Thursday, May 15, 2008

A life well lived

Three weeks ago Marian Turnbull died. A long-term member of L'Arche Cape Breton, Marian had her share of struggles - institutionalization at an early age, complex mental health concerns, endless health crises. She was born at a time when people with disabilities were a source of shame, an embarrassment, unable to attend school and denied fundamental human rights. But Marian was a survivor. She not only endured her life, but rejoiced in it. In her 21 years at L'Arche Cape Breton, she transformed many lives.

Marian died the way we all should - at home, peacefully, surrounded by faithful friends who ushered her into eternal life with songs and laughter and tears. During the days when we sat vigil with her as she died, and in the days that followed around her wake and funeral, there was a palpable sense of grace in the air. The Chapel was where we held visitation, and it was full of pictures of Marian, candles, her rocking chair and cat blanket, even her famous sunglasses sitting on a junk of wood from the Thomas House property. To look at Marian's ashes resting inside the teakettle (she loved a good cup of tea!) in the midst of so many memories of her was precious.

There was also the moment when a close friend of one of Marian's housemates came to pay his respects at the wake. He arrived awkwardly and seemed ill-at-ease, apologizing for not wearing a suit, expressing over and over his disbelief at Marian's passing. As he was leaving the wake, he revealed that he "never goes to these things". In fact, it had been 25 years since he attended a wake. He'd had a terrible experience at a particularly tragic wake in the early 1980s and had promised himself he would never attend another. His brother and his sister had passed away in the intervening years and he had not been able to bring himself to go to their wakes. But he said he "wouldn't be able to live with himself" if he didn't come to pay his respects to Marian Turnbull. Truly, there will never be another woman like her.

There is much to say about Marian, and about her life and death. To scratch the surface, here is the eulogy delivered at her funeral by Mary MacDougall, one of Marian's closest friends.

Marian Frances Turnbull
November 18, 1939 - April 23, 2008

"Aah..'pon a time…" was often the opening line for one of Marian’s stories, of which she had many. I’ve tried to analyze the basis of her tales. There was always a damsel in distress who, more often than not, wound up driving her bicycle into the rose bushes only to be rescued by Papa Turnbull. Sounds like a Daddy’s girl to me. Marian was very family rooted. She would speak often of her mama and papa and her beloved Rosemary. Her continued ties to industrial Cape Breton were very evident especially when she would assume the position for her long spins to Dominion.

Marian arrived at L’Arche Cape Breton in December 1988 bringing with her new life to the community. The early years weren’t easy. There were lots of adjustments and from all reports never enough sleep. Marian was in the Community about ten years when I first made her acquaintance. Sick with pneumonia on that first day, the Turnbull spent the day with her head in my lap.. It is one of life ironies then, that she spent the last day of her life with her head in my lap.

Marian had this wonderful capacity of teaching others about life’s hard lessons but also she showed us that it is okay to act foolish sometimes, to laugh at ourselves and to celebrate one thing or another 24-7. One of the biggest lessons Marian passed along is that vulnerability isn’t a weakness. She showed me that vulnerability is the ability to accept help when we need it and even more importantly, to accept help sometimes even when we don’t. It is in the receiving that we are often granted grace.

The Turnbull’s faithfulness to her family and friends would often be witnessed in gentle blessings on one’s head, often followed by "Nice Doggie" or the need to take a spin to see her sister, Rosemary, and to share a meal of her favourite things, which would usually be followed by her "Scotch" puddin' or ice cream.

I don’t think Marian ever said anything that wasn’t true. It was her delivery that often got her into hot water! In her later years, she got into the habit of mumbling under her breath so low, that only those closest to her could her some scathing derogatory remark or colorful phrase. This would often prompt us to say "What did you say, Marian?" Very quickly she would reply, as only she could "I likes ya". Needless to say, that would be the end of the conversation.

