“I’m A Bit Of Alright”
By Diane Schachter
Joan Campbell’s granddaughter loves to hang out with her 91 year old grandmother. Even when she’s about to go to a Lady Gaga concert, all dolled up in heavy eye makeup, see-through stockings and platform shoes, her grandmother smiles. The kids of today, Joan says, know how to have fun and laugh. And Joan believes that life should be all about joy and laughter.
I learned, however, that Joan’s life at times has been anything but a laughing matter.
I met Joan a few years back at a local song circle composed of all ages. I was drawn to her friendliness, her beautiful soprano voice and her ability to harmonize. When the opportunity arose for me to write for Thrive In Life, my thoughts immediately turned to Joan. I had a strong sense that Joan was a thriver.
As I approached Joan’s apartment for our first interview, she stood beside her open door and greeted me with a warm smile. Entering, I was equally warmed by her sun-drenched cheery apartment, so much like Joan herself. She led me to her balcony, drew my attention to the view of lush trees and flowers, and told me that she had known immediately that this was the apartment for her.
Joan was born near London in 1919. She was the middle child and only girl. She has fond memories of playing with her two brothers. Her father died when Joan was about 4, leaving her mother a young widow. Still, she refers to her growing-up years as a sanctuary of stability and love. She learned from her childhood, she says, that happiness is possible. She remembers beautiful outings with her family bicycling in the countryside.
Her mother had a lovely singing voice, which many years later Joan realized she had inherited. Sadly, one of Joan’s brothers died in World War II. Still, despite her tragic loss, Joan’s mother remained focused on her other two children. She was determined that all her offspring would have every opportunity in life, especially an education, and Joan eventually became a physiotherapist. Her mother taught her a great deal, Joan says; she modeled determination, a good work ethic, and the importance of family.
It was during the war when Joan met her husband. She, along with 1500 war brides and their children, came to Canada. Joan and her husband subsequently had three children together: Liz, Sue and Annie. Her marriage was abusive and after 16 years, Joan mustered the courage to initiate a divorce, something she knew she had to do for herself and her children. She felt fortunate to have a profession to support her family.
Joan faced many challenges in raising her children. Her middle daughter, Sue, at the age of 17, began to display bizarre and sometimes violent behaviour. Eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I asked Joan how she dealt with this difficult news, and she replied that she was actually relieved that Sue could now get the help she needed. Sue currently lives in a group home not too far from Joan. They have a good relationship, and Sue frequently gives her mother her artwork which is hung on the walls of Joan’s apartment.
Joan’s youngest daughter, Annie, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She survived it.
If all this wasn’t enough, Liz, Joan’s eldest daughter, at the age of 43 fell off a ladder during a freak accident and became a paraplegic. This was devastating to Joan and her family. Joan explains, “I cried buckets when I heard that Liz, my first-born, would never walk again. I went through periods of sadness and disbelief. Nobody thinks that it will happen to a member of their family.” Joan’s family rallied to Liz’s side, bringing them closer together than ever.
Over time, Joan accepted Liz’s tragic circumstances and proudly relates that despite her disability, she was able to help others. Liz exhibited much courage, and inspired many by initiating and facilitating a group for people with mental and physical disabilities.
Liz was confined to a wheelchair for 17 years and endured much pain. She ultimately died at the age of 60 due to complications.This was the greatest challenge of Joan’s life. Her sadness was unbearable. She felt tremendous helplessness and guilt, wishing that she had visited Liz more often. It all happened so quickly, Joan explains. Tearfully, Joan repeated the words that she relayed to her beloved daughter, as she gave her permission to die. “Liz, take your wings and fly. We love you forever.”
Accepting her daughter’s untimely death was no easy feat for Joan. She initially felt hopeless that the intense sadness would ever dissipate. She sought counselling from a bereavement counsellor at White Rock Hospice, which she says was helpful. She read books on grieving, such as On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She talked to friends and cried about her loss. In time, Joan’s sadness dissipated. She still feels occasional sadness which is triggered by certain music or a memory. Overall, despite her loss, Joan is totally reinvested in life and is comforted in knowing that Liz is no longer in pain.
But there were still more challenges to come. At the age of 82, Joan contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome while abroad, causing paralysis. Having been a physiotherapist for many years with a wealth of knowledge about the body, Joan was determined to get better. She never lost faith that she would regain her independence and walk again. She spent years in the hospital, followed by a stay at a personal care home, and then an assisted living situation. As a thriver in the truest sense, however, Joan eventually triumphed, and was ultimately able to move to her current apartment. She now walks with the use of a cane, (occasionally using her electric wheel chair for longer trips).
