried so hard to hold on to. Michael Jordan made it cool to be bald.

(Mind you, he owed me one. When I was a toddler, I often dunked from the foul line, sometimes with my arm tied behind another kid’s back. Years later, Jordan stole this move and made it cool. You’re welcome.)

Jordan’s smooth melon has been a comfort to a generation of male chemotherapy patients like myself.

Similar thanks go to Patrick Stewart, the most authoritative, charismatic bald leader since Mussolini. And Bruce Willis, who proved that even without hair, you can be attractive. If you’re funny, rich and muscular with chiselled features.

These are the men who influenced modern tastes, but let’s not forget the pioneers—the guys who first braved the sting of a cool breeze on a smooth scalp. The Hall of Fame: Yul Brynner, the Silver Surfer, Caspar, Mr. Peanut, and the little loser who never quite pulled it off: Charlie Brown.

Together, this brave, shiny army made it cool to be bald. Now, if only the Evil Queen from Snow White had done the same for gnarled cracked fingernails….


Chemotherapy is the ultimate frenemy. One day it hangs out with you at the mall. The next day it tells your friends you’re a bitch. It can save your life, but it will make you so very sick.

I was initially on chemo for 12 months and then off it for 13 months. Then new tumours appeared, and I began a second course in August, 2013. That’s 19 months of chemo, or about 24 rounds and counting. The drugs in question are ifosfamide and doxorubicin.

Here is a list of all the side-efffects I have experienced, in the rough order that I encountered them. Some were temporary; some appear after every round.

Fatigue: I had an infant son, so this was nothing new.

Nausea: Not as bad as you think, thanks to six different pills.

Infertility: That one hurt.

Hair loss, head: For a few terrible days, I became one of those knobs who wears a fedora.

Sore mouth: Gargling salt helped.

Abscessed tooth: With a depressed immunity system, a minor infection ballooned and I lost a molar. It made a crunching sound when the dentist pulled it from my jaw.

Dehydration: Which lead to…

Constipation: The worst. So bad that I have twice gone to Emergency. Both times, I walked out after a six-hour wait, because Emergency nurses prioritize the guy with the gunshot wound above the guy who can’t poop.

Change in taste: Even water tastes gross after chemo.

Infection: The port implanted in my chest to receive chemo injections became infected. I went septic. My doctor, who can be dryly funny, called it “a minor life-threatening incident.”

Hair loss, eyebrows: I officially looked “sick”.

Hair loss, eyelashes: My eyes compensated by secreting a protective goop overnight. Most mornings, I literally pull my crusty lids open.

Cracked, soft fingernails: This one costs me money, as I cannot pick up a dropped coin from a flat surface.

Neuropathy: Tingling “pins and needles” feet.

Hair loss, everywhere else: Great, it’s grade nine gym class all over again.

Mucositis: Inflamed esophagus caused heartburn and made every meal feel like I was swallowing rocks.

A blood clot in my leg: I spent a week on the couch, unable to move. Painful, but what really hurt was daytime television.

Low platelets: My nose bled like water. My doctor called this “a major life-threatening incident” that could have triggered a stroke. He reduced my chemo load by 20 per cent.

Rashes: Two types at once, on my face and body. Itchy!

Then there’s the most dangerous side-effects: the ongoing damage to my heart, kidneys and bone-marrow.

On the plus side, the periodic loss of appetite has me at my ideal weight!

Some side effects you work around. (Photo by robin summerfield.)
Some side effects you work around. (Photo by Mike O’Brien.)

My Cancer, part I

Meet the wife.
Meet the wife.

My cancer started with a sore leg, first noticed after walking many blocks of Toronto streets in December, 2010. I put it down to hard shoes and harder asphalt.

Three weeks later, my left calf was thick and spongy. I had a blood clot.

But why? I was in good shape, pretty active. I googled clots, and a few days later asked my family doctor if it might be caused by a tumour. Nope, he said.

A month later, a small round bump appeared on my inside left thigh. Cancer? No, said my doctor. A month later, the lump looked like half an egg. Cancer? No cancer, I was told.

Then the pain started. Excruciating lightning bursts up and down my leg. I was referred to a hematologist, who said “You should see an oncologist.” I felt relief, because if a doctor is going to dismiss my fears as uninformed  hypochondria, I want it to be a doctor in the appropriate field.

One MRI later, one of Manitoba’s top oncologists told my wife and I that she was “99 per cent sure it’s not cancer.” (Since you already know where this is going, let me stress that I am not exaggerating for effect: the figure quoted to us was 99 per cent.)

So, back to the hematologist who scheduled me for surgery to repair a leaking vein.  On June 15, 2011, I was in hospital, with my wife, waiting for the move to the O.R. They first sent an exploratory camera down my thigh to get a look at the battlefield. Standard stuff.

Then, they sent me to Radiology for a scan of my lungs. Not so standard.
Two hours later, the surgeon — the hematologist — entered my room.

“It’s not good news,” he said quietly.
To this day, I remain grateful for the straightforward and calming way he told my wife and I that I had cancer.