EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Adrienne Clarkson's newly published memoirs are as open about her private life as her public duties
It was a surprise in 1999 when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien chose Adrienne Clarkson, former CBC TV host of Take Thirty and The Fifth Estate and later Ontario agent general in Paris, to be Canada’s 26th governor general. Some thought it even more of a surprise when Clarkson, renowned for her love of the North, and for forging a strong bond with the Canadian Forces, proved to be the most prominent—and in many eyes—successful governor general in a generation. Her memoirs, Heart Matters, are more than a public life recalled. In the excerpt below Clarkson, now 67 and retired from office for a year, speaks for the first time about the personal tragedy she hid behind the glittering veil of her public career, and the solace she found in family.
There were a lot of nice young men at university, and all of them had in common the fact that they had interesting families, were reasonably good-looking and wanted to do fascinating things in the world—like join the foreign service, become engineers in developing countries, or study in France. Now, when I look back on it, I realize that a certain psychic desperation must have driven me to feel that if I didn’t have children, I would somehow not be fulfilling my destiny. That seems odd, given that I was brought up to believe that everything I did was to affirm my individuality and to make sure that I had a role in a world that was not defined by biology. If you are not a genius, and I am certainly not one, it is difficult to escape all the constraints of your time.
I married Stephen Clarkson, whom I met at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto, in the early sixties. He was brilliant, went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and he also wanted the French language to be a part of his life. (I do not intend to describe my first marriage, because I have an aversion to a narrative that would of necessity be onesided.) We were unable to have children for nearly six years. My life was a whirl of biopsies, salpingograms with dye, the usual tem-
perature taking. We felt that this was worthwhile because we did want to have children. Two years after we married, I started working in television, on Take Thirty, and was immediately successful at it. Life was fulfilling me in one way by the joy I had working and learning and moving far, far from the academic world.
We had promised ourselves that, if we could not conceive by the end of five years, we would adopt a child. We were on our way to doing that through a private adoption, which was much more common in those days and more informal than adoption is today. We had five more months to wait for that baby. Three months before it was born, I discovered I was pregnant.
We wrestled with the question of whether we should go ahead and adopt the child as well as have our own. My mother wanted us to do both because, she said, an old Chinese proverb said that when you adopt a child it is the flower pot, and then your own child is the plant that grows within it—the two are inseparable. As it turned out, we did not adopt, and Kyra was born in 1969.1 managed to incorporate her into my work on Take Thirty, as we had a weekly report on pregnancy, birth, child feeding, and so on. It was a rare blending of public and private life, and I was very happy when we were doing it.
When Kyra was a year old, I became pregnant again. The day I felt Venetian blinds come across my eyes, leaving little strips of light, I knew something must be wrong. I was about four months pregnant and had recently gotten over three months of morning sickness, during which I lost 12 lb. Although we were surprised by the second pregnancy so soon, I was not apprehensive in any way because the first one had gone so well. Kyra was born with the speed of lightning, so that I had no need of an epidural. Naturally, I thought this second one would go well, until I couldn’t keep any food down, and then the little Venetian blinds started. We were staying out in the country with friends, and I worried that
I was about to become blind or had a detached retina.
When I returned to the city on the Monday, I realized something was dreadfully wrong when the doctor looked very grave. He said, “You are having a toxic pregnancy and your blood pressure is going through the roof. I don’t know what’s wrong, but this happens sometimes.” I asked him if he thought that I would miscarry, but he said he didn’t think so. He said, “There are reasons, of course, why some pregnancies aren’t carried to term, but I don’t think this is going to happen to you.”
I’ve always wondered whether he meant I could have had an abortion, even though I was already in my 16th week. In any event, it never occurred to me to ask for one. Per-
hapsiwasrememberingthat * “You're going to have twins,” they said. I hardly had when my mother was ex time to call my parents and husband about this before pectmg me she was very, j went §nt0 labour and gave birth to Blaise and Chloe.'
very ill, and her uncle the ^
gynecologist—my great-uncle Arthur, who was the great European-trained doctoradvised her that it would be wisest if I were removed so that she would not become sicker or develop fluid in her lungs. My parents, being young, both agreed to that, but then my beloved Po-Po intervened and said that that was absolutely not to happen. I was always grateful for that and, if you believe in prenatal apprehensions, I probably knew at some level that I could have been done away with before I had even begun. And that feeling has very much coloured my life and my position as a woman. The late sixties saw women agitating for the right to control their own bodies, which I endorsed enthusiasti-
cally. It seemed to me that every woman should have the choice of what she was going to do when she became pregnant, and nobody, certainly not the state, should tell her what she should do. But after this pregnancy, I realized that my views had focused. I came to feel, and still do, that I would never be able to have an abortion but that I do not want to tell other people whether or not they should. I feel this is a matter of conscience and a matter of being able to live with yourself and with the decisions that you have made.
