It was after the death of Carol Shields, following that of Elma Gerwin, that I reread their many emails to me over the previous two years, and realized again how truly special that correspondence was. After gathering the letters together, I was grateful to secure publication approval from Donald Shields and Martin Gerwin.
During the last years of her life, Carol made it clear that she did not want to be used for publicity about cancer that might draw attention to herself. In her dying, however, she has left in these letters, as Elma has, an inspiring example of how the ending of life can be faced. These were two extraordinary women, one an established literary icon, the other highly literate but known only to her friends, and their story deserves a wide sharing.
Sackville, New Brunswick
Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.
Spiralling towards death, she stretched out her hand. Icarus falling, crying out but not to family. Husband, children, inlaws, all of them loving, would be there to cushion the fall when it came. She knew that. Pick up the pieces, bury them, burn them, give them to science. They would know what to do. Her cry was to others, two in particular, one man, one woman, as she began her freefall flight. Her name was Elma Gerwin. I was the man. Carol Shields was the woman.
Forty years earlier, Elma had been a student of mine in English at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, and brilliant she was, too, challenging me constantly to look deeper, go further, and share with her immediately anything new I learned. A short, slight figure with a look sharp enough to pierce a steel door, she would fix me with her eyes, whether I was pacing about in a lecture room or sitting at a seminar table, and make escape impossible. Not that I wanted to escape. I was, after all, supposed to be the one in charge. I was fifteen years older, I was tall, I was (some said) commanding, and I had a big voice. Yet Elma was the one who held me in thrall. Her own voice was never soft, gentle, and low, as Cordelia’s appeared to Lear, but neither was it shrill: it suited her as an excellent weapon of communication, reinforced and toned down with a smile.
I never cast Elma in any of the plays I produced as the university’s director of drama, because she had no aspirations as an actress and preferred to do makeup. She Stoops to Conquer
, The Diary of Anne Frank
, Giraudoux’s The Enchanted
, Obey’s Noah
, were all plays I did at the time; and I can see her now, dressed in a borrowed white lab coat, too long and too big for her small figure, bending over an actor seated in front of a mirror, transforming a young face into an old one with a few liners and sticks of greasepaint held in her hands. It was in the classroom, however, that she showed how much she cared for the power of words. Writers were her gods. Victorian thinkers – Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin, among others – were her passion, as were the poets, all of them her friends: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats. She read them all.
Inevitably, in the years that followed her graduation, we lost touch, lengthy letters to each other giving way to the annual note tucked inside a Christmas card, sometimes with a photograph. She had married a philosopher, and they lived in Winnipeg. I knew that. They had three children. I knew that. She still read everything. I might have guessed that. But only gradually over the years did I learn that she had become a tireless advocate for literacy, and she worked with students in special programs. She had become a supporter of the New Democratic Party. She had a genuine concern for Aboriginal peoples. She went into and came out of a tenyear period as an alcoholic. She raged at injustices, wherever perceived. But she still loved a world that provoked her to fight in it, ignorance and prejudice always her enemies.
In late February 2001, I wrote to Elma about a literary matter. I had written two novels, one of which, Swing Wide the Door
, was about a gay Salvation Army officer, trapped in an organization he felt was homophobic. I hoped she would agree to read the manuscript, because her acute critical judgment was something I knew I could trust. She had known for years that I was gay, so I had no anxieties that she would be shocked by the subject. Her immediate and helpful response by email – established by now as a faster and more reliable form of communication between us in urgent times – confirmed her place as valued critic and friend. She quickly, and correctly, pointed out that one particular incident involving a prostitute was one she’d read in other forms and that to avoid cliché I would have to give it a new twist: “The fact that something has often happened in real life does not mean it will work well in fiction. Trite but true – yes, I know.” She went on to suggest some valuable rethinking for the novel.
I was not, however, prepared for what she had to say so frankly about herself. Earlier that year, a multitude of polyps had been discovered in her colon, some of them of the kind that lead frequently to cancer. Because major surgery to remove a section of her colon had not been immediately proposed, she faced the prospect of repeated colonoscopies (invasive diagnostic procedures) and polypectomies (the surgery that snips off the precancerous polyps). Although not yet aware that a smallcell cancer was also growing in her lung – it would be diagnosed six months later, in September, and was one that could readily metastasize – she was able to have an early sense of what was ahead of her, and she was obviously determined to make this her last fight.
She told me she had written to Carol Shields, whom she had known and admired when they’d both lived in Winnipeg. Carol, who now lived in Victoria, had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. And now Elma wrote to me. We were, she assured us, two very important people in her life – people she could count on to accept and understand what was happening to her – and her proposal was that we make a special journey together.
The medieval Everyman had made a similar request:I shall show you how it is:
Commanded I am to go a journey,
A long way, hard and dangerous,
And give a straight count without delay
Before the high judge Adonai.
Wherefore I pray you bear me company.
Elma lived in the middle of Canada, I was on the east coast, Carol on the west, but email could link us easily. Elma would write to both of us at once, or any one of us would write to the other, and we three would travel together, bear each other company, and give a straight account without delay.
With wax melting in the sun, it would be a perilous voyage.
I am now the lone survivor.
Elma had made sure that Carol Shields knew something about me, but I had not met her, except in her books. This meant, however, that I knew a few things about her. She, too, had been a teacher, a professor at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Manitoba, as well as being one of Canada’s truly great writers, someone who reminded us again “why literature matters,” which is what The New York Times Book Review
said of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Stone Diaries
in 1993. For that novel and others that followed, Carol was either nominated for or awarded some of the world’s great literary prizes, her repertoire extending to poems, short stories, plays, and literary criticism.
Carol was someone Elma deeply loved, but she also made it clear that she loved something in me, though what exactly and why? We might tell someone why we love them, but to tell ourselves why we are loved may prove only a searching excuse for vanity. In one of his early poems, beginning “When you are old and grey and full of sleep,” Yeats speaks of “the pilgrim soul” found in a beloved. Unspecific though that is, it may yet be the only way to articulate the impossible.
In this my eighty-second year, I look back on my own years as a teacher, aware that I won’t be a survivor for another four decades of teaching. Even if I were, there would not be time enough to understand whatever it was I did for Elma or for anyone else, or even how or why I did it. It amazes me to hear of teachers who profess answers for what can never be known and what is forever beyond reach. For my part, I had no method unless it was to care. I had no philosophy or formal structure of ideas, unless it was to make a teacher different from a book. Is this why Elma turned to me, despite her love of books, knowing that I wasn’t a book? Was this the “pilgrim soul” she may have found in me?
It was Michael Ondaatje who wrote: “All my life I’ve admired teachers, those mysterious catalysts, fathers without a bloodline, those who point out an unknown field or surprising city over the horizon. Leonard Cohen, for instance, spoke of Irving Layton this way: ‘I taught him how to dress. He taught me how to live.’”
If I ever pointed out to Elma or any other student such a field or such a surprising city, it may have been that I didn’t know it was there myself until I saw it.
When Elma was a student, I had introduced her to Mahler with a recording I had of Kathleen Ferrier singing Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)
. She had been moved deeply by the last song, “Der Abschied,” where the poet bids his long farewell to life.Still is my heart. It is awaiting its hour!
Everywhere the lovely earth blossoms
forth in spring and grow...