Happy Birthday Marling
ALTHOUGH SHE grew up in Ontario, and camped as a teenager in Algonquin Park, Marling came to love the Canadian west. Her favourite spot was the beach, dykes and mud flats ringing Tsawwassen, B.C., her home for the last two decades of her life. Even in her 70s, she led family crabbing expeditions across the mud flats. She followed the ebb tide on foot, hoping to grab a straggler or two with her barbecue tongs as they scuttled for deeper water. The outdoors put her in touch with her family heritage and her faith. Although she loved music, theatre and visual art, she found the most solace in nature.
Born last in a family of four children, she grew up as Muriel, a name she never liked. Her father was Ernest Finlayson, an engineer and Director of Forestry in the federal government. But when Muriel was 12, her father abruptly disappeared; his body was never found. The memory of their father’s mysterious disappearance (overwork? amnesia? suicide?) haunted the family for decades.
After graduating from U. of T. in 1945, Muriel began an 11-year career in physical education (at the YWCA in Montreal) and chemistry (at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa). She also travelled, skied in the winters, and played tennis in the summers.
In 1956 she married Govan Kilgour and moved to small-town Alberta to start a new life as a United Church minister’s wife. Despite birthing four children in five years (including a set of twins), she also led youth and women’s groups at their churches in Alberta and then B.C.
Muriel and Govan planned retirement at the home they built on Tsawwassen Beach, but his stroke at the age of 64 changed things abruptly. Suffering from post-stroke depression, Govan confessed his gay sexuality to Muriel. Their marriage sheltered this secret for several years, but eventually broke down. And in the meantime Muriel was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent her own transformation.
She decided to discard the given name she detested, taking her middle name instead. (It didn’t even bother her that most people had trouble pronouncing the Scottish surname; she’d just say, “It’s Marling, like darling.”) She deepened the spiritual side of her life, joining a women’s prayer group in Vancouver and her local church choir. She also left her beloved beach home and moved to a more practical condominium.
Seven years after surgery, the cancer spread to her bones. However, she lived a vibrant ten more years before her doctors ran out of medication to thwart its slow advance. Strongly independent, she lived on her own, cooking and cleaning for herself, right through its final spread to her liver. Only when a street fall put her in hospital with a concussion did she accept hospital palliative care.
Her last seven weeks were a gift. Her humorous, optimistic side returned, even as her body failed. She greeted all hospital visitors with a smile, telling her doctor one morning, “I feel great! I could move a mountain!” She raised her fists as if in triumph – but the contrast between her sunny attitude and her thin, needle-bruised arms couldn’t have been starker.
On her last day, Marling was nearly unconscious, but still not on painkillers, and slightly responsive to touch and voice. A nurse washed her in the morning, calling her “darling Marling” in a soft voice. Family and friends spent a peaceful day with her. She died that night, in the quiet evening. On her bedside table was a small index card with a passage from Isaiah, in her writing, her meditation: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I have called your name, you are mine.”