At a time when few had even heard of the Internet, and long before Google, when Canadians had a question they wanted answered, thousands turned to CBC’s renowned Answer Lady.
Once a week, on CBC’s popular Gabereau radio show, Marg Meikle, a charming, endlessly curious broadcaster, captivated the program’s large audience with her infectious embrace of wit and knowledge – the more arcane the better.
What is the function of the earlobe? How fast does Santa need to travel on Christmas Eve to deliver all those presents? How much does your head weigh? What is Spanish fly, anyway?
For a dozen years, until the show went off the air in 1997, The Answer Lady answered countless such queries sent in by listeners, punctuated by lively on-air banter with host Vicki Gabereau.
She became famous. A spin-off series of award-winning question-and-answer books ensued, translated into a dozen languages. The fun, fact-filled publications sold in the tens of thousands. Years later, they are still selling. Ms. Meikle, in fact, received a royalty cheque just two days before she died on Dec. 21 of complications from Parkinson’s, ending her long, arduous battle against the debilitating disease. She was 57.
While her bravura stint as The Answer Lady, plus frequent columns in Canadian Living magazine, made her known across the country, Ms. Meikle’s lasting legacy is likely to be her response to Parkinson’s and her very public struggle to combat its symptoms, which gradually and cruelly robbed her of the very communication prowess that had defined her career.
Tragically, it also struck at the peak of personal happiness, married only three years and a mere 18 months after giving birth to her only child, a son, at the age of 41. Ms. Meikle initially shrugged off worrisome changes in her body as normal for a first-time mother in her 40s, until one day in June, 1999, after a visit to a neurologist, she phoned her husband, Noel MacDonald. “It’s Parkinson’s,” she said.
Whether it was growing sweet peas, freelancing or confronting Parkinson’s, Ms. Meikle was not one for half measures. Shunning self-pity, she faced her diagnosis head on, harnessing the same energy and quest for information that characterized her pre-Parkinson’s life. “She did what she did with everything,” says close friend and well-known broadcaster Bill Richardson. “She took it in a good, terrier-like grasp and researched the hell out of it.”
What she found was not reassuring. Some days medication helped. Some days it didn’t. Falls could happen without warning. Research was often contradictory, since symptoms among individuals varied widely. Yet Ms. Meikle did not sit back and sigh. “This thing has been very hard on our family, but we couldn’t just wait around for a cure,” she told Mr. Richardson. “We had to do something.”
She and her husband soon launched a homespun fundraiser, Porridge for Parkinson’s. “Marg loved the alliteration of it,” Mr. MacDonald says. They invited people from Ms. Meikle’s wide circle of friends into their home on the west side of Vancouver, cooked up huge pots of porridge and asked breakfasters, once they were full of oatmeal, to make a donation to Parkinson’s research.
The first gathering, in 2001, raised $17,000, more than triple their modest target. The event took off. Donations increased every year, sparking similar Porridge for Parkinson’s fundraisers across North America. All told, with the help of matching donations lined up by Ms. Meikle, the annual Vancouver porridge fest (dubbed “a bowl movement,” by the couple) has raised more than $1.6-million. Proceeds go to the Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre at the University of B.C., which is now able to fund a full professorship.
‘I think of her as a kaleidoscope’
In 2007, as her condition worsened, Ms. Meikle opted for deep-brain stimulation, a radical, invasive treatment that involved implanting electrodes within her brain as a way of controlling her tremors and improving her quality of life.
She knew it was not a cure. But with expectations of relief, she invited reporter Maurice Bridge into the operating room to give the public a glimpse into both her deterioration and her hopes, plus the gruelling procedure itself.
Mr. Bridge’s gripping articles won him a 2007 Jack Webster Award, British Columbia’s top journalism prize. The night of the awards, Ms. Meikle was at his table, greeting all comers with alacrity, despite her physical difficulties.
“Her willingness to put herself at the centre of an intensely personal story, with no strings attached, was truly admirable,” Mr. Bridge recalls. “As they drilled through her skull to set the electrodes – she was wide awake and talking, because the surgeon had to ask her questions to get the placement correct – I remember thinking this was one of the most intimate moments I’ve shared with anyone in my life.”