This past summer, at the age of 91, Joan visited her family in Britain for the first time in eight years. While there, she walked the countryside in Devon, England, which was miraculous considering that she was paralized less than ten years ago.
Secrets of Thriving
Joan thrives where others, forced to endure such adversities, would have retreated into a fetal position. Her youngest daughter Annie, whom Joan refers to as her best friend says, “Mother grew a lot in the last five years. She is more confident and happier. She let go of blame and sadness.” Joan modeled to Annie that, “You can learn and become a better person even through, or as a result of, painful experiences.”
Sitting comfortably, legs reclined in her favourite lazy boy chair that faces the view she loves, Joan began sharing her secrets of thriving and her general outlook on life.
Diane: Do you think that you have had a good or difficult life? Do you ever feel sorry for yourself?
Joan: Yes, I feel that I have had a good life with the usual challenges that everyone has. I have at times thought “why me” but I must accept the challenges that I have been given.
Diane: Do you believe in God or a higher Power?
Joan: There is a mystical quality, an unknown higher power, that I believe is God.
Diane: Do you fear death?
Joan: I wonder about death–but it helps me to enjoy whatever is happening day by day.
Diane: Are you still active in the Unitarian Church and what draws you to it?
Joan: They honour the bible but are tolerant of all beliefs and genders. They gave me consistent support when I was paralyzed.
Diane: How have you been able to cope with the misfortunes of life?
Joan: My secure family background and a good education gave me confidence to face life’s misfortunes later on. I believe that I got my determinism from my mother who by example taught me to “never give up.”
Diane: What do you gain by being an avid reader?
Joan: I love to read until my eyes get too tired. Reading provides me with life-long learning and keeps my brain active.
Diane: Are you happy, and if so to what do you attribute your happiness?
Joan: Leading an active life with community involvement makes my life happy and fulfilling. I am not afraid or too proud to reach out for help should I need a ride somewhere or another favour. Likewise, I am happy to help out my friends to the best of my ability.
Diane: What gave you the courage to divorce your husband and did you ever consider remarrying?
Joan: My only regret is that I didn’t take action sooner. The challenges of being single after divorce is almost like re-inventing yourself. Although depressed at times, I gained the confidence to make my own decisions. I have not remarried. I would be looking for companionship in marriage. I’m very independent, but I don’t stop looking!
Diane: Do you experience fear and anxiety?”
Joan: Yes, I have anxiety as many mothers do. I am concerned about Sue’s future, but I’m grateful that at the age of 63, she is safe in a group home. I deal with anxiety and fear by talking and sharing my thoughts with friends or with others in a group. I also walk daily rain or shine, and I enjoy chatting with people of all ages on the way. Leading an active life diverts my anxiety.
Diane: How have you changed as you age?
Joan: I have definitely become more feisty with age. Presumably, with each decade we mature. I like myself better and now I have the wisdom to know what life is all about.
Diane: What have been the highlights of your life?
Joan: Having children, having a fulfilling career, a passion for music, my hobbies, (sewing, painting on china, doing crafts, playing bridge, walking, reading, attending lectures, singing in a choir and otherwise), and close friendships have been some of the highlights of my life.
Diane: If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently?
Joan: I would possibly correct some mistakes, but would likely make others! I think that it is better to look forward, and not back.
Diane: What does thriving mean to you?
Joan: To thrive means to have discipline, gratitude, acceptance, creativity, enjoyment of life, a sense of humour, imagination and willpower to name but a few aspects. To thrive, one must reach out to others.
After spending time with this vibrant, thriving woman, I have to agree with Joan’s assessment of herself.
“I’m a bit of alright.”
I live my life as a grateful survivor of 91 years. I nurture my family and friends who can help me when requested and lift my spirits, stimulate my thinking processes, and laugh with me (and cry the odd time).
I believe that we are basic innocents at birth, depending on our DNA. We are also influenced by our parents, environment, later learning, and luck of life. We have the choice of being monsters, leaders of change, caregivers or artists.
I believe that we should hope to strive and do our best we can with our lives in order to leave a legacy of our worth after we “pass on.” Are we not different people in thoughts and actions each decade of our lives?
I believe passionately in the rights of every one to express themselves, but not arrogantly with no respect for others. I believe that you must forgive yourself for any failures in your life in order to have tolerance for others. I admire Nelson Mandela (one year older than me) who showed far-sighted leadership for his country and the amazing forgiveness for his lengthy imprisonment in South Africa.
I believe in community involvement–Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, spoke years ago of the value of small groups discussing subjects and instigating important changes.
I believe that life is to be enjoyed. My passion has always been music, with classical and jazz being favorites. It also includes laughter.
The famous scientist, Albert Einstein, summed it up for me. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mystery of the eternity of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”