This morning, the CBC's Metro Morning host Andy Barrie announced that he will be retiring from the program after 15 years as its host, and publicly battling Parkinson's Disease since 2007. "I will be vacating, relinquishing, abdicating the host's chair at Metro Morning," he said to listeners at the end of today's show. (A new host has not yet been announced.) Last week, Sarah Hampson sat down with Mr. Barrie for an exclusive interview as he prepared to make the announcement.
"There has been a lot of stress these last three years," Andy Barrie tells me in his downtown loft. The compact space is comfortable: brick walls with book-lined shelves, a collection of family photographs here and there, a view of the CN Tower, the vibrancy of the city he loves at his doorstep. His Australian shepherd, Wrigley, sits at his feet.
He is four days away from telling his listeners that, on March 1st, he will record his last show after a forty-year career as a radio personality. A journalist whose job it is to listen to others, he seems prepared - and relieved in a way - to talk openly about the recent struggles in his life and the enthusiasm he has for what lies ahead.
It was less than three years ago, in June 2007, that he informed the CBC that he was suffering from Parkinson's, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that commonly affects mobility and in some cases, the ability to speak clearly. That same year, his only sibling, Jeff, was killed in a car accident in Russia. In 2008, he took a leave of absence to care for his wife of nearly forty years, Mary. She died of lung cancer in February 2009 at the age of 63.
He had thought he would work through this summer but last fall, he found he wasn't sleeping well. "The week of daylight savings was the same week they added fifteen more minutes to the beginning of the show, and I don't know if that's what tipped me over. It has affected my stamina in terms of sleep at night, getting up in the morning and being able to keep my act together on the air... Hosting a show like Metro Morning is a little like driving a high speed vehicle down a highway and occasionally I would feel myself veering off onto the shoulder or towards the centre line."
He laughs lightly at the metaphor. His listeners can feel his enthusiasm for his job, none of which has wavered over the years. His on-air personality is by turns gruff, compassionate, argumentative, questioning. Mr. Barrie first enjoyed fame at the popular radio station CJAD in Montreal after moving to Canada with his wife, also an American, in 1969. He had been granted Conscientious Objector status by his local draft board and trained as a combat medic. He deserted to come to Canada when he got orders to go to Vietnam.
In the mid seventies, they came to Toronto where he worked for almost two decades at CFRB. After he joined the CBC in 1995 to host Metro Morning, it would become the city's leading morning talk show. He became the voice of Toronto as the city hit its stride - a champion of the thriving, multicultural tableau and an authority on all its joys and aggravations.
"The work in its own right is probably the best that anyone with curiosity could do - a fabulous environment with smart people, and an opportunity to grow every single day in what you do," he explains. "But fifteen years is a long time." Poor sleep can augment the effects of Parkinson's, a disease over 100,000 Canadians suffer from, according to the Parkinson Society Canada. "There's an on state and an off state," Mr.Barrie explains. "So when I'm off...I'm moving very slowly, and I feel like I can't tell if I'm thinking slowly or speaking slowly.
"I have a hunch that when I start living a normal life again, the effects of Parkinson's will lift a little bit," he adds.
His voice may be disappearing from the airwaves, but he has no intention of stopping work. "[The CBC and I]have been talking about it for a couple of months. Maybe on air and maybe off the air," he says, adding as an afterthought that it will likely be a behind-the-scenes role as he wants to leave the on-air part of his career on a high note, before the Parkinson's affects his speech delivery. He also wants time to pursue other interests - to volunteer and consult.
And if he finds he misses conversational exchanges with strangers, well, he has a thought about that too. "I may just decide to be a tour guide on a bus once a week for tourists," he says, with a burst of laughter.
The only thing he won't do is write a book. "Too lonely," he says in a manner that makes it clear he suffers enough from solitude in the wake of his wife's death.
"It's not mortality, it's unpredictability," he says quietly when asked what the last few years have taught him. "Life turns around in different directions for the better and for the worse." His wife, who was a respected educator, helped care for him when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, but then the table turned on their health. "Frankly, I wonder had she remained in perfect health and I had continued to decline what would that have meant for her. A couple of times, I had to help her out of the bathtub. I don't know if she would have been able to do that with me." Together they had planned to retire to their farm in the country outside of Toronto. But now, Mr. Barrie finds it too difficult to be there on his own. (Their daughter, Jessie, 33, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.)
"I tried going [to the farm]on weekends to de-condition myself, you know, to get used to being there without her."
He has lots of friends, but when he came home on his own or his guests left, the silence was crushing.
How long did he give the adjustment?
"A couple of months, maybe three." He shrugs.
The de-conditioning didn't work?
"I guess not," he says with a small smile.
"I find everyone I talk to who has been through [the loss of a spouse]either worries that they have gone through too much or sometimes they think they have recovered too soon only to be walking down the street and to be pole axed by a sudden memory that comes to mind. I miss Mary terribly but you also miss who you were with that person and the rhythm of your life with that person," he says.
"I pick up The New Yorker and after forty years, I knew what I could share with her and when she would just look at me and go back to her book and not even comment."
Her death at home in the country "was horribly beautiful or beautifully horrible" he offers. "The death of a loved one, especially when you're there, ranks with infinity and the big bang as just one of the impenetrable mysteries of life."
He speaks without bitterness, even about his disease, which makes the prospect of living alone more frightening. "All of us will be disabled some day, and disabled could be in quotes or in reality - on a cane, in a walker, in bed - or it could mean you're going to be divorced or alone or destitute or not have as much money as you thought you would or that you wanted. The disability simply means that you're not going to be as able as you once were and do all the things you wanted to do and be a lot of the things that you wanted to be."
Such acceptance of the different cards fate deals everyone gives him little choice but to "just get on with it." And part of that is looking forward to leading a fuller life when he doesn't have to rise at 4:15 in the morning.
"Everyone I know is really worried about me being under-stimulated," he concludes with a chuckle. "They think I'm going to be interviewing Wrigley in the morning about TTC fare increases or something." Wrigley looks up from the floor at the sound of his name and wags his tail. Mr. Barrie pats his head, reassuring him. "But I have all sorts of things I want to do."
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