During my second pregnancy, I was still working on Take Thirty and taking a day off at a time. The executive producer was extremely unsympathetic, like most male
bosses of the time. I think he would have preferred me to have stayed home, as his own wife had with their three children. (She had never worked except early on in their marriage when they were both struggling to survive.) He had qualities, but sympathy for women was not one of them. He was later notorious for his response when one of the women on the show asked for a raise. He looked at her startled and said: “You seem to be well-dressed and well taken care of. I’m sure your husband must earn enough money to take care of the two of you, plus what you earn.” This was in the days before you could have called somebody before a tribunal for such things.
I did not quit work. I simply dealt with the splitting headaches and the flushing in my face with makeup and great concentration. I was afraid to take any painkillers because of the pregnancy and also because I disliked taking pills of any kind. Finally I was told that I would have to go to the hospital for about a week. The executive producer made me feel that I had let everybody down, and I was overcome with the feeling (remember, this was 197l) that I really shouldn’t be holding down such a great job and trying to have children as well.
By this time, I was at the end of my fifth month, and I was told that I was losing so much protein in my urine that I could suffer kidney failure. I was told sternly that I would remain in hospital until I gave birth, which would probably be prematurely. So I was looking at least at another six weeks, if not eight, in the hospital. Every day, religiously, before the doctor came I took a ketone test with my own dipsticks, and every day, unhappily, I was in a state of ketosis, still losing protein.
I wasn’t depressed when I was in hospital with this complication. It’s interesting to me now that I never thought at the time, “Maybe I’m going to have kidney failure and actually lose my kidneys.” I felt that somehow things would work out, but I didn’t know exactly how. One day, my doctors sent me for an X-ray so they could explore why there was so much movement and some contractions. Afterwards they stood at the end of my bed and looked gravely at me. “You’re going to have twins,” they said.
This was a total surprise to all concerned. They said they had not seen this in an earlier X-ray because one twin was lying over the other. I hardly had time to call my parents and husband about this before I went into labour and gave birth to Blaise, who weighed just over three pounds, and Chloe, who weighed less than two. They were rushed over to the Sick Children’s Hospital and put in incubators, and I did not get to see them until the next day. I think that Chloe was one of the smallest in the premature ward in those years.
All this drama was kept within the family, and all the viewers of Take Thirty knew was that I had given birth to twins. Even to this day, 30-odd years later, I meet people in the street who say, “We had twins when you did!” and I still feel a sharp flash of pain because of what later happened to Chloe. Immediately after the twins were born, I ran a high temperature. Not only had I had a toxic pregnancy but I now had, the doctor informed me in an amused way, the disease that killed most women before 1900—puerperal fever. Luckily,
with antibiotics, this was cured, but the source of it was found not by the doctors but by a marvellous young nurses’ aide, Miss Fulford, who said to me, “I think there’s something in there that’s causing you still to have the fever and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a bit of placenta.” I asked her what she thought we should do about it and she said, “Do you mind if I just give your stomach a big massage?” I said, “Of course not, let’s go ahead and see what happens.” She massaged my lower abdomen vigorously and, lo and behold, a piece of placenta popped out. She slid it into a bowl, and when the doctor came for his call about five minutes later, she presented him with it, and he looked, I do have to say to his credit, extremely chagrined. After that, I recovered
'Suddenly the nanny was at the door of my bedroom saying, "Something’s happened to Chloe, you must come.” ’
quite well and was able to go over to Sick Children’s Hospital every day and then to return home with Blaise and await Chloe’s arrival.
The children stayed in Sick Children’s Hospital until they reached five pounds. In Blaise’s case, that took about six weeks, with my going every day to spend time there and feed her. She came home and settled in calmly.
As Chloe approached five pounds, we were excited at the prospect of her being able to come home. The pediatricians warned us that there was a serious possibility of blindness or of developmental problems. I don’t think I thought very much about that and was quite prepared for anything. I was just glad that she was alive.
The day that Chloe came home was a wonderful one, and we had two cribs in one room
plus another baby of 22 months in another room. An excellent nanny had come to help. Some days later, Stephen had to go to a meeting in Montreal. I was still feeling quite tired, and every afternoon I had a nap. That Saturday, I had done something in the morning—gone for a meeting, I believe, of Jean Vanier’s branch of l’Arche at their new house in Richmond Füll. When I returned home I felt exhausted, so I lay down right away. Suddenly the nanny was at the door of my bedroom saying, “Something’s happened to Chloe, you must come.”
1 hurried to the bedroom and picked Chloe up, but she was already cool. I don’t know what exactly happened then, but I think the fire department came, and the ambulance, and the next thing I knew I was by myself in
the waiting room of Sick Children’s Hospital. A young doctor, who probably was a pediatric resident, sat down beside me, shaking uncontrollably. She was probably younger than Blaise is now, and what she had to tell me was that Chloe was dead. I remember that I felt absolutely frozen in denial. I had a thought, looking at this sweet chubby girl beside me, whose hands were shaking, that it must be horrible for her to sit with somebody and tell them their child has died.
