Heroes? Here’s One of Mine
At the ripe old age of near 50, I now realize I’ve had few enduring heroes in my lifetime. I’ve probably had thousands of infatuations along the way, including about three girls a day in college and since then a peculiar fascination for singers, actors and sports figures. I’m quite sure that makes me American rather than Canadian at my core, since our neighbors to the north typically eschew idolatry.
My grandparents certainly qualify. Born of the waste-not, want-not generation that survived the Depression, Gram and Gramp went on to become Maine’s dairy farmers of the year in 1970 . . . and then wrote to the folks who presented them with the award and said they couldn’t imagine they deserved it. When my grandfather finally did travel to Springfield, Mass., in 1971 to accept his plaque, it was the first time he had ever left Maine since his family emigrated from New Brunswick, Canada, when he was 2.
I admire my father, who is self-made from a childhood of destitute poverty, and my mother for her infinite compassion with children, including her oldest son. I’m in awe of my daughter, who just finished medical school and will soon start rotations, and my son, who despite overwhelming Attention Deficit Disorder, is one of the kindest people I know at his core. I think my wife is a saint for putting up with me.
As far as heroes go, though, one person probably tops my list these days. I’m under strict orders not to talk about her age, but I can tell you that Dr. June Irwin has been swinging for the fences for a very long, long time. From becoming one of the first female medical students at McGill University, to starting her own 70-acre farm 35 years ago, to showing up at a town meeting in Hudson 25 years ago to talk about the toxicity of lawn chemicals, the remarkable dermatologist has never once strayed from her ideals or convictions as near as I can tell. She deflected ridicule, shouldered threats from the chemical industry and never once lowered her resolve as the legal battle she instigated weaved its way through the Canadian courts. On the summer day of 2001, when her work at the town of Hudson, Quebec, made world history, Dr. June was treating a rash in her one-of-a-kind eclectic office in Pointe Claire, Quebec. “The victory wasn’t about me,” she said matter of factly in our film, A Chemical Reaction. “it was a community effort.”
I write this today because I can’t get a phone call from June out my head from last week. The film’s director and I were driving back to Maine from Hudson after the DVD release screening and my cell phone rang. The ageless, timeless woman on the other end of the phone had her medical books open as wide as her eyes and was offering medical advice for my son … for free, at 12:30 a.m. And she was offering to do more research as we said our goodnights at about 1 a.m. When was the last time your doctor, or anyone in your life, did anything like that for you?
Researching the Hudson story for another writing project I have underway, I came across this web site that evaluates doctors: http://www.ratemds.com/doctor-ratings/81893/Dr-Dorothy-June-Irwin-Montreal-QC.html. To me, the comments read like a collection of comments from the haves and have-nots of this world, and I’m not talking about worldly riches. Just read a few paragraphs from her patients and you’ll know what I mean.
I also write this today in honor of my mother, whose retirement party tomorrow after 35 years of providing daycare to Maine children, will bring many generations of families together — and in memory of a friend’s father, Shep Lee, whom I met just once. That was all the time I needed to understand why this man of his word was one of the most revered people in our state. He, like June Irwin, always lived by his ideals — even if it meant he might lose a sale at one of his car dealerships, or if expression of his Democratic opinion might risk alienating a Republican colleague.
Life’s too damn short to live any other way, isn’t it?
So keep swinging, June. I know you will anyway. Good luck tomorrow, Mom. Let the love sink in. And sail on, Shep. I’m certain you leave here knowing your legacy is in good hands.