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Sunday, March 07, 2021


Fifteen years

Yesterday marked fifteen years since Mary Lee's passing. I am still grieving.

Mary Lee would sometimes exclaim "WHY MUST I BE SURROUNDED BY IDIOTS?". I don't remember how far back this went, but she did say it often during her time working as a project manager, and likely when she was the president of the condominium corporation of the building she lived in. For months now I've been mentally saying it to myself, because of frustrations in a couple of areas; I hear it in her voice.

Not only do I think of the phrase but I feel a kinship to Mary Lee's mindset when she used it. She's gone now (and those other people are not) so I can't share my frustrations with her and potentially get good advice on how to deal with them – Mary Lee had excellent self-awareness.

Although what I have to deal with is minor compared to the death sentence that she lived with after she was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, I'm now older than she was when she passed away and have some difficult things to deal with, and I find that I can now relate to the lack of things to look forward to that she experienced later in life. One of Mary Lee's characteristics was the ability to develop a lot of enthusiasm about something specific, and I have it too, though not to the same level (if Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Crowe finally gets a lot of attention once Zack Snyder's Justice League airs 11 days from now, because she sings over the closing credits, I'll be able to tell people to look at her Wikipedia entry and see who originally wrote it 16 years ago). Such enthusiasm can make up for a lot of frustration elsewhere. There was a 1924 silent movie "Happiness" whose key message was "Happiness is looking' forward", and while that's not the only source of happiness, it's a pretty good one.

Rohan Jayasekera

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Five years

It's been five years since Mary Lee's passing.  I still think of her often and miss her.  And tomorrow it will be difficult to be back at the same Hogle Funeral Home in Mimico (my wife's grandmother having just passed away at the age of 101).  If anyone out there feels like sharing any thoughts, publicly or privately, please email me at 1@sympatico.ca.

Rohan Jayasekera

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Mary Lee Coombs and me, by Larry Claypool

None of you folks will know me but I am an old boyfriend of Mary Lee's from way back in her distant past circa 1972.It is just by accident I have wound up here or perhaps it is no accident at all. To tell ya truth it's kind of strange but I think our beautiful friend Mary Lee has reached out all these years later to let me know of her passing.

I just happened to recently join a Facebook group called Rochdalians and purely by accident and a few days past happened to notice an entry by Janice Beecher and as I read through her post she just happened to mention Mary Lee's name. Reconnection!!! To a girl I have thought often of over the years-one of the "what ifs" left unresolved in my life. I will explain that in a moment but I ask you folks what are the odds of one randomly stumbling across someones name, a person you knew 40 years ago,on the Internet, with it's billions of daily posts--the odds must surely be astronomical.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear of Mary Lee and resolved to immediately try and reach out and get in contact with her through Ms Beecher. That takes me to the "what if" in my life concerning Mary Lee Coombs.

Mary Lee and I had met in Rochdale. I don't think she ever actually lived there but was a regular visitor-time has dulled my memory on that. Anyway, I don't really remember how we actually met but it was probably through my job working as a member of the Rochdale Security Force. Probably it was through one of my Ohio friends who served on the Force with me as I understand from Miss Beecher that she'd had an unhappy relationship with one of my fellow guards, so, perhaps, that is how we met. Our affair was brief-as I remember it only lasted 2-3 months-but during that time I developed some pretty serious feelings with our Mary Lee. I don't think it ever got to the point that we spoke of a serious commitment toward each other, or perhaps it did, and I just don't remember. But the feelings were there, and I think they were reciprocal, on both our parts. But- as sometimes happens in life we don't see the forest for the trees. Another girl entered the picture, and like Mary Lee, she was young and beautiful and had a nice wiggle. Being young and dumb, etc-etc., the libido outsmarted the brain. I took up with the new girl who was a jazz/R&B singer-I was juggling how to handle both relationships and all that when I sought out some advice from a old lady artist friend of mine who knew both girls pretty well.-Leastwise I thought that old lady was a friend of mine at the time. She advised me to go with the singer. So thats what I did, I went for the young beautiful singer with a great voice instead of the young beautiful girl with a good head on her shoulders. A year or so a year later-I later married that singer. As for the old lady who I had sought out for advice -well-it may have been through her that Mary Lee not long after got into the all the trouble she did. I don't know that for sure but that has always been my thought. I ended the friendship when I heard about Mary Lee's predicament and when the old lady started trying to interfere too much in my marriage. In retrospect, perhaps she was not such a nice old lady after all.

It was a so-so marriage that lasted about 9 years before we divorced. I say so-so because there was good times-I loved my wife for the 1st five or six years, but, the last few were not so good. I guess thats how it goes in a lot of marriages that just don't work out. So-so is my opinion all these years later. I have been a single guy since 1982.

I didn't see Mary Lee much after that we broke up though when I did it was always friendly and there was still always a little something that would cross over between our eyes. I don't think our parting was a big thing for her -we all made and broke relationships a lot back in our youthful days. Then sometime in I think it was 1973 or 74 I heard Mary Lee had got into some serious problems. I think I may have seen her once or twice a year or two later. Not really exactly sure on that memory either, but however it was, I definely never saw Mary Lee Coombs again after 1975.

But I have thought of her often over the last 35 years. Most it was whimsical sweet little moments that I would think back to her and the days of my youth when I lived my Toronto years. I stayed single and never married again after the one marriage.

So here I have a little confession to make-I've been a serious skirt-chaser all my life. Oh-I was faithful in the my marriage because I believe in that sorta thing if I am in a relationship,but in my unmarried years which is most of my life- I have been just plain bad when it came to women. Or, then again, maybe, like myself, one just gets philosophical about one's life, and just chalks it up to never having found what one looking for. My search took me to 75 countries and 60 years of various "flings" but I never did find what I was looking for in my life as far as a woman goes. Or, perhaps, just perhaps, maybe once I did and I just wasn't smart enough to know it. That takes me back to Mary Lee Coombs again.

That's how she became a "what if" in my life. Outside of my 9 year relationship with my wife, perhaps no other relationship(and there's been a few over the years) ever had the kind of impact that my getting to know Mary Lee did. I guess that sounds kinda funny coming from a guy who only knew her for 2-3years and only had a brief 3 month relationship with her once upon a time. But it's true. There is, always has been, and always will be, a very special place for Mary Lee Coombs in my head, and in my heart-and that will last till the end of my days here. I always wondered what happened to Mary Lee after Rochdale closed-I even made some inquiries when I moved back to Toronto for a couple years in 81-82 but nobody I knew had heard anything about her afterwards and I never found her name in the phone book so 1974-75 was last I had news of her till I came across Janice Beecher's entry of her name on Facebook earliar this week.

As I said at the beginning, I was elated to see that name and immediately sent off a message via Facebook to Ms. Beecher asking about Mary Lee and how one might contact her.

It was kinda cool because I was expecting to reach out and surprise Mary Lee after all these years, and to finding out what my old friend and ex-lover had been doing all the rest of her the years of her life. I was expecting to find out good things, happy things-that she had or was married, had kids, and grandkids and had been through a husband or two-you know the usual sort of things that you would expect to hear after 35 years had passed. I was more than a little curious too because as I said Mary Lee has been always "special" to me in my memories of her. So it was, I was expecting to hear some good news back from Ms. Beecher and was anticipating a pleasant reunion at least through a telephone conversation.

