Mom often told me the story of how she met Dad.
“I met your father in the men’s washroom at Hillingdon,” Mom smiled and laughed as she relived the moment.
In the summer of 1953, Mom was assisting a male patient to the washroom one afternoon. She met a handsome young man, Peter Spare, the Assistant Clinical Chemist. As a nurse she was one of the few women permitted into the men’s washroom.
“He was surprised to see me,” Mom said.
A few days later when they crossed paths they smiled as they talked about their bathroom encounter. That started a two year courtship.
Once Mom and Dad got to know each other they found, despite their very different upbringings, they had many things in common. Both had grown up on a farm and hated the farming life. Each had chosen a profession in health care and had achieved their education through their own means, hard work and determination – and they both desired to leave the UK. When it came to getting an education and forging ahead in life Mom like Dad found her helping hand at the end of her own arm.
Dad owned a three-wheeled, two-seater, Bond Minicar convertible powered by a motorcycle engine. It was constantly breaking down so he kept a tool box in the back to change a spark plug or whatever needed fixing. Often it needed a push to start it. But Mom didn’t know how to drive. Dad would have to steer while Mom pushed. When the car started Mom jumped in and off they went. They made a good team.
“I swear I pushed that car everywhere we went,” Mom said.
September 3, 1955, Mom and Dad were married at St. Patrick‘s church in Northampton, England, and they spent their honeymoon at Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford on Avon. When they returned from their honeymoon Mom and Dad made their final preparations to set sail for their new life together in a new land. In early October they sailed to Canada. They docked in Montreal and rode the train to Sudbury, Ontario, with just $18.00 cash between them.
Soon after they arrived in Canada Mom and Dad tried to start a family. I was born four years later and they adopted Catharine three years after that. Mom and Dad were dedicated parents who raised Catharine and me in a loving and stable environment. They were always supportive to each other and were unwavering in their parental duties.
All through my grade school years we had family, neighbours and friends in and out of our home and guests over for dinner. For every occasion throughout the year we had people and parties at our home. My illness changed all that. From my neurosurgery at Sick Kids in Toronto until my recovery the house parties stopped. During those two years only a few friends came by. An elephant lived in our house and many people didn’t know what to say or do. Adults with healthy children were silently thankful they weren’t in Mom and Dad’s shoes.
The traumatic experience of my brain tumour had affected all of us. I was left with disabilities and the plight of adjusting to them. Mom and Dad had to recover from coping with the distress of watching me get sicker during 1973. They seriously wondered if I would live though it. Catharine quietly watched as the world focused on me. Being younger she weathered the storm better than any of us. When the two years of my recovery had passed, and I was getting out again, the house parties gradually started. Once more other people’s voices enriched our lives.
Mom and Dad continuously applauded my efforts to overcome my disabilities. They did anything and everything to forge a successful path in life for me. Mom never accepted what had happened to me. She had a mother’s guilt of thinking she could have done more for me. She saw the perfect little healthy boy that she had prayed so hard for become sick. Mom was thankful for me but felt cheated that she couldn’t bear more children. Also Mom didn’t become the woman of wealth and prominence she had dreamt about. Mom lived her days looking back to her troubled childhood and it influenced every decision she made. She worked hard to get out of her impoverished life and she sensed she was succeeding in her aims only to be thwarted by circumstances. She wondered when the cruelties of this world would let up on her. Mom felt as if life had been very unfair to her.
“Why do some people go through life with hardly any problems,” Mom said to me, “and others get so many?”
The culmination of all her worries sowed the seed of her depression that didn’t surface until the 1980s. The love that brought Mom and Dad together and bonded them through their life’s journey was always there. As Mom’s depression took root a wedge was driven between them.
Part of Mom’s depression stemmed from the fact that she had no siblings in Canada to support her. “If only Rita had lived she would have come with me,” Mom said to me with a mournful sigh. I recall how her spirits were lifted when she received a letter from one of her sisters. Mom yearned to return to Ireland but Dad had no desire to do so. Although she dearly loved her husband Mom very much resented his choice to stay in Canada. Mom and Dad remained together out of their commitment to each other and to Catharine and me.
