Joan's Story
by Geraldine Sherman

(Toronto Life December, 2000)

On the evening of Thursday, October 18, 1990, CBC television carried a news story about one of its own. Joan Donaldson, founding director of Newsworld, was in a coma in a Montreal hospital after being hit by a bicycle. She had been attending a meeting at Radio-Canada. She called her secretary to say she'd be catching the next plane home to Toronto. The taxi stand in front of the Radio-Canada building on René Lévesque Boulevard was on the far side of a bicycle lane. Joan looked left, saw nothing and stepped off the curb. She didn't know that on this stretch of the path bicycles travel both ways.

The courier reportedly shouted and slammed on his brakes, but his bike knocked her to the ground. Her honey-blonde head snapped back against the curb. Her brain, like a walnut floating in thin jelly, rotated and hit the jagged lining of her skull, first in one direction, then another, an injury called a coup-contracoup--which sounds like a word Joan might have used to describe a Third World political crisis. She was barely conscious when the ambulance arrived.

At St-Luc hospital, neurologists studied images of her brain--damaged temporal lobes, cerebral swelling, internal bleeding, blood clots. She'd slipped into a coma. Operate immediately, or she would die. Operate and she still might die. If she survived, there could be long-term disabilities. No one at St-Luc's knew Joan or her wishes; no family or friends were there to speak on her behalf. Over the next few hours, neurosurgeons operated twice. Each time, they removed a subdural hematoma and some adjacent brain tissue. Then they waited.

The following morning's Globe and Mail said that Joan's condition "could not be [reported] because her state was too volatile." The CBC carried regular updates. So it happened that, at the age of 44, Joan Donaldson's life switched into reverse: the woman who reported on disasters from places like Vietnam and Northern Ireland became herself a tragic subject. Her hard-won independence vanished in an instant. Someone who had always closely guarded her privacy was now the object of intense public scrutiny.

A year before the accident, when Newsworld went on the air, Maclean's put her on its cover. "There's no magic about television," she said, with characteristic bluntness. "Television is 95 per cent sweat." Asked about her personal life, she went into fighting stance:

"Are you married, divorced, what?"


"Because CBC reporters ask this kind of question all the time."

"Yeah? So?"

She was mad as hell when she discovered that Chatelaine intended to include her among "Women Who Wowed Us in 1989" and begged her assistant to get her name removed. No luck. In April 1990, she was back in Chatelaine, this time--along with her boss, Trina McQueen, director of CBC-TV news and current affairs, and Barbara Frum, host of The Journal--as one of the most powerful women in television. Joan didn't like attention then. She would have hated it now.

The first person outside the CBC that Joan's secretary called with news of her accident was her 26-year-old stepson, Jeffrey Gelgoot, in Toronto. Joan's parents were old and unwell. Her elder sister, Lynne Hancock, was travelling in Nevada. Jeffrey was family, and Joan's colleagues knew it. As soon as he heard, he called his older brother, Daryl, who told his wife. The three of them drove to Pearson airport, flew to Montreal and went directly to the hospital. "We told them we were legal next of kin," Jeffrey says. It was almost true. Joan had been planning to give Jeffrey power of attorney so he could act in a case like this, but she hadn't gotten around to it.

When Jeffrey saw Joan that night--swollen, bandaged and in a coma--he didn't recognize her. Arthur Gelgoot, the celebrity accountant, Joan's ex-husband and the father of Daryl and Jeffrey, was in England visiting his new girlfriend. "Given the seriousness of what the doctor was saying," Jeffrey recalls, "we felt it was prudent that he come and offer some family support." When Arthur heard the news, he remembered how often, in the 13 years he and Joan were together, she'd told him she didn't ever want to spend her life as a vegetable, that if anything happened to her, he was to make sure she didn't survive.

Jeffrey also knew Joan's views on leading a compromised life. Only half in jest, she had said, "I don't want to live long enough to wear sensible shoes!" She had no living will to serve as a directive to family or physicians, not that it would have made much difference at the beginning. At St-Luc's that day, there was no talk about intervention or non-intervention, heroic medical measures versus restraint. By the time Joan's stepsons arrived, the critical operations were done.

