I am more than a survivor
Updated: May 1, 2019
I survived cancer but that doesn't define me. Everything I know about living well beyond cancer and embracing the limitations of my own body, I learnt from mum, a polio survivor. This is her story – an inspirational tail of hope, love and overcoming hardship.
Thérèse Roussin is a fighter who worked so hard for her community that she could have given her shirt before catching her breath.
Those are the words of a local journalist Amélie Carrier who recently took interest in my mum’s story (read her full article in French).
For over 20 years, mum listened for more than 6,400 hours to the bereaved people of my French Canadian hometown, an hour south of Quebec City.
Born at the end of World War II, mum was left on a hospital bed where she would spend the first five years of her life being cared for by volunteers. As a horse broker, my grandfather had lost the use of both of his legs and (we assume) couldn't fathom caring for a newborn alone in the harsh Canadian winter.
In the 1950’s an epidemic spread throughout North America. That’s when my mum, at the tender age of 3, contracted a dangerous virus called Poliomyelitis.
Despite the sequelae caused by the rare syndrome of post-polio, that is to say a neuromuscular degenerative disease leading to a lot of muscular weakness, pain and extreme fatigue, she never gave up! In her words:
We can't control the uncontrollable, we only have the duty to change the world in our own way.
At 21, mum became one of the only 15 women enrolled at university. One day, she ran into this dark, tall and handsome man on campus. As a good old-fashioned gentleman, he picked up the book she dropped so cleverly to attract his attention, and said:
Mademoiselle, vous souriez toujours, vous n'avez pas de problems?
(Lovely lady, you always smile, don’t you have any problems?)
As my mum replied with her trademark smile, off they went to eat a lemon meringue pie and that was it. They married, raised three children, and made a living as teachers.
And it did not stop there! Despite a flourishing love affair and career, mum’s hungry altruism led her to found, in 1997, the first service to accompany people who were coming to term with a lost. She herself had lost the love of her life, my dad, to bowel cancer just the year before in 1996.
With one-hour meetings to get people in need to open up and "let it all out" as she told me so well, she gave all her time to her neighbour without reaping a salary (if we exclude a poor monetary compensation to commute to the Church)! Only to feel that she could have made the difference in the path of a distressed soul was making her livelihood.
The now 73 years-old gave 13 years of her life to this project alone. Curious and in love with knowledge, she listened attentively between two books she devoured with passion and a couple of trips to visit me in Vancouver in 2005 and in Australia in 2006 and 2008. The wind of freedom that reminded her of the 60s and her first trip in her husband's arms to the buzzing Atlantic City!
Resilient and courageous by nature, mum did not stop at what her doctors told her to slow down her ardour or shut her up in a wheelchair.
Until three years ago, she moved around the city with only one vehicle: her feet. Now, a little more sore, she can no longer embark on such pilgrimages, but remains loved by her community for her gift of self. She still occasionally receives home visits from bereaved people while she herself is visibly experiencing an inner mourning, mourning of her autonomy.
However, she doesn't let herself be discouraged yet! Thérèse Roussin is an exceptional company and will never stop travelling through a good book, her faithful friends. She told me that as a child, she would hide from her mother to read the books of the literary prize that her father, secretary to the School Board in the 60s, brought home.
Mum is a model of the present moment. She confessed that she managed to "survive" despite the pain and the constraints of her body. Thanks to her optimistic vision of living "day by day", without losing hope for tomorrow, because as she puts it:
It is useless to want to change the unchangeable.
Mum taught me that our trauma does not have to define us. The only limitations we put on ourselves are those that come from the mind. She also showed me to always see the person behind the disease: we are not our cancers or our traumas.
We are more than survivors.
What valuable life lesson have you learnt from your mum or a role model growing up? Share the love in the comments.