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Biography & Autobiography Medical

The Staircase Letters

An Extraordinary Friendship at the End of Life

by (author) Arthur Motyer

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2008
Medical, Death, Grief, Bereavement, Aging
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    Publish Date
    Oct 2008
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Full of the magic of everyday life in the shadow of death–chickens must be cooked for dinner parties, and grandson’s questions about God must be answered!–The Staircase Letters is a moving and profound story of friendship and facing the end of life.

When Elma Gerwin found out in 2001 at the age of 61 that she had cancer, she reached out to two coasts and to two old friends. One was Arthur Motyer, novelist and teacher, and Elma’s university professor from forty years before, and the other was acclaimed novelist Carol Shields, who was facing her own battle with cancer.

Years later, Arthur is the only survivor. Still contemplating how Elma’s and Carol’s correspondence affected him, he has gracefully brought the letters together and interspersed them with literary references and poetry. As both women’s illnesses progress, they compare notes on the ups and downs of living with cancer–the joy when Elma is told one area is cancer-free, followed quickly by the terrible news that the cancer has spread; the delight in having family near, while the thought of saying goodbye seems impossible. The advice they give each other–from how to approach treatments to how to get to sleep at night–is heartfelt, warm and often leavened with humour.

As Carol and Elma contemplate what happiness is and how one makes a “good death,” 74-year-old Arthur, feeling inadequate in the face of such fundamental questions, discovers that he is exactly where he should be. In The Staircase Letters, the reader catches a rare and touching glimpse of the lives of three extraordinary people–two facing death and one left behind.

About the author

Now Professor Emeritus of English, Mount Allison University, Arthur Motyer held a number of positions there and, earlier, at Bishop's University in Lennoxville. Born in Bermuda, he was educated at Mount Allison University and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He lives in Sackville, New Brunswick.

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Excerpt: The Staircase Letters: An Extraordinary Friendship at the End of Life (by (author) Arthur Motyer)


It was after the death of Carol Shields, following that of Elma Gerwin, that I re­read their many e­mails to me over the previous two years, and realized again how truly special that correspondence was. After gathering the letters together, I was grateful to secure publication approval from Donald Shields and Martin Gerwin.

During the last years of her life, Carol made it clear that she did not want to be used for publicity about cancer that might draw attention to herself. In her dying, however, she has left in these letters, as Elma has, an inspiring example of how the ending of life can be faced. These were two extraordinary women, one an established literary icon, the other highly literate but known only to her friends, and their story deserves a wide sharing.

Arthur Motyer
Sackville, New Brunswick


Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.
–From Unless

Spiralling towards death, she stretched out her hand. Icarus falling, crying out but not to family. Husband, children, in­laws, all of them loving, would be there to cushion the fall when it came. She knew that. Pick up the pieces, bury them, burn them, give them to science. They would know what to do. Her cry was to others, two in particular, one man, one woman, as she began her free­fall flight. Her name was Elma Gerwin. I was the man. Carol Shields was the woman.

Forty years earlier, Elma had been a student of mine in English at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, and brilliant she was, too, challenging me constantly to look deeper, go further, and share with her immediately anything new I learned. A short, slight figure with a look sharp enough to pierce a steel door, she would fix me with her eyes, whether I was pacing about in a lecture room or sitting at a seminar table, and make escape impossible. Not that I wanted to escape. I was, after all, supposed to be the one in charge. I was fifteen years older, I was tall, I was (some said) commanding, and I had a big voice. Yet Elma was the one who held me in thrall. Her own voice was never soft, gentle, and low, as Cordelia’s appeared to Lear, but neither was it shrill: it suited her as an excellent weapon of communication, re­inforced and toned down with a smile.

I never cast Elma in any of the plays I produced as the university’s director of drama, because she had no aspirations as an actress and preferred to do make­up. She Stoops to Conquer, The Diary of Anne Frank, Giraudoux’s The Enchanted, Obey’s Noah, were all plays I did at the time; and I can see her now, dressed in a borrowed white lab coat, too long and too big for her small figure, bending over an actor seated in front of a mirror, transforming a young face into an old one with a few liners and sticks of greasepaint held in her hands. It was in the classroom, however, that she showed how much she cared for the power of words. Writers were her gods. Victorian thinkers – Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin, among others – were her passion, as were the poets, all of them her friends: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats. She read them all.