Even after Mom’s depression started to take hold of her the get-togethers with friends continued. Not until 1985 did the house parities start to taper off. During the three years I was in London, Ontario, things really diminished. When I came back to Thunder Bay the house was much quieter and even general house maintenance had been left. It demonstrated to me how central I was to Mom and Dad’s lives. Without my presence they lost the focus of what had driven them forward together for many years. Mom and Dad lost each other in their efforts to build a life for me.
When we started Tara Scientific Laboratories my parents found a renewed energy in helping me build a future. Running Tara demanded a lot of our time and by and large took the place of our social lives. Not until the final three months when Mom and I were shutting Tara down did I truly notice just how quiet the house had become. Many of the family friends who were in and out of the house over the years had moved out of town, passed away, or just stopped coming – friends who were never replaced. Our home had become a lonely place.
Once Tara was finished and Dad’s affairs had been put in order, Mom began to lose her positive outlook. She sensed the emptiness of our house too and didn’t see how or have the energy to liven it up once again. Mom lost her focus of helping me build a life now that Tara was gone. She had seen me to my 40th year but she could find no more of herself to give. Mom died of a heart attack in her sleep June 10, 1999. I think her spirit drained away over the last three months of her life.
I laid Dad to rest and then Mom. On June 15, 1999, the day after I buried Mom, I filed Tara’s final taxes. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Mom and Dad steered the course of my life for its first 40 years. Tara Scientific Laboratories was the last part of it on which my parents had influence. When I laid Tara to rest I put aside my parents’ capacity to shape my life. Now navigating my way was solely up to me.
The Sunday after we buried Dad only Mom and I attended church just as we had done for the last two months. But this time was different. For a month before Dad went to St. Joe’s and while he was in the hospice unit he was unable come to mass but his presence was always with us. Only after Dad had been laid to rest did the fact that he would never be with us again become real in our minds.
As I sat beside Mom in church I thought of how our life roles change as the years go by. Mom and Dad had raised me from childhood, nursed me through the trials of my brain tumour and did all they could to get me established. Over the last few years I had assumed more of the responsibilities of running the house. I did more for my parents’ care such as cleaning, laundry, shopping and yard work. Now I drove Mom to appointments and ran errands just as Dad had done. Given the longevity of the women in Mom’s family I decided that taking care of Mom would be part of my life for some years to come.
On the radio that afternoon I heard a doctor speak about cancer patients nearing the end of life. He compared what he was talking about as like the tears of a dying man. This moved me deeply because in all my 39 years I had never once seen Dad openly cry until he knew he was on his death bed.
By 9:00 AM Monday I was back at work. Tara like an old friend was waiting for me. She had become my second home and the dream for my future. I was comforted to be surrounded by the lab I built and spent so much of my time and energy on. As I looked around I couldn’t help but notice how every part of Tara had been touched by Dad’s hand. I missed him. When the phone rang and a customer came through the door my thoughts turned to work.
Tara would continue much as she had started. I worked in the morning by myself. Mom came back with me after lunch to take care of the office while I did whatever needed doing. I also had the melancholy task of finishing off what Dad had been working on, collect his notes and clear his desk.
Two weeks after Dad’s funeral Mom listened to me apologize on the phone to a long time customer for an erroneous result. It was a mistake. My mind had not been fully on my work. When I put the phone down Mom looked up at me from her desk and said, “Brian, it’s time to close Tara.” I knew she was right. But Tara was my baby. I gave birth to her, nurtured her, worked hard to see her through thick and thin, and until then, I couldn’t bring myself to give up on her. I agreed with Mom. We were both drained. The lease was up at the end of December which gave us the three months we needed to cease operations. The timing seemed right. Once we decided to close Tara shutting her down became our goal albeit with regret.
Tara had an overhead for those last months. We needed to have as much work coming in as possible. For that reason I wasn’t advertising that we were shutting down until two weeks before our closing date of November 27th. Just as I anticipated, after I called and sent out letters to all our regular customers to say we were closing, the work coming into the lab dropped off sharply. Some of our long term customers stayed with us right until the end. A company sent us work once a week by courier, Freddy, who brought boxes of samples to test. On the morning of November 27th Freddy showed up. After I signed for the package I said, “Last one Freddy.”
