LISA AND BRUCE’S UN­CER­TAIN JOUR­NEY

Mil­ton MP Lisa Raitt and Bruce Wood, CEO of the Hamilton Port Author­ity, of­ten talked about get­ting mar­ried but kept putting it off, writes Spectator re­porter Jon Wells. And then Wood was di­ag­nosed with early-on­set Alzheimer’s dis­ease at 56 years old.

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JON WELLS

“THE HONOURABLE MEM­BER FROM MIL­TON.”

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker.” MP Lisa Raitt rose in the House of Com­mons and looked at the pa­per in her hands. This was last fall, Sept. 21: World Alzheimer’s Day. Raitt has a shoot-from-the-hip style, and has spo­ken many times in the House. A 160-word state­ment, pre­pared in ad­vance for her to read? Rou­tine. But not this time.

“MANY OF US are jus­ti­fi­ably afraid of this fa­tal dis­ease, there is no cure for it,” she said.

Afraid. Her hus­band, Bruce Wood, calls her “one tough chick,” but the truth is, it al­ways ter­ri­fied her, the no­tion of her brain de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

“We do not know ex­actly what causes it, we don’t know why some get it and oth­ers don’t … Some­times we only talk about it in whis­pers.”

Whis­pers: no one else knew that Bruce, whom she had mar­ried just 19 days ear­lier, had been di­ag­nosed with early-on­set Alzheimer’s, at 56. It meant he re­cently had to leave his job as CEO of Hamilton’s Port Author­ity.

“The more we talk about Alzheimer’s the quicker we will get past the stigma and get peo­ple the sup­port they need,” she said. “I want to pay tribute to the care­givers who lessen the bur­den of those who have this dis­ease.”

She paused, as though try­ing to fight it, but it was no use.

She could barely get out the words — “I thank them from the bot­tom of my heart” — be­fore she broke down and cried.

“I’M SO HAPPY to be here at the Macdon­ald Cartier Club of Hamilton.”

This was a few weeks ago, an 8 a.m. break­fast at a ho­tel on the Mountain.

Raitt fielded ques­tions and told an anec­dote about Sir John A. Macdon­ald who, the story goes, got sick dur­ing a de­bate af­ter “he had been a bit into the drink.” When his op­po­nent ridiculed him, Macdon­ald re­torted, “Sir, it’s not the drink that makes me sick, it’s lis­ten­ing to the likes of you.” Laugh­ter. “I will try to keep that line in mind,” Raitt said. “Lord knows we all need a sense of hu­mour when we are out there.”

She is on the cam­paign trail run­ning for the lead­er­ship of the Con­ser­va­tive Party. Elected three times in her Hal­ton rid­ing, Raitt was a ris­ing star in Stephen Harper’s gov­ern­ments, serv­ing as cab­i­net min­is­ter in three port­fo­lios, and took her shots as well, crit­i­cism that was ei­ther fair or blown out of pro­por­tion de­pend­ing on your point of view.

Af­ter the break­fast she shook hands, a staffer kept edg­ing her to­ward the door, and then she was out into the cold, en route to the air­port and a func­tion in colder Win­nipeg.

Smiles, pol­icy talk, small talk, five­hour French lessons on Skype: all for the right to one day do it all over again and run against pop­u­lar PM Justin Trudeau.

Mean­while, at 48, she has two teenage sons to help raise. (“They want to be pro­fes­sional ath­letes,” she told her au­di­ence. “God help me.”)

And her spouse has em­barked down a road from which there is no re­turn.

Raitt rolls with the punches, but she was not ready for that. Then again, she learned at a young age not to take any­thing for granted.

SHE WAS BORN on Cape Bre­ton Is­land in Nova Sco­tia, the youngest of Colin and “Toot­sie” MacCor­mack’s seven kids — or so she grew up be­liev­ing.

They were ac­tu­ally her grand­par­ents who legally adopted her. She had no idea her older sis­ter Delores was in fact her birth mother, who had been un­able to care for her.

When she was 10 her adop­tive fa­ther, who had worked load­ing coal on train cars and was a union leader and city al­der­man, had a stroke that par­a­lyzed him and took away his speech.