Inevitably, in the years that followed her graduation, we lost touch, lengthy letters to each other giving way to the annual note tucked inside a Christmas card, sometimes with a photograph. She had married a philosopher, and they lived in Winnipeg. I knew that. They had three children. I knew that. She still read everything. I might have guessed that. But only gradually over the years did I learn that she had become a tireless advocate for literacy, and she worked with students in special programs. She had become a supporter of the New Democratic Party. She had a genuine concern for Aboriginal peoples. She went into and came out of a ten­year period as an alcoholic. She raged at injustices, wherever perceived. But she still loved a world that provoked her to fight in it, ignorance and prejudice always her enemies.

In late February 2001, I wrote to Elma about a literary matter. I had written two novels, one of which, Swing Wide the Door, was about a gay Salvation Army officer, trapped in an organization he felt was homophobic. I hoped she would agree to read the manuscript, because her acute critical judgment was something I knew I could trust. She had known for years that I was gay, so I had no anxieties that she would be shocked by the subject. Her immediate and helpful response by e­mail – established by now as a faster and more reliable form of communication between us in urgent times – confirmed her place as valued critic and friend. She quickly, and correctly, pointed out that one particular incident involving a prostitute was one she’d read in other forms and that to avoid cliché I would have to give it a new twist: “The fact that something has often happened in real life does not mean it will work well in fiction. Trite but true – yes, I know.” She went on to suggest some valuable rethinking for the novel.

I was not, however, prepared for what she had to say so frankly about herself. Earlier that year, a multitude of polyps had been discovered in her colon, some of them of the kind that lead frequently to cancer. Because major surgery to remove a section of her colon had not been immediately proposed, she faced the prospect of repeated colonoscopies (invasive diagnostic procedures) and polypectomies (the surgery that snips off the precancerous polyps). Although not yet aware that a small­cell cancer was also growing in her lung – it would be diagnosed six months later, in September, and was one that could readily metastasize – she was able to have an early sense of what was ahead of her, and she was obviously determined to make this her last fight.

She told me she had written to Carol Shields, whom she had known and admired when they’d both lived in Winnipeg. Carol, who now lived in Victoria, had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. And now Elma wrote to me. We were, she assured us, two very important people in her life – people she could count on to accept and understand what was happening to her – and her proposal was that we make a special journey together.

The medieval Everyman had made a similar ­request:

I shall show you how it is:
Commanded I am to go a journey,
A long way, hard and dangerous,
And give a straight count without delay
Before the high judge Adonai.
Wherefore I pray you bear me company.

Elma lived in the middle of Canada, I was on the east coast, Carol on the west, but e­mail could link us easily. Elma would write to both of us at once, or any one of us would write to the other, and we three would travel together, bear each other company, and give a straight account without delay.

With wax melting in the sun, it would be a perilous voyage.

I am now the lone survivor.

Elma had made sure that Carol Shields knew something about me, but I had not met her, except in her books. This meant, however, that I knew a few things about her. She, too, had been a teacher, a professor at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Manitoba, as well as being one of Canada’s truly great writers, someone who reminded us again “why literature matters,” which is what The New York Times Book Review said of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Stone Diaries in 1993. For that novel and others that followed, Carol was either nominated for or awarded some of the world’s great literary prizes, her repertoire extending to poems, short stories, plays, and literary criticism.

Carol was someone Elma deeply loved, but she also made it clear that she loved something in me, though what exactly and why? We might tell someone why we love them, but to tell ourselves why we are loved may prove only a searching excuse for vanity. In one of his early poems, beginning “When you are old and grey and full of sleep,” Yeats speaks of “the pilgrim soul” found in a beloved. Unspecific though that is, it may yet be the only way to articulate the impossible.

In this my eighty-second year, I look back on my own years as a teacher, aware that I won’t be a survivor for another four decades of teaching. Even if I were, there would not be time enough to understand whatever it was I did for Elma or for anyone else, or even how or why I did it. It amazes me to hear of teachers who profess answers for what can never be known and what is forever beyond reach. For my part, I had no method unless it was to care. I had no philosophy or formal structure of ideas, unless it was to make a teacher different from a book. Is this why Elma turned to me, despite her love of books, knowing that I wasn’t a book? Was this the “pilgrim soul” she may have found in me?

It was Michael Ondaatje who wrote: “All my life I’ve admired teachers, those mysterious catalysts, fathers without a bloodline, those who point out an unknown field or surprising city over the horizon. Leonard Cohen, for instance, spoke of Irving Layton this way: ‘I taught him how to dress. He taught me how to live.’”

If I ever pointed out to Elma or any other student such a field or such a surprising city, it may have been that I didn’t know it was there myself until I saw it.