Jeffrey called one of Joan's close friends, Jane Glassco, whom she'd met at Ryerson, where Joan had taught between stints at CTV and CBC. She flew from Toronto, assessed the situation and handled it as Joan might have: she crossed the street and bought some wine, a corkscrew, plastic glasses and cigarettes. The people gathering around Joan had started sleeping on air mattresses in the intensive care waiting room.

In Vancouver, in the middle of a cable seminar, Janice Ward, whom Joan Donaldson had wooed away from the Sports Network to promote Newsworld, had a premonition. She had to get up and call Joan. "I don't know why, but I did." When she got through, someone in the office told her what had happened. She hung up the phone, stunned. She called back. "When I realized it was a lot worse than a broken leg, I thought, 'I've got to get home.'" In a daze, she packed, threw her hotel key on the front desk and shouted, "I have an emergency." Twenty minutes later, at the Vancouver airport, she found herself hyperventilating and nearly speechless.

The next morning, in her Toronto office, she was dealing with the press. "They wanted to find out about Joan for obits. It was horrible." When Antonia Zerbisias of The Toronto Star called, Janice told her to get lost. On Sunday, Zerbisias wrote: "Newsworld chief Joan Donaldson would be mortified by all the attention she is getting this weekend ... family and colleagues have flown in to keep a 24-hour vigil. A hospital spokeswoman says there have been hundreds of calls. Nobody can believe what has happened to their mentor, teacher, den mother and dear, dear friend." Other news stories that day sounded a bit more hopeful: little evidence of brain swelling, chances for survival good. No one speculated on when the coma might end.

By Monday, Janice was in Montreal, already reading up on brain injuries. She sat in the ICU, chatting away to Joan because that's what she imagined she was supposed to do, when all at once she felt faint. "I was sitting on the floor going, 'Oh my God.'" But she pulled herself together and was soon leading others to the bedside.

Perhaps because it was such a freak accident, people who know Joan remember exactly where they were when they heard about it, as they remember where they were when John Kennedy was shot. Wendy Mesley, a former student of Joan's at Ryerson and a "kindred spirit," called home while on assignment in Quebec City and heard the news from Peter Mansbridge, then her husband. "I immediately wanted to get on a plane, but he said there wasn't any rush." Susanne Boyce, then a CBC television producer, was shooting Midday in Gander and stopped in Montreal on her way home. She found a tense crowd--everyone smoking, everyone surprised that Joan had so many close friends. Susanne had known that Joan and Jeffrey were tight, but she met him for the first time outside Joan's room. "I think a lot of people saw her as a mother figure," says Susanne, "but with us, the roles were reversed. She could let her hair down with me." About a week before her accident, Joan had told Susanne she wanted to spend more time doing things she liked: going to the theatre, seeing friends. Now here they all were in Montreal, huddled together in a smoke-filled waiting room, anticipating the next bulletin.

By Monday, the neurologists reported that Joan was reacting to some stimuli, but a week after the accident she remained in a deep coma. By Saturday, October 26, she was breathing on her own for the first time. Three days later, Trina McQueen announced the appointment of an acting head of Newsworld. A few days after that, The Toronto Star reported that Joan was responding to familiar voices. On November 10, 23 days after the accident, still in a coma, she was transferred by air ambulance from Montreal to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. The neurosurgeon discharging her, described by Janice Ward as a very sweet man, said something that shocked her: "I hope you're not sorry that I saved Joan's life." At the time, Janice thought it was an awful thing to say.

In intensive care at Sunnybrook, Joan's room quickly filled with visual stimulation: photographs, paintings, a television with VCR. As a Christmas gift, Janice orchestrated a 55-minute video she called "Wake Up, Joan." Eighty-seven CBC employees from Vancouver to St. John's sent love and laughs. Vickie Gabereau claimed that, evidence to the contrary, she was now thin and blonde and waiting in a bar for Joan. A female station manager in Edmonton told her how much CBC women needed her. A young Regina reporter, another of Joan's former Ryerson students, complained that because of her the CBC had ground to a halt: "Everyone's using your name as a reference, and nobody can check up on it." Alison Smith invited Joan for a favourite dinner of mussels with garlic. Announcers, accountants, secretaries and producers expressed confidence that the courage and stamina Joan had shown putting Newsworld on the air would see her through.

