MEMOIR: Meeting Penny

I met Penny at a gourmet dinner party for singles. I was six months out of a 17year marriage and very busy writing scores for the pavilions at Expo 86. Another composer I had worked with had gone to the first of these dinners. Although nothing came of his experience, he thought I should “give it a go” because it was a means of meeting people who were probably fairly interesting. After 17 years of trying to deal with a very dysfunctional woman, I was determined to never repeat getting “involved”. However, since I wasn’t completely antisocial I thought that anyone going to a gourmet dinner might prove to be interesting. I purchased a ticket and had a talk with the organizer who asked me what I did for a living and if there was anything I might be bothered by at one of her dinners. I said I did have one problem with loud music, particularly live music where one had to shout to be heard. She took note of this and assured me there would be no live music at her dinner. At the time I was 49, so when I was asked which age group I preferred to be seated with I said my own age group: I figured that younger women would certainly not have much in common with an “old guy” like me. There was certainly no shortage of single women and I found I was having a great time flirting with them. Finally, after a period of mixing, I was seated at a table next to an astonishingly beautiful woman who, to my surprise, seemed attracted to me. Not only was she beautiful but, as we got over the initial getting to know you chatter, I found her to be intellectually more than my match; in fact, blazingly smart. She asked me what I did for a living. I replied that I was a musician. She thought I said “magician”. This news put her off because she thought that magicians were akin to folks that worked in carnivals. Suddenly we heard piano music. We looked up to see a young woman playing the piano and my table mate, Penny (by now we knew each other’s names) commented that she liked the music and wondered what the young pianist was playing. I knew, of course, that it was Mozart and said so. Penny asked me how I knew that. Being the smart aleck that I am, I pointed to the score on the piano and answered that there was a large M on the cover page which made it easy for me to guess. Just at this moment, the hostess came over to where I was sitting to apologize for the live music being played. (This because I had said I didn’t like to have to shout over loud music at a dinner!) So now, I’m a “magician” who doesn’t like music and is a smart Aleck. This gave Penny food for thought about me. She then excused herself to go to the lady’s room. While she was gone, I went over to the piano to talk to the pianist who, finding out I was a musician, asked me if I wanted to try the piano out. I sat down and played a section of a Rachmaninoff prelude I was particularly fond of. The other guests were astounded. I went back to my table in time for desert. Penny returned to be told that the “magician” who hated live music, and was a smart Aleck, had just finished playing a difficult piano piece. How could she possibly want to get to know such a jerk? But she did and we exchanged phone numbers. I phoned her the next day and asked her if she would like to come to my apartment for dinner. I bragged that I made a great pot roast. (LOL) Little did I know Penny was a fantastic cook. She said she would love to come for dinner. When she came she was somewhat taken aback at the table setting: One plate, fork and knife, part of a paper towel for a napkin, no wine, and a glass of water. She said that her reaction was a mixture of amusement and feeling sorry for me. She was also taken aback when she saw, in my bedroom, the single captain’s bed I slept in; a pretty strong message about my attitude to getting “involved”. Then I asked her if she would like desert. Yes, she would. My response was to point to a McDonald’s across the street where we could get Sundays. Now you should know that Penny had been wined and dined by millionaires, her ex husband being one of many who courted her. I found out later that Penny’s mother had urged her to attend the dinner where we met because she “had a feeling” Penny would meet someone very interesting. Also, Penny had a girl friend who had bought a ticket to the dinner, but couldn’t go so she gave Penny her ticket. (Later the girl friend accused Penny of taking the man, me, meant for her. Later I met the girl friend who was not a patch on Penny.) As we got to know each other the one area in our relationship that we were both afraid to deal with (aside from sex because I was so inhibited. In fact Penny thought I might be gay. She said it didn’t matter!) was my music. I was a “contemporary” Canadian composer and most contemporary music was singularly unattractive to a lot of the listening public, which included her. A lot of this music is composed by academics and written for other academics who “appreciate” the “burps and farts”, as one musician I know characterizes it, was anathema to most of those who like classical music. Penny hated this atonal sort of thing and was terrified this would be what I composed. What if she hated the music I wrote? The moment of truth came when Penny said she really wanted to go to Expo 86 but couldn’t afford the ticket or find someone to go with. If that was the case, I suggested I take her. I had written the music scores for four of the pavilions as well as the opening fanfare. I chose the U.N. pavilion because I knew that Penny was a fan of shows like “The Nature of Things” which often dealt with concerns about what was happening to the planet. There was a long line up waiting outside the pavilion to see the featured film and we duly took our place in the line. Then, much to our surprise (and to those others waiting) two ushers came rushing up to us. “Michael”, they shouted, “Come with us!” They practically dragged us to the pavilion doors and took us inside. Apparently, the director of the pavilion recognized me as the composer of the music for their show; this made me some kind of celebrity in his eyes. I was quite embarrassed to be singled out, but Penny had a huge grin on her face. We were ushered to choice seats. When the opening titles came up and my name appeared across the screen, Penny squeezed my hand. When the music started she squeezed my hand again, and then she asked me who was playing the piano part; when I said it was me, she squeezed my hand even harder. The music was very “new age” and complimented the shots of outer space. She just loved the show, especially the music. My worries about my music were over. This experience was repeated when we attended the other pavilions whose special films I had scored. She loved the music I had written so, naturally, I was “over the moon”. All this praise from her gave me much needed confidence, something I was singularly lacking at this time in my life. Thus began a relationship that lasted until her death 30 years later

