Brand building through storytelling

A brief conversation that changed my life

We met for the first and only time at a sidewalk cafe where she cut a dashing figure: a statuesque Caribbean woman in a white pique suit that set off her black skin. Her name might have been Claudette but it’s hard to say, a quarter-century later. She had a regal bearing, a ready laugh and a story that held my attention even though I could tell it would never find a place in the magazine piece for which she’d consented to be interviewed. Every journalist knows that sometimes the best stories are not the ones the editors want. Stories like hers, which has been with me ever since like a lucky charm inside a pocket.

I’d been asked to report on the career options of law graduates who couldn’t find jobs in their profession. A committee of lawyers had been studying the issue; Claudette was the student representative. It took her all of 90 seconds to give me the student perspective and then we got talking about our lives, as women do—even when the women are strangers and one of them is taking notes.

“So why did you choose to go to law school?” I asked, sensing she had none of the usual reasons (my dad was a lawyer, the money sounded good, I didn’t have the science for medical school). I couldn’t have guessed that for Claudette, law school was a matter of survival.

She’d been a homemaker with a teenage daughter when her husband left her high and dry. After years of putting her family first, she decided to invest in her future. She took a deep breath and applied to law school. No sooner had she been accepted than another crisis threatened—a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

I’d seen the five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer, and it was so grim that I exclaimed, “Weren’t you afraid wouldn’t live to get your law degree?”

Claudette flashed that smile. “Of course I was afraid. But I told myself that if I was going to die, I wanted to die in law school.”

Claudette was surely the one student in her class to start law school, cancer treatment and single motherhood at more or less the same time. Yet here she was, a radiant, accomplished survivor looking forward to hanging out her shingle in some pretty little town far away from the legal hurly-burly. She leaned back in her chair as if it were a throne and said, “Guess how old I am.”

I figured 40 tops, but decided I’d better play it safe: “Thirty-seven.”

She laughed. “Fifty-two!”

Since then I’ve often thought of Claudette. I’d lie in bed, awakened by some no-count anxiety or other, and see her glowing in her white summer suit. When depression silenced all the music of the world and I came to despise my life, the memory of her laughter gave me hope. If she could pursue her dream despite ovarian cancer, then surely I could find a purpose despite my cancer of the soul.

I used to think of a mentor as someone who guides you for months or years. But some people exert such a powerful influence, just by being themselves, that you only need one encounter to inhale a little of their spirit. Claudette was that kind of mentor, as I was telling a friend the other day. My friend thought that over and asked, “Have you told Claudette what she meant to you?”

I explained why not. If by some miracle Claudette is still alive, she’d be in her late 70s today. I don’t know where she is, don’t know if she’s alive, don’t know if her name is Claudette, didn’t keep the notes from our interview.

None of this cut much ice with my friend: “She deserves to know she changed your life. If she’s dead, her daughter should know.You must remember something that could help us find her. I’ll help you. That’s how strongly I feel about this.”

Okay, okay. It was time to look for my momentary mentor. And as it happened, I did remember something. When we met she’d been articling for one of the biggest law firms in Ottawa; a former classmate of mine had been spent his career there. We’d been out of touch for decades but I dropped him an e-mail about Claudette. He couldn’t have been happier to help me. He picked the brains of every old-timer on the staff and even sent the office manager into the basement to ransack old files for some trace of Claudette. No luck. “I find it difficult to accept that I could forget such an obviously remarkable person,” wrote my classmate.

But I can’t forget, so I’m mulling other avenues. There must be a way to find Claudette. After all, I’m a journalist. Tracking down the truth is what we do, right? Wish me luck. I promise to keep you posted.


Posted by Rona

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