Cathie Borrie (BSN ’78)

Cathie completed her RN at St. Paul’s Hospital School of Nursing in what turned out to be the last nursing class offered there. She was attracted, at an unconscious level, to the regimental lifestyle of an in-hospital training program – to uniforms, schedules, curfews. But more importantly, to an occupation that insisted upon team work and that celebrated and sanctioned compassion. After graduation she applied to UBC’s BSN program for returning RN’s. Cathie wanted to learn – more. Her two years at UBC provided both a solid beginning to her academic studies and the impetus for the pursuit of further scholarly learning.

Cathie had always wanted to be a writer, and even as a young girl loved to play with words. It was not, however, until her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that she finally put pen to paper. Her mother’s illness and the years spent caring for her stopped her in her “career tracks” and she found herself jotting images and vignettes down. Once she began, Cathie became relentlessly addicted to the deep and therapeutic pleasure in finding just the right words to tell their story. “I had begun to tape our conversations; startled by my mother’s astonishingly beautiful, brilliant and insightful language, I felt a pressing need to see her experience on the page and had a deep feeling that so many other people could benefit from a cultural shift in how we currently think of Alzheimer’s” says Cathie. “My mother’s words allowed a kind of magical realism, a fantastical and reflective reality, turning common, stereotypic medical assumptions on their head.

Her training and education as a nurse gave Cathie a foundation in compassionate listening, helping her to see the way through her own limited expectations of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and “moving me past the many moments of confusion, anxiety and despair (hers, mine) into the miraculous, eccentric and poetic realities of my mother’s experience” she says.

My deep desire to care for my mother, as nurse or caregiver and daughter, awakened the writer in me. It became a necessity for me to open a whole new room for her language, her experience, but not without considerable adjustment. Nurses are trained to lead. How was I to reconcile the legitimate leadership-take-charge requirements of many nursing situations with the reality of the needs of someone with dementia? I found an analogy in the art of dance, which I began to learn during my mother’s illness. I learned to stop. Listen. Wait. Follow.

Cathie’s writing has now been chosen, for the third time, to be shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards. When asked why she thinks this is, Cathie exclaims, “Oh my, you might have to ask them! Perhaps they are attracted to the lyrical form. Maybe they liked the feeling of astonishment when they read the things my mother said. I am hoping it’s because the judges were attracted to the honesty, and struck by the emotionality and intellectual shifting of how we commonly and in so limited a manner, consider the changing mind of dementia.

What’s next for Cathie? Well, she’s publishing two books in August, a lyrical memoir and a book of fifty of her mother’s quotations, the latter of which will be developed into an art book – the first of its kind regarding Alzheimer’s. She is thrilled to be in conversation with nursing and aging programs in Canada and the U.S. regarding their interest in course adoption of these works. Her plans also include an audio book, and a stage production based on the memoir. “I will continue to present this story at conferences and programs around the world, honoured to be contributing to the re-culturization of how we reconsider the world of Alzheimer’s” she says.

In March, 2010, Cathie attended a conference in Greece to present on her writing. When asked what else she might add before she prepares for the flight, she responds, “I think my mother said it best“:

Cathie: Are you feeling better today, Mum?
Mother: Yes.
Cathie: Because?
Mother: Because it’s all coming in and none going out. I think I’m more concentrated and, sort of. I sort of—am. Yes, love, it’s become part of me. Something has gone, something bad has gone. I think we reached the limit of our soul of misery and we’re now poof, and we’re just doing the best we can. We just do, we just are.