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Anita Mary Unruh

Anita Mary Unruh: Mother. Listener. Academic. Gardener. Born May 3, 1952, in St. Catharine's, Ont.; died July 31, 2017 in Halifax; of cancer; aged 65.

Anita Unruh went to parties to understand people. While everyone else was flitting from one group to the other, chatting about movies, politics or the weather, Anita was listening intently to an old friend or a new acquaintance. When the evening ended, she would remark how interesting that person was. When Anita was listening, you were the only person in the world. Her mission in life was to understand people.

I met Anita at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario where I was the psychologist who chatted up the single, attractive women (she told me that years later) and she was the quiet occupational therapist who everyone knew was so good with kids. I asked her out for a drink. I thought we had a good time. When I suggested, on her doorstep, we go out again, she said "No!" A year later, while both sitting at the same group table in the cafeteria, she said she would welcome company on a hike in Gatineau Park that weekend. Others begged off. Turning to me, she asked, "And you?" I was so surprised, I accepted. She got us lost on that hike and that was the first step in our 35-year marriage. We were married in August, 1982, in my sister's backyard in Ottawa. The reception, featured two metchoui lambs and a band led by a 75-year-old Cape Breton fiddler.

Anita was born to parents who had emigrated from neighbouring villages in Russia in the early 1950s and met in Canada. She was the oldest of five in a close-knit, traditional, Mennonite family where the church was the centre of life.

Anita's severe scoliosis prompted her interest in health. A Milwaukee brace, an ugly leather and steel contraption that enveloped her from the base of her spine to her chin for 23 hours a day, failed to halt the progression of her scoliosis. When she was 14 years old, her back was surgically fused and partially straightened with a steel rod. But she never let her scoliosis stop her from enjoying life. Instead, it made her particularly sensitive to the needs of children with chronic illness.

After we married, Anita returned to school for her Master's of Social Work and practised as a social worker. We moved to Halifax in 1989 and she became an academic, starting as a temporary lecturer. She took an interdisciplinary PhD, published papers cited over 3,500 times and taught. Her intensive listening skills came into good use again when she became a university administrator. She finished her career as professor and associate dean in the Faculty of Health.

The most important job for Anita, however, was as a mother to our daughter, Mika. She loved every aspect. Anita read stories to Mika every night until she was 10 years old. Into her 20s, Mika would have reading blitzes with "momsy" when they would read out loud to each other for hours. Anita's second love was her garden. She grew tomatoes in our front yard in Halifax and daylilies around her beloved pond, at our shore house in East LaHave. Once, she manoeuvred an 18-foot oak into our car to bring it back from a nursery.

Anita lived, happy and hopeful for four years with ovarian cancer. She crocheted hats for chemo patients and was an advocate for earlier diagnosis and more research, the hope for the future.

Patrick McGrath is Anita's husband.

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