Writing the obit: one friend's last gift to another
The obituary section lies open on my desk. A woman smiles up at me, lighting up the page as she used to light up rooms, podiums and bars in many countries. The words have the familiar laurel-wreath ring of all ceremonial tributes: "Alison Youngman died peacefully at home on March 8, concluding a short illness with the dignity, grace and good humour that defined her life as a laywer, volunteer and champion of women's leadership."
My irreverent friend wasn't one for laurel wreaths. To lift her spirits in the months of pain and baldness, which at the time seemed so long and yet flew by with the speed of a childhood summer, a few pals took to sending her outrageous hats. She chose the most flamboyant, a red one with matching chorus-girl boa, to model in the hospital ward for the amusement of patients and staff. I wish I could have seen that performance: Alison had studied standup comedy, betting it would make her a more confident speaker. Partners in Bay Street law firms aren't exactly a zany bunch, but in everything she did---up to and including her death---my friend remained unassailably herself.
I had planned to visit her this week in the pretty second-floor bedroom where she'd been resting up between bouts of treatment for lung cancer. I wanted to admire the red hat. I'd been saving nutty jokes for the occasion. Then on Sunday morning, as I set about making beef stew, the e-mail alerts began to fly. I left a bowl of chopped onions on the kitchen counter to sit at the computer, distilling the facts of Alison's life into something approaching her essence.
She was 60, one year older than I am. Twice the age at which, according to a slogan of our youth, a person can no longer be trusted.
Alison and I weren't close, yet you didn't have to be her intimate to know that she would keep your secrets, cheer your triumphs and come to your aid in a crisis. I remember how she dropped everything to load up on fresh local raspberries and upscale takeout for a mutual friend, mortally ill with cancer, who was stuck eating hospital pap in another city---and how she later called me from her car to report on her visit. How many of us did she call on that drive, reinforcing our circle of sympathy and hope in typical Alison fashion?
This was less than two years ago, before I fully understood that my generation had arrived at the great winnowing, when the once-thinkable shock of another stricken, dead or dying friend becomes part of everyday life.
We were the women who "took the workplace by storm," as the media used to say. Then we became the women who had everyone talking about "juggling career and motherhood." With no role models to speak of, we figured it out on the fly. We're still learning how to live our own values in a working world designed by men. It's a challenge so daunting that many women quit. Alison stayed---on her terms. Just by being herself, she gave hope to other women. But that's only part of her legacy.
Alison didn't plan to become a hotshot lawyer when she stepped off a ship in Montreal at age 19, with $200 to her name. She had left her home in London, England with no plans of any kind except to see the world and had been on the move for some time the day she joined Stikeman Elliott as a lowly paralegal. Predictably, the job bored her. She was about to resign and seek some other focus for her talents when her mentor challenged her to go to law school---and offered to sponsor her studies. She graduated the same year her first son was born and started her practice at Stikeman's Toronto office the year she gave birth to her second.
Maternity leave, what maternity leave? Law firms had barely given it a thought. Alison kept up a killer pace, but she later became a driving force behind Stikeman's first mat leave policy.
Always one to rejoice in the accomplishments of others, Alison rarely mentioned her own. For instance, the mat leave breakthrough. And her pioneering work in technology law. The raft of publications, the professional distinctions. Never a word.
How on earth did she find the time to be a powerhouse volunteer? As if chairing the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation were not a monumental job in itself, she headed the Canadian arm of International Women's Forum (IWF), a global organization that advances women's leadership (I served with her on the board). Her title, President, does not begin to capture what she brought to the role. An IWF colleague puts it this way: "Alison was the captain and the loyal shipmate, the compass and the cruise director, the lighthouse and the patrol boat."
Meanwhile she passed on the gift of mentorship. Once after speaking to a group of young female lawyers, I got talking with a woman from Stikeman, who glowed at the mention of Alison's name. "She's a role model to us," said my new acquaintance. "So generous with her time and advice." A few days later, I told Alison, "You've got a fan. Blonde hair, shoulder-length. Tall..." My friend just laughed. "Oh, there are so many of them..."
The day the doctors told her she had cancer, she was hosting an IWF friend from Argentina. Party guests were due that evening. As always, Alison sparkled. We sat around her dining room table, munching pate and drinking too much wine like 20-somethings. I didn't know, could not have guessed. I thought we had years and years in which to gather at Alison's place.
She died her way, surrounded by the people she loved, smiling and squeezing hands in her last hours. It was International Women's Day, which this year coincided with the switch to Daylight Savings Time. Alison took her last breath just before 8 a.m., around the time the sky grew light, two months, two weeks and six days shy of her sixty-first birthday.
When I think of her, I think of friendship---the steadfast, large-hearted friend she was and the camaraderie she nurtured in others. I remember how we rallied to meet the challenge of her illness---one friend in particular, who sat with her in doctors' offices and kept the vigil at the end. I see us giving to Alison as she had given to us---bringing food, sending hats, making her laugh or, in my case, telling her story. If there's anything women have learned in the past few decades, it's that jobs and marriages don't come with a lifetime guarantee. Friendship does. What a marvel.