By Noreen Winkler
My dog died. April 4, 2019. She was a black German Shepherd. She had been having some issues for a while and they progressed to worse. Dr. L. was a dedicated vet and an even better person. She worked very hard to help my dog. She even had her prescriptions filled at Costco, because she thought the price would be a little more reasonable! I remember dropping off the prescription and then going to do my shopping. When I returned for it, the young pharmacist told me they could not find this particular name in the system for OHIP coverage. “It’s my dog”, I said. The look on the guy’s face still makes me smile to this day.
Despite all of our trying, she still died. We have had dogs before but this one was different. She never left my side when I went through chemotherapy 11 years ago. She went everywhere I did. If I laid down or sat somewhere, she was by my feet. She really hated two things in life, motorcycles and city buses. I want to make it clear that it was “city” buses because she was totally fine with school buses?! If a motorcycle or city bus went by while on a walk, she completely lost it, and when a German Shepherd is snarling, lunging, and barking… well, that makes people nervous. I’m pretty sure she was not well liked in our neighbourhood, but I loved her beyond measure. And more importantly to me, I know she loved me even more. I really miss her fuzzy “mean” face.
May 27, 2019. That was a Monday. I was getting dinner ready that afternoon and looked out the kitchen window. I noticed the neighbour’s son (a grown man now) running up our driveway, and I could see on his face that he was concerned. I ran down to the front door, opened it, and he said, “Walter has been in an accident on his motorcycle. He has asked me to come and tell you that he is on his way to the hospital.”
Walter did not want the police calling or showing up to the front door. My daughter and I turned everything off and headed to the hospital, making sure to avoid the scene of the crash. We phoned our son who lives in Toronto on the way, and he immediately left work and headed home.
Walter was also headed home before he was hit and sent straight back to the hospital, where he works. Once we arrived, we went straight to the Emergency Department and asked the clerk if “Walter X” had arrived yet. Her response was, “OUR Walter?”
After some back and forth, she told us a motorcycle crash was on its way. Our daughter suggested we wait in the Emergency Department, but I was already on my way to where the ambulances arrive. Walter arrived a few minutes later and the paramedics gave us all his motorcycle stuff – boots, helmet scraped up, and jacket partly shredded on the right arm. Our daughter said, “hi daddy,” and he just let out a groan. Our son arrived shortly after this.
Walter is very well thought of at work, and because of this, we were kept in the loop and updated regularly on his condition. They allowed all three of us to be with him in Emergency. A police officer came to talk to us and tell us about the crash. We found out then that the driver was drunk, high, and travelling at 114k/h in a 40k/h zone when he struck Walter.
With this new information, I was blinded to everything else that was going on around me for a few minutes. I was in a dream, looking at my surroundings. That is really the only way I can accurately describe it. Anger sheds a different light on sadness.
Walter’s right leg from his knee to his foot was shattered and his right arm was broken in two places. The orthopaedic surgeon from the fracture clinic was asked to come and evaluate Walter’s injuries. Dr. P. is a one of a kind, sweet man and a wonderful surgeon. He was very clear about what our expectations should be regarding Walter’s recovery.
“The goal remains for Walter to be able to walk with a cane,” he said.
WTF?! You don’t know Walter, I thought to myself.
They wheeled Walter into surgery at midnight and we went to the family waiting room to, well… wait! 4 physicians and 6 hours of surgery later, and Walter emerged with a full cast on his right arm and full cast on his right leg. Walter spent 9 days in the hospital with amazing care and the most kind-hearted of staff.
The day that Walter was to be released into our care was also the day of our daughter’s convocation from the University of Toronto. She was adamant about not going and instead being there for her dad to arrive home. Walter was insistent that she go. This created some very serious, ugly arguments. In the end, she went, and it was a happy moment for all of us when she walked across that stage. Still, she felt completely cheated that her dad, who supported her through school both emotionally and financially, had to watch her from home on the livestream.
Walter then had to be at home 12 weeks with absolutely no weight bearing on his right leg. Those were some very lonely nights for him, which in turn were sad for me. He would not let me sleep on the couch beside his rented hospital bed because he knew that I would need a “good night’s” sleep to face each day and be able to help him. It was heartbreaking to watch a man who is so incredibly active and athletic struggle to get into a wheelchair. He made it through those long days and nights of 12 weeks, and then the physiotherapy started, which has continued once/week to this day… nearly two years later.
A few months after the crash, it was time for the court proceedings. I was filled with a wild feeling of anxiety at the uncertainty of what to expect.
We knew that the person who was drunk was going to plead guilty to impaired driving and dangerous driving.