I’m sure many of you would disagree with me when I say I found Marian to be a patient woman. In conversations the last couple of days we estimated that Marian, in her 20 years at L’Arche, would probably have lived with at least 60 assistants and worked with many day staff over that time. Patience...think of the many welcomes, showing people the ropes, and the eventual goodbyes. This story from the Thomas House storybook is a good illustration of how patient Marian could be when she wanted something.

Marian had spent the day at home asking for a milkshake. "I wants a shake!" The assistant with her that day said, "Yeah and I want a Ferrari! Can you give me a Ferrari, Marian?"
Marian says, "Yeah!"
The Assistant said, "and I want a hot guy. Can you get me a hot guy?"
Marian says, "Yeah!"
The Assistant said, "Where is he?"
Marian says, He's in the Shake!"

Feisty is another word that comes to mind when I think of Marian. If she found the current situation unacceptable and thought that she might be able to negotiate a better deal, she would give it her best try. I think it must have been years of living in a Union Town. She would often wait until late in the workday before in a very plaintive voice, say, "Dougall, bake me something good." Well at 3p.m. the options were often limited, especially is if she wanted a 'Scotch pie'. I’d feel so bad..I’d make grand promises of what we would accomplish the next day..and you can be sure she would remind me.

Marian had the profound ability of naming her friends. Some appropriately and some not so…..Father Ray told the story of the early days when the two men in the Community were Tom Gunn, Community Founder and himself, Pastoral Minister. Marian would often refer to Tom as The Doctor but it must have sounded very rock starish when she called Fr. Ray.. Tommyray!

So many names...there was Mary Bomber, always 'The Little One', Jenn as 'Curly Power', Cathy MacMillan known as 'Miller'. Father Patrick O’Neil when he was an assistant here always got 'Patsy Gillis'. A lovely young assistant who came to us from Japan was known as 'Keiko Coyote from Ukee Ukee', and my own Turnbull baptism, when I henceforth became 'Ah, Dougall’.

In 1998, Marian along with Cathy and Mary Bomber founded Thomas House, then known as Stareghan. It was there that the Turnbull found her heaven on earth. The house, with its peaceful atmosphere and the welcoming of Sandy, was soon turned into a home and life began anew.

There were long spins to work and community events but Marian suffered through..Ha Ha! As long as the big wheels were rolling, Marian was happy. It was to be at Thomas House that Marian welcomed Root Beer and Benny, the now famous one-eyed cat. It has often been said that if the cats wanted to play they went to Mary Bomber. If they wanted some lovin’ they went to Turnbull. She enjoyed the company of animals, I think sensing unconditional love, acceptance and warm furry bodies.

Sometimes after a trying day of Marian’s crying to see our family dog, Emma Jane, away we would head to my house after work. In a high state of excitement at seeing Marian the dog would jump to lick her only to be greeted with "Get out of the way dog!" Once settled in, the two were rarely separated through the visit.

She was happy with her work, too. When we opened the retirement program, called the Siesta Club, there was never a thought that Marian was ready to slow down. She wanted to continue with her daily schedule at Caper Club and the Hope Chest. Again from the Thomas House Story Book:

Marian: I wants to go to the Club.
Katrin: Well, today is your day for the Hope Chest!
Marian: The Hope Chest wants me to go to the Club.

So many stories, so little time - and no censor equipment!

Silas said it so well this week when he wrote that Marian lived her life intensely and touched people deeply. Her laughter and tears, her songs and her stories made life with her rich and full.

Marian you have created your own dynamic legacy of love, spirit, family, faithfulness, joy and sorrow. It has truly been a privilege to be a part of your life. That many of us were granted the joy of being with you as you entered into the fullness of life through your death, is one of your greatest gifts to us.

As the dove of life that represents all that you are now, soars to heaven, it is time for you to rest and for you to know that the world and especially L’Arche Cape Breton, is a much better place because you, Marian Frances Turnbull, were in it. You were a good woman and a loyal and dear friend to the end. We Love Ya!

Our Fa Father
Chart in Heaven
Thy Name
King Come
Daily Bread
His Tresses