We were deliriously happy. But this happiness ended when, returning from a concert of new age music in Seattle, she suddenly gasped. Her stomach had swollen up to the point where she had to loosen her seat belt. We thought that the cause was food poisoning. But, no, this was the first symptom of what was to be finally diagnosed as “post polio syndrome”. Many years before when she was in high school, she and two other friends had been swimming in an outdoor pool which had been closed the following day due to a polio epidemic. She and her friends had contracted the polio virus. All three went to bed and their doctors were puzzled by their symptoms which featured extremely high temperatures. The fevers subsided but, unbeknownst to all concerned, the virus stayed in their bodies only to surface years later. When this occurred, the victims experienced excruciating pain, headaches, memory loss, bleeding from sores all over their bodies, and debilitating loss of muscle usage. We made the rounds of doctors almost all of whom admitted they simply didn’t know what the problem was. This went on for months until, finally, we went to a doctor who said he had just attended a workshop which dealt with Penny’s symptoms. This was Dr. Warren Mayo who excitedly announced: “I know what this is! Unfortunately, it means you (Penny) will be very sick for a very long time.” Our hopes for a normal future were shattered. Dr. Mayo then asked us if there had been some kind of trauma that could have caused the virus to be activated. We looked at each other: A few months before, I was taken to the emergency ward for appendicitis. We had phoned Penny’s doctor whose replacement said I was too old to have appendicitis. (I was 49) The doctor would examine me on Monday. (This was Friday). Never the less, Penny put me on a diet of weak broth and then drove me to the hospital. After tests revealed a high white blood cell count, I was taken immediately to surgery. Penny told me later she thought I would die. I had never been given anesthetic and the hospital made me sign a waiver exonerating them in case anything went wrong! She said she sat in her car crying for hours thinking I wouldn’t survive; she would lose me. This was, without doubt, the trauma that set off the polio virus. Now it seemed she would, indeed be very sick for a very long time. I had been told by a friend, “You know she loves you” which shocked me because I didn’t at that time think anyone could love me. (I was pretty damaged psychologically). I looked at her suddenly overwhelmingly aware I loved her and wanted to take care of her, no matter what! I immediately asked her to marry me. She was astounded, but I knew if the situation was reversed she would commit herself to caring for me in exactly the same way. She had already proven that when she took me to the hospital. She could have simply left me in the care of the doctors and nurses and disappeared from my life.

Our 30 years together has been a roller coaster which go with the life of freelance artists. Everything would depend on my getting work which, to say the least, was sporadic. Because she was now so sick, we determined that she would work at home. The work she did for me, despite the unremitting pain in almost every part of her body, speaks volumes about her courage. She faced each day with a smile and she often quoted the song “Look for the Silver Lining”. The lyrics she wrote for the songs we did together reflect her philosophy of optimism. Here is an excerpt from the lyric she wrote for the song sung at our wedding. (I must also point out she wrote the melody, which she “heard” in a dream just before our wedding.

