A Case of Incurable Optimism

Posted on December 8, 2015 under Storytelling with 3 comments


A family affair at the cancer clinic



Let me be when I am weary Just a little bit more cheery Think a little more of others And a little less of me…

Less of Me – Glen Campbell

From the moment you enter the front door, you can feel the warmth.   There are lots of windows allowing light to shine in. There is a reception area that has a pot of tea for guests and family.  Art work adorns the walls.  Staff and helpers walk with a spring in their step.  Dogs wander the hallways.  The cafeteria is stocked with homemade food prepared by volunteers.  The place exudes joy and optimism.  Welcome to the B.C. Cancer Agency located in Victoria, British Columbia.

I have stopped by here today to drop off my brother, Tom, who is a volunteer.  So is his wife, Catherine and yes, even their dog, Oslo.  Today Oslo will brighten the lives of people who are suffering from cancer and fearful of what lies ahead.  Tom will offer them an encouraging word and Catherine will be busy helping to prep food for the cafeteria.  This is a fairly typical day for these retirees … giving back to others.

Many people heading into retirement spend a lot of time figuring out whether or not they can afford to stop working, how they will spend all of their newfound leisure time and if they will have the good health to pull it all off.  It is natural and normal to make sure that one’s house is in order so that the “golden years” will be happy, fulfilling and rewarding.

But some people approach it a little differently, especially when they’ve been doing things for others their entire lives.

Tom and Catherine both had busy professional careers.  Catherine was a lawyer and worked in both the public and private sector.  Tom was a municipal clerk and administrator for many years.  In 2011 he was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s Silver Medal for excellence in Public Administration for the Province of British Columbia.  Throughout it all they raised two children and several Golden retrievers.   They hosted a number of Rotary Exchange high school students from many countries including Spain, Italy, Brazil and India.  And it was not uncommon for them to take in nieces, nephews and friends of their children who needed refuge for a few months!

Their hospitality was and still is legendary.  They love to cook and are very good at it.  They routinely host a large group around the dining room table.   And never fear that you will be served something you don’t like as Tom meticulously keeps a log of his guests’ food preferences, should they be so lucky to return for another meal!

Volunteering and helping others is just part of their collective DNA.  So, it came as no surprise that when they swung seamlessly into retirement they didn’t need to reset the compass.  Their local community of Oak Bay is populated with a lot of seniors.  Correction.  Greater Victoria might be the senior’s capital of Canada.  Like every town and city in the country, an aging population is putting strains on the health care system.  Tom and Catherine are on call seven days a week to take retirees to appointments and often attend with them to offer support.

Tom was an avid runner in his day and completed a couple of dozen marathons.  When his running days ended, he mentored other runners – hundreds of them – and to this day still volunteers at road races in and around the city.  He and Catherine were also instrumental in raising funds to install drinking fountains along the vast trail system in the region.  Now runners, walkers, cyclists and even dogs can stop and slake their thirst on a hot day.

There is one other thing.  Tom’s health is precarious as he suffers from an incurable cancer.  But he and Catherine are blessed with incurable optimism. Tom is not worried about dying.  He is more concerned about living.

His doctor has told him that walking is crucial to his wellbeing.  And so, during my recent visit to the West Coast, he invited me to go for a stroll with him and a buddy. I am reasonably fit and, after a long transcontinental car trip, I was more than happy to stretch my legs.  Now Tom is lanky and his walking friend is tall enough to dunk a basketball, so they take long strides. And they walk quickly and they walk for two hours at a time.  Twice a day.  The first hike took us up a nearby mountain.  The second two hour excursion later in the day was no less arduous. Needless to say, I slept very well that night.  Tom is taking his doctor’s advice seriously!

Tom’s friend Tim asked me how I would describe Tom in one word.  It didn’t take me long to spit this one out: “Amazing”.  But I was quick to point out that Catherine is no less remarkable.  Tom’s boundless energy and enthusiasm has always been countered by Catherine’s low key pragmatism.  It’s called teamwork.

Studies have shown that volunteering is good for one’s health.  I expect Tom and Catherine to be around for a long time.

Let me be a little meeker With the brother who is weaker Think a little more of others And a little less of me …


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