Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sherri Sunshine

For a few short, wonderful years, Sherri Wood sat directly in front of me at the Toronto Sun. Between us were two computer monitors and about 20 years. Both occasionally got in the way, but neither was really much of an obstacle. I was always more interested in reading her face than anything on my screen. Her vibrancy carried me through a trying time. It was the best seat in the house, and I always knew it.
After a courageous fight against a relentless disease, Sherri's life was cut short yesterday. She was 28.
For those of us who were lucky enough to work beside her, her death is almost unimaginable. Sherri was a life force, a girl to watch.
Most days, she showed up wearing some crazy cap, usually something that looked like a freshly-popped Jiffy Pop bag. It hid tigerish, wavy hair that clashed blonde and brunette like two kittens fighting.
The girl had her own style and shook up our newsroom with her striped hose, kooky Keds, plaid kilts over jeans and cereal slogan T-shirts. She was the bratty kid in school, the one who knew who had smokes and could charm a light from the principal.
She embedded herself at The Sun, breaking into the entertainment department despite a strict hiring freeze. Wood took the floor as an intern and never left; she simply kept showing up for work and filing club columns, concert reviews and basically any cool event too noisy and rambunctious for the rest of us coots.
We all fell in love with her. We’d laugh when she’d ask who Three Dog Night was, even though it meant we were Rama and she was Mod Club. She’s shoot me that look whenever film kids Slo and Liz and Bruce Kirkland would spat or Coulbourn would eviscerate some poor sap on the phone. She’d mock me for using words like “kerfuffle” or “rigmarole.” She’d bug Tilly to fetch her a latte and sass back at Mel. She lived to please "mom and dad," entertainment department bosses Kathy Brooks and John Kryk.
We envied all her firsts, even the bad ones, like the time some schmuck left her a nasty voice message for daring to gush about a band. It tore her up and we were amazed. Here was someone in front of us who still dared to feel. We prayed she’d never lose that.
When the editors realized she’d simply squatted her way into the Sun, she was rewarded with a part-time job. Soon she had two. She even scored a parking spot—a thousand tickets too late.
She could have been the next Maureen O’Dowd, or, heaven help her, Barbara Amiel. She had that work hard, party hard newspaper gene. Nobody knew there was also a time bomb ticking inside her head.
Almost exactly a year ago, after I had been whacked at The Sun, she sent me an e-mail. “Miss you. Love you,” it began. That was Sherri, disarming and direct, getting right to it in her lead.
Things were not good, she went on. A careless friend had banged up her car. She was under tons of pressure at a workplace gone relentlessly sour and her head felt like it might explode.
Days later it did. Wood hoped an afternoon nap might put out the fire in her head. The searing pain got worse. Her mother Debbie called an ambulance and she was rushed to St. Michaels. Alert paramedics prepped her for the emergency brain surgery that was certain to follow. A leading surgeon who happened to be in town that weekend cracked open her skull and was astounded by what he found inside. Three tumors in three different places had seized and strangled her brain. For five hours he chipped away as artfully as only he could. Her mother and step-father were told it might have bought her two more hours with their child. Sherri was given the last rites. It was days past her 28th birthday.
What followed was truly death defying. Wood survived the night. There might be a chance she could linger, the family was told, but brain damage was certain. If she lived, she would not walk or talk.
The shocking news spread and hit hard. Nobody could believe it or accept it. After a punishing year, it was the low blow nobody saw coming.
Then, the miracle. Sherri survived an hour, a day, a week. People wanted to visit but the family, naturally, was protective. When I finally crashed the hospital 10 days into her impossible recovery I met her courageous mother, Debbie, out by the nursing station. She said Sherri was resting but making progress and to come back next week. A few days later I found my way into her room. I braced myself for a broken body attached to a machine. Instead, there sat Sherri, on the edge of the bed, wearing those crazy striped socks and a pair of Keds. Her eyes still danced. She was alive and she was Sherri. It was a gift I could not have hoped for or imagined.
