I am finally opening boxes that were shipped home from Ottawa 14 years ago. As I unseal them one by one, it is amazing to read again the record of so much that was so vital in those days. I am reminded again of the cataclysmic changes of that year.
My departure from Ottawa was sudden. It was April 23, 1997 and I had just returned from a reception at the Governor General's Residence honouring the 10th anniversary Man In Motion ride of Rick Hanson. I had the opportunity to shake his hand and hear him speak hope and strength into the lives of those there, many of whom had battled both the physical and psychological effects of severe injury, Little did I know that my own family stood at the threshold of a similar experience.
The call came about 2:00 pm that afternoon. It was my daughter Kathy and I still remember each word she said. “Mom, come home. Dad has had a heart attack”. When I arrived at the hospital on the far side of the country it was not just a heart attack, but a massive brain hemorrhage - the side effect of the experimental medication he had been given – that threatened to take his life. He was in a coma. I signed for immediate emergency brain surgery. That was a Wednesday – and on the Sunday, while Doug hung between life and death, the 1997 Federal election was called.
On the request of my election team, I let my name stand in that election but they knew I could not campaign. Much to the surprise of my opponents, I won decisively, . But then, 4 months later, the limits of Doug's recuperation became apparent and the reality of permanent cognitive and visual impairment compounded into massive depression and loss of hope.
I stepped down Oct 1, 1997. I still remember the conversation the day before with the Speaker in his chambers . Both he and my Reform colleagues assured me I could take time off if needed and it would be OK. But I knew this was more than temporary. I took my “walk in the snow” around the back of the Parliament buildings with tears pouring down my face. I knew I would have to make a choice and that Doug's life literally depended on that choice. The decision was made but I was warned that it must not be known before the Speaker's official announcement – or it would be fodder for the ubiquitous Ottawa political spin. I arranged to fly home to watch the next day's Question Period proceedings on TV with Doug by my side.
That session was pretty amazing. I could hear the surprise from all sides as the announcement was made. Preston of course had been advised and he rose to explain and thank me for my stand for families in Ottawa. Than each party in turn – every party was represented, even the Prime Minister - gave an impromptu word of appreciation and hope to us, followed by a standing ovation of the whole House.
Politics can be exhausting. It can be cruel. But I was reminded that day, that if you strip away the political messaging and mandarins, the people there care as deeply, and understand as profoundly as any of us. That was a moment in time I will always treasure.
And so my staff had to close up and clean up the 2 offices. My political life was loaded, sealed and sent across the country in about 20 boxes. The change was so sudden and complete that, in a way, it's hard to believe those years really happened but for the files that I now review.