Soon af­ter he died, she learned the truth about her fam­ily.

“I wasn’t an­gry, more con­fused about how to ad­dress ev­ery­one,” she says. “In that mo­ment I re­al­ized the whole town knew who I was but me.”

She is close to her birth mother, who still lives out east but she is no longer in touch with her birth fa­ther.

“I joke that you need a Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion to un­der­stand my fam­ily. Be­cause I’ll call ev­ery­body sis­ter, which rep­re­sents to me the close­ness I feel to­ward them.”

She speaks be­tween bites of an en­ergy bar on a Mon­day morn­ing at her Mil­ton con­stituency of­fice: cam­paign meet­ing in Toronto later that morn­ing; af­ter­noon bas­ket­ball game in Oakville for her 12-year-old son Billy.

That morn­ing her 15-year-old, C.J., asked her to find a jacket for him be­cause the cat uri­nated on the one he left on the floor.

“And Billy for­got his book bag. I think they both prob­a­bly stayed up too late last night. But those are the real mo­ments, right?”

She was raised next door to a steel plant in a neigh­bour­hood called Whit­ney Pier.

Her adop­tive fa­ther died of colon can­cer in 1979. Her brother, Liam, who worked in the coke ovens, died of lung can­cer in 1989, at 36. Toot­sie got sick in 1999 and died at 58.

“Some­one dies ev­ery 10 years,” Raitt says. “And in 2009 my mar­riage died.” Pause. “So that’s awe­some.”

This is how she speaks, un­var­nished, some­times with dark hu­mour. Cape Bre­ton gave her the two Cs, she says: com­pas­sion and com­edy. A po­lit­i­cal col­league once chided her, “Raitt, you have no fil­ter.”

“I do have a fil­ter, but hu­mour is a way to com­mu­ni­cate in Cape Bre­ton. We pick at each other, very sar­cas­tic, some­times too much, but al­ways in love, is the best way to put it.”

She was mar­ried to David Raitt, whom she met while at­tend­ing Os­goode Hall Law School in the 1990s af­ter she earned her mas­ter’s in chem­istry at the Univer­sity of

Guelph.

Af­ter work­ing as gen­eral coun­sel at the Toronto Port Author­ity, in 2001 she was named the first fe­male har­bour mas­ter in Canada, and the next year, CEO.

In the fall of 2008 Raitt left the po­si­tion to run in Hal­ton af­ter be­ing wooed by the Con­ser­va­tives.

She met Bruce Wood just as he started as CEO of Hamilton’s Port Author­ity. He had also had been mar­ried be­fore. Raised in Mon­treal, he at­tended Aca­dia and McMaster uni­ver­si­ties, and was pres­i­dent of CAA South Cen­tral On­tario be­fore get­ting tapped for the port author­ity.

Lead­ing up to the spring of 2016 the signs had been there. He kept los­ing his keys, glasses; couldn’t find the right word in con­ver­sa­tion or giv­ing pre­sen­ta­tions. He could pic­ture the word he wanted but not get it out.

Only five per cent of Alzheimer’s cases are di­ag­nosed for those un­der 65, and in May, he joined that rare group.

LISA HEARD the news first from a doc­tor but didn’t tell Bruce. She wanted a sec­ond opin­ion. She cried in bed for four days.

“Not for me, for him. I don’t feel sorry for my­self, I was wor­ried about Bruce. So I cried at the be­gin­ning, and that one day in the House of Com­mons. I’ve spo­ken about it since then in in­ter­views, I don’t get emo­tional.”

She stud­ied up on the dis­ease but won’t see the tear-jerk­ing movie “Still Alice,” about a woman with early-on­set Alzheimer’s.

“It is a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count to some ex­tent. I’m go­ing to live my life and I’m not go­ing to re­view some­one else’s.”

She did catch her three favourite movies on a Mex­i­can cruise with Bruce re­cently: White Christ­mas, Love Ac­tu­ally, and Elf.

They live in the coun­try in north Mil­ton in a small old home. Bruce at­tends some cam­paign events but will not do in­ter­views, per­haps gun-shy about his abil­ity to find the right words.

