Auburn hair. Eyes bright green. A quiet openness registered in her facial expression. One’s eyes are drawn to her as she enters the store and, tall and erect, pauses at a book counter to glance at the titles. Strangers here couldn’t know it, of course, but this lady’s own book – Letters to Brian – would also be selling in this bookstore very soon.
Martha Brooks is 70, though 40 would seem a safer guess, and she and her husband Brian, according to friends and acquaintances, had one of the world’s wondrous marriages, “joined at the hip”, as she would often describe it; “contentedly inseparable’. Then, on Nov. 11, 2011 the blow came. Brian was diagnosed as having brain cancer. It was terminal.
Martha was devastated. Even then, though, the family – Martha, Brian and daughter Kirsten, 39 – was showing a telling inner strength as they geared themselves to live life to the full in the time they had left together. Like the others, Martha was about to be tested. It wouldn’t be her first time.
She and her sister Alice had spent their childhood in a handsome well-appointed home on the campus of the TB sanatorium at Ninette, Man. on the shores of Pelican Lake, where their father was ultimately hospital superintendent. The playful youngsters were the joy of the perennially morose patients, most of whom would be spending their last days in that hospital.
It was the medical contacts of Martha’s beloved father that led to her remarkable but scary surgery at age 18. A famed surgeon, in an Edmonton hospital, sliced Martha’s chest bone down the middle; he then he raised and wired together the now-divided ribs to allow room in her lungs and let Martha breathe normally for the first time in her life. She was then in a body cast for eight weeks.
It was after all this that her father urged her to take singing lessons to bring her breathing up to full strength. Unexpectedly that project would add a new dimension and purpose to her life – music. It would over time see her develop as a skilled dusky-voiced jazz singer and entrench itself as a key part of her being, and of her vision today of her future.
Martha Brooks has a companion talent, writing, which she began to nurture when Kirsten was a child. Martha is the author of young adult fiction and other books, writings which have drawn many awards and high critical acclaim across the United States and Canada. They’ve earned the Governor-General’s literary award for children literature, Book of the Year awards from the American and the Canadian library associations, and put her on countless other best book lists. Critics across the continent regularly acclaim her works as masterpieces. They have publishers in the U.S. and Canada, and have been translated into several foreign tongues.
But there would be one other life-changing personal brush with death for Martha: a breath cancer reconstruction in 2007 that, as she tells it, “went so wrong” when a major abdominal artery erupted. In the recovery room, she was bleeding profusely and died. It wasn’t a near-death experience, her surgeon would tell her later, “You flatlined,” The medical team performing the surgery couldn’t believe she had come back to life.
Martha had watched from the ceiling as 21 people working to save her. “I knew that I was going back eventually and besides I was lying in a gorgeous warm brown hand as big as a hammock. It was an experience that made her aware as never before of the spiritual presence that permeates our world.
She was critically ill for five days; in the future there would be a return of the cancer and more surgery. It was no wonder that she and husband Brian assumed that Martha would be the first to die and leave the marriage. They were wrong.
From the moment their paths crossed, Martha and Brian were, it seems, destined to come together as a couple. It was October, 1963, after Martha’s chest surgery, and she happened to find herself sitting behind Brian in remedial maths class. The back of his head caught her attention – clean, shiny, curly and black. Even before he turned around and she had had a good look at a face full of freckles, Martha had determined: “This is the man I am going to marry.” The story was famous among her friends.
Not that it was always the joined-at-the-hip relationship of understanding and sharing that friends and relatives would so marvel at. Martha will tell you that the first 10 years had its difficulties, the second 10 were somewhat improved and the last dozen, after Brian retired and took on the job of mentoring and managing her career. A deepened love and wisdom brought them to a new level of respect and compassion for each other, and blessedly taught them to have to have fun together.
But then came November, 2011 and Brian’s diagnosis, and a full year later his death. For Martha there could be no relief from the sorrow. It was profound and unstoppable. “We were so self-sufficient in the way that was all we needed, just to be together doing the extraordinarily ordinary things. All we needed really was the equation of us. But now the number is one. What do you do with one? It’s the same old grief, my life stretching ahead without you. There is no end to sorrow.” She would tell him of it in her daily outpouring to her vanished love; she’d also tell him about her day, the people who came into her life
There would always be sorrow; indeed, Martha would follow its trail, to ever deeper levels of her being. But remarkably when she talked to him, Brian had a way of answering her back, of encouraging her to write, and to sing. And gradually the letters changed. Side beside with the sorrow was a new appreciation of the people who came and went in her life, of the birds that swooped overhead at her beloved lake side cottage, and the new growth appearing during her walks with dog Myra.
The reader has taken the voyage, too, and remarkably it isn’t a soul destroying trip. We have lived through the sorrow, and Martha’s rising appreciation of life and its opportunities with her, just as she felt them Letters to Brian wasn’t grief recollected in tranquility; we accompany her on the trip.
More, as Martha’s wise grief counsellor told her: “all the experiences you’ve had in this past year held up a mirror to you. Some would have looked away. But you looked into the face of grief and you never looked away.
“These letters will show others what it’s like to look so closely and that it’s a good and helpful thing to do.”