He looked at me. “No,” he said in dismay. Freddy knew about our situation but he was genuinely disheartened when the final day arrived. It turned out to be the last work we received.
The work that came in the door took care of the lease. Once the testing was finished in early December I started to dismantle the lab. Tara’s debt, a bank loan, I paid off by selling the assets. I became the salesman I didn’t know was in me. What I couldn’t sell I gave away to get it off my hands.
Just as Catharine had helped Dad and I put Tara together she came to help me take Tara apart. We cleared the shelves and took them down. As the equipment was sold, we dismantled the benches.
By December 31, 1998, the last day of Tara Scientific Laboratories, all that was left of Tara were the walls, a desk with the phone sitting on it and the overturned cardboard box we used for a chair.
Mom came back with me after lunch for one final look around. I gave the desk to the business down the hall. We stood in the lab area where we thought of all the things that had taken place in it. We walked into the empty office, looked at the walls and then at each other. There was nothing left to do. I unplugged the phone, tucked it under my arm and followed Mom out the door. I turned and looked in at the office for a few seconds before reaching around the jamb to turn the lights off. I closed the door and we walked away. There was sadness in both of us but more a sense of relief. I could finally do what I had worked so hard for when Tara was operating which was to gear down.
Tara Scientific Laboratories was an experience I will never forget. I built my lab as Tara shaped me. I charted Tara’s course as she led me along a path of personal enrichment through my interactions with all the people I met and worked with. Tara challenged me to grow professionally to become a successful businessman, entrepreneur, manager and employer. Tara was my life.
Tara’s most successful year was 1996. In June I hired a knowledgeable and responsible self-starter, Jeanne, to help with the workload. That October, just when Tara was doing so well, Dad developed a persistent dry cough. He saw a doctor who quickly referred Dad to a thoracic surgeon to perform a bronchoscopy. Dad was admitted to McKellar General Hospital the night before his bronchoscopy.
Bronchoscopy: A surgical technique where a bronchoscope is inserted through an incision in the trachea (tracheotomy) to visualize the trachea and lungs to examine them for tumours, bleeding and inflammation.
Mom, Catharine and I went to see him that evening. It struck me as soon as I saw Dad sitting in bed that he had always been the one who watched me in bed. We stood around his bed trying not to say what was on all our minds – what would the surgeon find?
Dad asked me, “What does a general anesthetic feel like?” It hadn’t occurred to me that Dad had never had an anesthetic. I’d had more than I cared to count.
“You go to sleep and when it’s over you wake up,” I replied. I couldn’t think of how else to describe it.
The next day Mom and Catharine stayed at the hospital while Dad had his bronchoscopy. Jeanne and I ran the lab. At 4:00 that afternoon Catharine showed up at Tara.
“Has Dad had his bronchoscopy?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she replied.
“What did the surgeon say?”
“Go home and see Mom,” Catharine said, “Jeanne and I will lock up.”
When I got home Mom rose from the kitchen table. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she threw her arms around me.
“Dad has cancer,” Mom said as her voice cracked, “What will we do without Dad?”
Mom, Catharine and I saw Dad in the hospital that evening. All of us knew the gravity of this diagnosis. It was the beginning of good-bye. We looked at each other as we searched for the right words to say.
Dad spoke, “They want me to start chemotherapy within the week. I’m seeing an oncologist tomorrow morning.”
I asked Dad what the surgeon told him.
“The cancer started in my trachea and spread into my upper right lung. He felt chemotherapy would be effective.”
That night I lay in bed wide awake with my hands behind my head as I stared into the dark. The only thought that echoed through my head was, “Dad has cancer.” If ever in my life I had prayed fervently it was then.
“Please God, I need my Dad.”
Not until I heard those three words – Dad has cancer – had I seriously considered what my life would be like without Dad. I couldn’t even begin to contemplate living without him.