Janice studied the Glasgow coma scale to assess Joan's consciousness. Pinch her: if she shows no pain, score one; if she pulls your hand away, score five. The higher the score, the better. Joan scored in the ambiguous middle range. "You'd see patients who were definitely in comas," says Janice. "But with her, it wasn't like that." Janice scheduled visitors from nine in the morning to six at night. People Joan barely knew, as well as friends, asked to be on the list. They talked to her, read newspapers and books, played audio tapes and videos, told stories, gossiped, or just held her hand, hoping to break through.

Joan's progress during her three and a half months at Sunnybrook was minimal. There were more tests, CT scans and MRIs. They were disappointing--more swelling and less function than hoped for. "There was a time," Jane Glassco admits, "when I thought one of us should put a pillow over her face."

The doctors remained cautiously optimistic. "Not having any real knowledge of brain injuries," Jeffrey says, "we believed them. An eye twitch or a finger movement became monumental in terms of what we saw as recovery at the time." But there appeared to be no sustained progress. Joan would seem to be aware, then would close down. Jeffrey grew pessimistic, though Janice remained upbeat. "He kept making fun of me because I said, 'She's going to get better, she's going to get better, she's going to get better!'" But even Janice understood it was not going to be like a movie, with that heart-stopping moment when the patient lifts her head and says, "Where am I?"

Arthur Gelgoot, who dropped in a few times at Sunnybrook, never understood whether Joan's reactions were purely physical or reflected a conscious decision. "Who knows? You're a prisoner inside." At times, she would open her eyes when he spoke. "I felt warmth and welcome in the way she looked at me. At other times, I got the 'get the hell out of here' look. There was no mistaking the looks. The eyes hadn't changed."

It soon became clear that Joan needed long-term care. Sunnybrook wasn't right for her. In April 1991, six months after the accident, still in a light coma, she was moved to Queen Elizabeth Hospital on University Avenue. By then, the media had mostly lost interest, though a May 1991 article in this magazine reported: "Of all the events of the year, what happened to Donaldson, the much respected head of CBC's Newsworld, was particularly cruel." There were other tragedies to write about now; to the daily media, the story of Joan's misfortune was over.

While her life in the public eye may have ended, her privacy and independence would never return. She was in the hands of people who were paid to look after her, and of those who loved her and wanted her back.

Usually, when a coma ends, trauma patients recover rapidly in the first six months, more slowly over the next few years. Dead nerve cells don't regenerate, but injured cells can pick up some slack. The brain can reorganize some circuits so that cognitive ability improves. With Joan, the process was torturously slow. One by one, friends grew discouraged. A year after her accident, Joan managed to move a finger. She still hadn't uttered a word. She seemed to acknowledge some people, some of the time, but not others. An insidious competition for recognition developed among the regular visitors. As Janice says, "It became this whole personal thing: 'Is she going to remember me?'" Some people felt frustrated and dropped away; others were overwhelmed by outside pressures. The scheduled visits petered out.

Joan's close friends monitored her condition. "She was in pain a lot of the time," Jane Glassco recalls, "spasms and cramps in her arms and legs, particularly one arm and leg, and her neck and back." Spasticity is a common complaint among those with central nervous system injuries. For Jane, the hardest part was imagining her friend's emotional pain. Because Joan had loved to read, she was often left in headphones, listening to an audio book. It made Jane furious when she found Joan stranded, the tape half over, unable to flip the cassette. "There were signs up all over her room with instructions, but nobody paid much attention."

Jeffrey and the others encouraged the hospital to push Joan, to try to restore some movement, but after about 18 months, despite everyone's best efforts, she remained a quadriplegic, unable to get from bed to chair without human and mechanical help. Hope for a single miracle was replaced by occasional tiny, hard-won victories. Over time, she managed to move her right arm: first the fingers, then the wrist, the hand, and finally the arm from the elbow down. Over three to four years, she learned to operate a communication board, spelling out words, then sentences. Now, friends imagined, they might find out what Joan was thinking.