Lisa says he func­tions “day to day at a high level” but she is also pro­tec­tive. She al­lows a Spectator re­porter to visit with him, but no for­mal in­ter­view.

Bruce shows his garage/work­shop where he does wood­work­ing and other projects.

His mo­tor­cy­cle is here, and two golf club cham­pi­onship plaques; if noth­ing else, he now has more time to work on his game.

The garage is warmed by a wood stove he just put in; the old brick fire­place was used long ago for shap­ing horse­shoes.

A poster of Lisa in a glit­ter­ing gown from her 40th birth­day party hangs on the wall.

He in­vites his guest to sit in his black con­vert­ible Mus­tang GT. Lisa isn’t crazy about the V8 rum­ble, he says with a smile, but looks good driv­ing it.

He can some­times be­come con­fused, es­pe­cially if he has not had enough sleep. He needed help nav­i­gat­ing the air­port re­cently.

More than any­thing it is frus­trat­ing.

But in this mo­ment, noth­ing in his speech or man­ner sug­gests any­thing is wrong with his think­ing.

He talks a bit about grow­ing up in Mon­treal, says he misses his job at the port author­ity. He took a golf trip with bud­dies a cou­ple of weeks ago, nice weather, low 70s.

He can’t re­call where in Florida they went. Is that Alzheimer’s or has the name slipped his mind like it might for any­one?

Af­ter his di­ag­no­sis Lisa wasn’t sure she should run for the lead­er­ship but he lob­bied her to do it. She says there’s a whis­per cam­paign on so­cial me­dia: why is she run­ning in­stead of look­ing af­ter Bruce? She says no­body would talk like that if she were male.

“There is a gen­der bias. I’m not an­gry about it, but I note it, that it’s part of their cal­cu­lus.”

One rea­son to stay in the po­lit­i­cal arena is to in­flu­ence ac­tion on Alzheimer’s re­search, and, in the short term, im­prove ge­netic test­ing. She says it’s un­ac­cept­able that the wait time for test­ing is more than a year.

They know where the dis­ease will ul­ti­mately lead — full-blown de­men­tia and death — but they don’t talk about that. She says it could be years be­fore the dis­ease takes him to a more se­ri­ous stage, no one knows for sure.

“He knows I have his back and we will get through this to­gether. It’s im­por­tant for him, for any­one, to feel that se­cu­rity. I love the guy.”

For years Bruce had sug­gested they get mar­ried. Fine, she said, but he has to help plan it all. It never hap­pened.

Af­ter his di­ag­no­sis she won­dered if maybe in his state of mind or­ga­niz­ing a wed­ding had seemed over­whelm­ing.

The big day was Fri­day, Sept. 2, at her Aunt Heather’s place, not far from where she grew up in Whit­ney Pier in a com­mu­nity called Ben Eoin. The mayor of Cape Bre­ton presided.

It was, she thought, a chance for fam­ily on both sides to see Bruce at his best, while he was in great spir­its and health.

They had a gui­tar and fid­dle player, and for the first dance Bruce’s fam­ily sang the Richard Marx song “Now and For­ever.” When my san­ity hangs by a thread I lose my way, but still you Seem to un­der­stand … Un­til the day the ocean Doesn’t touch the sand Now and for­ever I will be your man

They signed the regis­ter out­doors and Bruce made an ex­ag­ger­ated “it’s about time” face.

It was a stormy kind of day but that af­ter­noon the skies cleared, the winds blow­ing hard off St. Andrew’s Chan­nel calmed, and for the mo­ment ev­ery­thing seemed per­fect, be­fore their un­cer­tain jour­ney be­gan.

“He knows I have his back and we will get through this to­gether. It’s im­por­tant for him, for any­one, to feel that se­cu­rity. I love the guy.” LISA RAITT

SCOTT GARD­NER, THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR

Lisa Raitt and her hus­band, Bruce Wood, at their home in ru­ral Mil­ton.

Mil­ton MP and Con­ser­va­tive Party lead­er­ship can­di­date Lisa Raitt at her Mil­ton con­stituency of­fice.

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