As I walked up the street to attend a friend’s celebration of life service last week, I felt hopeful that it would provide a sense of relief. Relief for those close to Brian McDowell, who had spent a decade living with the fact that their husband/father/brother/cousin/friend was in steady, irreversible and heartbreaking decline, yet another victim of the scourge of Alzheimer’s.
For me, the relief did not come. As I sat and listened to reminisces about Brian’s life, and then watched a slide show that documented his time among family and friends, waves of sadness crashed through me. How can this happen, this disease that eats away at a mind until the inevitable day comes that the brain can no longer function well enough to keep the body going?
When news came that Webster’s Family Shopping Centre had been sold back in 1981 there was a sense of relief in the community. The Webster family had faced its own struggles and the landmark store’s sale would mean they could put what had become a burden behind them. Who were the buyers, we wondered. I had a special interest. I had recently taken over as the Advance’s advertising manager and Webster’s had been an important advertiser.
I met Brian and Ian soon after they arrived in Creston and quickly appreciated that they were a sharp-minded pair, with a combination of education, experience and determination that would serve them well. I did have some doubts about Ian, I’ll admit — he talked so often about how his girlfriend would soon be moving down from northern Alberta to join him that I began to think that maybe, just maybe, she was a figment of his imagination. Fortunately, Darlene turned out to be real. (Sorry, Ian. I couldn’t resist.)
In a short time, Brian and Ani, and Ian and Darlene were integral members of the community. Brian and Ani’s family grew to include three children and Ian and Darlene welcomed Stephanie to the world. McDowell’s became one of the hearts of the business community. It was part of my job to make regular rounds to the stores and businesses, to sell ad space and help organize sales events. While I had come to Creston only with thoughts of learning the ropes as a journalist, I loved the chance to get to know these folks who were employers and suppliers of goods and services. And each one was unique.
Wayne Salmond held court in the back of what became Home Hardware, tracking hockey activities from minor hockey to the NHL. Jay Armitage was one of our best advertisers and he was completely reliable in producing neat and tidy ad copy for Creston Builders Supply. Leo Sleik was always a pleasure to talk to and the one-time camera department manager from Calgary’s Super S Drugs turned Kootenai Photo Supplies into one of the valley’s most successful businesses. Ed Reber brought his own brand of English charm to Sunset Seed Co. and Art Giorgini managed Tak’s Home Furnishers like it was his own business. Bruce Omelchuk, once an ad man with the old Calgary Albertan, drew his ad copy for his Mohawk service station so neatly and accurately that we could have printed it as presented.
When I visited McDowell’s, I tried to make sure I wasn’t rushed. Ian was the decision-maker when it came to advertising, but Brian was always consulted. Brian and I would get into conversations about economics or business or world and national affairs as we sat in the back office and Ian would eventually drift back to work on the store’s floor, knowing my visit wasn’t going to be short.
A chat with Brian was always illuminating. He was a voracious reader and endlessly curious about the world. Few people I have ever known could speak so intelligently about such a wide range of subjects. He had a wicked sense of humour and I enjoyed every minute of those visits. We had a reunion of sorts a dozen or so years ago when I returned to the Advance after 12 years away. “My ad guy,” Ian joked. “I’ve missed these chats,” Brian said as I left following a lengthy visit.
When Brian was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s it took all of us by surprise. Brian? This big, strong man with a mind like a steel trap? Surely this can’t be. It could be and it would be, though. Several years later, I stood chatting with Ian, who was out for a walk with his brother. “You remember Lorne?” Ian said. Brian nodded, but there was a look of confusion and panic in his eyes as he struggled to make sense of the simple question. I think a little piece of my heart broke away on that day.
As I sat among friends at the memorial service, I wanted to stand up and say how much Brian meant to me, about how much I admired and respected him. About what a great role model he was as a family man. I couldn’t, though. I was overwhelmed by the loss of a man whose brain began to betray him more than a decade before his death. I couldn’t help but hope that, after he had drawn his final breath, that his spirit might somehow be reunited with the mind that had moved on — I hope to a better place — long before his body ran out of steam.
I am grateful for having known Brian. And terrified that I or someone close to me will someday walk down the same path.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.