Then I heard back, and the news was terrible. Mary Lee Coombs had passed away 3 years ago in Toronto in 2006. I will never see, or meet again, that beautiful and intelligent woman that I had known back when we were both so young. It has been a bit of a shock-I guess I am still trying to digest the fact-perhaps, that is why I am sitting here writing this out to to rest of you folks who knew her so much better and for so much longer than I in all those those years of her life that I have missed. Maybe it's some kind of therapy to help me absorb the loss I truly feel. I don't know. Or, maybe, I just want to let the rest of you know, that there is at least one more of Mary Lee's friends out here who care that she is gone and feel the deep emptiness in the heart because of her passing.

And to Mary Lee Coombs, wherever your Spirit now dwells, my dear, I wish you peace and happiness. I know you will know how I feel which is why I guess you have reached out through Janice and the Internet to let me know. I do have one complaint though, girl, I just wish you had been a little more prompt than this-I would have liked to have seen you once more in this life rather than wait till the next.

If the old religous adage about you reincarnate with the same people is true I hope our paths will cross again in the Cosmic scheme of Lord Shiva's Dance. Till then you remain in my minds eye and in my heart-the beautiful young girl with the brillant warm smile, the svelte body, and the finely tuned mind, I got to know for far too short a time in my life. You will remain the "what if" in my life forever. Peace be unto you my sister, my lover, and my friend.

For the those who read this, and for those of you who cared about and for Mary Lee in her life -and in her death, I want to thank you. I read through all your comments and have looked at the photos you posted on Flikr and you have helped me see and understand a little of what Mary Lee did with her life after I knew her. I am deeply apreciative of that.

I hope most of her life was happy and well spent -she was a great girl. I see from her friends that you all thought so too-so good on ya all.

If any of you have additional photos of Mary Lee that you might want to share other the ones you have posted on Flikr I would love to see them. I am a photographer by profession so I can look at the an ordinary photograph, and perhaps, see a bit more than the average person can. And if any of you would care to contact me and tell me more the life and times of Mary Lee, you will find in me a rapt audience. She was someone "Special" for us all. Again -thank you everyone.

PS-if you do wish to contact me you can use my email or contact me through Facebook using my name or email account. Just send me a message through Facebook that you are a friend of Mary Lee's and I will authorize you.

My name is Larry Claypool and my email is Blackeagle@shaw.ca in Vancouver.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


A year

It’s been a year since Mary Lee passed away in the early morning of March 6th, 2006. And her birthday was a few days ago on Feb. 28th. So it’s been a bit rough lately for me, for her brother Doug, and I’m sure for others as well. I’d really like to hear from anyone who feels like sending off an email (I’m at 1@sympatico.ca), and I’d also be more than happy to post any thoughts you’d like to share in this blog.

Doug would like to again express his appreciation to everyone who cared for Mary Lee during her illness.


Sunday, June 04, 2006


Invitation to Mary Lee's tree dedication, June 22

From David Platt:

Friends of Mary Lee:

Mary Lee's red maple tree will be dedicated at 2:00 P.M. - Thurs 22 June near the main entrance to the E. J. Pratt Library in the quadrangle at Victoria University [at the University of Toronto]. The plan was to have a Vic chaplain perform the dedication. But owing to summer schedules they are in short supply. Rather than waiting for one and prolong this event into July I have requested to Vic that we proceed on the 22nd. Doug will therefore dedicate the tree in his sister's memory.

If the weather is fine the Victoria Alumni Office will provide a refreshment table nearby on the lawn with lemonade and cookies. If it rains we will adjourn to the Victoria College building which is about 100 ft away.

It is important that all planning to attend email me so that a headcount can be given the caterers. I would wish that food neither be wasted nor inadequate. Please let me know if you plan to attend. I see this as a courtesy to Victoria University who did not have to provide us refreshments and who must reserve an appropriate sized meeting space in case of rain.


Parking is expensive and hard to find at Vic. The subway is therefore recommended. Exit the University line MUSEUM stop on the EAST side. Its SOUTH tunnel stairwell is closed owing to renovations at time of writing. Take the NORTH tunnel stairwell exit which brings you to the SE corner of University Ave at Charles St W. The old McLauglin Planetarium will be directly across University Ave. Turn about, walk SOUTH towards Queen's Park. The large stone, ivy-covered Gothic bldg on your left is Emmanuel College, Vic's divinity school.

At the south end of Emmanuel, just before the bend of Queen's Park Crescent turn LEFT at the sidewalk bisecting a flower garden. Proceed EAST into Vic with a large polished grey stone clad bldg on your right (Northrop Frye Hall). As you proceed up the nearby stairs you will then see a buff and brownstone mini-Queen's Park bldg ahead to the left. That is Victoria College (circa 1891). Walk past its south entrance and turn RIGHT at the nearby ramp with a Bell payphone. Mary Lee's tree is straight ahead beside the park bench on the right side of the sidewalk 50 ft from the Pratt Library main entrance steps.

Directions From Charles Street If You Park:

Walk along the SOUTH side of Charles St W towards University Ave and turn LEFT at the WEST end of Burwash Hall into the lane separating it from the Isabel Bader Theatre. Proceed past a wooden fence on you left into a parking area almost up to the very large buff and brownstone Victoria College bldg. Turn LEFT and walk around the College. Just as you pass its sweeping circular main entrance steps you will see Mary Lee's tree directly in line-of-sight about 50 ft behind the payphone at the bottom the sidewalk ramp leading to the E.J. Pratt Library.

If You Arrive Early:

Just to the EAST or left side of the Pratt Library is a treed recess containing the lookout and dedication engraving to the Lester B. Pearson Garden of Peace and Understanding located on a lower grade. There are some very interesting names of friends and donors to this memorial engraved in the lookout railing. A bench is provided there. 'Mike' Pearson was on Vic's faculty after WW1.

The E.J. Pratt Library will be open and contains a collection of mostly 19th C. oils in its ground floor gallery.

All are invited to this dedication, donors and non-donors. This invitation is sent to all of the Eaddresses given me. Please pass on the invitation to those not included in the distribution list. I have guesstimated 12 people for catering purposes. Please let me know by email or telephone if you or others plan to attend so that refreshments will neither be wasted nor inadequate. Hopefully we will have good weather and can celebrate our memories of Mary Lee. If you cannot attend, the tree and plaque will always be there for you to see at another time. In closing, I would like to express to you what a very beautiful memorial the Victoria University Alumni Office has completed for our good friend Mary Lee. She could not have asked for a better site at all of Vic.

David Platt
(416) 961-3283
David's email address, slightly disguised so that spammers are unlikely to get it, is: david -dot- platt -at- utoronto -dot- ca

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Tree status, and email updates via FeedBlitz

From Rohan:

David Platt says that “the tree has been planted and we are waiting for the plaque to be cast.” More info as it becomes available.

For those of you receiving updates by email, Bloglet, the service that was doing this for us, is about to close. It was always just a hobby for its creator, and inspired similar services that do this as a business. The creator has recommended that everyone switch to FeedBlitz, which is now the leading service, so I’ve switched all your subscriptions to this blog over to FeedBlitz. You don’t need to do anything. The emails you receive that notify you of updates to this blog continue as before; they just look different now, and say that they’re from FeedBlitz instead of from Bloglet. This time FeedBlitz may tell you that there are five or so new entries when in fact there’s only one, but that’s just a one-time thing.

