Chapter 6: It takes a village - Interview with Gail and Barry Russell

You do what you do, because of love, and because you can.
— Gail Russell, April 2018

My dad, Randy, was one of seven kids and my mom, Heather, was one of four sisters which means we have a lot of family and we grew up with close relationships with most of them.

 Cousins at a Ringette tournament. Left to right (back) Scott, Jennifer, Lindsey, Katie (front) Ashleigh, Travis.

Cousins at a Ringette tournament. Left to right (back) Scott, Jennifer, Lindsey, Katie (front) Ashleigh, Travis.

Of all those extended family members, our family was closest (literally and figuratively) to the Russells, Dad's next-in-line sister Gail, her husband Barry (not to be confused with Randy and Gail's brother Barry Leamen) and their 3 kids who age-wise lined up pretty well with us: Jennifer (same age as my sister Lindsey), Scott (year older than me), and Ashleigh (year younger than my brother Travis). We've always done lots of things with the Russells. Many memories and stories from my youth involve their family, their van, March break excursions, scout camps, ringette tournaments, family gatherings, and an especially memorable group trip to the Dominican. 

 The Leamen siblings with their mom, Thanksgiving 2016: clockwise starting with Randy (mustache), Martha/Grandma, Eddie, Barry L, Lynne, Cheryl, and Gail.

The Leamen siblings with their mom, Thanksgiving 2016: clockwise starting with Randy (mustache), Martha/Grandma, Eddie, Barry L, Lynne, Cheryl, and Gail.

Over the last year especially as dialysis became a part of our family's life again triggering old memories and then around Dad's funeral, I started hearing more stories from before my memory of how Dad's kidney health shaped that bond. As much as Dad's kidney disease dramatically impacted his life and our immediate family, the effect was also profound on our extended family.  It's an old African proverb that says "It takes a village to raise a child" and this was very true for us. I asked Aunt Gail and Uncle Barry to share some of their memories because this story belongs to them too. We meander topics a bit as that is how reminiscing works, but there is a lot of history covered over these 4 videos.

*It should be noted that Gail and Barry have always gone above and beyond to support every member of the Leamen and Russell families and that what they did for our family is just one chapter in a long history of being generous hearts. I am incredibly grateful for them and their willingness to share these memories first with me, and then with you. 

PART 1

Katie chats with her Aunt Gail and Uncle Barry Russell (Randy's sister and brother-in-law) about their memories of Randy's diagnosis and subsequent move from the Northwest Territories back to Ontario. 

PART 2

In this second segment, Gail and Barry reminisce about life for the whole extended family as Randy's kidney function declined: pulling together, flexibility, cheese, trying to adapt to new routines with kids and work, orange hair and orange fluid, feelings of worth and survivor guilt.

PART 3

Anecdotal evidence that despite disease, dialysis or transplant, as long as life goes on we go with it the best we can: hot and sour soup adventures, Lions' Camp Dorset, and home hemodialysis. (Guest appearance by Seraphina the cat) 

PART 4

Waiting for "The Call" and Gail and Barry's first memory of Randy after his kidney transplant: pagers and pepperoni pizza. 

Chapter 5: "Take Nothing for Granted" Interview with Heather Hobbs: PART 1

 Heather, Tundra and Randy in Alberta (1981)

Heather, Tundra and Randy in Alberta (1981)

I asked Mom if we could record an interview on Dad's birthday. It seemed fitting on the first occasion of us acknowledging the birthday he didn't get, that we reflect on the kidney that gave him an extra 27 years of very happy birthdays. It was a good plan, though daunting, which on the day made us change our minds and push back filming a couple days. 

As I mentioned in Chapter 4, these interviews are quite challenging: painful memories tied in with current grief, re-living secondary trauma for Mom, trying to stick to a sequential narrative that follows a logical timeline, opening private memories to public interpretation, etc. The camera died which means we ended rather abruptly at the transplant, which was actually very fortuitous as Mom needed some more time to think about what she wants to say about life after the transplant.  Also, when I played her this video for her approval a couple weeks later, she took a lot of notes of things it reminded her she wants to say so this is the first of what will probably be several interviews. It's just too hard to pack an entire complex life of experiences into one conversation.

Randy's wife/Katie's mom Heather talks about the all encompassing impact of dialysis on their lives, including Randy's self-image, mood and the structure of daily life. From pre-dialysis through to the kidney transplant, Heather ponders the theme of "Take Nothing for Granted" - even the ability to pee (a definite indicator of kidney function).

Chapter 4: Is the artistic end-goal worthy of the painful process?

It is one thing to decide as an artist that I want to conduct interviews and share them publicly for artistic reasons - especially when I as the artist do not have the hardest part of this arrangement. It is another thing for someone else to say yes to that and do the difficult thing of re-living painful memories, knowing that the private place where these memories reside is being opened up for the world to see and judge. Why should they say yes to that?

Last month I recorded a couple interviews with my mom, Aunt Gail and Uncle Barry. I really enjoyed hearing the stories and doing the interviews, even though Mom thought I looked horrified at what I was hearing. To be honest, I don't think I was horrified, but my heart was breaking and bursting with love for the young couple my parents were and what they went through.  I shared a lot of laughs with Aunt Gail and Uncle Barry over a very enjoyable four hours on a Saturday afternoon. But a week later, I felt emotionally destroyed by the act of interviewing/empathizing and a little guilty that I was putting loved ones in a similar position. Is it worth it? Is the artistic end-goal worthy of the painful process? While I as the playwright can believe it, does that make it true for other people as well? 

We will be sharing those interviews soon, but before we do, here is me debating with myself whether I as the playwright am worthy of the stories I'm asking people to share with me. 

Before we start sharing very personal stories as interviews, Katie re-examines why it is important to her that these personal stories are shared publicly and asks the question "Why should people trust me with their stories? What makes me worthy of them as a playwright?"

*Note: I filmed while still a little sick and that clearly affected my words a bit as I said April 6, 1888, and I really meant 1988. Only a hundred years off the mark...

Chapter 3: Setting a Baseline for Worthy Research

They thought they were coming over for some grantwriting help and birthday cake, but No Porpoise frequent collaborators Lynne Griffin and Sean Sullivan also got this surprise interview on their knowledge and experience with kidney disease, organ donation and trying to define "Worthy". No advance prep time was given, so this is a first attempt at setting a baseline for what might be "common" knowledge or attitudes towards organ donation.

Chapter 2: Jumping into Chaos

Chapter 2: Jumping into Chaos

β€˜One must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to the dancing star.’ β€” Friedrich Nietzsch

Chapter 1: Inspiration

Chapter 1: Inspiration

The true story of Randy Leamen (well, part of the story at least) that is inspiration for WORTHY.