Marlene’s Wake

Eight years ago, circumstances conspired to see me join the gym at the University of PEI. My aerobic activity of choice there was the stationary bicycle, and a fleet of these was position to overlook the CARI pool next door.

Because I arranged my trips to the gym to coincide with my Philosophy 105 classes, I was there at the same time every day, and, as it happened, this also coincided with an acquafit class in the pool that I overlooked as I cycled; it was led by a determinedly enthusiastic woman who impressed me with the degree to which she was able to motivate those in her charge.

Even earlier in my time on Prince Edward Island, I made the acquaintance of Dave Cairns. Dave was the deputy to Director of Computer Services Jim Hancock when I first met him, and when Jim retired Dave became the director himself. Our paths crossed many times over the years, officially and otherwise; among other things I credit Dave with inculcating my attitude toward backing up computers (to paraphrase Dave: “it’s not if your disk will fail, it’s when”), an attitude that’s served me very well.

Some years ago Dave moved from leading Computer Services at the university to a more over-arching technology-architecting position and then, a few years after that, and much earlier than I would have expected, he retired from the university completely. I didn’t know Dave well-enough at the time to ask why, but others suggested that his wife was ill, and he was taking the time to help support her.

When my partner Catherine was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the fall of 2014, these two seemingly separate threads of my life–the enthusiastic woman in the pool, my friend Dave the technologist–merged, as I came to realize that the woman in the pool was Marlene, Dave’s wife, and that Marlene too was living with metastatic breast cancer; indeed she’d been living with it back in 2009 when I saw her in the pool, and she was living with it still.

In the years since, both Marlene and Dave became valued supporters of Catherine and I.

Marlene was, as Catherine put it, “the really hopeful one” in her metastatic breast cancer support group; Dave, both face to face and over the wire, has been able to give me the benefit of his experience, small-scale and large, with cancer and treatment and how to be an effective supporter. Although their practical and emotional support has been enormously helpful to both Catherine and to me, it was perhaps their example of living with cancer, hopefully and undefeatedly (if that’s a word) for so long that was most helpful.

Marlene died on Monday.

A member of the cancer support group generously sent us an email to let us know, in case we were distracted by other things.

It was difficult news to learn: we both lost a trusted friend and supporter, yes; but we also knew, more intimately than most, the challenges of living with cancer, and how wrenching Marlene’s death must be for Dave and for their daughters.

I went to the wake yesterday, and as I stood in the line with Marlene and Dave’s friends and coworkers and neighbours, and watched a slide show of Marlene and Dave’s family life playing in the lobby, Marlene suddenly grew from being “that energetic woman in the pool” and “Dave’s wife” and “a member of Catherine’s support group” to become a fully-formed human being. With Christmas mornings and birthday cakes and climbed mountains and hospital beds and newborn children and quiet moments by the fire and high school graduations.

I have a modest little newsletter that I send out to Catherine’s friends and family to update them on her condition; Marlene was on that list, and often replied to my messages with words of encouragement or advice. My last email from her was only last week:

Yeah some good news, go Team Catherine! Keep going and make sure she keeps the chemo room filled with laughter! Best medicine of all, LOL

How are you doing??

It is unimaginably sad to realize that the vital person behind those words will email no more. And yet also hopeful to know that someone who lived so long-buffeted by cancer could continue to muster such hope and enthusiasm.

Another of Marlene’s support group wrote me yesterday: “that is the legacy of this disease – lives half lived.”

As I sat in the chapel this afternoon for Marlene’s funeral service, and heard her brother describe her life and that of her family, it became apparent that, even though this was as true for her as for anyone, she managed to squeeze a lot into that “half-lived” life.

In that, she leaves us all a great gift, and an enduring buttress against the winds we’ll face ahead.

Thank you, woman in the pool; you helped.


Dave's picture
Dave on August 19, 2017 - 10:39 Permalink


Thank you so much for the kind words. We all travel a difficult path but the journey is worth the effort.

Signe's picture
Signe on August 29, 2017 - 17:21 Permalink

Saddened by this news, Peter.
Like you, I remember Marlene as that always energetic and cheerful woman at the pool (where I spent A LOT of time!).
I also met her at the Geneva Villa, where she was visiting a relative. Even though we only ever met in passing at the pool, Marlene clearly recognised me and we had a nice chat. She will be missed by so many people in Charlottetown.