The first impression I have of Shirley McLeaming is how pretty she is. It could be the deep magenta cowl neck sweater she’s wearing on her trim body, or the golden waves of her hair, or her sparkling brown eyes. I’m certainly not noticing that she’s in her late sixties, a mother of two and grandmother of five, or that she’s missing most of her nose. Shirley invites me into the large kitchen of the old farmhouse she moved into thirteen years ago and we sit down at her table. Shirley’s house on Route 6 between Port Howe and Pugwash sits on top of a hill at the end of a long lane and she has a sweeping view of Toney Bay and the Northumberland Strait.
“I was born in New Brunswick but raised in Wallace,” she explains. “I moved back here [from Ontario] in 1999. I’m glad I did. It’s so peaceful and quiet.”
As the saying goes, you get what you need whether you know it or not because ten years later, Shirley found out she had a rare cancer.
“My nose was sore but I thought it was just a bite,” she says. She saw a doctor in the fall of 2009 but it wasn’t until the following spring that she saw a specialist. “I had a lot of radiation and that didn’t kill it so they had to operate.”
She traces a finger up the left side of her face, across her hairline then down from the tip of her eyebrow to her mouth to show where they cut the left side of her face in order to remove her nose and upper lip in the summer of 2011.
Not only did the radiation fail to kill the cancer, it did a lot of damage. All the skin of her face was burned and the inside of her mouth, including her tongue, blistered. Shirley has been using the juice from a huge aloe vera plant that sits on another table as well as Vitamin E to heal her skin and it must be working; the surgical scars on her forehead are almost invisible. Despite this, her skin remains sensitive to sun and wind, a torture for someone who enjoys being outside.
“The sun doesn’t even have to be out,” Shirley says. “It’s very painful.”
And yet, she’s hoping to be in her canoe and fishing at Angevine Lake this spring.
“The worse part of it was the pain,” Shirley admits. She doesn’t mean the pain of surgery; she’s talking about the pain of the cancer. “It was a shooting pain and I was on morphine for it and it was terrible. When I woke up after the surgery, the first thing I said was, ‘I don’t have any more pain.’ I still get pain but it’s not as bad. Sometimes it gets to you. I can’t do the things I want to do, like go on the four-wheeler. That’s the most difficult, not being able to do what I want to do because I suffer so much pain. Then it gets to you, you get a little depressed. But like Dad always said: Kick yourself in the ass and get going.”
She laughs. “I’m so lucky. I could be dead.”
Her father raised Shirley, her four sisters and their one brother on his own after their mother died of cancer at the age of 34. Shirley also lost one of her sisters in a car accident, and was herself seriously injured in an accident when she was 27. How does she explain her positive attitude and her cheerful resilience when she’s endured so much?
“I accept things as they come,” Shirley explains then laughs again. “I kind of have to since I moved down here.”
She lists a series of unfortunate events including a badly broken wrist, a mauling by a dog, and a finger crushed while using a saw. After that, she found out she had cancer.
Her nose was removed last July then rebuilt in August using bone from her face and part of her right ear. There will be another surgery to continue recreating a properly working nose. Shirley points out that she has trouble breathing because her nostrils are too small; indeed, they look pinched, almost closed off.
“When I got rid of the pain, I could take anything,” she says when asked how she reacted the first time she saw her face post-surgery. “I don’t think anyone realized how great the pain was that I was in.”
She’s practically shrugging off the dramatic change to her face. It’s shocking how upbeat this woman is.
“Looks are a very tiny thing in life whether people know it or not,” she says. “Sure, people want to look good but I always say what you have in your heart and how you think are more important than being beautiful.”
Nestled into the cowl neck of her sweater is a gold necklace with a pair of cutting shears as a charm, a gift from a friend because Shirley was a hairdresser in Ontario. She also crochets and quilts and paints. She repaired and renovated the old farmhouse herself (there are sparkles in the paint she put on the kitchen floor). Cancer and the other tragedies have not altered her positive outlook or her creative energy. These days, Shirley is excited about taking up one of her favourite past- times again.
“I couldn’t paint for the last two years on account of my nose,” she explains. The smell of the oil paint, as well as perfume and cigarettes, made her eyes water. She’s pulling out canvases to show me, and a calligraphy set, another hobby, so it’s inevitable she’s going to bring out a photograph.
It seems brave of Shirley to show me a photo of herself from the days before cancer invaded her life because she was a very pretty woman. Yet as I glance away from the picture to look at Shirley, the truth is as plain as the nose on my own face. She is no longer pretty; now she is beautiful.