PASADENA — One of the first things Wanda Gushue did when her husband Christopher Dennis was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2002 was get brand new journals for them to write in.
Gushue knew they were about to travel down a road filled with challenges that would inevitably lead to the early death of the love of her life she had only married four years earlier.
For the most part, Gushue’s journal offered her an opportunity to vent her frustration at the terrible hand their family had been dealt. Still, there were many happy moments along that all too short journey that got duly noted in their journals too.
In the end, it proved to be a record of not just their struggle, but the courage and dignity with which Christopher dealt with his incurable diagnosis for the final two years of his life.
During that time, particularly during Christopher’s final days in palliative care in spring 2004, co-workers and the nursing staff at Western Memorial Regional Hospital in Corner Brook, kept telling Gushue she should write a book about their experience.
During her regular visits to the palliative care unit in the years after his death, one nurse in particular would always sternly ask Gushue, “so, how’s that book coming along?”
It was not until 2009, when she retired from the teaching career she shared with her husband, that Gushue got serious about the book that was the top priority on her bucket list.
She had already transcribed her hand-written journal into computer files and began to start arranging things into chapters. She also began researching how to go about getting a book published. She learned to expect the rejections she got from publishers. In fact, that happened enough times for her to put the plan on the shelf for a while.
Last summer, she made a submission to General Store Publishing House.
Luckily, for Gushue anyway, the publisher had two friends who had died of ALS and agreed to publish her book.
On Jan. 15, the first 200 copies of “Behind Those Eyes” arrived at Gushue’s house.
“It was a red letter day,” she said in a recent interview in the Pasadena home where Christopher himself was interviewed by The Western Star for a feature story on ALS Awareness Month in June 2003.
The title had actually come to her when Christopher was in palliative care and able to only offer expressions with his eyes and the weak, minimal movement of his fingers. She had told him that people wanted her to write a book about their journey and she could tell he wanted her to do it too.
“He was smiling with his eyes and I could read his thoughts,” she said. “There was approval in his eyes that this was a good idea. I said, if I do it, I will call it “Behind Those Eyes” because, to me, the whole person was still right there behind those eyes.”
Gushue, who has participated in the annual walk to raise awareness for ALS ever since Christopher’s diagnosis, will be walking again at this year’s event, which will take place at Bennett Hall in Corner Brook at 2 p.m. on June 9. For the past several years, she has served on the ALS Society of Newfoundland and Labrador’s board of directors, including president for the past two years.
Her book will help spread awareness of the disease, thanks to the generosity of Tim Gordon, the publisher who had a soft spot for Gushue’s memoir. In February, Gordon couriered a complementary box of the books to be distributed to ALS Society representatives attending a national meeting of the organization.
He has also offered the local branches the opportunity to buy copies of it at cost for use within the societies.
She hopes the raw emotion and the stark realities of her writings as they were captured in the moment a decade ago help people gain a better understanding of the disease. More importantly, she hopes her tribute to “my Christopher” — as she constantly refers to her husband in the book — will help those living with ALS, or any end-of-life issue, learn how to deal with it in the most positive way they possibly can.
“As sad as it is, you can rise above it,” she said. “You can’t beat ALS, but you can’t let it beat you.”
Gushue used to hope that research would lead to a cure for ALS during her children’s life. She has since bumped up her expectations and wants to see it happen in her lifetime.
That is evident in the way she autographs copies of her books.
“I sign my books “living in hope and believing” because I do live in hope,” she said. “ALS has to be shut down. In the meantime, we will continue to do the good things we do and help in the ways we can.”
“Behind Those Eyes” is available at Cole’s and Island Treasures in the Corner Brook Plaza, Gifts of Joy in Pasadena and online at www.chapters.indigo.ca or the General Store Publishing House website at www.gsph.com .
Gushue will be at Cole’s to sign copies of her book on June 15 from 1-3 p.m.