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 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
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
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.