The dawn came up but I hadn’t slept.
Dad was discharged after the oncologist saw him. At 10:00 AM when I arrived at McKellar Dad was dressed and sitting in a wheelchair beside his bed.
“Hi Dad,” I said trying to sound as upbeat as I could, “Ready to go?”
I wheeled Dad past the nurse’s station to the elevator and out to the patient pick-up area. Arm-in-arm I helped Dad into my car. As I did I couldn’t help but think of how Dad had done the same for me in December, 1973, in this very spot. I wrestled to quell the lump in my throat as I fought back tears. It was my turn to be strong. We drove home in an awkward silence. What did the future hold for us? When we got home I helped Dad into the house and to the kitchen table where Mom was waiting. I saw by the way Mom and Dad looked at each other they wanted to talk so I said, “See you later Dad,” as cheerfully as I could and left.
The tables were turned. I went to work and worried about Dad just as he must have been distracted in his work as he worried about me. When I arrived at Tara Jeanne asked how Dad was.
“Fairly good,” I said.
Then she asked how I was. I looked at her and sighed as I said, “Okay.”
Tara soon had me busy with the day’s work.
Six days after Dad had his bronchoscopy he started chemotherapy treatments. Dad’s chemotherapy made him so sick that he hardly ate for a month. He spent most of the time lying in bed. About the only time he got up was to go for his treatments. In all my years I never saw Dad throw up until then. Dad and I never discussed his cancer. Although he confided in me once that in all the years he taught his students about cancer he never thought he would get it. The chemotherapy worked well on his lung cancer.
Dad didn’t return to Tara until his chemotherapy finished three months later. During Dad’s absence Jeanne and I ran the lab. We developed a good working rapport. She kept a level head for me. I wasn’t thinking clearly during those stressful months. When Dad returned to Tara in January of 1997 I looked to the future again.
Tara Scientific Laboratories was formed as a registered partnership on August 1, 1990. I owned 60% and Mom and Dad each had 20%. The main focus of Tara was to provide analytical services to business, government and the public. Our project began in July, 1990 when we looked for the best location to run the lab. We chose a suite in the old Medical Arts Building on North Cumberland Street in the Port Arthur side of Thunder Bay. It was a good location for us in that it once had a medical lab in it. The building wasn’t designed to accommodate a lab like ours, but we adapted it to our needs. We made renovations to the suite, built benches and set up the equipment. A bank loan for $50,000 covered our start up costs such as two analytical instruments and supplies. To be honest we could have used twice the money. We also had to decide on a name for our business. One evening as we sat in the living room Mom suggested, “What about Tara?” Tara was the ancient capital of Ireland. Dad and I liked it. Then Dad added Scientific Laboratories. I drew the logo by stylizing a Celtic “T” from the ancient Irish text the Book of Kells.
Just after returning to Thunder Bay from London, and while I was starting Tara, I also began studying for a PhD in Health and Human Services with a professor at Columbia Pacific University, CPU, in California. I followed the curriculum set by CPU, conducted the research in my lab, corresponded with a mentor in Minneapolis that CPU appointed to me and the professor at CPU monitored my progress. My days were spent working in my lab and many evenings and weekends studying for my doctorate during the first five years of running Tara.
Soon after starting Tara I realized that my chemistry skills were only half the job. The other half was the administration of the business. Sometimes it seemed the paper work was more important than the analysis. I should have taken a secretarial course. Like Dad I didn’t have the mindset for the intricacies of accounting, paper shuffling and the like. But Mom loved it. She took care of the office and worked with Sherry, our bookkeeper, who tracked payroll and taxes. I kept abreast of the daily ins and outs of the accounts.
Tara was demanding and never a 9 to 5 job. I got to know what 18 hour work days were like. Weekdays, after putting in a full day, I came home, ate dinner, watch an hour of TV and then Tara called me back until eleven o’clock often with Dad coming with me. I returned home, hit the sack and did it again the next day. If I didn’t have to go back to Tara I worked on my PhD.
