Brand building through storytelling

Missing Sheela

Instead of answering today’s e-mail, I’ve been rereading old messages from my friend Sheela Basrur. It’s a question of priorities. The people who are writing today will still be around tomorrow-or next week, come to that. I’ll never have another message from Sheela, who died a week ago ago of cancer at 51, and whose lilting voice I need to fix in my mind before the cadence starts to sound like a scratched LP. She wrote as she spoke, with disarming and purposeful candour.

One morning she e-mailed to ask me a favour. I’m looking at that message right now, perhaps the most unsettling one I’ve ever received. Sheela was planning her obituary, already in the works at CBC. She had chosen certain people the reporters should call. Would I mind if she added my name to the list?

What I minded was the outrage of her dying. To honour her last request would be to admit the truth. It was the highest of compliments-and the heaviest of burdens. Determined not to fail her, I began to gather my thoughts.

Few people knew that I was Sheela’s friend. Until a few months prior, I hadn’t even known this myself. We shared none of the traditional friendship rituals. We never egged each other on in a change room, or closed a bistro down after pasta and wine, or talked the night away on the phone while the tea grew cold and all the lights went out upstairs. If I could type out all our spoken conversations, which mostly took place amid the passing of spring rolls and the clinking of glasses, they might fill at most two pages. Ours was a virtual friendship that blossomed one message at a time and owed its joyous urgency to the cruel happenstance of her cancer.

We met as members of International Women’s Forum Canada. I edit the group’s newsletter, and no story touched our readers more profoundly than the course of Sheela’s illness. A natural writer with an eye for the telling observation, she’d send me the latest installment whenever time allowed. All I had to do was cut and paste. No matter what had happened or failed to happen in her treatment, she always found some reason for a wry, triumphant smile. When cancer ended her extraordinary career in public service, she reveled in domestic pleasures: “I am turning my home into a little test-kitchen and am always on the lookout for lab rats willing to try my latest batch of brownies or slice of pie. Please note, there are no actual rats in my kitchen and if anyone finds a hair in their food, it isn’t mine!”

A sick person may not have the strength to take a phone call, much less welcome a visitor. E-mail fits into the stolen moments when no one is drawing blood and the pain is bearable. It transcends awkward pauses and stricken expressions. Both intimate and private, it allows the most unnerving of emotions to be framed and explored through words alone, as they rise one by one from the dark recesses of the spirit where hope battles fear.

In one of her last messages to me, Sheela described that struggle. Her future, she admitted, “could be painted solely in terms of despair.” Without minimizing the gravity of her situation, she told me how she had chosen to see it: “Hope lies not in the ultimate disease prognosis but in the intangibles that appear from moment to moment – respite from gasping for air…, a boost of euphoria when the pain pump kicks in a bolus and it feels so good not to feel bad, feeling grateful when a nurse or friend goes the extra step of offering a backrub when I didn’t expect or ‘need’ it but certainly could appreciate it. At those times, life seems great and totally worth living, even though the facts of the matter remain unchanged.”

According to the great cliché of pallid obituaries, Sheela lost her fight. Not so. She lost the decades of discovery that should have been hers, but she won a sense of purpose, of delight in the moment, that lit up the time fate allowed her. I once told her she was picking her way from one moment to the next like a kid on stepping stones. How I longed for a little of her grace! But it’s not too late, is it? I reread her words and I see her just ahead, teetering like a fledgling dancer on the toes of one foot, arms outstretched for balance as she points the way to the next stone.

Click here to read a previous post about online friendships.


Posted by Rona

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