In November 2012, my friend Peggy Su celebrated her long-awaited status as a new Canadian citizen. Two months later, her whole world fell apart. On the morning of her 33rd birthday, she was diagnosed with an advanced glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer.
Peggy had no family in Canada. She had very little money. And when she was at her sickest during chemotherapy, her slum landlord evicted her so he could renovate and jack up the rent. Worst of all, Peggy’s illness prevented her from doing her job--as an esthetician in a Toronto salon. Like all of Peggy's loyal clients, I was shocked that someone so young and so dedicated to lighting up the lives of others could suddenly be facing such darkness in her own life.
It’s hard to imagine a more desperate situation. But soon after Peggy's diagnosis it started to become clear that this young immigrant who appeared to have so little, had, in fact, built a community and support system, simply by being who she is. After her diagnosis, a number of her clients rallied together, to accompany her to doctor's appointments, MRI's and chemo treatments. Another client offered to teach Peggy to swim-- something she'd wanted to learn for years. I joined a couple of others to help move Peggy's belongings to a new apartment. In the months that followed, Peggy and I would meet for lunch and go for walks. We'd talk about life in Canada and back in Guangdong Province in southern China. I've spent time in that region as a journalist, which gave me a reference point for our conversations about the village where she grew up, and how much she wanted to help her aging parents and her older brother who also had been diagnosed with cancer. Every time we got together, I was struck by Peggy's rock-solid determination and courage.
Her Chinese name is Juan Su. When she arrived in Canada in 2005 she immediately gave herself a name that she felt was better suited to her new home: Peggy Su. That choice perfectly reflects her sense of humour and whimsy, and her innate ability to cross cultural barriers. “I called myself after a famous song! she declares gleefully. “So people have to smile when they think of me. And they also never forget my name!”
Many things about Peggy Su are unforgettable. Her pedicure treatments have a cult following. She's deeply curious. She wants to learn about my life and the lives of her other clients, and Canada. Her questions are probing and often amusing. If a man tells a woman she is short, is it an insult? Why do some girls spend all of their money on designer purses?
She’s bossy too! She dispenses a stream of advice while my feet soak in suds: Don’t work so hard! Take time for yourself! Life is short! It’s hard not to listen up. Especially for those who know Peggy’s story.
Peggy's tumour has not disappeared, but it has receded. She's back to working part-time as an esthetician, continuing to make meaningful connections and linking communities by simply being herself. The result is remarkable, and so much more than most people believed possible at the time of her diagnosis.
On one level, Peggy’s story is deeply individual and deeply personal. On another level, it is a Canadian story. A story about finding home.