Be genuine. Speak and write (grammatically) from the heart, no matter whether it’s about burning the cookies you made for your son’s grade-school class, your divorce or your devastating diagnosis of leukemia. And never use clichés, even if you are wont to “seize the day” – spending an evening at not one, not two, but three restaurants, or pulling over to the side of a gridlocked highway on a pounding hot summer’s day to jump in a lake.
That was Linda Lewis all over – bright and pragmatic, a writer, editor, mother, cancer activist and late-blooming Toronto Maple Leafs fan who knew how to take advantage of limited, precious moments and shared them with family, friends and perfect strangers.
As editor of Today’s Parent for more than a decade, Ms. Lewis chronicled the trials and joys of being a working parent. In 2006, she left Today’s Parent to run the Canadian edition of More magazine. In a way, More was her third child – a publication that was specifically aimed at women like her, over 40 and concerned with issues other than 100 ways to make him love you in bed.
From its layout to its stories about change and taking chances, it was a reflection of Ms. Lewis from the get-go. Her monthly Letter from Linda, in which she chronicled everything from her divorce to the challenges of raising two teens and her meeting with Michaëlle Jean, at the time Canada’s governor-general, garnered her a whole new set of fans from across the country.
Kim Pittaway, a former editor of Chatelaine magazine who later freelanced for More, noted that Ms. Lewis was a generous editor who left the writer on the page.
“Linda didn’t need to see her fingerprints in anything because her DNA was throughout,” she said. “For such a tiny person, she had a big footprint: blunt, funny and unafraid to be real about the uncomfortable stuff along the way. And still, she maintained that ability to laugh at the absurdity of it all – even when it seemed tragic.”
For the past few years, Ms. Lewis lived with a rare blood condition that her doctors suspected had developed because of her exposure to chemotherapy years earlier to treat cervical cancer. Last summer, the condition worsened into a bone marrow disorder called myelofibrosis, which in turn became acute myeloid leukemia.
Ms. Lewis cleared her desk, took a medical leave and entered treatment. Little did she know that in November, More would be shuttered for good, a casualty of plummeting ad revenues.
“I was devastated,” Ms. Lewis told the Toronto Star’s Judith Timson. “But let’s prioritize here. I am mainly concerned for my staff.”
Ms. Lewis, who died July 22 in her Toronto home at the age of 52, had a bittersweet, unsparing, often funny Twitter account – @LindaOnLeukemia – that chronicled her treatment. The focus was: “Things that don’t suck.”
“Got excited when Supertramp was playing. Then realized it was a Coke commercial. I am old,” read a tweet from May 19.
“At Princess Marg Hospital waiting to see if I need a transfusion … keep thinking of those in Boston who ran to donate blood a week ago,” read another from April 22.
The news about her leukemia diagnosis and her tweets brought a flood of correspondence, including this from Ms. Jean: “You are never alone, for we are many to stand by you, every single day with all our hearts. Because in your own way, you too have known how to comfort us and have helped us muster the very best in our own selves. … You are awesome!”
Ms. Lewis’s identical twin sister, Leora Eisen, also a journalist, took comfort in the words of a friend who also lost someone too young: “If we can measure a person’s life by the impact they have on others, then some people have a spark that burns so brightly, so intensely, that it simply burns out quicker than others,” she said. “Some may take a lifetime to make a difference, to cast light and warmth on those around them – but not Linda.”
Born in Toronto on June 3, 1961, Linda was – by five minutes – the youngest of Sydney Aisenberg and Judy Wolfe’s three children. With older brother Ron, their childhood was filled with sports and books. Linda, though not an athlete by nature, led the way: By the age of 11, where other kids or adults might have used them as doorstops, she had already read Leo Tolstoy’s weighty War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In Grade 9, she broke both her legs the first time she ever went downhill skiing.
“Linda being Linda, she learned how to ski when she got better,” Ms. Eisen said.
In 1980, the family was devastated when Mr. Aisenberg, a chartered accountant, died of cancer at 52. But life went on, the twin sisters growing ever closer. They both began their journalism careers in the mid-1980s, settling in Toronto and living only one street away from each other.
While Ms. Eisen worked in television, Ms. Lewis carved out a career writing for magazines such as Chatelaine, enRoute and Saturday Night. In 1993, she took over the helm at Today’s Parent.
At work, she was driven but devoted to her staff, celebrating their achievements and standing up for them to her bosses, sometimes to her detriment. Sarah Moore, her aide-de-camp over 12 years at two magazines, recalled that Ms. Lewis made sure the magazine featured many different voices, for the experience of parenting is as varied as children themselves.
“Linda was very open about not being a perfect parent,” Ms. Moore said. “She was never prescriptive and never tried to pretend she had all the answers.”
Ms. Lewis loved her children more than anything, but she could also be demanding, sometimes even docking her son Casey’s allowance if he made a grammatical mistake.
She could juggle car-pooling for her children’s activities with multiple assignments at the office, yet was forever looking for her reading glasses. She was also known to forget her laptop in taxis.
Before Ms. Lewis took over Today’s Parent, Ms. Moore said, the magazine had been a serious affair, treating parenting as a near-sacred undertaking, but under her leadership it became a lively forum for debate and humour.
Humour and a sense of purpose stood Ms. Lewis in good stead when she was diagnosed at 39 with cervical cancer. After surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, she co-founded the Cervical Cancer Research Fund at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation and put her own face on the disease. Knowing the importance of early detection to save lives, she went on the stump in support of a vaccine that protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is contracted through sexual activity and has been proven to cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer.
After Ms. Lewis wrote about her leukemia diagnosis in More last fall, a Grade 2 teacher in Edmonton who was a faithful reader of the magazine had her class make cards with drawings that showed them doing things with Ms. Lewis – going to Starbucks, snowboarding. Her favourite was from a little boy named Josh, who’d drawn a picture of them holding cups.
“Me and Linda had hot cocoa in Toronto,” it read. The teacher had attached a sticky note saying it was the first time he’d ever written a complete sentence.
In her final days, Ms. Lewis’s family made sure she was not alone in her yellow bedroom. When she was able to, she talked. When she couldn’t, she smiled and held their hands.
Ms. Lewis leaves her children, Casey and Nikki Lewis, mother, brother, sister, brother-in-law and partner, Tim Pennock.
Mr. Pennock recalled that hot summer drive home to Toronto two years ago from Niagara-on-the-Lake. “The 100,000 other people on the highway that day grumbled, sweated and cursed while Linda saw opportunity and literally jumped right in,” he said.
“She could squeeze life into something, never out of it.”