First in a multi-feature series
‘Dance and family helped get me through’
As an inspiration for others, several Langley residents were asked to share their stories and their struggles, and the tools they used to help overcome those challenges.
We kick off this special Langley Advance Times feature today by sharing the story of Brookswood’s Sue Gibbons, and how dance and family helped get this consummate caregiver through difficult times.
Sue Gibbons turns 73 this month, and the Brookswood woman tells how dance has given her back her life.
In reflection, Sue realizes she’s been the proverbial caregiver much of her adult life – from raising two children to caring for a few ailing family members – including her late husband.
While she has absolutely no regrets and said all those real life experiences have helped shape the person she is today, she’s now writing a new chapter of self-love in her life.
Admittedly, Gibbons was heading down a dark, melancholy path after the passing of her husband, Jerry, in 2013. Two years less a month after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Jerry suddenly passed.
His death was quick, and it meant he didn’t face too much intense pain in the final stages of his inoperable cancer, But, Sue confesses to still feeling a little guilty that she lived and he died – and that she hadn’t been able to do more to help him, or moreover ultimately stop the disease from taking the love of her life – as unrealistic as that was.
“Threats didn’t work,” she said, stifling a sob with an attempted chuckle. “I told him ‘I’ll kill you if you die on me’.”
She’s assured herself through the years since his death that she had been there with him through his surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. And despite battling her own war with breast cancer during the same period (undergoing a bilateral mastectomy), she was there whenever he needed her.
But the survivor guilt still lives on – just a bit. She expects as much after 31 years of wedded bliss.
She remembers vividly the day he died, and periodically beats herself up for not realizing what was to come that evening.
They’d had a great day together. He was speaking clearer than he had in months. He wanted to go for a drive in the country, which they did. He dined on his favourite lunch – a balogna, mayo, and lettuce sandwich on white bread. And similarly, he devoured two burgers stuffed with blue cheese for dinner – another dietary fav. He even enjoyed a visit and tea with his mother.
But after dinner, while he was stretched out on the couch, she noticed him growing restless and agitated. Suddenly he sat up, grabbed his chest, reached out a hand to his wife, and sputtered the words “help me.”
Before she could even move, he was gone. He had suffered an embolism and died immediately at 58 years old.
“He went so fast… I couldn’t do anything,” the widow recounted. “Ironically, it wasn’t the cancer that killed him.”
It took Sue a long time to relinquish her crippling sense of blame, and to realize that in fact she had helped him in every way possible.
And while those moments of doubt and guilt still creep in from time to time, Sue said there are a few things she does to help herself overcome it all.
She reaches out to their immediate and extended family, who, Sue said, remain close and have been crucial in helping her work through much of her grief.
She loves to cook, sew, and garden – even deriving a little pleasure from the tedious chore of ironing. Sue’s also taken up reading, devouring a few books a week – something she’d never done before Jerry’s passing.
Sometimes it helps her to snuggle with one of the dogs being groomed at her daughter’s canine salon – what she calls wallowing in a serious dose of puppy loving.
Another thing that helps… a couple times a month Sue will grab a coffee and head to Derby Reach Regional Park, where she and Jerry would frequently camp out.
Those treks to the banks of the Fraser River always bring her a sense of peace and calm, Sue said, explaining how she visits a memorial picnic table she purchased in Jerry’s honour at the park. It brandishes a plaque saying “Pappa’s Gone Fishing.”
“It was always a carefree place for us, whether we were alone or with family,” she said, recalling many a camping weekend with the clan filled with beers, hotdogs, smores, and love.
While those are all helpful tools, Sue said one of the most successful treatments for all that ails her has been dance.
Submerging herself in dance has given her a physical and emotional outlet for some of what she calls negative energy.
She’ll pack up her leggings and dance shoes and head to Lisa’s School of Dance for a class in tap, musical theatre, or jazz.
Dance requires such intense focus and concentration, that it enables her to shut the rest of the world out for 60 minutes.
“It saved me in a way, from getting into a really dark space,” she added, noted how she’s recently joined a “sexy seniors” dance class, and is even dabbling in a bit of ballet.
“Dance is a wonderful thing,” she said, noting how “proud Jerry was of my dancing.” In fact now, before the last dance in any competitions or show, she pauses for a moment, and says: “This is for you Jerry.”
Described by many at the dance school as an “inspiration,” Sue said she’s currently the oldest dancer in the school, and has grown to truly love many of the girls and women who have come to make up her dance family during the past 20 years.
“So many of them there, they call me Mom and Nanny,” which Sue said is incredibly meaningful for her.
In her quest to do more to care for herself, she said a bout with Bell’s palsy or a transient ischemic attack (TIA) a few years back made her consider giving up dance.
But she’s so glad she didn’t.
Taking as many as three extra dance classes this summer, she’s reveling in it.
Always the caregiver
Are the hard times all behind her? Sue doesn’t think so.
“Sometimes, I still go into a worrying place,” she said, but they come on less and less.
“That’s when you’ll find me dancing my heart out or washing little dogs like crazy.”
Admittedly, a lot of these emotions have recently been brought to the surface again.
Her best friend, Debbie, is going through a fight with her husband’s cancer – mirroring much of the journey she and Jerry made during his battle a few years back.
Similarly, her sister-in-law is in a battle with breast cancer. That too is bringing up memories about Sue’s own fight – which she realizes now she never gave herself a chance to process.
“It just brought everything back up to the front for me,” she said. “It’s hard. I never really allowed myself to deal with it.”
When she was diagnosed, in the midst of Jerry’s treatments, she tells it that he was going down hill and she didn’t have time to deal with her illness or the emotions that accompanied it.
“I can’t have cancer right now. I have someone to take care of. That was my thinking, anyways,” she said, noting that Jerry had always been her rock, but she was the nurturer – a trait that upon reflection went back decades.
As a youngster, she was a bit of a natural “mother hen” with her three brothers and little sister. Then naturally, she was a caregiver to their children, John and Tracy, and did what she could to help with her four grandchildren – now adults.
But reflecting back, Sue said she was also a caregiver for her mother after she was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s.
“They gave her a year, and she took every friggin’ day of it,” dying exactly one year after being diagnosed, Sue recounted.
During that time, as the second oldest of five siblings, she took a leave from work to care for her mother and father in their South Vancouver home. Then two years after losing her mother, her father died of what Sue called a “broken heart.”
“I guess I’ve taken care of a few people,” she said, reflecting on what an impact all those battles have had on her through the years.
With the help of her doctor, and a mindful app on her cellphone (recommended by the doc), she’s trying to make sure she takes more time for herself, insisting a little self love is in order.
Sue offered a few words of advise for anyone facing a similar situation to hers – as a caregiver.
Make sure to take a time for yourself, she demanded. Remove yourself from your daily setting, go for a walk or better yet grab a pair of dance shoes and immerse yourself in another world for even an hour or two.
“You have to take that time for you,” she said, wishing she’d done more of that for herself and now determined to do some catchup. “Always take a little time to do something for you.”
• Stay tuned next week for the next in the series