A Memoir of Perseverance, Faith, and Finding the Way
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The phone at home rang one Sunday morning in early December 2020. The number on the display screen looked unfamiliar. I usually do not answer calls from unknown numbers, but a small voice in my head said, "Answer it." I did. The person on the line identified himself as a doctor from Mt. Sinai Hospital. Surprised, I said,"I didn't know doctors worked on Sundays." He replied that he was backed up with patients and had decided to make a few Sunday calls. After that, he said he had reviewed my MRI, ultrasound, and biopsy reports. I had done these procedures about a month earlier after I found a lump on my right thigh.
The doctor said that the lump was sarcoma cancer.
The earth stood still.
My heart stopped beating.
The air in the room evaporated.
It felt like I had clicked the "shutdown" button on my computer, and the bright, colourful icons disappeared, leaving the screen black as midnight. Several of my friends and colleagues had contracted or succumbed to the dreadful disease called cancer. We ate the same foods, drank water from the same source, and breathed the same air. Cancer had finally caught up with me; I suppose it was only a matter of time before I received such a diagnosis.
It seemed like a lifetime before I found my voice.
"What is that? I've never heard of sarcoma," I said.
The doctor explained that sarcoma is a type of cancer that can occur in various parts in your body. There are more than seventy types, and it usually attacks the soft tissue, like muscles, and tends to be localized.
The earth began to revolve again.
My breathing resumed.
My heartbeat normalized.
"How is it cured?" I asked.
"Treatment is usually radiation and surgery. Sometimes patients receive radiation first, then surgery, or vice versa," the doctor said. He mentioned that the MRI I had done earlier was not very clear, and it appeared there might be more than one tumour in my thigh. He planned to order another MRI, biopsy, and CT scan for me before he did anything. I thanked him for wanting to be so thorough and waited for the new appointment dates.
I needed to earn nine credits to complete my degree. Tentanda via. Despite the cancer diagnosis, I remained resolute that I would continue my studies. Assuming it would take months before I did the new tests the doctor prescribed and he took any action, I registered for the three-credit course 20th Century Children's Literature, scheduled to start in early January. The course outline stated it would examine three main elements of children's literature from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: the literature, the children, and the adult critics.
All of York U.'s courses remained online because COVID-19 refused to disappear. The professor posted the syllabus on the university's site and listed sixteen books required for the class. They consisted of picture books, chapbooks, and young adult books, including Harriet the Spy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and The Hunger Games. In addition, students had to read several theoretical papers that examined the definition of children's literature, concerns about the construction of children, and the issue of power and childhood.
"Whoa, this course is not simply about reading fairy tales," I thought.
The first lecture tackled Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902. I'd read some of the Peter Rabbit adventures many moons ago and thought he was a cute, lovable bunny (the pastel-coloured pictures in the books certainly were); I considered it a good story for children. Now, here we were, 119 years later, scrutinizing the text and illustrations and discovering that Peter, the only boy rabbit in the family, was subversive, defiant, disobedient, and adventurous. But his three sisters were "Good little bunnies," obedient and unadventurous. In essence, Peter presented a bad influence on children.
The text that captured my attention the most was Harriet the Spy. The novel was published in 1964, and said to have introduced the New Realism to children's literature. It eliminated mannerly, polite children and the sugarcoated behaviours of parents. Harriet spied on the people in her neighbourhood. She knew their dirty little secrets and wrote about them in her diary. The novel highlighted children's emotions and subversive imaginations. It alarmed many parents. The 20th Century Children's Literature course certainly opened my eyes to the subtleties of children's literature. It taught me not to take children's stories at face value. You should consider the history and geography of the times they were written.
After the doctor reviewed the final tests and confirmed that I definitely had sarcoma cancer, I shared the information with friends and family. Several people offered up prayers for me. My church family, my Caribbean posse ladies, my close friends, and family members all became part of the prayer group. Prayers worked.
I was on the final stretch of the course with four weeks remaining when I received a call from a radiologist at Princess Margaret hospital. I'd met him along with the sarcoma specialist a few weeks earlier. He called to say that my radiation treatments would begin on March 15th. He reminded me that treatments would last five weeks, and I would receive them five days each week, Mondays to Fridays.
"I'm doing a course at York University, and I don't want to withdraw from it. Will I be okay to continue my studies while receiving radiation treatments?" I asked.
"Radiation will not affect your brain," he said. We both laughed.
"You can continue your studies."
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About the Book
Seven years after she retired from a lengthy career in banking, Yvonne Blackwood surprised her friends and family by returning to school at age sixty-four to pursue an English degree. Her purpose was fueled by four powerful reasons—to add texture to her writing; to ward off dementia; to enhance structure in her life; and to inspire her two young grandsons to continue their education after high school. But as she stepped onto the campus of Canada’s third-largest university, Blackwood had no idea of the hurdles she was about to face.
In a retelling of her journey into a new beginning, Blackwood details how, after enrolling in York University, she struggled to maintain her established lifestyle, attend class with hard-to-connect-with millennials, and face a series of challenges that included two strikes at the university, a campus lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a shocking health diagnosis in her final year of studies. While leaning on the university’s motto—the way must be tried—Blackwood tells an inspiring story of how she persevered and learned to rely on her faith as she bravely conquered her fears and vulnerabilities to eventually achieve her goal.
College Life of a Retired Senior is the true story of a former bank manager’s experiences as she returned to college in the third act of life to earn a degree in English.
About the Author
Yvonne Blackwood is an African-Canadian author of six books and award-winning short-story writer. She has published articles in several publications, written columns for newspapers, and enjoyed a rewarding career with the Royal Bank of Canada before retiring. Blackwood attended the University of Technology and earned a BA in English from York University. She is a Fellow of The Institute of Canadian Bankers and an alumnus of the Humber College School of Writers.