Brand building through storytelling

Petals and thorns

I had a never-ending list of tiresome chores to take care of last Friday, two days after moving day. Unpack boxes. Throw out trash. Figure out where to stash the good dishes, how to work the new shower and what the hell I did with the mouse for my computer. Run to buy a pen because my gazillion pens lay hidden in various boxes, and without writing implements I couldn’t update my checklist. Dammit, I needed paper too. The proper kind you write on, not the explosion of packing paper that engulfed our new home.

My whole life had been dismantled, the fragments taped up inside hundreds of cardboard cartons dispersed between two locations, new home and new office. Nothing seemed more essential than wreaking order, and by God I would slog away until the job was done. That was the plan, and I’ve always been one to follow plans. They allow me to believe that I’m in total control of what happens or does not. The more chaotic things get, the more doggedly I cling to my plans.

Last week someone pulled me away from my plan—my friend Dr. Sheela Basrur. She sent me a very special invitation from her hospital bed, where she has been confined by a rare and aggressive cancer. Sheela was about to receive the Order of Ontario for public service. It’s not normally awarded at this time of year, but wisdom and empathy prevailed among those who hand out the laurels. A person should have time to enjoy such an honour, wildly applauded by a roomful of friends. The ceremony had just been scheduled for Friday afternoon, a last-minute addition to the Annual General Meeting of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario. How could I miss this great occasion?

My cardboard boxes could wait. Sheela could not. At first I thought it was only for Sheela that I took Friday afternoon off. On reflection, I’ve concluded it was mostly for myself. After a solid month of move-related grunt work, I needed to celebrate power and possibility and grace, all of which my friend embodies.

If you live in Canada or follow world-wide developments in public health, chances are you’ve heard of Sheela Basrur. When the SARS outbreak hit Toronto hospitals in 2003, it was Sheela, then the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, who stood at the microphones projecting calm, hope and purpose in the face of a new infectious disease that then seemed uncontrollable. Like all inspirational leaders, Sheela didn’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead, she radiated commitment to asking the right questions, trusting that answers would follow. In her subsequent position as the province’s top doctor, she championed the Smoke-Free Ontario legislation before cancer forced her to step down 16 months ago. Thanks in no small measure to Sheela, non-smokers like me can now go to offices and restaurants without fear of inhaling someone else’s nicotine fumes.

In Sheela’s multitude of friends, I’m a pretty recent addition. I first encountered her at events, where I was drawn to her extraordinary smile and her penchant for eye-popping colours (crimson, lilac, yellow) instead of play-it-safe, executive navy. When she became ill, I sent her an e-mail to cheer her on. With the complacency of the temporarily well, I thought I was doing this for Sheela, who responded with such insight and wit that I immediately sent another message. Next thing I knew, we were virtual friends and I was opening Sheela’s messages first because I found them more refreshing than anyone else’s. But there comes a time in virtual friendships when you simply have to show up or squander the promise you’ve nurtured. And Sheela’s award was one of those times—never mind that showing up meant 45 minutes by car and I don’t drive. When a woman has as many friends as Sheela does, why worry about getting a ride?

I sat on an aisle in the second row. Everyone stood as Sheela entered on the arm of a friend, in sparkly earrings and bright red nail polish that matched her scarf. She carried her pain medication in one pocket and her Kleenex in another. Just out of chemotherapy, she had less hair than usual, which made her smile all the more prominent. She has always been tiny, and now she’s even more diminutive. Yet she exuded the strength of a woman resolutely herself despite in the midst of crisis. As she passed, she touched my arm and said, “Rona, you came!”

I’ve seen people hog a podium for 45 minutes and say nothing of substance. Sheela spoke for just a few minutes and her remarks are still on my mind. She made me laugh, she made me cheer and above all she made me think about what really matters. Cancer is a gift of the most challenging kind, she said. It’s like an enormous, arm-filling bouquet of roses with thorns that make you bleed. You can choose to see the thorns, or you can focus on the petals instead.

I don’t have cancer, as far as I know. (Of course, this could change tomorrow.) The thorns in my life are repairmen who don’t show up and seemingly essential possessions that are buried at the bottom of a box. Today it was the petals that caught my attention. The air had the softness unique to spring, my local café was serving a wonderfully robust jerk chicken soup, and our loft is starting to feel like home. I just might cook tonight instead of buying takeout again, which means I’ll have to master a dauntingly peculiar new stove. Oh, well. One step at a time.

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.