Friday, March 24, 2006


P.S. on tree donations, and a technical note

If you’d like to donate toward the memorial tree and haven’t yet, you still can. Just mail a cheque to:

Martha Drake
Victoria University Alumni Office
150 Charles St. W.
Toronto, ON M5S 1K9

The cheque should be payable to Victoria University. Mention somewhere that it’s for the Mary Lee Coombs memorial tree. (Sorry that no online payment mechanism is available: because you’ll receive a tax receipt, each donation has to be processed manually via the above channel.)

Technical note: those of you who are notified by email of updates to this blog weren’t notified about the previous post (“Mary Lee’s Memorial Tree (from David Platt)”), because Bloglet (the notifier) ran into some kind of technical problem and stopped sending out notifications. So please continue reading the blog below. I’ve re-enabled Bloglet so it’ll probably work again now.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Mary Lee's Memorial Tree (from David Platt)

Friends of Mary Lee:

I just had a meeting at Victoria University's Alumni Office (the lady was away on March Break last week and I allowed time for cheques to be mailed).

My thanks all of those who have donated, the generosity of some is quite outstanding. A sizeable amount has been received and we will wait until 31 March to see what the shortfall will be. A classmate and friend of Mary Lee has offered to complete the required amount to save Doug having to pay it. Tax receipts should be mailed shortly.

The tree's location near the E.J. Pratt Library entrance was shown to me. It will be a sugar (red) maple and in a perfect spot with good sunlight. As well there is a nearby lamppost which means her plaque will be lit during the night. I think Mary Lee would be pleased.

I have requested a mid-afternoon, mid-week dedication ceremony as that would be easier for people to get time off work. The tree will already have been planted, the ceremony will be to unveil and dedicate the plaque in Mary Lee's memory. I will inform all once a date, most likely in May, has been proposed by Vic.

My thanks to those who have donated for this memorial.

David Platt

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Virtual, then Real by Brian Oliver

Here and now, in 2006, most people consider Instant Messaging an appealing and relatively new concept. In fact, we used such a technique over 30 years ago at I.P.Sharp Associates. For example, I would be in some far-flung IPSA branch office, and type on my terminal:


.. moments later:


That was my VIRTUAL relationship with Mary Lee. She was in OPNS (Operations), where few other IPSA employees were allowed to tread. I knew who she was, but we never met face to face. That was in the late 1970's.

Then in the mid-1990's I was invited to do some consulting at Reuters which had acquired I.P.Sharp. I jumped at the opportunity, especially since I would finally get to meet Mary Lee Coombs in person. Thus began the REAL relationship. Mary Lee was strictly business and perhaps the most diligent person I ever worked with. The project meetings she conducted were straight to the point and never wandered off-topic. She was the most assiduous note-taker I ever saw — she went through rollerball pens like the rest of us would go through a bowl of Rice-Krispies. In the office — strictly business.

But Mary Lee enjoyed the occasional cigarette, and I experienced the occasional cigar. So twice a day, we would step outside the Exchange Tower for a smoke, and that's when the conversation turned personal, and I learned about pan, Trinidad, ballet, her irritating Thunderbird car and the condo controversy.

Of course smoking is a nasty, expensive and undesirable habit. But in this one instance, it allowed me to get to know Mary Lee Coombs as a very unique individual, and I miss her very much.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Service of Remembrance: what Bob Bernecky said

I'm Robert Bernecky. Mary Lee called me Bobbo.

The first time I visited Mary Lee in the hospital, she immediately eyed the new Irish sweater I was wearing. She then grabbed the fabric, rubbed it in her hand, and nodded approval; only then did she say hello, and forthrightly tell me she was dying.

It's always hard to lose a friend, but we can lessen the grief by looking at the legacy of joys they left for us.

Mary Lee and I worked together for at least 25 years. I'm going to mention some things that she took delight in.

We have to start with chocolate. Of course. We continue with good food, then wine. White wine. Of course.

Mary Lee enjoyed these things, but her true delights arose from what she gave to others, in the form of such diverse activities as dance, clothing design, and music. Her creativity in these endeavors graced us with a beauty that reflected that of her own radiant smile.

Mary Lee is no longer with us, but her smile remains, Cheshire cat-like, to appear whenever we delight in great chocolate, good food and wine, when we see superb dance, exquisite clothing, and when we listen to the sweet music of the pan.


Postscript by Bob:

I think I was the causative factor in getting Mary Lee involved with pan music. I had been working in Caribana and going down to Trinidad to work with Peter Minshall on Carnival for several years, and had started to play tenor pan with Afropan. Mary Lee took an interest, and came down to Trinidad with me one year, where she immediately got hooked on Phase II and Fonclaire.

When we returned, she took up tenor pan with Afropan, and rapidly left me behind in terms of her skill, artistry; she went on to play a strong organizational role in the bands she worked with.

Friday, March 10, 2006


Service of Remembrance: what Sylvia Furlong said

I first met Mary Lee on February 10, 1998 in a meeting room at the King Edward Hotel. We had both just been elected to the first Board of Directors of the condominium we lived in.

We worked closely together on many condominium projects in that first turbulent year, and in subsequent years — projects that she tackled with what became her usual energy, dedication and thoroughness.

As might be expected, it was not roses all of that time. Two strong and opinionated women are bound to have their “moments” and Mary Lee and I were no exception. We had our share of “differences of opinion” over the years before we finally settled down and learned to “not sweat the small stuff”.

Mary Lee lived her life flat out, without guile or pretence. She always spoke her mind and left little doubt as to what her feelings on the subject were. Anyone meeting Mary Lee for the first time soon learned that “What you see is what you get”. She was always straight up, never played mind games nor got bogged down by “political correctness”.

She was kind, passionate and caring. She was generous to a flaw and supported every charity that came her way. She especially cared about animals, particularly the four-legged kind. As for the two-legged kind (unless they were birds), she was more selective and had no time or patience for those who felt society owed them a living. She never failed to stand up for her beliefs. Whether you agreed with her or not, you could not help but admire and respect her honesty.

Her love of animals was sincere and reciprocated. She never met a dog that she didn’t like or that didn’t like her. She could instantly befriend any dog she met on the street. The dog would wag his tail and lick her hand and then he would growl at me.

The number of lives Mary Lee touched is truly extraordinary. It was truly humbling to witness the number of people that surrounded her bedside day after day, morning, noon and night, for weeks. She was greatly loved and cared about by many. There’s a saying that it is easy to have a lot of friends when times are good, but only real friends are there when times are bad. Mary Lee had many, many real friends.

She finally realized this with great and genuine surprise. A few short weeks ago, while she was still able to speak, and in a rare moment when there was just the two of us, she said, with real wonder in her voice, that she couldn’t believe how many people came to see her and really cared about her. For whatever reason, she had always felt that she didn’t have many friends. How sad that she felt that way at all, but how wonderful that she was able to realize that she had been wrong while she still could.

It is a great privilege to have had her in my life, albeit for far too short a time. She never failed to amaze me with the depth and versatility of her knowledge about a phenomenal number of subjects. I was quite in awe of her ability to process, absorb and retain information in exquisite detail and accuracy. She kept me up-to-date on current events, and science (especially medicine), and politics, but most importantly, which of the current crop of TV shows were worth watching.