When Elma was a student, I had introduced her to Mahler with a recording I had of Kathleen Ferrier singing Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). She had been moved deeply by the last song, “Der Abschied,” where the poet bids his long farewell to life.

Still is my heart. It is awaiting its hour!
Everywhere the lovely earth blossoms
forth in spring and grows green anew!
Everywhere, for ever, horizons are blue and bright!
For ever and ever.

Listening, we were both struck by the sheer beauty of all that loveliness fading away almost to nothing, but never really fading away at all, not ever . . . ewig . . . ewig . . . ewig. And that is the way we would end all our letters to each other thereafter . . . ewig . . . ewig . . . ewig . . . and all our e­mails to each other in the last months of her life . . . ever . . . ever . . . ever . . . our pledge that the world would remain green.

Despite sensing my own lack of qualifications for the role Elma was asking me to play – after all, she and Carol shared the prognosis of cancer while my health was fine – I said yes, I would try. And so it was that, after reflecting further on Swing Wide the Door, the novel she had so helpfully criticized, she sent a long e­mail:

Oh Arthur, you poor man, you started something up again when you wrote me that touchingly tentative letter asking me if I would consider reading your book. I had forgotten how much I missed being in regular contact with you – not the Christmas card stuff, but the feeling of being able to tell you almost anything with the assurance that you would understand – or at least tolerate.

Is there anyone else I could have talked to so freely about the fact that nature probably intended me to be bisexual, for example? (Now there’s another road not taken.) And just as much, if not more, I have missed seeing your handwriting on an envelope, knowing that whatever you had to say would be worth pondering, that always the essence would be there, and that it would be instinct with love.

Do you think I don’t know how it feels to be approaching the end of one’s life with the feeling, “Surely I could have, even should have, accomplished more than this? Left some monument, however small, more lasting than bronze?” (That colossal wreck of Shelley’s Ozymandias in the sands is hardly comfort. Something more lasting than a human memory might be more like it anyway.) And I may be fourteen years younger than you, but I have my doubts I’ll live as long – nor as well. I can try to put a good face on it, but I have to say I’m a bit scared after this latest finding.

Mind you, there is a silver lining. I could have developed Parkinson’s like my mother; or the emphysema, which is my legacy of forty plus years of smoking, might have killed me through rapid lung­function degeneration (though I enjoyed smoking immensely, goddamn it, especially when I had to quit drinking. At least I can still have an occasional cigarette without spiralling out of control, which is emphatically not true in the case of alcohol).

Maybe the earth goddess is giving me an out. I won’t have to start saving up sleeping pills or whatever: I can refuse to go on having colonoscopies and polypectomies and let nature take its course – and just hope that in my case colon cancer develops and metastasizes fairly quickly. Does this sound self­pitying? Probably. But I would be sincerely grateful to have an alternative to Parkinson’s, especially. My poor mom, with her basically strong constitution, living for so long in that ghastly cage. I simply don’t think I have that much courage – or that much faith.

I do feel sorry for you reading all this whining! At least it’s been a help to me just to write it out. I’ll leave it for tonight and read it again later. I guess I had a rather off­putting day, which began bright and early with having yet more blood tests for various things (and I’m always so cheery at 8 a.m. anyway, of course), and then went on to become one of those days at work that leave you feeling exhausted, frustrated and as if there’s no point whatsoever to anything you’re doing (or have ever done).

Strange, isn’t it, that while it means much to hear (and even occasionally believe!) that one has been a good parent, partner, teacher, whatever, there is still the desire to have created some small thing of value which is more . . . concrete? tangible? How we do ache to see our words made flesh – and with at least a measure of grace and truth.

“And not breed one work that wakes . . .” was Hopkins’s own anguished summary of failure. Oh yes, I know, believe me, I know. Indeed, I look at your accomplishments and I only wish I could leave a legacy such as yours. It’s all relative, no? “Send my roots rain,” indeed.

Ever . . . ever . . . ever . . .


P.S., or maybe a preface:

I might mention that the mood of this letter has probably been affected by my hearing of the death (at age sixty­one – no reason given) of L. R. Wright, a Canadian “much-more­than­a­mystery” writer, many of whose novels I have immensely enjoyed. She had an uncanny ability to make you feel what it might be like to have the mind and soul of a female psychopath, or to understand the circumstances and undercurrents that could lead an apparently “nice, quiet” teenage boy to explode in a murderous rage and kill his entire family. I am sad that she will write no more, especially since she was growing in power and subtlety. And I wonder how she died.

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