It proved a frustrating and sad business, the hunt for meaning. One day, Joan wrote "b-a-n-j-o" for Wendy Mesley, who ran out and bought one, second-hand. It turned out that "banjo" was not a request but a description, of sorts, of a singalong led by another patient. "She wanted a singalong, I guess," says Wendy, for whom speaking about Joan remains difficult. "She was like a big sister to me. I don't know if she was a friend or a mentor." She stops herself and reaches for a Kleenex. "Isn't that awful? I said 'was.' She's still alive!"

Three years after the accident, Joan began to speak. "When she started talking," Wendy says, "there was an excitement. We all thought there'd been a huge breakthrough." She can't recall Joan's exact first words to her, but it was about sore legs. "Something like 'Move my foot.' We were so excited." The excitement was short lived. There was no consistent conversation. "Sometimes I'd have a great meeting with her, and I'd come out feeling there's been some connection, she's finding some joy in life, some contentment. Other times, she'd be so uncomfortable, so almost not there, it was depressing."

Wendy took some comfort in believing that this new Joan, who endured so much pain and humiliation, was in fact not the old Joan, for whom the whole situation would have been unbearable. "If I think that it's the same Joan trapped in that body," she says, "that's the worst possible thought. It's better to think she's not the same."

Jeffrey, too, believes that the old Joan ended on the day of her accident, and that a new Joan has evolved. "I don't want to suggest that she interacts on a six- or eight-year-old level, because she doesn't. It's well beyond that. On occasion, she talks, and it's fluent and coherent; on other occasions, it isn't. She has moments when her long-term memory is intact, but her short-term memory is poor. Sometimes her comprehension is astonishing, at other times non-existent. You could spend time with her, leave the room and come back, and it would be like a new visit, whereas if you asked her questions that were related to her past, she could, at times, pinpoint some very specific detail." Of one thing Jeffrey is certain: "The old Joan would not have tolerated this outcome."

Janice sees evidence that the old Joan is still there, trying to make herself known. She sees, for instance, in the art objects that attract Joan, "her taste." Susanne Boyce also feels that the essence of Joan has never left. I asked if Joan ever communicated a desire to end her life. "No," she replied. "I would ask her, 'Are you in pain?' and she would nod. I would ask her, 'Do you feel sad?' Sometimes she'd say yes. 'Are you lonely? Are you afraid?' 'Yes,' she'd say. And I would say, 'I am sorry,' and she would say, 'I--am--too.'"

Jeffrey Gelgoot was 10 years old and Daryl 12 the night in 1974 when they met their father's "special friend" for dinner at their family's favourite restaurant, the Steak Pit on Avenue Road. "My parents had a very acrimonious divorce, and by chance that night my mother was eating in the same restaurant with her date. It was outrageous!" Joan was different from anyone the boys had ever met. "We grew up in a fairly insular Cedarvale Jewish family, and Joan was an Anglican, blonde, a W5 producer who was travelling the next day to Vietnam. Oh my God!" On top of that, she drank and smoked a lot, and didn't own a complete set of china or matching dining-room chairs. "I didn't call her Joan for many years. I called her Jane." She overlooked the insult.

Even if she hadn't created Newsworld, Joan would have been difficult to ignore. It's hard to be an unobtrusive five-foot-10-inch woman. It was even harder when she was a raw-boned teenager taking high school music at North Toronto Collegiate. The orchestra conductor took one look at her and handed her a double bass. Joan accepted the unwieldy challenge and even grew to love it. When she left home after graduation, she passed up university in favour of a job in the newsroom at CHUM-FM, then night shifts at CKEY, chasing stories in the rain, part of the trench-coat brigade like her hero, Edward R. Murrow. In 1967, she joined the CBC as an editor in radio news, then went on to The World at Six and Sunday Morning Magazine. She produced documentaries and live coverage of major stories, spent a couple of years in Winnipeg, returned to Toronto, then moved over to CTV to work on W5. She left the network to teach broadcast journalism at Ryerson and the University of Western Ontario before returning to the CBC. As a self-proclaimed news junkie, her journalist's principles were clearly articulated: care about people; care about the truth; cut the crap. That was also her approach to life.

