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Cancer claims writer, 31: Telegram contributor remembered for her grace and courage

On Tuesday, July 22, 2003, Leida Finlayson of St. John's, a writer and member of The Telegram's Community Editorial Board, died at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's Saturday at age 31.

The notice of her death, said she slipped peacefully away in the presence of her family, and that throughout her illness she had remained graceful and courageous to the end.

Finlayson had surgery for melanoma at age 23. Three years ago, she was working as an arts administrator in Calgary when the cancer reappeared.

She was back home in St John's when cancer hit a third time, in December 2002. This time neither chemotherapy nor experimental drugs worked against the tumours in her lungs and heart.

In an interview with The Telegram last month at her Pleasant Street home, Finlayson talked about the book she was writing about the adult children -- herself included -- of members of the hippie generation.

During the interview, although she admitted feeling dizzy and nauseated, Finlayson worked hard to stay bright, cheerful and polite.

She pointed out the 1,000 cranes made of coloured paper that were hanging in the kitchen and living room of the house she shared with her parents. Her friends had made the cranes for her. According to Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes -- a bird that symbolizes hope, good luck and happiness -- is protected from illness.

In the face of imminent death, Finlayson was amazingly brave.

As she described her book project, she acknowledged she faced a bit of a time crunch -- her way of saying her time was running out.

She said if something happened to her the book would be left in someone else's hands.

Finlayson came up with the idea for the book that she looked upon as her legacy when she was in Calgary undergoing cancer treatment and seeing a psychologist for drug-induced depression.

Finlayson will be featured in a documentary called Pleasant Street, which is being shot by acclaimed local filmmaker Gerry Rogers.

In the last column she wrote for The Telegram's Community Editorial Board, on May 22, Finlayson challenged Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to become the most physically fit Canadians.
She is survived by her parents, Duncan and Renee, and her sister, Jennifer
Byline: Jean Edwards Stacey
Source: The Telegram

In memory of her life, her spirit and her contribution to the Newfoundland Historic Trust, the Trust and the Finlayson family are proud to establish the Leida Finlayson Memorial Scholarship. Donations to the scholarship can be made payable to Newfoundland Historic Trust, P.O. Box 2403, St. John's, NL, A1C 6E7. Donation forms can be found online at www.historictrust.com. There are plans in place to complete Leida's book on hippie children. Please send submissions to 45 Pleasant St., St. John's NF A1E 1L5 or e-mail hippiechildren@hotmail.com.

Shortly before Leida passed away, National Post writer Susanne Hiller completed an in-depth interview with Leida. The following is her story.

My afternoon with Leida

31-year-old Leida Finlayson is working on a book about hippie parents, and buying wedding gifts in advance for her friends, just in case. Because my childhood friend is also battling cancer.

On flights home to Newfoundland, I usually feel a sense of calm as the plane descends through the clouds and I glimpse the craggy shores. This time, however, I am preoccupied and anxious.

I am travelling from Toronto to visit my childhood friend Leida Finlayson. She is battling cancer and her time might be running out.

Leida and I were close companions when we attended St. Mary's School, a primary grade school in St. John's, where we were in the same class. We were in Brownies together and lived in the same area. We would walk home from school together and play for hours at each other's houses. Then, in junior high, we went to different schools and, as kids do, eventually lost touch.

We didn't connect again until last year when I saw an article in this paper about a woman putting together an anthology of stories about growing up with hippie parents. What a clever idea, I thought, and glanced closer at the photo that ran with the story. I realized it was skinny little freckle-faced Leida and her family sitting under their Christmas tree topped with a huge peace symbol.

I remembered that tree. And it brought back a flood of memories from our childhood. I can remember eating carob (a healthier substitute for chocolate) at Leida's house and making crafts at her kitchen table. I remember a birthday party at which her lovely mother, Renee, had made a piñata. One blindfolded kid accidentally smacked Leida on the head with the stick. She howled.

Despite the peace tree, Leida's parents weren't really true hippies. They didn't drum or chant or do anything wacky. But they did wear big rubber boots, heavy sweaters and they were into organic gardening. Leida's mum, who had wild curly hair, was a talented weaver and she sold her rugs at local craft fairs. Her large loom in the upstairs room seemed awfully mysterious to me. They had a huge rotting whalebone skull on their front porch as a decoration. This fact alone was enough to mark them as total hippies in conventional St. John's in the 1970s.

