Opinion » Alta States

Heather Paul — don't ever let them know you're hurting



"You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it."

- Poet Maya Angelou

Fate strikes without warning... and often when it feels like you're at the top of your game. It doesn't seem fair, you know. Almost like there's an evil djinn lurking in the shadows or something, waiting to pull you back to earth when you're soaring highest. But there it is: life isn't fair. It's capricious and petty... and sometimes jarringly mean-spirited. So what are you going to do about it?

Cry and scream? Pull a tantrum? Shake your fist at the gods' perfidy? Of course not. You're just going to muddle on with your life and hope for the best...

"It happened on October 23, 2010. We were on vacation in Hawaii and Al came home from the golf course nauseous and had the forgetful symptoms of a concussion. He didn't know my name anymore. So I called 911. Our son, Colt was barely three months old..."

Adversity. It's what makes or breaks us, they say. And our most popular stories reflect that dictum. Heroes laugh in the face of disaster. They snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Make lemonade out of lemons... whatever it takes, you know, as long as they find success in the end. And yet. And yet. What these popular tales rarely reveal is just how lonely and scary and painfully humbling moments of adversity — real adversity — can be.

Imagine this scenario: you've got a great job with an assured future, you've just started a family with your long-time soulmate and you're living in a place you both love with all your hearts. Meanwhile, you've carved out a considerable niche for yourself in the local arts scene. Smart, creative — sassy and bold — you've invested countless volunteer hours building up the community's cultural capital. It's hasn't always been easy... after all, what labour of love ever is? But you've made a difference.

And you care. You really care. This is the place, you figure, where you and your new family will set their roots down. Where you'll all grow together — living, loving, learning — in a beautiful mountain environment surrounded by good friends and fun times.

Sounds almost too good a tale to be true, right? And it was.

Suddenly, one day — a day just like any other — it all changed for Whistler's Heather Paul. Her plans, her hopes, her dreams... they all disappeared. Pfaaahhh. Just like a puff of smoke. A whole new script came into play — filled with pain and uncertainty and fear. And loneliness... lots of loneliness. You see, Heather's husband Al had just been diagnosed with a brain tumour.

"They flew us back home to Canada after he was stable. He had his surgery a week later. They had to leave some of the tumor because it was too intertwined with critical grey matter. After the surgery, tests came back telling us it was Stage-3 brain cancer; the tests also showed Al's body was not fighting it at all."

Heather Paul is no shrinking violet. Indeed, she's as bright a blooming flower as anyone could imagine. Larger than life? Obviously, but that's too cliché. This is a woman who embraces life — almost literally — with her whole being. She's wonderfully loud and proud, and not about to apologize for either.

Her list of credits in and around Whistler is almost too long to mention. From directing pantomimes with partner Karen Playfair (remember Peter Pan?) to hosting the always-popular Children's Festival as a flighty and eccentric fairy; from producing Dickens' A Christmas Carol as a live radio play to fronting the Whistler Presents Concert Series in 2010-11. I could go on... but you get the picture.

"I love the spotlight," she says. "My heaven is in the nervousness before a play starts, before I walk onstage or render the final cut.  For a quiet moment I feel present; I can see myself — everything that is good, all the moments I have failed, my shame, my envy, my pride, my talent and my good intentions." She stops. Catches her breath. "Then I walk on stage, call the curtain, and leave myself behind for 90 minutes to become something else." Another long pause. "That," she says, "is an addictive elixir worth more than money."

But the singular magic in Heather's theatrical ventures is the way she can pull great performances from acting neophytes. She makes the work fun — unintimidating — and yet it's not like she's undemanding of newcomers. Just understanding...

"The next week we moved to the city where Al started a 60-day treatment of radiation and chemo. This was followed by a move back to Whistler where he began a six-month treatment of monthly week-long chemo treatments."

Blonde and blue-eyed, strong of bone and wide of shoulder, Whistler's favorite thespian wouldn't look out of place on a Minnesota farmstead at the turn of the last century. But physical strength is just the tip of the Heather Paul construct. For it only takes a few words of conversation to reveal just how sharp an intellect she wields.

"In elementary school I was a great liar," she divulges with a mischievous grin. "I would lie about everything: from what I ate for breakfast that morning, to being the lost princess of Siam who vacations in London with Princess Diana. Actually, I was probably a terrible liar who loved the lie. It's a phase I grew out of, but it still took me a while to reconcile with that naughty little entertainer. It was while attending Canterbury (a performing arts school in Ontario) that I realized I could spin my imagination to storytelling and creative writing — the high road for all great liars."

Hmm... methinks the lady waxes too humble. After all, there's a lot more to Heather's résumé than spinning creative tales. "Yes, it's true," she says. She makes a clown face. "I'm an IT nerd... a happy systems analyst at the Muni." She laughs.

"Come to think of it, two less-than-desirable instincts led me in the direction I am now.  A child telling fibs became a storyteller and actor." She stops. Chortles merrily. "As for 'real' work, I started down the road of technology and relational data when I was too lazy to keep repetitively typing the same address and making the same calculations." Another pause. Another quick grasp of air. "So there you go: a lazy secretary became a busy systems analyst who gets really giddy about efficiency, software development, and fail-over."

She shrugs. "My teachers used to call mine an 'ambidextrous brain.' But technology and creativity are no longer oxymoronic. And they really never were. That was just a stereotype keeping the colourful nerds all too quiet."

But seriously... How is she coping? It can't be easy, I say. She looks at me for a long time. I think she's deciding whether she can trust me or not. "I'm not a hugger," she admits. "I keep my cards close to my chest and dangle my humor as a distraction. I have a wall as high as Jack's beanstalk. I wear my individuality like a mask. But I still believe in being warm. I still believe in kindness. I still hold faith in the compassion of others and expect it in myself." She stops talking. Looks at me again. Did I answer the question, her eyes ask.

"In May of 2011, Colt started crying again and being a more dominating voice in our house. He started to exercise some freewill and independence. I thought to myself, well, he must know something we don't. He must know the tumour is gone. That month doctors took an MRI of Al's brain. We waited at the cancer agency for the results. We later were told the doctor called down again for another copy of the MRI to make sure he had Al's chart. He thought he had the wrong scan. The tumor was gone." 

Heather knows her life will never be the same again. "My husband lost most of his left frontal lobe. Obviously he's not the same person I married. And yes, sometimes that gets me down. What happened to my old friend? Where did he go?" She sighs. And I can see the pain in her eyes. But the fighter in her heart is stronger.

"Al is checked every three months for signs of any new growth. I can't wait for the time when we stop holding our breath and I stop having small panic attacks every time Al forgets someone's name. Is the cancer back? You never know. You just have to stay positive..." 

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