Skip to main content

"Do we look different?" Gina Wilkinson would ask anyone who entered the room as she grabbed the hand of her husband, Tom Rooney, and beamed a bright smile.

"Yes," would come the reply. "I think so."

Ms. Wilkinson and Mr. Rooney had just been married.

The visitor might be a doctor, a whole team of them, a nurse, or a friend. Ms. Wilkinson was in Toronto's Princess Margaret Hospital. She had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer only three weeks before, and in 10 more days – on Dec. 30 – she would die at the age of 50.

Happiness only comes when things are going well for us. Right?

Well, maybe not.

Maybe it's something that can creep in when you least expect it, when things go very wrong and the world is dark. And maybe it's something you can create for yourself and for those around you; a wilful act, the parting of a heavy curtain.

Ms. Wilkinson and Mr. Rooney had been together for almost 10 years. An acclaimed theatre director, playwright and actor on the Canadian theatre scene for three decades, Ms. Wilkinson met Mr. Rooney, an actor with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in 2000 in Calgary, where both were performing in Appetite, a play by Eugene Stickland.

By the following year they were living together in Toronto.

She had been directing plays since 1997, but her big moment came in 2009, when Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of Ontario's Shaw Festival, asked her to direct Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday. The late Neil Munro, a veteran director at the festival, was ill. The show went on to be the hit of the season.

It was in July last year, following the opening-night celebration for J.M. Barrie's Half an Hour, another play she directed at Shaw, that Ms. Wilkinson's health problems started. "She had danced quite a bit at the party, and she woke up with a bad back," Mr. Rooney says. But she had chronic issues with arthritic hips and back pain, so she figured it was a familiar ailment that would pass. Her family doctor also thought the problem was arthritis.

In November, she and Mr. Rooney went to Winnipeg, where she approached the Manitoba Theatre Centre to mount The Seafarer by Conor McPherson. She would direct and Mr. Rooney would act. The pain persisted, and a doctor at a walk-in clinic suggested an ultrasound.

A pelvic ultrasound showed irregularities; a CT scan revealed a mass in her uterus. The couple quit the show and returned to Toronto. Another scan showed the cancer had metastasized to her lung, liver and pelvic bone. Always conscientious about her health, Ms. Wilkinson had had annual pap smears. Her last one had been normal.

People often talk about the happiness that's possible in extremis. Paul Quarrington, the celebrated author and musician, said after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in May, 2009: "Having decided that life is beautiful ... one year should seem as full of beauty and grace as 40." He died eight months later at age 56.

For two weeks before Ms. Wilkinson's admission to hospital, she and Mr. Rooney had a peaceful period in their house in Stratford, which they'd bought in 2009 – the first real-estate purchase for both of them.

Her pain was being managed, although it grew worse in the second week. They were going to and from Toronto for appointments. The days were sunny. Snow fell gently. They did yoga, went for walks. They rewatched the movie of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Rooney read to her. She loved to look out the big windows into the stillness of the white landscape, he recalls. Happiness is often very ordinary. "We were just so happy to be together and to be home."

They had talked about getting married last summer, but they were always busy and time slipped by. Neither had been married or had children. Now there was no more time. Once Ms. Wilkinson was admitted to hospital on Dec. 14, each day brought a new reality. Her kidneys were failing. So was her liver.

"I never saw anger," Mr. Rooney says. "I saw fear. I saw sadness, but a lot of that sadness was worry about others. She still continued to say, 'I feel so happy.' She was so aware of the gifts, meeting these great doctors, and the army of friends from all over who rallied around her."

On Friday at the end of that week, they decided to get married. Ms. Wilkinson – one of those impossibly glamorous women who know how to smoke a cigarillo, drink red wine and wear a quirky dress with panache – taped together two hospital gowns and instructed one of her friends to sew them together according to her design. Pleated at the back, the gowns were cinched with a wide cummerbund. Her wedding shoes were slippers.

Before her wedding day, a friend came to touch up her grey roots. Brought to the chapel at the Toronto General Hospital in a wheelchair, she stood for the brief ceremony, led by her Buddhist healer. Another friend made a three-tiered wedding cake with a Lego couple perched on top. No one ate any – Ms. Wilkinson had lost her appetite.

But the next day, while she was being moved through the long underground tunnel from Toronto General to Princess Margaret Hospital for chemotherapy, she held the cake carefully on her lap. Whenever anyone passed by, often with a look of sorrow at the sight of the jaundiced, thin woman with various tubes in her arms, she would exclaim, "We just got married!" which prompted people to call out congratulations.

Three years ago, the couple had been through a rough patch. They had split for a year. "But Gina had the courage to help us through," Mr. Rooney says. "She understood that it's in the mess of life where we learn to live, we learn to love and to become bigger. In the last scene of [her play] My Mother's Feet, one of the lines is that we move out of the darkness and into the light, and I think that's what Gina was doing all her life."

"Life didn't always bring happiness to Gina, but she had the innate ability to make her own happiness," Mr. Rooney continues. He pauses in reflection. "She was not a type," he says. "She was Gina Wilkinson."

Gina Wilkinson's memorial takes place Monday at 3 p.m. at the Jane Mallett Theatre in Toronto. Donations can be made to the Ontario Arts Foundation in support of the Gina Wilkinson Award for Emerging Female Directors.