I immediately e-mailed my old comrade to congratulate her on the project. She replied enthusiastically. Life was good. She was excited about the book, thrilled with the media attention and getting lots of submissions. I was glad to hear she was doing so well because I had heard through the grapevine that she had been sick but was in remission.

Then, quite recently, a mutual friend e-mailed me to say Leida was ill again. The melanoma had returned aggressively. The prognosis did not look good. Leida wanted to finish her book as quickly as possible and needed to get word out that she was still looking for more submissions, not to mention a publisher.

I was hesitant about doing a story. I was afraid, when I saw my childhood pal, that I might lose all professional composure. I was afraid I would burst into tears (as I did when I read the e-mail) and upset her. I was afraid that maybe she would feel uncomfortable talking to me, a person she hadn't seen in years.

All these things were running through my head as I made my way to the Finlaysons' house. I shouldn't have worried. Leida, with her immeasurable charm, made everything easy.

"I love your hair. It's so long," she gushes as she hugs me. "As you can see, I have complete hair envy these days."

With the exception of a little fuzz, Leida is bald due to chemo treatments and her face is chubby from steroids. ("Do you remember Allison Webb?" she giggles. "She said I look like a Cabbage Patch Doll and it's true.") But she is the same sweet, funny, intelligent girl I hung out with when we were nine years old. We spend the afternoon reminiscing and catching up. After all this time, she still remembers the date of my birthday.

It's hard to believe the turns life can take.

Over tea, Leida tells me that this is her third bout with melanoma. She had her first surgery in Toronto when she was 23. Five years later, working as an arts administrator in Calgary, the cancer hit again.

It was then, when she was undergoing treatment and experienced a drug-induced depression, that she had the idea for the anthology. While talking to a psychologist, she realized she had some great material from her hilarious stories about growing up. She figured that other adult children who grew up with counterculture parents must also have memories to share and decided to pull together an anthology of voices. She and her younger sister, Jennifer, are both writing pieces for the book.

"A lot of the stories have to do with food," she says. "Dad made this awful grey barley soup and we had to bring sandwiches made with crumbling brown bread to school. To this day, my favourite grilled cheese sandwich is made with Wonder Bread and Kraft slices."

I can relate. My parents, though quite conservative, had a little granola streak in them. My mom made her own yogourt, for instance. And, like the Finlaysons, they had a hideous compost heap in the backyard. I wish I had known back then that Leida was also secretly longing for Wonder Bread and Twinkies. We could have commiserated. The first thing I did when I moved out of my house for university was stock my cupboard with Captain Crunch cereal.

"Yum. Sugar cereal!" she laughs.

We laugh a lot, especially when Leida recounts in comic detail how she rebelled against her parents' hippie lifestyle. She has always adored dressing up and doesn't go out of the house without makeup and heels. She confesses she would have loved to enter the Miss Teen Newfoundland contest in high school. Her mother would have been horrified.

"Ohmigod. I wanted to be a cheerleader," I yelp. We crack up.

"Mum could never understand why I wanted to grow my nails long and I could never understand why she wore those rubber boots," continues Leida, who is wearing earrings and a great purple shirt. Since chemo, she has purchased lots of funky hats.

"I think we understand each other now. If she needs new clothes, I am more than happy to go to the mall with her."

She put out a call for stories by placing small advertisements in weekly papers across the country under the heading: "Raised by Hippies?" Not surprisingly, she received a huge response from British Columbia. Willow, Rain, Zane, Royce Rolls and Heidi Morningstar are just a few of the names of the people who immediately replied with their tales.

And while reading some of the submissions, she realized that not all the children of hippies had her kind of amusing memories and a stable childhood. One alluded to sex abuse on communes.

"I'm getting some traumatic stories as well," she says. "One girl brought her boyfriend home from high school and her mother had an affair with him."
She moved back to St. John's about a year ago with the idea that she would live with her parents for a bit to save money to buy her own house. She got a job working as the general manager with the Newfoundland Historic Trust. Then, last December, she received bad news. The cancer was back. This third time the chemotherapy did not work against the tumours in her lungs and heart. She is 31 years old.

My old friend is not giving up. She is currently on an experimental treatment that has shown some promise in the United States.

"They use it to treat leprosy, so at least I won't get that," she says with a wry grin. "Not that leprosy is exactly what I worry about."

What does she worry about?

"Losing my dignity," she replies quietly.

