Authors: Arthur Motyer
The Staircase Letters
“It’s a given that anyone enamoured with Carol Shields’s work will appreciate
The Staircase Letters
. … The dynamic among these three is fascinating.”
“Motyer’s connecting narrative links the letters. His writing is reflective, intimate and gracious. … Ultimately, though, it is the letters from Gerwin—far more numerous than those from Shields—that form the heart of this gem of a book. Her strength and courage in the face of terminal cancer are both gut-wrenching and transcendent.”
The Globe and Mail
“A moving commentary on facing the end of life.”
The London Free Press
“As the three friends compare daily lives, medical reports and a shared love of literature, a way of looking at things, emerges that deals more with life than with death. They each ‘seize the day,’ leaving for posterity a well-measured, good-humoured and courageous commentary on the uses of adversity.”
Friendship at the End of Life
In memory of
Elma and Carol
And for Alasdair, Michael and Gillian
IT WAS AFTER
the death of Carol Shields, following that of Elma Gerwin, that I re-read their many e-mails to me over the previous two years, and realized again how truly special that correspondence was. After gathering the letters together, I was grateful to secure publication approval from Donald Shields and Martin Gerwin.
During the last years of her life, Carol made it clear that she did not want to be used for publicity about cancer that might draw attention to herself. In her dying, however, she has left in these letters, as Elma has, an inspiring example of how the ending of life can be faced. These were two extraordinary women, one an established literary icon, the other highly literate but known only to her friends, and their story deserves a wide sharing.
Sackville, New Brunswick
Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry
in your head. It takes all your cunning just to
hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have
to move into a different sort of life.
SPIRALLING TOWARDS DEATH
, she stretched out her hand. Icarus falling, crying out but not to family. Husband, children, in-laws, all of them loving, would be there to cushion the fall when it came. She knew that. Pick up the pieces, bury them, burn them, give them to science. They would know what to do. Her cry was to others, two in particular, one man, one woman, as she began her free-fall flight. Her name was Elma Gerwin. I was the man. Carol Shields was the woman.
Forty years earlier, Elma had been a student of mine in English at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville,
Quebec, and brilliant she was, too, challenging me constantly to look deeper, go further, and share with her immediately anything new I learned. A short, slight figure with a look sharp enough to pierce a steel door, she would fix me with her eyes, whether I was pacing about in a lecture room or sitting at a seminar table, and make escape impossible. Not that I wanted to escape. I was, after all, supposed to be the one in charge. I was fifteen years older, I was tall, I was (some said) commanding, and I had a big voice. Yet Elma was the one who held me in thrall. Her own voice was never soft, gentle, and low, as Cordelia’s appeared to Lear, but neither was it shrill: it suited her as an excellent weapon of communication, reinforced and toned down with a smile.
I never cast Elma in any of the plays I produced as the university’s director of drama, because she had no aspirations as an actress and preferred to do make-up.
She Stoops to Conquer, The Diary of Anne Frank
, were all plays I did at the time; and I can see her now, dressed in a borrowed white lab coat, too long and too big for her small figure, bending over an actor seated in front of a mirror, transforming a
young face into an old one with a few liners and sticks of greasepaint held in her hands. It was in the classroom, however, that she showed how much she cared for the power of words. Writers were her gods. Victorian thinkers—Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin, among others—were her passion, as were the poets, all of them her friends: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats. She read them all.
Inevitably, in the years that followed her graduation, we lost touch, lengthy letters to each other giving way to the annual note tucked inside a Christmas card, sometimes with a photograph. She had married a philosopher, and they lived in Winnipeg. I knew that. They had three children. I knew that. She still read everything. I might have guessed that. But only gradually over the years did I learn that she had become a tireless advocate for literacy, and she worked with students in special programs. She had become a supporter of the New Democratic Party. She had a genuine concern for Aboriginal peoples. She went into and came out of a ten-year period as an alcoholic. She raged at injustices, wherever perceived. But she still loved a world that provoked her to fight in it, ignorance and prejudice always her enemies.
In late February 2001, I wrote to Elma about a literary matter. I had written two novels, one of which,
Swing Wide the Door
, was about a gay Salvation Army officer, trapped in an organization he felt was homophobic. I hoped she would agree to read the manuscript, because her acute critical judgment was something I knew I could trust. She had known for years that I was gay, so I had no anxieties that she would be shocked by the subject. Her immediate and helpful response by e-mail— established by now as a faster and more reliable form of communication between us in urgent times—confirmed her place as valued critic and friend. She quickly, and correctly, pointed out that one particular incident involving a prostitute was one she’d read in other forms and that to avoid cliché I would have to give it a new twist: “The fact that something has often happened in real life does not mean it will work well in fiction. Trite but true—yes, I know.” She went on to suggest some valuable rethinking for the novel.
I was not, however, prepared for what she had to say so frankly about herself. Earlier that year, a multitude of polyps had been discovered in her colon,
some of them of the kind that lead frequently to cancer. Because major surgery to remove a section of her colon had not been immediately proposed, she faced the prospect of repeated colonoscopies (invasive diagnostic procedures) and polypectomies (the surgery that snips off the precancerous polyps). Although not yet aware that a small-cell cancer was also growing in her lung—it would be diagnosed six months later, in September, and was one that could readily metastasize—she was able to have an early sense of what was ahead of her, and she was obviously determined to make this her last fight.
She told me she had written to Carol Shields, whom she had known and admired when they’d both lived in Winnipeg. Carol, who now lived in Victoria, had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. And now Elma wrote to me. We were, she assured us, two very important people in her life—people she could count on to accept and understand what was happening to her—and her proposal was that we make a special journey together.
The medieval Everyman had made a similar request:
I shall show you how it is
Commanded I am to go a journey
A long way, hard and dangerous
And give a straight count without delay
Before the high judge Adonai
Wherefore I pray you bear me company
Elma lived in the middle of Canada, I was on the east coast, Carol on the west, but e-mail could link us easily. Elma would write to both of us at once, or any one of us would write to the other, and we three would travel together, bear each other company, and give a straight account without delay.