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Lives Lived: Deirdre Mary Bernadette (Bernie) Schlauch, 59

Deirdre Mary Bernadette (Bernie) Schlauch

Indomitable spirit, wife, mother, dragon boater. Born on Sept. 12, 1954, in Knockraha, Ireland. Died on Sept. 29, 2013, in Toronto, of metastatic breast cancer, aged 59.

One of the first things you noticed about Bernie were her eyes. They were a dazzling green, with lashes so long they probably deserved their own postal code. Through those eyes, she saw the world with exceptional grace and a deep spirituality.

She was number seven of 14 children born to farmers Eugene and Mary Delany. Bernie learned early that idleness got you nowhere. And tiny Knockraha was never going to quench her thirst for adventure. By age 20, she had already been to England to study hairdressing at the Vidal Sassoon school, and was now looking across the pond.

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After hearing about a place called Newfoundland, Bernie was intrigued and visited Canada in 1974. She returned to Ireland after a few months, but in 1975 she was back in Canada, wanting to explore more.

That summer, in Toronto, she met the man who would become her husband. John Schlauch, a cute auto mechanic, got one look at those green eyes and that was it. Bernie continued to work as a hairdresser until they married in 1980, and started a family. Three children came within five years: Matthew, Krystal and Rory.

As her family grew, so did Bernie's interests. She owned a second-hand clothing store in an upscale Toronto neighbourhood. In later years, she and John divided their time between the city and a farm they bought near Flesherton, Ont. Bernie became a passionate gardener and, true to her Irish roots, there was always a 50-pound bag of potatoes in the basement. The kettle was usually on for tea. She insisted it be drunk from a light-coloured cup, so you could see how strong it was.

In 1999, at the age of 45, Bernie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She never let it define her. After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she joined Dragons Abreast, Toronto's dragon-boat team of breast cancer survivors. Such teams race for fun and to raise awareness of the disease.

Dragon boating became Bernie's new passion. She learned to steer, coach and, with donated boats, started two teams in her beloved Grey and Bruce counties. When her cancer kept her from paddling, she took up drumming, keeping pace for the boat. Bernie was especially fearless in a 2,000-metre race, hanging over the side of the bow to help cut corners.

Bernie had a strength of spirit that cancer couldn't kill. Shortly after going back to school in 2010 to become a teaching assistant, she was rediagnosed. But a new round of treatments didn't stop her from getting her certificate. Sadly, she died before she could teach what she had practised.

One of her last wishes was to donate her body to scientific research. She believed in higher education. "I never made it to university," she said, "so this is one way for me to get there." Her corneas were donated to two people. As her husband John said, "If those transplant recipients see the world in half the light Bernie did, they will have a spectacular view."

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Pat Brown and Mary Mather are Bernie's friends.

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