She tells me she is hopeful this new treatment will work but, in some ways, she is also preparing for the worst. She has bought wedding gifts in advance for her friends, just in case.

LEIDA FINLAYSON (LEFT) AND SUSANNE HILLER. "Dear Abby says that one of the best things you can leave behind is your photo albums," she jokes. "So yes, one of the things I am doing is organizing all my photos. Not that I have any heirs but I thought my family and friends would like them."

To say that her family and friends are amazing is an understatement. I can't help noticing the colourful festive strands of origami cranes everywhere in the house. It is Japanese legend that folding 1000 cranes will grant a wish. So a group of Leida's friends got together and made 1000 paper cranes without telling her. When they were finished, they arrived at her house, blindfolded her and then decorated the windows, the doorways, even the kitchen counter while she sat in the living room. The cranes are all sizes and are made from wrapping paper, newspaper, movie posters, and even fluorescent Post-it Notes.

It's one of the most touching things I have ever seen.

"I bawled when I saw what they did," she says. "People are so good, kind. I didn't really realize that before. It's humbling."

People often ask Leida if there is anything she has always wanted to see or do, like take a trip around the world.

"There isn't anything big really that I can think of," she says, settling back in her chair. "I think that is a good thing because it means I like my life the way it is. I am fairly content, I'm not checking off a list."

There are a few small things though. She has always wanted to play the violin, for example.

"My friend Dale said, 'Well, now is the time,' " she says. "I've taken four lessons and, well, I am a terrible violinist but it is fun. Squawk, squawk, squawk."

And before she underwent chemo and lost her hair, another friend, Karen, organized a fashion shoot -- so Leida could really let loose her girly tendencies --with a professional photographer. We go through the album of photos. She's wearing a long slinky black dress, gloves and a feather boa. In some photos, she's vamping it up in a blond wig and big sunglasses. A tall, slim redhead, she looks beautiful and happy. Radiant. Like a true supermodel.

"That's our Leida," says her father, Duncan, as he looks over our shoulders at the photos. "She was always that way."

Leida's warm-hearted parents, by the way, could hardly be described as hippie anymore. They now live in a trendy townhouse downtown with various computer gadgets. The rotting whalebone is nowhere to be seen. Despite some embarrassing childhood moments, Leida clearly appreciates everything about them. She says their values and life views are deeply ingrained within her. Guess what? She really does enjoy eating granola.

"Without them, I would have been completely frou-frou," she grins. "So it's a really good thing that they are my parents. They really defined me."

In fact, it is only when we discuss her parents that the tears surface.

"I don't really ask them how they are doing because I need to be the kid right now," she says, her voice cracking. "I'm sure they didn't expect their grown daughter to be living with them like this. Things have not really turned out the way I thought either. I would like a minivan, a kid and the little house."

These days, she works on her book on her computer in between treatments. She goes to see theatre at the LSPU Hall, putters in the garden and is knitting baby blankets for her friends' babies. ("It's the only thing I can knit," she says.) Mostly, she likes to chat with her friends for hours over coffee. She is also the subject of a documentary being shot by award-winning filmmaker Gerry Rogers, who herself has battled breast cancer. The documentary, called Pleasant Street, will air on CBC and should be completed in February.

"I'm a talker and I love being around people," she says. "Truthfully, I like the attention. My friends are used to the camera being around us. They call it the Leida Show. I really hope to see it. That is my plan."

My former sidekick has grown up into an amazing woman. It's difficult to understand why this is happening to such a good person who is loved by everyone. She is strong and fragile all at once. And I am overwhelmed by her grace and humour. She has given me more than she'll ever know. I leave unable to express just how much this afternoon has meant to me.

I also leave with the knowledge that if anyone can beat this horrible illness, it will be my feisty childhood pal. When her hair grows back, she plans to grow it longer than mine.

In the meantime, please help Leida get her book done. She's received some terrific stories but she still needs more, particularly from men. E-mail stories, essays, letters, poems or short anecdotes about your hippie childhood to hippiechildren@hotmail.com or by post to 45 Pleasant Street, St. John's, NF. A1E 1L5.

Written by Susanne Hiller for the National Post

Susanne has written for various publications over the years, including Maclean's, Saturday Night, Time Canada and Toronto Life.

Susanne also contributes her Newfoundland based stories to www.newfoundlandersabroad.com for everyone away from home to enjoy. Many thanks Hiller!