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Lynda Fishman poses for a portrait at her Thornhill home on June 18, 2010. (Sarah Dea/Photo by Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)
Lynda Fishman poses for a portrait at her Thornhill home on June 18, 2010. (Sarah Dea/Photo by Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail)

The Interview

A life resurrected Add to ...

"I chose life."

Those were the first three words Lynda Fishman wrote down when she started her self-published book, Repairing Rainbows: A True Story of Family, Tragedy and Choices.

Since she was 13, she has known the way grief can bring life to a standstill, and now, 40 years later, she wants to describe how she overcame a loss that the families of Air India victims would understand well.

I did a great job at pretending everything was fine. But behind the scenes I was panicking. I couldn't breathe. Lynda Fishman

On July 5, 1970, Ms. Fishman lost her mother and two younger sisters when their Air Canada plane crashed in a field in Brampton, Ont., en route from Montreal to Los Angeles, killing all 109 people on board. The cause was human error.

Ms. Fishman was already with relatives in California, where the family was due to gather for a cousin's bar mitzvah.

Her mother had decided to fly later with her two other daughters so she could attend the wedding of another family member in Montreal. Ms. Fishman had begged her mother to allow her to go earlier with her grandparents.

Her father was in Montreal. He had taken his wife and daughters, Carla and Wendy, then 11 and 8, to the airport that day. Not wanting to leave his store for more than two weeks, he planned on flying to California the week after.

"He never talked about it," Ms. Fishman says now of the event that changed her life. "My father never mentioned their names again. It was complete silence."

At night, she could hear him weeping over his loss. After the crash, he didn't like to be home, and rarely was.

Ms. Fishman, on the cusp of puberty at the time, had to fend for herself as her father descended into depression.

"I waffled between normal and psycho," she writes. She often imagined she could see her sisters sitting on a sofa stroking the family cat, and she conjured her mother leaning over her bed at night, listening to her and speaking quietly.

"I did a great job at pretending everything was fine," Ms. Fishman explains now. "But behind the scenes I was panicking. I couldn't breathe."

Two years later her father remarried, to a woman Ms. Fishman didn't like much. "I loved the father I had for 13 years, but he became a completely different man. He had been a fun dad, but then I didn't know how to speak to him. Getting remarried was a way for him to start over. I moved from anger to pity to resentment."

She stops momentarily. "He chose his new wife over me. I was a painful reminder of what he had lost," she concludes.

Her father's death in 1999 at the age of 75 made it possible to write her book, which is self-published, Ms. Fishman says. A mother of three grown children, she speaks with little bitterness as she sits in the breakfast room of the large house in Thornhill, Ont., that she shares with her husband of 31 years, Barry. She smiles over some memories - her mother's parties, a sister's favourite doll, how her youngest sister was the family entertainer. And cries over others.

Part of the "unique loss" for families whose loved ones perish in plane crashes is that the lack of physical remains can play havoc with the imagination, she says. "In my young child's mind, I remember thinking that maybe they parachuted off. Maybe they were walking around somewhere, lost. I used to think that nobody really proved they were on that plane. Even in a car crash, you have the bodies."

In anticipation of this summer's 40th anniversary of the tragedy, Ms. Fishman contacted the City of Brampton to see about a memorial service. "I had never been to the site," she says. In a field, 109 stones have been laid. The memorial event will be advertised in the cities where victims lived.

The grief is never far from the surface. Ms. Fishman, a clinical social worker, talks about how other kinds of loss - such as losing the day-to-day contact with colleagues and young people at a day camp where she once worked - can trigger painful memories.

But long ago, she had the determination to fill her life with memories and people and happiness.

At 17, she met Barry Fishman, who had lost both his parents - his mother when he was an infant and his father when he was 17. "Nobody really understood what it was like to lose your childhood, but Barry did. Neither of us wanted sympathy. Empathy, yes."

She and her future husband were soon inseparable. At 19, they lived together in a tiny apartment, sleeping in a twin bed, as they worked part-time jobs to put themselves through university. "We never said, 'Let's be wealthy and successful.' It was about making a meaningful life for ourselves."

She has often found solace in helping others. She recently opened her own day camp, Adventure Valley in Thornhill, Ont. She and her husband, who is president and CEO of Teva Pharmaceutical Canada, are involved in fundraising for children dealing with tragedy and illness.

But mostly, her grief has been assuaged by a belief in the spiritual presence of her lost family members. On the long windowsill overlooking her lush garden are several designer birdhouses. Throughout her adult life, birds have swooped into her house or sat quietly on her shoulders. When she visited a psychic several years ago, the message she was given from her mother was simple. "Listen to the birds. Watch them. They're important."

Ms. Fishman tears up as she recounts this. To lighten the mood, she tells me a bird story that illustrates her determination to make life what you want it to be. When she was a young woman, she went on a trip with friends. Outside a church, a bird pooped on her head. The other girls were disgusted. But Ms. Fishman turned to them and said: "Didn't you know that when a bird shits on your head it's seven years of good luck?"

Ms. Fishman is laughing now. "Oh, those girls were so jealous!" she crows. "I swear to God, they were looking for a bird to shit on their heads!"

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