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
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,
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
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
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
"Ohmigod. I wanted to be a cheerleader," I yelp. We crack
"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
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
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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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