Mary Lee got me hooked on several TV shows which we enjoyed discussing, analysing and speculating about future plot twists after every episode by email and/or over coffee and cookies at our local Starbucks’.

Speaking of cookies, Mary Lee had an intriguing habit. She only ate the edge of a cookie and threw the middle away. Go Figure. That wasn’t the only anomaly she had when it came to food. She also liked her toast one stage below charcoal. Ditto for the tops of chocolate chip muffins. They had to be very “crispy” and were the only part of the muffin that she ate.

Starbucks’ will never be the same. I got a knot in my stomach every time I passed it when it became evident that Mary Lee would not get better. It is now an ache in my heart that will not go away anytime soon.

You were a remarkable woman, Mary Lee. An original. I miss you Doll.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Service of Remembrance: what David Platt said

In the garden of our shared lives there is a special, sunny place.

It’s on the warm southern side. There the hybrids and the rare wild flowers bloom.

The hybrids have a long recorded history. The wild flowers’ origins are uncertain and it is not known how they will endure a hard winter or a drought.

But they outshine all others in the garden with their colour and fragrance and glow with a brilliance, like a candle, burning at both ends.

What was the essence of Mary Lee’s spirit? What propelled her forward in life as in Dylan Thomas’, “the force which through the green fuse, drives the bud.”

I sought an incident, phrase or word that would help reveal her inner core.

The history leading to this special word I remembered is quite revealing as to who Mary Lee was.

She started high school with a strong musical background with a Grade 10 in piano. Her favourite subject and probably her best marks were in Latin. This was owing to Mr. Hope being her outstanding teacher. Her reverential respect and admiration for him, the first black teacher hired by the Lakeshore Board of Education, was lifelong. This led to Mary Lee’s deep interest in Caribbean culture and its people, and eventually, repeated trips to, and friends in Trinidad. As well, Latin provided the foundation for her simply outstanding vocabulary and great fluency in French. She was the best read non-English major I’ve ever known.

Forward 30 years to the early 1990s and Mary Lee was the only woman in a Trinidadian steel band. Characteristically, her role was to set the beat. They needed a band name. Mary Lee promoted, but without success, the name SCINTILLA. Scintilla – of course it had to be Latin – means a spark, and leads to “scintillate”: to sparkle, twinkle, to emit sparks and to speak cleverly or wittily.

That was Mary Lee: the spark and magic in any group who showed us style, grace and ease in all she did.

She was the one person who could captivate everyone in this room.

She had effortless brilliance: academically, in speaking, skating and dancing, in her career, and especially in making and keeping friends. She was the light.

It was truly remarkable for someone who complained that so few people called her, that she had so many visitors and such support in her last month. We would all be grateful for one quarter of her visitors at our hospital bedside.

One wonders at the coincidence that her night-time nurse attendant, Cecily, was from Trinidad and in whom Mary Lee found such delight in talking about that island’s people.

One is grateful for such small mercies for her and is also amazed how men only learn tenderness and compassion through the hands of women. That being the many, many women who held her bedside hand, caressed and spoke to her even until her last breath.

In the end, all we want is comfort and warmth. This, you most generously provided her.

Mary Lee will be remembered for the courage she showed us all in the last difficult five years of her life.

The scintilla is gone from our lives. No more is that special light and spark that touched us with her magic and the smile that Peter Henderson described on her blogsite as:

“One of the largest, most expressive smiles I’ve ever seen, a tall, wide, toothy, half-moon, Cheshire-cat smile.”

Let us not lament the days lost but instead remember the days we had with her, especially when her life was good.

In the garden of our shared lives there is a special, sunny place.

It’s on the warm southern side. There the hybrids and the rare wild flowers bloom.

The rare wildflowers outshine all others in the garden with their colour and fragrance and glow with a brilliance, like a candle, burning at both ends.

Please visit that place whenever you think of Mary Lee. And may the memory of Mary Lee Coombs endure with you all until the end of your days.

Arrangements have been made for a memorial tree planting for Mary Lee at Victoria University where she graduated in 1970. It will be a red maple near the entrance to the E.J. Pratt Library in recognition of her great interest in fine literature. It will have a cast brass marker on a 30” steel post and some of Mary Lee’s ashes will be scattered in the tree roots. The cost is estimated to be $2,500.00. Donation cards are available in the entrance lobby and tax receipts will be mailed. If you wish to be notified about the planting ceremony, most likely in May, please give me or Doug your Eaddress.


Andy Neilson's memories of Mary Lee

I got to know Mary Lee in the early 90’s when I was spending a week or so each month in Toronto on Reuters business. I always looked forward to seeing Mary Lee on my trips. I typically wasn’t there more than five minutes before I’d go find her to see if I could get her to go out for a smoke, or maybe lunch if I was lucky. I couldn’t wait to hear what was going on in her life. The stories were often strange and exciting, and sometimes a bit sad or maddening — but never anything less than completely fascinating.

More than any story she told me, the memory that keeps coming to mind is walking with Mary Lee, and how she would invariably take my arm and snuggle up as we walked.

—Andy Neilson


IPSANET marketing brochures

In the mid-1980s, Mary Lee was a “technical writer” at I.P. Sharp Associates (IPSA). I learned recently that the contents of four marketing brochures she wrote about I.P. Sharp's data communications network, IPSANET, are on the Web. The owner of the site, Roger D. Moore, who was vice president of IPSA, had called Mary Lee to ask whether it was all right with her, and it was.

If you're curious, click here: http://www.rogerdmoore.ca/INF/ and go down to the second-to-last section, Marketing Brochures.


Service of Remembrance: what Rohan Jayasekera said

Mary Lee was my good friend for 22 years. There seemed to be a special bond between us, but really the fact was that I was only one of many friends with a special bond, something it pains me to accept. I believe this was because Mary Lee could add tremendous intensity to anything she was interested in. Friendships, ballet, playing in a steel band, going to Trinidad for Carnival 12 times. And when she became unhappy with how the condo building in which she lived was being treated by the developer and management company, she ran for and became the president of the condominium corporation.

Mary Lee would spend huge amounts of time to make a new dress for an occasion and have it be absolutely flawless, down to the last stitch, even on the inside that you couldn’t see. She’d look spectacular. And then she’d never wear it again, because on future occasions she didn’t want to repeat herself.

Things like that often misled those who didn’t know her well. I'm afraid she was often taken to be a person not particularly suited to serious matters. Which was completely untrue. At I.P. Sharp Associates and Reuters, where she worked for over 20 years, she eventually became one of the best project managers. And in recent times, when she followed current events very closely, more so than anyone else I know, we had long discussions about things like federal childcare policy — and neither of us has ever had kids.

In the late 90s Mary Lee became disillusioned with both her job and the relationship she was in, and to me she was never the same afterward. The old spark wasn't gone, but it was much less frequent. She had some ideas, like making spectacular wedding dresses for a living, or opening a bed-and-breakfast in Trinidad. I was hoping that she would hit on something that would reinvigorate her spirit. But then she was diagnosed with leukemia, and had no way of knowing how long she was going to live, which put a further damper on any plans. In addition, knowing that she should start eating healthy food, not just cheese and crackers, wasn’t really consistent with her spirit. A careful and regimented life might suit some people, but not Mary Lee.

