A life well lived with stoicism
From Scotland to around the world, she taught resilience
When my husband and I moved to Cooper Street in Ottawa 16 years ago, the only person I spoke to on our floor was Ellen Devine, a lovely Scottish lady who lived two doors down.
We continued our civil “hellos” and “nice weather we’re having ” for the first nine years of our residency — all very nice. And then Baker, our new, rather weird, black cat decided to make her his friend by meowing at her door one day when he escaped the confines of our cat prison.
I’m so glad he did. Initially, we bonded over cats, but Baker’s repeated impertinence meant that I really got to know the woman who called herself Babs. I never could; I always called her “Mrs. D,” a name she grew to like. Over the past seven years, I learned — always in passing, just small talk — about small details of her life. How, for example, she once spent three days buried in the rubble of a Polish Church that was bombed in Scotland. “The Poles are lovely people,” she told me, after relaying the anecdote, as I was heading to Warsaw in November.
On other visits, as she lavished love on the black cat, rubbing his belly, scratching him with her impeccably manicured nails and calling him her “gorgeous handsome boy,” in her Scottish brogue, I learned about how she served in the navy during the Second World War and how she married at an advanced age by the standards of the day, only to have her true love, Eugene, one whose memory still brought tears to her eyes 50 years later, drop dead on the dance floor on a Saturday night, just 10 years after they were married.
I learned how she was an only child and about how she didn’t have children because they “married late.” I also learned how, after she was widowed, she decided rather abruptly to move to Canada to join some of her friends who’d become war brides.
She moved to Ottawa 52 years ago and into her one-bedroom place on Cooper Street 40 years ago. From that day, she remained in her unit, which she’d painted blue, with pink walls in the kitchen. She also told me about the days when our building had a swimming pool on the roof. The glory days, no doubt.
And then, bit by bit, she told me, never in lavish detail, how she’d travelled the world. There wasn’t a place I could name — Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Auckland — to which she hadn’t travelled. Almost all her travel was done after the age of 40, and a lot of it by herself. And through her brief stories, she inspired me to see that same big beautiful world, preferably with my husband, but, if and when he couldn’t come, also alone.
Travel opportunities were simply not to be missed. Besides, when we were away, she had more frequent access to the black cat. As soon as their friendship began, we gave her a key for visiting purposes. And, even when we were in town, every time we went out for an afternoon or evening, we’d knock on her door so she could come up the hall to visit Baker. When we travelled, she would come by four times a day.
In these past few months, as she bravely suffered through the ravages of bone cancer, she taught me a lot about myself and my family. Though she identified as Irish, she was born and bred in Glasgow and she taught me much about Scottish stoicism and why it’s important. She taught me that a stiff upper lip just makes it easier for your loved ones, a lesson my grandmother — my dad’s mom — imparted regularly.
She also taught me about resilience. On Dec. 19, in the late stages of palliative care, she fell and broke her hip. I was away, but my husband, Peter, helped her friend Gayla Desjardins and the paramedics get her to the ambulance — on one of our wheeled office chairs no less.
His heart broke as she pleaded to her friends not to call the hospital. Though she worked there for decades as the CEO’s executive assistant, she was worried she’d never get home to Cooper Street again. She was in the hospital over Christmas and taking in a couple of photos of Baker was the best thing I could come up with for a Dec. 25 spirit-booster.
Meanwhile, what did she for me? She taught me that you fight for what you want, till the bitter end. The 87-year-old, in the end stages of bone cancer, had hip surgery Dec. 21 and was walking the next day. She came home a week later and died last month on Cooper Street, just as she wished.
We heard about her death when we were in New Orleans, on a trip she encouraged us to take, though we both knew it meant we might never see each other again. As we sat in that great Louisiana city toasting her, I self-indulgently hoped that Stephanie Gower, her dear friend and final caretaker, fetched the black cat for a little feline love before Mrs. D. decided she’d travel somewhere otherworldly that day. R.I.P., Ellen Devine.
A memorial service takes place Saturday, Feb. 14 at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, 95 Somerset St. W., at 11 a.m. Donations may be made to the Cancer Society, the Salvation Army or your charity of choice.