I want to say something for a moment about “impaired” driving. “Impaired” is too kind a word. It almost has a less threatening sound to it. “Drunk” driving sounds harsh, which it is. Also, can we please not call it an “accident?” Because it’s a choice. You’ve chosen to drive drunk. You’ve caused a crash that is violent. You’ve changed a person’s life. And in a lot of cases, including this one, you’ve walked away from the scene with a few scratches.
Walter was asked to prepare a Victim Impact Statement for court. He understood that we had thoughts of our own about the whole situation, but he did not want any of us to go through the unhappiness of reliving it, so he wrote one himself and read it in court on behalf of all of us. This made sense, because we were living the nightmare together. He talked about all the things he will never, ever get to do again. All the Half Ironman competitions, the marathons, the countless 50k trail runs he’s done. The list of extreme sports he absolutely loved is endless. It was stressful and heartbreaking to listen to. He cried while reading it, and we cried while listening.
April 2019. All this while, out in Calgary, my favourite sister-in-law wasn’t feeling well. I talked to her every few weeks. She started having a bunch of tests after finding it difficult to breathe. They put a tube in her side and into her lungs to drain fluid. This helped her tremendously, and I figured she had some sort of infection in her lungs. She started her period again after menopause, so they performed a hysterectomy. Our monthly conversations turned to weekly. They thought it was cancer. The reproductive oncologists said it was in the digestive system, and the digestive oncologists said it was reproductive. This went on for quite some time and was very maddening to the entire family.
Because I’d had cancer, she felt I could relate to what she was going through. She and I were always close, but this brought us closer. She disclosed fears to me and I understood. We talked for hours and hours. We spoke about our hopes, our families, cancer, and the weather. Some things I’ve shared, but other things I will never say out loud. Then came the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. It was like being punched in the stomach.
3,100 Canadian women are estimated to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021, and it remains the most serious of cancers for women. I think as women we know this from the start; that this is a fight we have on our hands. All I could think about was all the discussions that had taken place over the previous months. Time wasted pointing fingers at each other in the medical field. It made me so incredibly sad. She knew it had gone into her bones, and that caused an immense amount of pain for her. She went through chemotherapy to buy time for herself and her family. One day, she told me she was going to move into a hospice, so I knew that she knew. I spoke to her the day before she moved in, and I called her about two days after she moved. I did get to speak with her, but she was so medicated I could not understand what she was saying. That was okay though, because I had the chance to tell her how much she meant to me, and how much I would be heartbroken in this world without her. And I still am. She died March 4, 2020 at 62 years old.
March 14, 2020. For many years, our son has pursued acceptance into medical school. He has applied five times, including “my year of living sadly.” Quite frankly, it is all he’s ever spoken of doing since he was seven years old. Sometime in the middle of March, he phoned to ask a tax question of Walter. Then he phoned back a second time to follow up. The third time the phone rang, we thought, are you kidding? Until he said, “I just found out I have an interview with the University of Toronto, March 28th.”
You know the kid in Home Alone who realizes at a particular moment that he is by himself and yells, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH?” Walter and I did that at the exact same time for the exact same amount of time.
March 28th came, and he had the interview. He felt it went well, so we were hopeful, and we began to wait. Everyone in Ontario hears their fate on the same day, at the exact same time. 5000+ people who apply annually hear, “no,” “you are on a waiting list,” or “yes, you are accepted.” This year, that day would be May 14th. The competition is fierce for medical school, but still you hope in your heart that your deserving child will get in. I thought, if it is another “no,” for the fifth time, I’m not sure I can handle it. I cannot have any more sadness heaped upon me in this year of sadness.
On May 12th, our son asked if we were available to Skype after dinner. The three of us sat together to have a chat. The camera came on, and our son and his partner were on the screen together. He said, “I have something to tell you.”
Okay, I thought, maybe the two of them are getting married. That would be great news!
“I had the date wrong for the acceptances for medical school,” he said.
“When is it then?” I asked.
“It was today,” he said.
“And?” I said.
“I just signed back my acceptance letter to University of Toronto.”
Our daughter, Walter and I totally lost our shit. Jumping up and down, screaming, crying. I could not figure how he had the date wrong because he is very good with dates, but he did. He then said, “I knew as soon as I realized I had the date wrong and saw the actual date… I knew then I was getting in!”
The actual date was my favourite sister-in-law’s birthday.
At that moment, my heart broke open. Pure joy poured in, and sadness poured out the other side. I think I cried for about eight hours straight— I’m not kidding. I did not sleep at all that night, I just cried and was thankful that maybe a small corner had been turned on this year of sadness.
Many times, throughout My Year of Living Sadly, I really started to doubt happiness—that it was still out there. But all at once, I was reminded of one of my favourite sayings:
Whether things are good or bad, they will change.
And it’s true.