Which brings me to her experience with the disease PML. As savage as PML is, I believe that it saved her from a much worse fate later on at the hands of leukemia. Even though PML attacks the brain and tends to affect its victims’ ability to think, as long as Mary Lee was conscious and able to communicate in any way, her mind seemed as sharp as always. Which is exactly how she wanted it. She even made it clear that she didn’t want medication that would dull her mind, even if it meant enduring pain.

Shortly before Mary Lee went into the hospital she showed me two winter coats she’d bought: she was having trouble deciding which one to keep and which one to return. She asked my opinion, so I told her which coat I thought was the better choice, and why. She said she agreed and would keep that one. Well, at the hospital I noticed which coat was hanging in the closet: it was the other one. In a way I’m glad. Mary Lee lived her life her way. It wasn’t always easy, because to be exceptional you have to endure being an exception. And Mary Lee was nothing if not exceptional.


Service of Remembrance, and interment

From Rohan:

Mary Lee has now been laid to rest at Riverside Cemetery in Toronto, with her parents.

Seeing the earth shovelled over the urn was hard for me. I guess her absence really is permanent.

There was a very nice service before that, with a full room of around 90 people (my estimate). For those of you who weren’t there:  in addition to Rev. Linda Petrides of Wesley Mimico United Church, Mary Lee’s brother Doug Coombs spoke, as well as David Platt, Sylvia Furlong, Rohan Jayasekera, Craig Lindsay, Bob Bernecky, Avrum Fenson, Martin Levin and Ranney Hintsa (please point out anyone I’ve missed).  Don Francks, who happens to be a professional actor and musician, spoke as well (in a rich voice much like Charlton Heston’s) and then sang “The Rainbow Song” and “The Rainbow Connection” (thanks to Debbie Lindsay, Julia Wooster and Peter Henderson for identifying the songs for me).

To those who spoke:  I was very impressed with the quality of what was said. Most people spoke from written text, which I’d like to post here if you’re willing to send me a copy (I’ll post mine shortly, so you won’t be alone). And yes I can try to read your handwriting:  fax the sheets to me at 866-274-4082 (toll free).

Thanks to all who were there. I know that Mary Lee’s family really appreciated it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Memorial tree planting

From Mary Lee's friend (since high school) David Platt:

Mary Lee was enrolled, loved being at and graduated from Victoria University at the University of Toronto. She was also a great reader of fine literature.

Plans are being made for a memorial tree planting for her near the entrance to the E.J. Pratt Library at Vic. It will be a red maple with a brass marker on a 30" high steel post.

The cost is $2,000 to $2,500. Cheques can be made payable to "Victoria University" and a tax receipt will be mailed if you provide your name and address. If you give an email address you can be notified of the planting ceremony most likely at end April or May.

Cheques can be given to Mary Lee's friend David Platt at the Thursday service or mailed to him at:
   David Platt
   Wycliffe College
   5 Hoskin Avenue
   Toronto, ON M5S 1H7
   Tel: 416 946 3535 extn 2238

This will be a fine tribute & living memorial to Mary Lee in a place she loved.

P.S. from Rohan: Mary Lee's brother Doug tells me that he plans to have some of Mary Lee's ashes planted with the tree. A great suggestion by Sylvia Furlong.


My neatest memory of Mary Lee, by Lib Gibson

Mary Lee worked for me for part of the time when we were together at IPSA. I remember her as vibrant, talented, and, enthusiastic — just plain fun to have around. I particularly remember one time when I wanted people on our team to dress up strangely for photos to illustrate some theme in a presentation I was giving. The reason for this goofy approach is lost in the mists of time, but my memory of Mary Lee’s part isn’t. One afternoon I requested people to come in prepared for these goofy pictures the next day — an idea that Mary Lee didn’t take warmly to. This was quite apparent, as Mary Lee had reacted with her usual, ahem, subtlety. However, by the next day, this idea had transformed itself into a creative challenge, and she threw herself with gusto into the role of ring leader of the photo shoot, and gave us all a hilarious day. Of all the interactions I had with her, this captures for me both a certain prickliness of character but most importantly her incredible zest for life. To be around her was to feel energized.

—Lib Gibson


My dear friend Mary Lee

I first met Mary Lee in the early '70s in Rochdale College. It was a crazy time. I was married to a draft dodger, drug dealer named Lee and she was dating one of the other drug dealers there. Our first few meetings I really don't remember. A lot of my memories of that time are more like dreams or non-existent. My most vivid memories were after I had separated from my husband and started going out with one of the security guards, a man from Ohio. Mary Lee was going out with his best friend. We ended up all moving into a house at High Park - 1 Gothic Ave., which is not there anymore. It was a beautiful, old house and it's a shame that all the old houses there have been replaced by apartments. Both of these men from Ohio were abusive jerks - our first real connection. Then, I discovered how intelligent and funny Mary Lee was. We became fast friends. Our second strong connection was our love for animals. I had a dog named 'Dinky' and she had her lovely little Black Lab. We found a horseback riding stable out by Woodbine, next to Humber College. After we had ridden there a few times, the owner let us have really good horses and allowed us to go out on our own. What good times we had! Humber College was just under construction and we rode all around that area. I don't know what it looks like now, but back then it was surrounded by beautiful fields and forests. We galloped and laughed and totally enjoyed each others' company.

When I went back to the States, we lost touch for a few years, but I thought about her often and eventually contacted Mary Lee again. Over the many years since then, Mary Lee and I have written, talked on the phone and visited each other wherever I've been (I move around a lot!). I've come to visit her in Toronto three times and the last time, about four years ago, was most depressing. It was then that I became determined to get her out of there. I have been a total nag over the last few years just trying to convince her to follow her dream to buy a little house in the country and to have a dog or two. I firmly believe that if she had managed to do that she would not be where she is now. Who knows if I'm right.

One of my other fond, if not so pleasant, memories is of one of Mary Lee's visits to Vancouver Island. It was a cold morning in November and we decided to go for a horseback ride with another friend of mine. She almost backed out because of the cold, perhaps she had a premonition? We bundled up and went out on the horses. About 45 minutes into the ride we discovered that one of our trails had been blocked. Not to be deterred, we found a way through the woods in the general direction we wanted to go. When we came out to the road we wanted to be on, we were confronted by a steep bank going down to a ditch. We decided to go for it and one by one proceeded slowly down the bank. I don't know if Mary Lee was tensed up and tried to steer the horse in a different direction, but the horse came down the bank too quickly and jumped the ditch. Mary Lee was pitched off balance and fell off. From where I was, I saw her land on her butt and side. The ground was hard and I was concerned that she might be hurt. We made her stay down and called for help. My friend's boyfriend came and got her in his truck and we took her to the ER. After waiting an eternity, they X-rayed her arm and back and came back to tell us that she was bruised but nothing was broken. Mary Lee still complained about extreme pain. We started giving her a hard time and told her to take a pill and she'd feel better. The next day she was still in a lot of pain but had to go home. At that point, I thought she was just being whiny (I still feel bad about that!), but helped her to get to the ferry to go to the airport in Vancouver. I can only imagine what pain she was in dragging her luggage from ferry to bus and from bus to airline. When she got to Toronto, she went back to the ER and got more X-rays. It was discovered that she had cracked her elbow. From what I understand, she never fully recovered from that.

