Taking time to smell the roses

Kate Grigg, Special to the Packet & Times

Pat Wood, who graduated as a nurse in 1961, is now a patient battling cancer. KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

Pat Wood, who graduated as a nurse in 1961, is now a patient battling cancer. KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES

She’d have to choose, her father said, between music and nursing. A decision that would reveal who she was at heart. The little girl who’d dressed up as a nurse at summer camp; who’d been overjoyed rather than jealous when they’d gone to fetch her adopted baby brother, she age 7 and he, 6 weeks. Or the girl, Pat Wood, who’d practically grown up in the choir, and loved the church organ, and whom Miss Ramsay had such high hopes for, a career in music, Miss R thought, a girl with Pat’s talent. 

But Pat, who later took the streetcar to the Royal Conservatory for lessons – always sitting behind the driver because she was shy – hated concerts, didn’t like being alone on stage with everyone looking at her. 

Once, she sat down at the piano and couldn’t remember a thing she was meant to play, couldn’t find middle C. Sat there frozen until a tall, lanky figure appeared on the bench beside her and quietly asked what was wrong. “I can’t remember,” Pat said. “Well, did it go something like this?” he suggested (David Ouchterlony, respected organist, teacher, composer and adjudicator), playing the first four notes of The Butterfly. 

Pat played well that day. Went on to play for the Leslie Bell Singers, and to play at church (Pat currently plays for St. Paul’s in Washago and St. Luke’s at Price’s Corners), to sing in the choir. But if Pat had only one chance to spread her wings, she would do it as a nurse. 

She had always wanted to be a nurse. Even though it meant disappointing her father, who meant so much to her, he and Aunt Audrey Forster (deaconess at St. James’ Anglican) both such a support. (Audrey’s mother was a woman who “liked you to play to her tune.”) Even though Pat’s father, a proud Englishman who never “kicked up his heels” without good reason, said no daughter of his was going to hand out bed pans.

It wasn’t just about bed pans, Pat knew; nursing was about helping people. And Pat’s father and Aunt Audrey, who quietly exemplified Christian values, couldn’t argue with that. People needed more than properly tucked-in sheets and medication when they were sick. They needed comfort, someone taking the time to give them a back rub, have a quiet chat, do the little things that kept their spirits up.

Pat talked just as kindly to unresponsive patients who gave no sign of understanding. Her husband, Bill, thought it was silly, imagining someone that ill could hear her. But Pat said no, people had been known to remember things overheard during surgery, and if that could happen, you couldn’t make assumptions. They should have a signal, Pat said, in case one of them ever ended up unable to communicate. They’d squeeze the other’s hand, they decided, if such a thing ever happened. Although they couldn’t imagine it then, young and hopeful, their lives ahead of them.

But years later, it did happen. After Bill took a job as director of the YMCA in Orillia, after 27 years in the old house on Penetang Street, after happy summers at Camp Summerland, Bill as camp director and Pat as camp nurse. After the children (Bill and Pat had four kids) grew up and the grandchildren came.

Bill, whom Pat, with her capacity for appreciating people (that perhaps being her greatest talent), had loved for some 50 years, started to change, drift away. Didn’t drive as carefully as he used to, started repeating himself, couldn’t do the crossword anymore. Ended up an Alzheimer’s patient at Spencer House, gone although he was still physically there, no longer the person Pat knew, no longer her Bill.

Except for one brief moment the week before he died. When he’d stopped eating and Pat had tried to coax him with a bowl of three-colour sherbet. “Try this,” she said. And Bill had taken her hand and opened his eyes wide, a light breaking through the clouds inside him. The realization that his time was up allowing him perhaps one last moment of clarity. He’d squeezed her hand. After Pat had squeezed his countless times during his illness, with no response. He squeezed her hand and said, “I love you” – the last words he ever said to her.

The rose, Pat says; in every bad situation, there’s a rose. By which she means something beautiful a person can hang on to.

“Where’s the rose in this?” her son asked when, shortly after Bill died, Pat was diagnosed with colon cancer. Well, there’s the fact they’d stumbled onto a diagnosis, Pat said. (Pat noticed no symptoms other than lower back pain.) And there’s her good luck in having Dr. Campbell, “who couldn’t be better.” And the fact their father isn’t here to watch her struggle.

And there’s her best friend, Noreen, who was there when Pat woke up from surgery (“with all the tubes from God’s green Earth in” her), though Pat said she needn’t be. Noreen, who said, “If you think I’m going to sit at home and worry about you when I can sit right beside you and worry, you’re wrong.”

And there’s little Jade, her great-granddaughter, who, every time she arrives at the house, checks Pat’s incision to see if her nana is better yet.

And there’s Bunny, the friend from church who lost her hair to chemotherapy and taught Pat how to make chemo caps, because a person has to wake up and find something useful to do.

And there’s learning it’s OK to cry sometimes even if you did inherit a stiff upper lip.

And there’s the fact her whole life she’s had a knack for appreciating the people around her instead of taking them for granted. Got to be worth a whole garden full of roses, a knack like that.

Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her weekly column. If you have a story you think she might be interested in, email

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