She met Arthur when he did her taxes. She walked into his Wilson Avenue office, looked around and said, "There are no green plants here!" A few days later, he received an anonymous potted strawberry. "It was a slow courtship," Arthur remembers. "Certainly not skyrockets initially, but it was a joy to talk to someone who was so alert and alive." They shared a farm near Newcastle before moving back to the city. In 1979, after five years of living together, they were married privately in a non-denominational ceremony. About six weeks later, they told their friends and Arthur's sons. Joan told them she wanted to be their friend, not a substitute mother, and that's how it worked.

The marriage lasted eight years. At first, Arthur enjoyed Joan's media whirl, but he eventually came to believe that her dedication to work was "poison" for the marriage. The great holidays in Mexico and Maine stopped. For Joan, the marriage collapsed when Arthur refused to have a child with her. "In retrospect, that was very selfish of me," he says. He'd gone through a terrible divorce, his children were angry with him, and he wasn't sure Joan understood how hard it would be to work and raise a family. When she left W5 to teach at Ryerson, she was perhaps signalling him that she could live without leaping onto planes every week. Still, he refused to make a new family. "If we'd had a child," he says now, "we might still be together."

Defeated, Joan gave up teaching and rejoined the CBC, this time as coordinator of regional broadcasts for TV news and current affairs. She travelled the country, troubleshooting, extinguishing corporate brush fires. Arthur dubbed her "the CBC's fireman," a term reflecting both affection and jealousy. They drifted apart, the marriage was over, and Arthur found solace elsewhere. Friends thought Joan's heart was broken.

"At the time of the split," Jeffrey says, "she was feeling vulnerable, and my brother and I were a source of support to her. We took real possession of her after the separation." Indeed, it wasn't until after the breakup that the boys started referring to her as their stepmother. The night before Daryl got married, he and Jeffrey went to Joan's so she could polish their speeches. She was uncomfortable about attending the wedding. "We told her that my brother wouldn't get married unless she was there!" That was two and a half years before the accident.

Joan wasn't able to attend Jeffrey's wedding in 1999. He married one of the tenants in a medical office building he manages, a doctor about 10 years his senior. Last March, they had twins, Matthew and Emily.

A symbolic photograph of Joan's life taken before the accident would show her friends--television colleagues, former Ryerson students, her stepsons--gathered around in a tight circle. Her father, Marshall, a retired policeman, and her mother, Dorothy, a housewife and part-time bookkeeper, would stand proudly to one side. Her only sibling, Lynne, who wrote poetry and taught English at Wilfrid Laurier University, wouldn't be there at all.

But six years later, after Joan was moved from University Avenue to the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute in the west end, a photograph symbolizing her life would be dramatically altered. It would show Joan seated in a custom-fitted wheelchair, head to one side, motionless except for one arm. Old friends, except for Jeffrey, Janice and a few others, would have faded into the background. Colleagues had moved along, grown busier. Wendy Mesley, for instance, divorced, remarried, had a baby and started hosting Undercurrents. Jane Glassco's visits had tailed off to about two a year.

But Joan was not abandoned. Far from it. Characters who appeared previously on the fringes would have moved front and centre. At Joan's right, her mother, who still believed that her daughter would recover, now managed her care. Supporting her, and on Joan's left, would be her father, and around them, in a protective ring, Joan's sister, Lynne, Lynne's husband, Eric, and their daughter, Christine. Close by, on crutches, in wheelchairs or flat on their backs, would be the men and women who lived with Joan in Toronto Rehab. Jane Glassco found herself briefly within this new frame when Joan's mother died in 1998. At the funeral, she says, "there were all these people from Joan's floor, people with brain damage, and I realized these were her friends now."