I'll miss Mary Lee terribly. We had a connection that was indescribable. We weren't very much alike in many ways, but were like sisters in others. She was easily frustrated, prissy and opinionated. She was kind, cared for animals more than just about anyone I know and had intelligence that was beyond my comprehension at times. I just wish I could be there with all of her friends to say goodbye.

If anybody wants to email me, I can be reached at leading@rcabletv.com.



Peter Henderson's memories of Mary Lee

It's funny the memories that one's mind keeps about a person. Three things I recall about Mary Lee: carrot muffins, ballet, and her smile.

When we were operators in the IPSA datacentre in the York Centre, Mary Lee had a passion for carrot muffins from the Great Canadian Soup Company in the mall at First Canadian Place; she would often use one of her breaks to dash down and across the street to buy a muffin for herself, and she would usually offer to pick up muffins for any other operator who wanted one.

During lulls I can recall having long chats with her about ballet, about her classes, ballerinas she admired and why, how ballet shoes worked, different positions, etc.; I learned most of what I know about ballet from those chats with Mary Lee.

Finally, Mary Lee had one of the largest, most expressive smiles I've seen, a tall, wide, toothy, half-moon, Cheshire-cat smile; I was a little surprised that I saw only hints of that smile in the photos that her close friends have put up on the flickr site, but perhaps my memory is playing tricks. [Peter's memory is fine. Mary Lee's full smile rarely made it into photos because she was usually a bit nervous about having her picture taken, fearing that she wouldn't look perfect. -Rohan]

—Peter Henderson

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Babycakes and me

Two decades ago, scant months after I moved from Ottawa to Toronto, I happened to get a job at a little-known but remarkable company called IPSA, where the pith of each employee was encapsulated in two to five letters.

I shared an office with a technical writer. She sported a luminous lime-green top, a somewhat unkempt mop of blond hair, and one of the sharpest (if mercurial) minds I've ever known.

Mary Lee was an IPSA veteran. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the company, its culture, and its cast, past and present. And she was more than happy to share her arcana with the new kid. I learned about IPSA. All about IPSA.

I called her Babycakes. She called me Stevie.

Babycakes loved words--their sounds, their meanings--and was rarely at a loss for one. And not just for a word; she could effortlessly select the sole, singular, specific word for the job.

One day she said, offhandedly, "Stevie, let's go shopping--I'm feeling consumptatory." You won't find that in your concise Oxford. Another day she came in brandishing a newspaper, pointing and exclaiming "That's Daryl Strawberry! Isn't that a great name? Daryl... Strawberry!" She was beaming.

She could recount an incident that occurred any number of years ago, in holographic detail, in faster than real time, every quotation exact, the narrative chronology phase-locked to the original, sometimes for a good 20 minutes, never missing a beat, never coming up for air. She could leave me staggered.

She had a grip that could deform a golf ball, a personal space measured in millimetres, and rarely uttered the perpendicular pronoun without adding 5 decibels, presumably just to remove all ambiguity.

Sometimes we fought, but it didn't last. Once, after a particularly acrimonious exchange, and my subsequent tearful apology, she said, "I know, Stevie--we're the same. Prickly."

Babycakes was entertaining, infuriating, engaging, exasperating. And we were kindred spirits. And we knew it.

Good bye Babycakes. Elvis has left the building.


In today's newspaper

Sometimes an appearance in the familiar world can make something that's hard to believe seem more real. ("If it's in print it must be true"?) Reading the death notice in today's Globe and Mail got me in the stomach, even though it contained nothing surprising.

The notice is also available online (both newspapers have identical text):

Notice in the Globe and Mail

Notice in the Toronto Star



Arrangements - one more thing

On Thursday, following the service (which begins at 11am) there will be some sandwiches. Then at around 2pm (it depends on how long the service goes), those who wish to can go to the interment at Riverside Cemetery.


Donations to the Toronto Humane Society

Credit card donations to the THS can be made from this page: https://www.strategicprofitsinc.com/hosted/ths/index.php?type=memory.

Cards can be sent to:

Doug Coombs
362 The East Mall
Apt 510
Etobicoke ON M9B 6C4


Sharing memories

Not all of Mary Lee's friends and family can be in Toronto to get together this week, and remembering Mary Lee isn't going to end this week either. So I now encourage anyone who wishes to share written memories of Mary Lee to post them in this blog, as a new entry (not as a comment, as comments are much less visible). To be able to post, just ask (I'm at 1@sympatico.ca) and I'll authorize you. If you'd rather not do it yourself, email me your entry and I'll post it on your behalf.

Now that the nature of this blog is changing, you may or may not wish to check it as often, and if you're getting emailed notifications from Bloglet and wish to stop you can unsubscribe at www.bloglet.com .


Monday, March 06, 2006



Arrangements have now been confirmed. Visitation will be Tuesday (tomorrow) 7-9pm, and Wednesday 2-4pm and 7-9pm. The service will be on Thursday at 11am, in the chapel at the funeral home. Location below. Also, I'm told that there will be notices in the Globe and Mail and in the Toronto Star, on both Tuesday and Wednesday.

As I mentioned in the preceding post, if you would like to speak at the service, please notify either Mary Lee's brother Doug Coombs at 416-621-2852, or Rohan Jayasekera at 1@sympatico.ca or 416-532-0696 (OK to call 24 hours; please leave voicemail if no answer).

If you like, please bring photos to the funeral home as many people will appreciate seeing them. Also, we would like to expand the online photo collection that's been started. I've already posted how to add photos yourself (Wed. March 1, “How the birthday party went”), but if you don't want to do that you can email them to me at 1@sympatico.ca and I'll add them. My email inbox is 2 GB so you can email me any number of photos without filling it up. Of course photos have to be in digital form to do this; if you have printed photos you can use a scanner. (When scanning, I suggest that you avoid saving the results into BMP format; use JPG/JPEG instead because it's much smaller.) If you email me photos, please include a short description if possible, including, if known, the names of any other people included, the date (if only approximate that's fine), and who took the photo.

The funeral home is Hogle Funeral Home (Mimico Chapel), 63 Mimico Ave., Toronto M8V 1R2, 416-251-7531. This is in Mimico (in Etobicoke), very close to Lake Ontario. A map is available at http://www.hoglefuneralhomes.com/Finding_Us_-69493.html .

If you're driving: Directions (from any location) are also available at the above link. Note that Mimico Ave. is one way, from east to west (you can get onto it right from Lake Shore Blvd.). As you drive along it the funeral home will be on the left side of the street, and parking (lots of it) is available on both sides.

By TTC: the number 76 (not 76B) Royal York South bus starts at the Royal York subway station (Bloor-Danforth line), with a bus every 10-15 minutes. It goes all the way south to Lake Shore Blvd., then northeast along Lake Shore, then west along Mimico Ave. Get off at the second stop along Mimico Ave., which is right across the street from the funeral home.

I'm sure I'll be seeing many of you shortly. I'm still stunned that Mary Lee is gone.


ADDENDUM: In lieu of flowers the family requests a donation to the Toronto Humane Society (Mary Lee was very much an animal lover, and had an automatic donation to the THS every month), or to the charity of your choice.


