Shelagh Gordon was another name in the obituaries, an ordinary woman who had died suddenly of a massive brain aneurysm at the age of 55. But something in her obituary stood out to a journalist at the Toronto Star. For weeks, Catherine Porter had been combing the paper, looking to profile an ordinary person through the perspectives of the family and friends he or she had left behind. What emerged was an extraordinary portrait.
Gordon’s story is told by her oldest sister, Heather Cullimore, her niece, Jessica Cullimore, her best friend, Andy Schulz, and by Porter for WBUR’s Kind World.
CATHERINE PORTER: I’m a columnist at the Toronto Star. I got a call from my editor, saying, “Look at the obits today.” It was Valentine’s Day, and there, No. 19 out of 56, was Shelagh Gordon’s obituary. And something about it stopped me. So, we spent the day trying to track her loved ones down.
HEATHER CULLIMORE: It was a very shocking phone call. But the funny thing was, I immediately felt like, well, of course, if you were ever going to look for a random person to write about, she’s the one. The expression I used at the time was “How stupid perfect,” because you’ve somehow stumbled across a person that should be recognized.
From Catherine Porter’s profile of Shelagh Gordon for the Toronto Star: I met Shelagh Gordon at her funeral. She was soap and water beautiful. Vital. I could feel her spirit tripping over a purse in the funeral hall and then laughing from the floor. She was both alone and crowded by love. In another era, she would have been considered a spinster, no husband, no kids. But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews, and her life partner, a gay man, who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her, wearing matching reading glasses.
HEATHER CULLIMORE: It all flowed through Shelagh, strangely enough, I don’t think we really realized it while we had her. She was the interpreter, she made sure everybody understood each other’s feelings.
JESSICA CULLIMORE: She loved with a power that I can’t even compare, it just was pretty unbelievable.
ANDY SCHULZ: I always thought I was lucky that she was my friend. You could put your heart on the table and you know that she’d never step on it, because she took great pride and honor that you gave that to her. And I think that’s what drew people to her.
HEATHER CULLIMORE: She was just a magnet for people. And some of them really stuck. And they’re part of the family now. That happened everywhere we went, you’d have somebody that you’d never met, some teacher from Jersey or some young kid from the Caribbean sitting at our dinner table.
SCHULZ: It was just her spirit. If there was somebody in the room that nobody was talking to, she would talk to them and she would show an interest. And that’s what made her special, because she was just a regular person who had troubles but still shone a light and gave meaning to people. Shelagh always just could touch people and make them feel that they were just as important as anyone else.
Her relationships were as rich as the chocolate pudding pie she’d whip together. She dashed off dozens of text messages and emails and Facebook postings a day, usually mistyping words in her rush to connect. Then, every afternoon, she’d soak for an hour in the bath while eating cut-up oranges and carrots and flipping the damp pages of a novel. But my sharpest impression of Shelagh that day, as mourners in black pressed around me, was her breathtaking kindness.
HEATHER CULLIMORE: Most of the gifts, most of the kind things she did, weren’t for public viewing. They were, you know, sliding something into someone’s pocket or a quiet letter with a little something in it or left, even, at their front door. I think she had almost a sixth sense for people that were kind of hurting.
JESSICA CULLIMORE: I was going through a tough time once, and I had no money and I was in university and I was stressed out and overwhelmed. And she left me a card with, I think, maybe, $150 in it. And I knew she had no money at that time. So it wasn’t coming from a place of, “Well, I have something to give so I’m going to give it.” It was like, “Well, here’s a part of what I have so I can share it with you, to make your life a little bit easier.”
That presence, myself and my siblings all kind of say, she wasn’t an aunt. The things that we got from her were way beyond, way beyond. And that’s why we kind of say, she was more like a mother.
HEATHER CULLIMORE: She always bought a lottery ticket. She didn’t buy hundreds, she bought one for each lottery. And she would sit there and make lists of who needed money, how much their mortgage was, and how she would divide it all up. So, she had a plan. And she was so disappointed each time she didn’t win, not because she really wanted the money, but she wanted to spread that out and get everybody taken care of. And going back when the kids were quite young, she won the lottery, but she won the lottery quite small. She was so excited, she actually took that money and split it all up the same way she would have for a million dollars.
Shelagh made people around her feel not just loved, but coveted. That was the golden thread that stitched together the ordinary seams of her life. Sitting in the fourth row at her funeral, I could see myself in Shelagh. She lived a small life, as most of us do. Her struggles were intimate, but the world she carefully assembled was rich and meaningful in ways that she never grasped.
HEATHER CULLIMORE: That way of living is such a valuable lesson. Not to be sort of saccharine and sweet, like, “oh, be a good-deed doer and give to charity,” but pay attention to the people around you, right close to you, and love them and care for them and pay attention.
SCHULZ: The person that you’re looking at, sitting beside you in a restaurant or on a bus or on the street corner, they all mean something to somebody.
PORTER: I also really wondered about what a life is worth. Because here we were, this huge team of journalists, examining this one ordinary life. And, you know, she wasn’t Nelson Mandela, she didn’t free a country, she wasn’t someone who had affected massive change. But in her own way, she really did intimately affect so many people. She taught me a different way of living, I guess, in noticing the hours in the day, and filling them with more kindness.
And not necessarily looking at life as a means to an end, and thinking about the importance of your life in the end goals of what you achieve, which is usually what we fill our obituaries with, but with the little acts that you do each day, and how they can affect others and how important that is.