Joan had always been the favourite child. She kept in close touch with her parents, though they were sometimes baffled by her life. Even before Joan became something of a public figure, there was jealousy between the Donaldson girls. A childhood friend says that a couple of weeks before the accident, the sisters confronted one another. They realized their aging parents would need them to work together. This reconciliation made it easier for Lynne to rejoin Joan's life.

For almost 10 years, Lynne travelled to Toronto every month from her new home in Victoria, staying for nine or 10 days with her parents in Richmond Hill. She helped supervise Joan's medical needs, took her to galleries and concerts. Joan relied on a feeding tube for nourishment and medication; other bodily functions were looked after by professionals. The once super-competent Joan now depended on her infirm mother and, increasingly, her once remote sister. It was not easy for any of them. By trial and error, Lynne learned to argue for what she thought were Joan's best interests. Her teachers were the families of other patients, veterans who had lived for years in the trenches with the disabled. "Lynne's devotion and her commitment," says Jeffrey, "are just tremendous. She's never wavered."

It may be impossible to comprehend anyone's motives for self-sacrifice; it's also impossible not to speculate. Did Joan's accident provide Lynne with the chance to be the caring older sister she hadn't been before? Was she moved by love, or guilt, or something more complicated? In the end, does it matter? For Joan, the new Joan, Lynne is a godsend.

Astonishingly, Lynne describes the hundreds of hours she spent with her sister in Toronto as "really wonderful." She'd take the bus to the hospital first thing in the morning and come back late at night. Every afternoon, at about 3:30 or so, when Joan was back in bed, they would have "reading hour." This routine continued until February of 1999, when Joan was moved to the Gorge Road Hospital in Victoria, about a half-hour drive from the Hancocks' and not far from where Joan's elderly father now lives.

When she left Toronto, her friends realized this was the right decision. "I think it was the only decision," says Jeffrey, who organized a farewell party for 30 at Toronto Rehab. It felt to some like the wake they never had. "When her sister wheeled her out of the party room back to her own room, we all just started to cry," Janice Ward recalls. On a previous visit, Wendy Mesley had brought her young daughter to meet Joan. Her parting gift was a mother-and-daughter picture. "I told her I loved her, and we hugged lots."

Thanks to e-mail and digital cameras, Jeffrey remains in touch: "Lynne doesn't miss a detail about what Joan has done; she probably turns something tiny into something monumental." Joan continues her slow, slow progress. When she's at the Hancock house, Lynne puts her on the phone to speak to Jeffrey. "We exchange salutations, as much as she can say, and I try to talk to her the best I can and hope for some response." Joan paints small watercolours, and Lynne sends them as cards to her friends. "Her colours are pinks, blues and yellows," Susanne Boyce says, "and there is light. I know this is interpretive, but I think these colours reflect Joan."

In my rented car, I follow a rough map to the Hancock place, on a hilly residential street in Cordova Bay, a Victoria suburb. Joan and I were nodding acquaintances when I worked at the CBC. Once, we both signed up for French classes and together wrote a placement test. We joked: "Is there something lower than beginners?" When the results came back, I was in the lowest grade, but Joan was in the middle. A lack of confidence always masked her skills.

Lynne had written to me before my visit: "We hope that your article will reflect not only Joan's achievements in the past, but also the even greater personal achievements of her continuing recovery. The message of lifelong recovery and hope is one we want all survivors and their loved ones to read." She asked that I speak to Joan at the house, not the hospital, and in the presence of Joan's speech pathologist, Gail Poole, a formidable woman with degrees in law and medical ethics.

Wednesdays, and twice on weekends, Eric Hancock, Joan's 80-year-old brother-in-law, transports Joan in their retrofitted van from the Gorge to the Cordova Bay house. On summer Sundays, the family lunches at Saxe Point, then attends a concert at Beacon Hill Park. Joan regularly receives private physio and speech therapy, covered by her savings and a generous CBC disability package. Once a week, she goes to an art class, where Lynne and Eric volunteer.