Rest in peace

I am so sorry to have to pass this news on to all of you.

Mary Lee passed away quietly at around 2:30 this morning. Her favourite night nurse was with her.

There will be visitations at the funeral home, followed by a “celebration” service. Details will be posted here once finalized during the day on Monday.

If you would like to speak at the service, please notify either Mary Lee's brother Doug Coombs at 416-621-2852, or Rohan Jayasekera at 1@sympatico.ca or 416-532-0696.


Sunday, March 05, 2006



From Rohan:

Again, same as yesterday. When I first arrived her breathing was shallower than it had been for the previous two days, but later after the staff had repositioned her (they periodically change her position and her head faces the other way, etc.) her breathing was back to what I've become used to. Her skin temperature still hasn't dropped that I can tell.

I've been continuing to read out the emails that people have sent; she may still be conscious part of the time.

Every day as I leave I tell her that I'll be back tomorrow. When she's gone that won't be true, but if she can hear me I want her to know that I'm sticking around.



From Rohan:

A note to new readers: You might not have seen the earliest post (“Introduction”) that has all the background information, because only the last 7 days have been showing on the main page, with earlier posts visible only by looking at the Archives. I've changed this so that all posts are shown here.

I'm now posting here every day after seeing Mary Lee, but last night I forgot (sorry — I was having a lot of emotional difficulty handling the situation and eventually dealt with that by just going to bed). So I'm doing it now. I'll post again after I see her today (Sunday).

Mary Lee seemed exactly the same as the previous day. Her brother Doug had been told that one of the things that happens as coma progresses is that the skin temperature drops, starting at the feet, but no sign of that yet.

Nancy Woodman's been trying to track down some of Mary Lee's friends, but with difficulty because Mary Lee herself wasn't trying to notify everyone:  as her friend Janice put it yesterday, Mary Lee probably thought “well, Janice would come, but I don't want to put her to that expense”. Well, Janice flew in from Nova Scotia on Saturday morning after hearing the news, Nancy having successfully found contact information for her. Other people have been contacted as well, but there are probably more friends who haven't heard anything. It makes me sad that Mary Lee really didn't appreciate how many people care about her.

Friday, March 03, 2006



From Rohan:

Today Mary Lee seemed the same as yesterday, except that she was breathing more easily and consistently. Again it's hard to tell whether she's conscious any part of the time. Sometimes her breathing would change a bit, but that happened even when nobody was saying anything. And we humans tend to find patterns in things whenever we want to, even if they aren't there. I know that I am still hoping that Mary Lee is still with us, even as the chance of that continues to drop.

I learned today from Doug (Mary Lee's brother) that last week someone brought in a small dog to visit the patients in the palliative unit. Mary Lee was pretty happy about that, and apparently so was the dog, who went beside the bed, where Mary Lee patted her and rubbed her tummy.

One of the topics of conversation among the visitors today was just how many friends Mary Lee has. She was quite surprised when so many people came to visit her in the hospital, but very pleased. I'd like to thank everyone who's visited. It's meant a lot to her.

Thursday, March 02, 2006



From Rohan:

Mary Lee's condition has continued to deteriorate quickly. Although she was conscious part of the day before yesterday, yesterday she may have slept the entire day (nobody I've spoken to saw her awake), and today was similar except that with her eyelids partly open the whole time (apparently because the control of her eyelid muscles is now gone) it wasn't possible to tell whether she was conscious at any time. There was some up-and-down eye movement but it's impossible to tell whether that meant anything. Some of us held her hand and talked to her, in case she was conscious any part of the time. Although "cognitive deterioration" is one of the usual symptoms of PML, I never saw the slightest trace of that while she was able to communicate, so if and when she's conscious there's a good chance that her mind is still sharp, even if she can't respond in any way.

Yesterday the doctor started her on a painkiller because she's been stuck in bed for a month and could be expected to have some muscle pain. She's always denied having any pain, even as recently as during the birthday party, but that could just be her wanting to avoid dulling her mind. (When she was told that PML had been confirmed and that she had at most three months to live, the doctor mentioned that an antidepressant might be helpful and she turned him down flat.)

This afternoon the doctor came by and said that she's in the early stages of coma: her pulse is weaker than it was yesterday, though her skin temperature is still high. He expects that she'll be in full coma in 1 to 3 days.

We are now trying to have someone with her around the clock. There is a nurse there overnight, and friends are covering the daytime. To help with that I've created an online signup page for those who are participating, at https://mlcoombs.jot.com/. Only those enrolled can access the page, so if you want to join the team please let me know at 1@sympatico.ca .

One positive consequence of the loss of muscle control is that since yesterday her face has been fully relaxed, meaning that there are no lines or wrinkles. (This is also how Botox works.) We've been telling Mary Lee that, as she'd definitely be happy to hear it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


How the birthday party went

About 25-30 people were able to attend: Mary Lee’s brother Doug Coombs; Sylvia Furlong; Martin Levin; Avrum Fenson; ballet “girls” Laura, Sylvie, Sheryl, Leslie, Heidi, Tatiana, Lili, Aretta, Roland, and Mary’s daughter Michelle; IPSA/Reuters colleagues (and friends!) Nancy Woodman, Steve Chapman, Peter and Julia Wooster, Maria Nunes, Brian Oliver, Randy Chinn, Tony de Lucovich, Martin Fraser, and me (Rohan Jayasekera) and wife Yvonne; at least one other person I didn’t know and didn’t end up speaking with; and anyone I’ve forgotten to list (additions and corrections appreciated to 1@sympatico.ca so that I can fill in who’s missing; thanks to Avrum for a couple of names).

Laura made the cake, a sinfully rich yet light (yes, that is apparently possible) and delicious chocolate thing that Mary Lee had requested. Unfortunately Mary Lee herself was not able to have any as she can no longer properly swallow food.

Mary Lee was awake for a while (though apparently not able to open her eyes) but very uncomfortable and nobody was able to figure out for sure what the problem was: when asked whether she was in pain, for instance, she said no. She may simply have been thirsty: Laura moistened her mouth and that seemed to help. But she was still in some distress, and a nurse gave her a sedative after which she fell asleep – or something like sleep. I can’t always tell when drugs are involved. Also, she had been coughing, but not able to cough very well, so the staff got the irritating stuff out of her throat. After they were finished, various people sat with her and held her hand and spoke to her. Nobody knew whether she was listening, but then sounds get processed even during sleep.

I had assembled a slide show of photos contributed by Laura Rust, Nancy Woodman and Catherine Fitzsimmons, but since Mary Lee was unable to watch it I had it running on my laptop in the lounge, where we were based while small groups visited with Mary Lee in her room. You can see the dozen or so photos by going to www.flickr.com and typing “Mary Lee Coombs” (with or without the quotation marks) into the “Find a photo of...” box. Also, you can add your own photos by joining flickr (it’s free) and uploading photos and marking them public and tagging them with the tag MaryLeeCoombs. If you’re new to flickr it may take a bit of time for them to approve your photos as appropriate for public viewing, and you’ll also need to upload more than two or three photos in total (i.e. not necessarily just of Mary Lee) for them to take that look.

When the last people left, Mary Lee seemed to be sleeping soundly.