Chloe’s funeral was at St. Thomas’s Church. The rector was Edgar Bull, who had been chaplain when Stephen and I were undergraduates at Trinity. It was a great solace to have him perform that ceremony. Religion and religious beliefs are not only about ceremony and ritual, but in any traumatic event the timeless order that ritual represents can be very comforting. It is the time when we actually feel the touch of the sacred, and there is great comfort in hearing the words that for centuries have helped relieve the pain in so many people.
When the worst thing you think can happen to you happens, you realize that in a way it has indemnified you against everything. Our society never brings you up to believe that you could lose a child; yet within my circle of friends at the time, two other women had lost infants, one by drowning before he was
2 and the other very similarly to mine at the age of less than a year. All our lives prepare us for gain, for increment, for increase. We’re so ill-equipped to actually suffer loss.
In all the centuries before the mid-20th, people were used to having many children and losing three-quarters of them before adulthood. We so quickly adapted in the Western world to expect each child to grow to adulthood. However, the religious ritual cannot protect you; it can only make you accept. Accept with a kind of instinct that is either spiritual or intellectual, or a combination of both. I believe that there is nothing that happens to you that you do not accept. This acceptance is, to me, the mark of liv-
'Ali I can say is that I was not prepared for this kind of breakup. I consider it to be my greatest failure. I don’t blame anyone.'
ing the true life. It is the way in which people manage to continue even if they would say to others that they have never accepted what has happened to them. I believe that the fact that they can go on living means that they accept it.
Soon after Chloe’s death,
I felt as if I’d been wrapped in a kind of Cellophane. It was like being contained in something and yet not touched by it. I was wholly visible and yet not part of the sentient world. I had help from many sources—the love of friends and family, the generosity of colleagues, the sympathy of the wider circle of my social contacts. The one exception to that was an occasion that I’ve never forgotten, even though I do like to blot out unpleasant experiences.
About three months after Chloe’s death, I went to a literary party for the launch of a friend’s book, where a woman writer, a generation ahead of me, said, “I can see that you’re still feeling badly about your baby.” I nodded automatically, and my instinct was to walk away without continuing the conversation, but she persisted: “You know, other people wouldn’t tell you this but I will. I’m really glad this happened to you because it will make you more human and maybe take some of the polish off you.” My feelings toward her remain determinedly neutral because I don’t want to admit how much she had hurt me. I think she simply took an opportunity to be cruel to someone she didn’t like. To be attacked with such downright meanness and, yes, hatred was astonishing to me then and it remains astonishing to this day.
As Leonard Cohen writes, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” What I have learned about suffering in my life is that everyone suffers in their own way, and even if they do not show it, there is a
sense in which they take responsibility for it. Different people do this in different ways. And I have done it in mine. I also know that if you cannot be spared suffering, you can be given the strength to bear it.
I always wonder what Chloe would have been like: she was not an identical twin, therefore she would have been different from her sister. How different? Since Kyra became an architect and Blaise became a doctor, would Chloe have become a lawyer? My daughters have seemed to prefer structured professions
as opposed to my totally unstructured life. So perhaps the answer would be yes. Her memory lives on in the second name of my first grandchild, and that is an affirmation of her life. Having children makes you aware of your mortality; having grandchildren gives you a sense of immortality.
They say that losing a child puts an enormous stress on a marriage, and I am willing to believe it, as this was my experience. Every person mourns a loss in a different way, and it is difficult to make that adjustment of feeling, even between a couple who have managed to make other adjustments to their life. This was not the only reason for which my first marriage came apart, but I certainly think that this was one of the situations that ended up highlighting other problems.
All I can say is that I was not prepared for this kind of breakup and that I consider it to be my greatest failure. I don’t blame anyone, nor do I really blame myself. It just happened. All I know is that the misunderstandings
and bad feelings that happened around the divorce carried on for many years.
Now my life is full with my daughters, my remarkable sons-in-law, and my four grandchildren. My daughters are extraordinary people with wonderful professions and great husbands. Of the grandchildren, I will say nothing more than that they are perfect.
Many friends have said to me that they didn’t know how I could continue to live my life with this terrible pain. I found within myself resources to deal with phenomenal pain. I masked the pain in public. The tight group of friends, parents, and godparents protected me with their love and concern. And always, I was helped in this by my understanding that others had suffered much
more than I had and that they had recovered without ever giving up hope. My own pain made me mindful of other people’s sufferings, and makes me have empathy with them. In order to understand what pain is, you must never hope that others feel the same; your only way of coping with it is to say that you recognize it in yourself and therefore you understand when it happens to another.
I realized I had to do what Yeats urges in one of his most wonderful poems: “Go down to where all the ladders start / In the foul ragand-bone shop of the heart.” Because I think one of the ways to keep yourself alive is to say, “I will survive even if nothing ever happens.” But something did happen, and for that I am grateful. The love between us, my daughters and I, never actually disappeared, and has returned, radiantly, now. M
Excerpted from Heart Matters. Copyright ©Adrienne Clarkson, 2006. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).