Views from the two-storey hillside house are magnificent. The inside walls are adorned with paintings by Eric and Lynne. Joan, in her ergonomic wheelchair, sits in the centre of the living room. She's dressed in a blue shirt with "Canada's News Network" stitched in yellow on the pocket and the number 10 on the sleeve, to mark Newsworld's July 1999 anniversary. Gail, sitting to Joan's right, stands so I can come closer.

"Hello, Joan," I say. "I'm so glad to see you." Impulsively, I grab her right hand and kiss it. She lifts her head, smiles, and with great dignity announces, "Home--our--home." Her speech is slow, deliberate, like that of someone with cerebral palsy.

We all sit and talk--or, rather, I ask questions, which are answered by Lynne, Gail or, occasionally, Joan. "Are you in pain?" I ask. "Not--much--pain," Joan replies. "Won't--put--up--with--it!" In fact, several times in the hours we're together, she whimpers. She suffers many discomforts, including skin breakdown from sitting so long in her chair. Lynne asks, "What's the matter?" When no answer comes, she tries adjusting the chair, or massaging Joan's twisted left arm, or giving her a pill. The day before, Lynne says, when she and Gail were praising Joan for her speech, Joan replied, "Good thing I'm making progress! About time!"

We talk about Jeffrey and his children. Lynne fetches pictures of the laughing, chubby twins. "We love the name Emily, don't we, Joan?" (No reply.) "Jeffrey is her sweetie!" We talk about the scholarship Janice Ward helped launch last year in Joan's name: eight journalism students work a summer in various Newsworld locations, with one position earmarked for a native student, to acknowledge Joan's special interest in indigenous people. At Janice's request, several of the winners have written Joan about their plans, and to say thanks. Joan seems to grasp something of the honour she's been given.

I ask if she remembers the boring CBC meetings. I convey regards from Toronto. We laugh about my lost luggage. "You used to travel a lot, didn't you?" (No answer.) I'm struggling now. I know I'm doing badly but can't think how to fix it.

"She certainly was talking a lot more yesterday, wasn't she, Gail?" says Lynne. Gail nods.

I ask Joan why she doesn't feel like speaking much today. "What's upsetting you?"

Joan points her right forefinger at me.

Later, I ask Lynne why she thought Joan reacted this way. "I have no idea," she replies softly. "Joan and I have talked about your coming many times. We've been reading your book about Japan, looking at your pictures. I'm just guessing, but I think there was an awful lot of input all at once." I feel ashamed: Lynne is consoling me.

Marshall Donaldson joins us for lunch. At 87, he's tall and fragile and looks a bit like Pierre Trudeau. His skin, like Joan's, is stretched tightly across prominent cheekbones. They have the same grey, wide-open eyes, and when they gaze silently at one another an aura of wonder fills the room.

Lynne runs back and forth from kitchen to table, ferrying special versions of the chicken lunch, less spicy for her dad, chopped up for Joan. I'm surprised to see Joan eating.

"When Joan finally got to Victoria," Lynne says, "she had that tube removed, so there's no more feeding through the stomach." For nine years, that tube was the site of pain and infection. "Boy, was it ever wonderful to see that happen!"

Joan uses a spoon and a sort of flattened bowl. She operates like a mother bird feeding her baby: first she opens her mouth; then she fills her spoon; then she carries it carefully to her mouth; then she closes her mouth. Chewing and swallowing are problematic. There's a risk of choking, or of a morsel slipping into her lungs, causing pneumonia. Gail watches carefully; speech therapy is also about swallowing. The rest of us watch shyly, in awe; we are witnessing something as monumentally difficult as a space launch. Lynne offers me white wine. White wine was one of the old Joan's favourite things; the new Joan can't swallow thin liquids.

Simple medical problems become perilous for someone in Joan's condition, though she may well live for many years. Lynne, who is now 58 years old, says, "I'm afraid that my daughter, Chrissie, knows that she's going to have to step in some day but doesn't know when." Chrissie and her husband have moved close by.