Tara was like a temperamental love. I never knew what she was going to throw at me from one day to the next. Some days went smoothly and others did not. I went from being swamped with work to having little to do.
Catharine had a steady full time job and she was able to send a fair bit of business my way from her workplace. Dad was still working at McKellar Hospital for the first two years of Tara. I worked the mornings and went home for lunch. Mom came back with me in the afternoons to take care of the office while I ran errands, carried on with lab work or whatever else needed my attention.
Saturday mornings I spent catching up on things such as invoicing and finishing off a letter or report. For the most part I stayed away from Tara on Sundays. One night a week I tried to get out and see a friend. It was long and hard work but I didn’t mind because Tara was mine. I was building my future with the goal of becoming established enough to employ a staff so I could gear down.
I was my own boss and Tara never told me I wasn’t able do something. Once I became the owner of a business I gained instant credibility. I took part in trade shows, manned display booths, gave talks, offered demonstrations and presented workshops as required to operate my business. When I started in the back of my mind were the voices of the people who told me I wouldn’t be able to teach or speak to groups. The words of a self-assured University Professor echoed in my head. “You won’t ever be able to teach.” Despite my challenges I was successful in business.
Tara Scientific Laboratories became known for doing unique, out-of-the-way analyses for entrepreneurs, government ministries and university researchers. These projects were anything but routine. They tended to be one-time, occasional or as-needed tests that paid for themselves but didn’t generate much income. Therefore many labs weren’t interested in them.
These were the projects that were really interesting and often fun. We had to scratch our heads a bit, use our imagination, research the methodology and think about how to tackle the problem. Dad was in his element. I liked them too but I mainly took care of the routine testing.
We advertised that we analyzed garden soil nutrients. The next day an interesting project came through the door. A man walked up to our front desk carrying a large bucket of soil. We had advertised that we only needed a small jar of soil. However he didn’t want the soil tested but the earthworms in it.
We accepted the challenge. There was no method for analyzing earthworms for nutrient content that we knew of. This required some thought. First off if he wanted his worms back after we were finished he was out of luck. They would meet their demise in a blender. Next we had to decide on the ratio of how many worms to how much water. This took some experimenting. If the worm to water ratio was too small the nutrient concentration would be too weak to measure. We went by weight of worms rather than number. Since the worms were in the soil we had to wash them off in a strainer before we could weigh them. Worms don’t stop wiggling for even a second. They kept crawling up the sides of the strainer. A few managed to avoid their fate by escaping down the sink drain before we could catch them.
With the worms cleaned we proceeded to weigh them. Weighing wiggly worms is an art more than a science. We had to be quick weighing them before they squirmed up the sides of the tall glass beakers. When we had a predetermined weight of worms we added a measured amount of water to the blender, dropped the worms in, put the lid on tight, pressed the button and zzzzzzzzzzzz worm puree. We were fast. It was all over for the worms before they knew what was happening. We filtered the puree and tested for the various nutrients. Once our customer had his results he left and we never saw him again. I don’t know what he did with the information. What I can tell you is that earthworms are high in dietary protein and have virtually no fat.
Another time we were involved in a government research project to analyze the nutrients in moose hair to see what nutrients the moose got in their diet. Hair must first be burned to ash before it can be tested. Burning hair produces a lot of smoke and burning moose hair smells a lot like marijuana. A fume hood vented the smoke outside. During the burning process we stood by the window and watched people’s heads turn toward the cloud of marijuana-smelling smoke as they walked by. All the time we were ashing the moose hair samples we cringed as we looked out the window and kept an eye on the door. “The cops are going to show up any minute.”
Tara and study consumed my life for five years. In April, 1995, I graduated with my PhD in Health and Human Services. I’d had more than enough with schooling by then and I swore that, apart from taking an evening course for interest’s sake, it was no more classes for me. But as they say, famous last words.
Two months after I graduated I hired a woman named Judy for the summer. In July I took my first vacation since I started Tara. Mom and I spent the month visiting as many relatives as we could in England, Ireland and France while Dad and Judy ran the lab. The time away recharged my batteries and I was ready to tackle Tara with renewed vigour when I got back.