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Saying goodbye to Sarah Steele

Sarah, A Love Story is a tender memoir that offers an intimate look at the death of a loved one
Author Peter Steele sits for a photo in his eclectic living room in Whitehorse on Feb. 6. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Miche Genest

Special to the News

One of the hardest things we might ever have to do is watch a loved one die. We don’t like to think about the possibility, let alone talk about it, even though we’re surrounded every day by people who are in the midst of that most painful and poignant of experiences.

Until it happens to us. Then we search for connection with others who’ve been there.

Yukon author Peter Steele has just released a book that may be of some assistance. It’s not a self-help book or a guide, but an account, in the form of letters to a friend, of the last year of his wife Sarah’s life 23 years ago.

Steele is a retired doctor and an internationally-renowned author of several books about mountaineering and Arctic exploration. Most recently he’s published two memoirs that touch upon his early life and his extensive travels through Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, across the African continent “from Nairobi to Cape Town and back” and Patagonia with Sarah.

Sarah, A Love Story, is the third memoir in the series, and it is indeed a love story about Steele’s “jiban sati,” Nepali for “lifelong friend.” But it is also an intimate portrait of a husband trying to keep it together on his final journey with his most-loved companion.

We learn that Sarah Steele first contracted breast cancer 17 years before the story begins. In those 17 years, the family grew to believe they were done with cancer. And then the cancer came back, slowly at first, then gathering speed. We enter the story in 1994 when it has become clear that Sarah is very ill, and spend the next 12 months in close company with Steele, Sarah and their family, in a narrative that is lively and funny and sad all at once.

There is a silent companion on the journey and that is Robert Philips, the recipient of Steele’s letters, whom we never hear from. This was an editorial choice: including Philips’s replies “just wouldn’t have worked,” said Steele recently. But it’s because of Philips’s listening ear that the story was told at all.

The Steeles met Philips in San Miguel, Mexico, in 1994, and immediately found in him a kindred spirit. Like them, Philips was born in England and led a peripatetic, adventure-filled life, settling finally on Hornby Island, B.C. There was another, crucial bond. Philips, too, was losing his wife and lifelong friend, to Alzheimer’s.

Their shared experience freed Steele to write openly and honestly about every aspect of his life with Sarah. “You know, Robert, it’s wonderful for me to be able to write all this to you. I could never be so frank with anyone else.”

Steele is frank about uneasy topics. When his own needs and fears, “small fry compared to hers,” have to be suppressed, “I shut up and feel resentful, and despise my selfishness,” he writes. It takes a certain bravery to admit this.

Amongst the many challenges Steele faces in caring for Sarah is his medical experience and knowledge — “I know too darned much.” He tends to gallop ahead of Sarah’s illness all the way to the end of the road. “Mr. Worst-case-scenario Man,” Sarah calls him, a term he ruefully accepts.

Sometimes he’s enraged with his own profession, “so bossy, so efficient, so clinical.” And he hates his human helplessness. “It’s like a bad dream where I’m standing on the outside watching the drama unfold without any control of the situation, and powerless to really help her.”

But he does have the power, of course, to help her die, should she request it. “She knows I have the wherewithal in my black medical bag, and the knowledge — what a privilege!” Steele is frank here too, in his exploration of what he might do.

Steele doesn’t have the comfort of religious belief, which frightens him, but he manages to find the humour. “It’s a bit late for making overtures to St. Peter now.” His greatest solace, and the place he does sense God, is on the ski trails. The reader, too, enjoys those ski breaks from the hard work and emotional upheaval. “Snow is on the trees, and all the world in my forest is clean and white…. I swish through the woods following in the steps of my girls, both of whom ski like angels.”

Anyone who’s spent any time in hospitals will appreciate the occasional moment of hilarity in Steele’s narrative. During one hospital stay the Steeles can’t hold a conversation because “the old lady with the bowel problem in the bed next to Sarah keeps farting tremendously.” We’re with the old lady, in her human frailty, and we’re with the doctor and his wife, in theirs.

It’s remarkable how much life the Steeles were able to pack into the final year of Sarah’s illness — two family weddings, travels abroad and to Hornby Island and Victoria, laughter and good times in the family cabin in Atlin.

We learn that Sarah’s response to every setback was to say, “Oh, what a nuisance.”

Steele tells us, and we see, that she was a remarkable woman, “holding court” as he affectionately puts it, from her headquarters — the pull-out couch in the living room — listening to others’ travails with interest and encouragement, despite being in intense pain. (The living room becomes our living room in this highly personal account. We feel as if it’s our headquarters too.)

What Steele probably didn’t realize or expect when he decided to publish these letters is that we would come to know him as a remarkable man.

The Steeles did things their own way. Sarah’s bouts in hospital were as brief as they could make them, and she died at home. Her wake and funeral were entirely do-it-yourself — the coffin made by a friend from salvaged pine wood, the wake held at the Mount MacIntyre ski chalet, Sarah’s hand-made quilts draping the tables in the waxing room.

Then friends loaded the coffin into the back of Steele’s battered Toyota “and we booted it for Atlin, five cars in convoy, in order to get there before sundown.” They buried her in the cemetery overlooking Atlin Lake.

The epilogue of the book is wordless — simply a photograph of Robert Philips at home on Hornby Island: the man who enabled Steele to tell the story.

Miche Genest is a Whitehorse-based writer.