Fall is a tough time of year for me. It’s a hard thing to admit, as so many people love the autumn change of season. For me, the loss of colour and beauty, as the trees shed their leaves, coupled with the darkness of shorter days, has always been personally challenging. The fall is also a constant reminder for me of where my health journey all began.
November 22, 1963. A day everyone remembers as the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The whole world mourned America’s “loss of innocence.” For me, it became a pivotal day. A day that changed my life — forever. As a world, we mourned a collective loss of innocence. That day, I experienced my own personal loss of innocence. A loss that would in many ways, inform the rest of my life.
As a junior high student, vice-president of the student council at the time, I’d been suffering for several years with undiagnosable health issues that had me subjected to doctor after doctor, test after test, with a predicted, yet unlikely, prognosis that I was a “perfectionist.” I was down to a shocking 85 pounds and was considered deathly ill. Although the perfectionist diagnosis was possibly the truth, it probably wasn’t a viable diagnosis for the physical symptoms. Through years of seeking and exploration, I know now, the two are absolutely connected.
On November 22, 1963, my father, Louis, picked me up from school and we talked about the loss of president Kennedy and what it meant to us all. It had only been briefly mentioned at school that day, from my memory. Perhaps that memory is lost forever, as my father then announced to me, with great relief in his voice, that the newest doctor I had been taken to finally found “something.” My large and small bowel had somehow twisted themselves in a huge knot, an unusual “never before seen” phenomenon, that was later written up in a prestigious medical journal.
The gastroenterologist was referring me to one of Toronto’s top surgeons who was going to “fix” me. Cut date was scheduled over the Christmas holidays and they assured my parents, who had already spent more than enough troubled days and nights, that I would be “good as new” afterward. If only life were that simple.
The experience was horrific for me. That’s putting it mildly. Waking up with a tube down my nose and throat (the infamous nasogastric tube) is still so real for me that it set the stage for how I would move through the traditional medical system for the rest of my life.
My parents didn’t really ask a lot of questions before the surgery, as they were just grateful that someone had found something. I believe that is the key moment in my life, as young as I was, that I vowed to always ask as many questions as I needed to, to be prepared and get answers so I’d know what to expect. It’s also possible I asked a lot of questions before this. Funny thing how we create a story about a memory and it becomes our “truth.” This became one of the stories in my new book, Confessions of a Middle-Aged Hippie.
That day is only one of many in my life that is not only nostalgic, but one where the memories are so alive, it’s almost as if they happened yesterday. There are other key world events that create the same instant recall in me too. I happened to be in Los Angeles with my family in August of 1962, when Marilyn Monroe died. My brother Niel says he believes he remembers that we could see the funeral procession from the window in the restaurant we were eating in. That, I don’t remember.
Some years later, my best traveling buddy Sharon and I were in Los Angeles spending a fun summer. It was August 1969. Then the Manson murders shocked and rocked the world and being in L.A. immediately ceased to be a carefree summer holiday. These are two trips I have never forgotten. Precise moments in time, which created indelible memories.
Years later, when my daughter’s television series Ready or Not brought us to New York to film promos for its American network, we were comfortably settled in the studio enjoying taping the segments, when we felt what seemed to be an earthquake shake the foundation of the building. Everyone was visibly rattled, as there was no logical explanation for what this possibly could have been. It was February 26,1993, the morning of the day the first attempted World Trade Center bombing happened. Luckily, the bombing was somewhat unsuccessful. It was a very unsettling time for the world, maybe a forewarning of a more tragic time, with a much more devastating event to come.
The following year, on May 19,1994, my daughter Lani and I were back in New York and heard the sad news that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had succumbed to lymphoma, which had only been diagnosed in January of that year. We joined the world and mourned this iconic lady.
As I revisited my life to write Confessions, these stories surfaced as very vivid memories. Somehow the synchronistic timing of my life and my travels, with these key historical events, seemed to have left a permanent impression on my memory. I believe that many people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing for these same events. The day John Lennon died is another one of those events. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing?
On this 50th-year anniversary of JFK’s death, listening to people’s stories of where they were when they heard he had died, and the impact it had on their life, was incredibly moving. For me, it brought up both the collective and personal memory of that day again.
It’s interesting to look at what we remember. I’m blessed to have a remarkable 97-year-old mother, Lil, whose memory is still so accurate, she astounds people. She’s an inspiration and shows what is possible. Our lives are made up of memories. As a curious observer of human nature, I am continually amazed and fascinated by the way we spin the stories around these memories. Facts are the truth. Stories are the colour that bring them to life. That’s what is so amazing about creating your own individual life. There are so many unformed memories yet to be lived.
What are the memories that still live on in you?