Most of us fear the sudden loss of a loved one. If only I had been able to say goodbye, or tell them how much they meant to me. If only I had one more minute, 30 seconds. We all have been warned; so many times, that death comes like a thief in the night.
So to be able to hold her, look her in the eyes and tell her how much she had touched me—that was a gift I’ll never forget.
The joke was you had to be prepared to tell her again and again. Besides some slight paralysis, the tumors had robbed Sherri of her short term memory. For the next few weeks at least, she remembered nothing. She told me 15 times that day that she had finally quit smoking, not all that remarkable really considering she was confined to a hospital bed.
Still, who needs memory when you have today. We laughed like little kids as I helped her shuffle around the hospital, her taking baby steps on wobbly legs. I lied that I had bought and sent all those flowers in her hospital room. She would never remember anyway. She was the dream audience, laughing at the same old jokes like she was hearing them for the first time. Memory loss made her the perfect woman.
This gift, however, came with a high price: an expiry date. Sherri’s time had not yet come, but the clock was ticking. We clung to hope, but as news filtered back and test results were shared, we lurched from sorrow to elation to sadness to acceptance. All of us except Sherri, who played overtime like Gretzky in Edmonton, head up and fearless.
There was a fun night with her last summer, an outdoor 16mm film get together reuniting many of her Sun colleagues and friends. She showed off her new Chemo-‘Do like it was just another zany style choice.
Months later, I kidnapped her for a run downtown to see former SUN TV dude Darrin Maharaj. He had landed this crazy gig at Telus TV. Darrin had invited me on his regional entertainment show to blab about my book. Sherri rode shotgun and helped scarf the fruit and veggie vittles the crew ordered for lunch. It was a rainy day on Queen Street East but Sherri was all sunshine. After all she had been through, I never once heard her complain about her deal, her odds, her anything. This from the girl who used to whinge if Starbucks was out of lids.
Back in the old days, Darrin had put up with the two of us constantly screwing with his SUN TV “Inside Jam” show. (Sherri's club report had the best title ever: "Wood On The Weekend.") It got so silly I once talked equally smitten Bill Harris into helping me dump plants and stuff into Sherri’s lap while she was doing a live hit in the newsroom. The girl stuck to her script like it was a real TV station. (Check out the tribute clip, below, from torontosun.com.)

The last time I saw Sherri was another blast of pure joy. I knocked on her door and presented her with a copy of my book. We sat in her kitchen and, as she would say, “shot the shit.” She introduced me to her new distraction, a budgie. She insisted I stick my finger inside the cage and move him to the top. Naturally, the pidgeon took off a piece of my finger. This made Sherri laugh her ass off. Later, I stood on a chair and stripped off a piece of border tape behind her fridge that had been bugging her for a year. This made her laugh her ass off again.
I wish there had been 350 more days like that. I signed her book, left that house, made a note to do that more often. Not for her, for me. She never lost an ounce of that vibrancy, and it was such an incredible high.
Sadly, there would be no next time. Sherri's condition rapidly deteriorated over the last month. Debbie called last night on the way home from the hospital to confirm what quick messenger Kryk had already conveyed, that Sherri had run out of miracles. Her family has lost a daughter, a sister, a brave and heroic life force who battled right down to a heartbreaking end.
What do you say? I said something about Sherri hanging on through Easter, giving all of us one more grand opportunity to pray for her.
“Isn’t it funny,” said Debbie. “She was born on an Easter Monday, and she died on an Easter Monday.”
I don’t know if it is funny, or profound, or just way too tidy to be Sherri. I’m sorry I won’t hear her laugh her ass off about that one last perfect joke. But I feel blessed to have known her and I’m forever humbled by her courage. I’ll miss her sweet, symmetrical face, so open and so bright. I’ll always look for her, just beyond my monitor, just behind my words.
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