Monday, February 27, 2006


Unhappy developments

Monday afternoon Nancy Petersons and I were with Mary Lee for about 90 minutes. Nancy had been told by a nurse that Mary Lee's condition had significantly changed since Saturday. She is experiencing periods of agitation and distress, and reduced ability to communicate. This morning (Monday) Mary Lee had been very agitated, and that she had been given some drugs to calm her: Ativan, a fairly mild and commonly prescribed drug for anxiety and insomnia, and Haldol, a very strong drug usually reserved for extremely agitated people. My understanding is that Haldol can profoundly "flatten" emotions, which may make it even harder for us to connect with Mary Lee. It was unclear to me whether the agitation was a symptom of the illness, or her extreme frustration with her situation.

Mary Lee remained very soundly asleep during our visit. Even when the fire alarm went off, she didn't stir.

While we were there, a doctor came by and he was very open in answering our questions and discussing Mary Lee's prognosis with us. He said we can likely expect her condition to deteriorate rapidly. She may show a variety of behavioural changes including loss of memory and lucidity. He said that the agitation could be a result of her condition impacting the emotional control and response portion of her brain. He said she may be in the final weeks, or week, of her life.

[Nancy and Steve co-authored this entry]

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Update on how Mary Lee is

I saw Mary Lee earlier today and thought I'd let readers know how she's doing. Essentially the description I gave in the first post still applies, only more so. Her mind is as sharp as always and she can hear perfectly well, but her motor control has worsened including her speech and her ability to eat. I'm not sure how her vision really is, but she does watch television and her DVD player. She's sleeping even more now as she tires more rapidly.

She is extremely frustrated with the difficulty of communicating. Today I was trying to understand something she was trying to tell me, and I could tell that it was something simple but I just wasn't getting it. At one point she said (and this I understood clearly) "this is stupid!" I agreed that it was, and in a little while finally managed to figure out what she wanted; she had to spell out a key word for me because she couldn't say it clearly enough for me to understand it. I apologized for being so dense and said I would get the hang of it (hoping that I would).

The trick to communicating with Mary Lee is to set the context yourself and then you have a chance at understanding what she says. Yes-and-no questions are the simplest example. At one point the nurse asked her whether she wanted the TV on and she said yes, and then asked "what channel?" and Mary Lee held up three fingers and then one finger, meaning channel 31. That was a smart thing to do because if she'd said "thirty-one" we might not have had a good chance of understanding it. She can often pronounce words more clearly if she puts more effort into it, but she's weak, and in addition thinks that the whole situation is ridiculous. So she may repeat something more carefully and have it be understandable.

I cried today while visiting her, for the first time. For some reason I said "it's not fair" and she said (and I was able to understand this without trouble) "Life is never fair."

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Bloglet's email updates

Bloglet is the system that keeps you informed by email if you've entered your address in the box at the top of this blog. It seems to work pretty well, but I've noticed that it doesn't display titles, blank lines, and other stuff, presumably to give you as compact an email as possible. I don't think that's a good feature for this particular blog, so I've changed Bloglet's settings: from now on it will just tell you that there are new post(s) and give you a link to click on to see them.

Friday, February 24, 2006



Sylvie's suggested that we create an online photo album that could be shown at the party (someone will bring a laptop and perhaps also a projector). If you have digital photos of Mary Lee that you'd like to share, please email them to me at 1@sympatico.ca . (If you have printed photos you can convert them to digital form by scanning them. If you don't have a scanner, most cybercafe-type places will let you use a PC and scanner for a minimal charge.)

Since the party is just around the corner, it may take till after that to collect a reasonable number of photos, in which case we can wait to show her the album.


Birthday party: details

From Mary Lee's friend Laura: "We’ll group in the lounge and visit ML in small groups. She has requested a certain cake, which I’m making, and I think we could use a couple of bottles of champagne. I’ll bring glasses, plates, forks, etc."

So when you enter the Inpatient Palliative Care unit (4th floor, Queen Wing, St. Michael's Hospital), turn left and walk down the corridor most of the way until you reach the lounge, which will be on your left and has a piano just inside the door.

Again, this will be on Mary Lee's actual birthday, Tue. Feb. 28 (i.e. the Tuesday coming up), from 5 to 7.

I'll bring some bubbly, both alcoholic and not. (I don't know what the rules are about alcohol so that part may not be usable.)

Please keep in mind that we'll need to keep it quiet. Also, a general reminder: whenever you enter the hospital be sure to use the antibacterial hand-washing stuff available just inside the entrance.


Birthday party

From Mary Lee's friend Sylvie: next Tuesday, Feb. 28, will be Mary Lee's birthday and there will be a birthday party at the hospital from 5 to 7.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Use of this blog

Posts to this blog will appear only sporadically. To avoid having to check back unnecessarily, type your email address into the box at the top of the page. I believe that an email will be issued once a day and only when anything new has been posted.

Posting new items to this blog is restricted to those who are authorized. Currently that's only Steve Chapman and me, but if you're in a position to have additional info about Mary Lee and are interested in posting it yourself, please contact me to be authorized.

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In late December, Mary Lee Coombs noticed some numbness in her right arm. Shortly thereafter a friend remarked that something seemed wrong with her face. Within a few weeks the numbness had extended to her right leg, affecting her ability to walk, and she went to St. Michael's Hospital to get checked out. She was admitted and the investigation began. Her symptoms were consistent with a problem at a particular place in the brain, and indeed an MRI scan showed a spot there. A later MRI scan showed the spot as having become larger. Meanwhile she developed double vision and her speech became significantly affected. Her right side became almost useless.

A disease called PML, Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy, was suspected, and eventually the "JC" virus which causes PML was found in her cerebrospinal fluid, pretty much confirming PML.

Information about PML can be found here. The bottom line is that it destroys white matter in the brain, impairing the transmission of nerve impulses, causing "weakness or paralysis, vision loss, impaired speech, and cognitive deterioration". So far Mary Lee is suffering from the first three.

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, "There is no cure for PML, nor is there currently an effective treatment for the disorder." It usually just gets worse and worse, and quickly. "The course of PML is relentlessly progressive. Death usually occurs between 1 and 4 months after onset, but there have been a number of reported cases with survival for months to years."

PML attacks only people with weakened immune systems. Several years ago, Mary Lee was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a form of blood cancer. If you didn't know that, it's because she kept it fairly secret. The median lifespan from diagnosis was seven years, so for some time now she's been aware that her life would likely be cut short. She's had a number of rounds of chemotherapy (a mild form without significant side effects), which were successful in keeping the leukemia in check to date. But evidently her condition allowed PML to develop.

Mary Lee is still at St. Michael's Hospital, and has just been moved to the Queen Wing, 4th floor, Inpatient Palliative Care, room 4007 a.k.a. 407 (there are two rooms from one doorway; it's the one on the right). If you wish to visit her, please bear in mind that she can't speak very well, which makes normal conversation impossible, and that her vision has been affected a little (but her hearing is fine). Also, she sleeps a lot so there is no assurance that she'll be awake when you visit. Visiting hours are 11 to 7. On weekends, at least the afternoons, there tend to be quite a few visitors, which tires her out and in any case makes it difficult to have much of a personal visit, so I recommend visiting on weekdays instead if possible.

If you have a message for Mary Lee, please email it to me at 1@sympatico.ca and I'll read it to her at my next opportunity.

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