After lunch, Eric wheels Joan to the glass sun porch to nap. Her father follows, using his cane. When Joan wakes, Lynne will read to her, as she did all those years in Toronto. Joan has her favourites, such as Mavis Gallant. "We've read one of her collections about 25 times. And Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence! It's just like Winnie the Pooh--a classic." Lynne follows the rules for reading to those with brain injuries: short sentences, simple structure, few subordinate clauses. She edits as she reads, breaks up sentences and rebuilds them, grabs a subject here, a verb there. Joan can read, Lynne says, at least she's able to read, to see and process. It's a question of fatigue. Reading is exhausting.

No one forgets the accident, of course, but Lynne prefers not to talk about it. "It doesn't seem relevant any more." She does acknowledge that it has profoundly changed her life, as well as Joan's. "I live very much for today and tomorrow. I've been taught so many lessons by Joan's accident. That's one of them. I've had to remember the unpredictable nature of life, the precarious thread that holds everything together." One of those threads, I point out, is Lynne herself. How fortunate Joan is to have her.

"We're all disabled people," Lynne replies. We do not discuss degrees of infirmity. Or options. I sense she'll evict me if I repeat the sentiment of one of Joan's old friends, who refused to answer any questions except to say, "Her survival was the saddest thing."

Surviving and coping are at the heart of Lynne's life. "Pessimism is a kind of self-indulgence," Lynne tells me. "You have to focus on gains, on strengths, and to heck with the rest." Her goals for Joan are finite. She hopes to increase the weight Joan is able to lift to more than seven pounds. "With strength on her right-hand side, she'll have greater independent mobility, perhaps enough to propel her own chair."

"And cognitively?" I ask.

"These things all work together," says Lynne.

When Joan's coaches push too hard, she fights back the only way she can: she shuts down. Lynne feels frustrated. "After 10 years, I feel this tremendous ignorance. Another person can't penetrate Joan's experience, cannot see the world as she sees it." The other day, Lynne asked for Joan's help: "Joan," she said, "I need to distinguish between fatigue and boredom. I need your help, because I can't tell the difference." When she didn't receive a reply, Lynne pressed on. "I know this is hard for you," she said, and Joan, using body language, "nodded as if she understood."

Much as Lynne dreads the possibility that Joan could slip back, in some ways she's more afraid of continued success. "When we left the Montreal hospital, Joan's doctor made it clear that if the accident had happened 10 years earlier he wouldn't have been able to save her. He said to me, 'I hope your sister never regrets that I did!' Those words have stayed with me. When I delight in Joan's growing awareness, I'm also wondering if--and when--the pain of awareness, of remembering, is going to become unbearable."

"The sense of loss?" I ask.

"Yes," Lynne answers. "And the anger. The anger."

Before Gail Poole leaves the Hancock house, she hands me her phone number, in case I have questions. From my hotel, I invite her to join me for supper. "No shop talk. I promise." We eat fish and chips in paper cartons on a pier overlooking the ocean. Unavoidably, our conversation turns to questions of informed consent, living wills, life and death, death in life. We speak abstractly, from different sides of the argument. I believe life with protracted pain and little pleasure is the sad by-product of modern science and overzealous lawmakers. Gail disagrees. She marvels at Joan's efforts to improve and Lynne's boundless patience and concern.

She drives me to see the beautifully sited hospital beside the Gorge, and from the parking lot overlooking the fast-running water, she points out the room where Joan and three others are asleep in the "young adult" ward, for patients aged 20 to 70. Before letting me out of the car, Gail gives me some advice: be careful. These are good people. They're doing their best. I could cause great harm. I tell her I will try to write Joan's story as honestly as I can. We both agree it won't be easy.

In Toronto, some of Joan's friends call to ask if she is better, what she said, how she looked. I tell them that I have no benchmark by which to judge. The next day, I receive an e-mail from Lynne that includes a digital photograph of me with Joan, along with this message: "The mists have rolled in today, fireplace burning, lights on at lunchtime, but Joan had a good day, more vocabulary, more sophisticated responses in her cause-effect exercises, and pain under control." She thanks me for the inscribed copy of my Japan Diaries I sent. "Today after lunch, Joan said let's read, and so we picked up the diary at October 8. Joan knows I am sending you her picture tonight, with a big hug."

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 2000

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