Love is a fairy story, which we know is just not true

Believing in happy endings is not something grownups do

But I wait for happy endings long after the play is through

Believing enough in happy endings may make them true for you

When we first met I was almost overwhelmed by her talents – plural! She had been the CEO of a large employment agency which, out of all the employment agencies in B.C., had been judged the most honest and trustworthy in the province. (But like many other businesses, it collapsed because of the recession of 1982. She lost everything and had to declare bankruptcy. Because she was self employed, she didn’t even qualify for unemployment insurance. She qualified for well fare but found it so humiliating she didn’t apply until she was desperate. She survived by doing book keeping jobs. But it was difficult and she admitted to being financially strapped. As I got to know her I found that she had amazing skills: She did accounting and could deal with both personal and corporate tax filings; she did para legal work because, at one time, she had worked for a lawyer who turned out to be a crook! (She had learned to read the fine print in contracts. Later, when we were married and she was a partner in my publishing company, I discovered all this. When she went with me to a meeting with the accountant who was doing my taxes, Penny was horrified to quickly learn the accountant had been ripping me off. After a few probing questions from Penny, the accountant realized he had just lost one of his best clients. Penny scrutinized every contract I was asked to sign and, most often, returned the contracts with questions which revealed unethical practices. Heaven help the shysters who tried to cheat us! Aside from her phenomenal accounting skills and para legal skills, she revealed that she was a fantastic cook and hostess; many of my clients treasured the invitations to parties and dinners. At the launch of my CBC recording, she organized a party for almost 300 people. She precooked everything with the help of two young helpers. Guests were astounded when they asked who the caterer was and were told it was all Penny! Her butter tarts were famous to the point where masters of ceremonies would brag that they had received a basket of Penny’s famous butter tarts. (And those that knew would nod their heads in recognition.) One of the film projects I was scoring involved a director who was ready to quit. Penny asked me to find out what his favorite meal was. It was Rack of Lamb. I cajoled the director into coming for one last meal before he left for the airport. Penny cooked a fantastic meal of roast Rack of Lamb. He ate two whole racks, drank a glass of wine, put his napkin down and announced he would be returning to the set. Penny’s cooking saved many jobs, including my job as the composer of the music! How could I lose with a wife like that?

Penny knew my music well enough to often suggest just the right piece of mine for any one of the many music projects I was involved with. When Dorothy Hamill came to our house to discuss the largest commission I would ever receive, which was for her ice ballet “Cinderella: Frozen in Time” Penny suggested my Expo fanfare as the opening number. The choreographer, Tim Murphy, was beside himself with delight when I played him the Vancouver Symphony recording. Tim was desperate for music he could take away to choreograph to. Time was very short because the skaters, ice rinks, etc. had been already booked. Penny then thought that a piano piece called “Evergreen Love” from my Rainforest Suite might work as Cinderella’s theme. When I played this music for Tim, he practically jumped out of his chair. “Yes, yes,!” he said. Dorothy was equally excited. Tim was planning on an ensemble piece called “Village Fair” which would involve a lot of the skaters. Was there anything I had written that might work? Penny immediately suggested an orchestral piece I had written for the CBC called Chanson Joyeuse. (Why didn’t I think of this? It was, after all, my music!) “Perfect” said Tim and Dorothy. What about the Prince’s theme? Penny, again, came up with just the right music; a very romantic section from my “Flight of Aphrodite”. This was just incredible. Penny had just provided a large chunk of the musical score. Now Tim could go back to Baltimore and work on the choreography for all this music. I honestly doubt I could have come up with these suggestions. Penny just seemed to “know” what would work.>br>

When it came to the original songs we were often asked provide I discovered that Penny had a real talent for writing lyrics. She was often quite dismissive of her ability to provide lyrics and I had to tell her time and again that most composers I knew would give their eye teeth to be married to a lyricist! It wasn’t just that she could come up with a lyric, but also that she could do it so quickly. In film scoring, a composer is often required to provide music “yesterday!”. Deadlines for finished songs were insane. More often than not, we would have to produce a song in one day, book a singer and recording studio, and have the song ready to be “laid in” to the film sound track by the next day. Penny liked to work with the melody first, so I would make a tape for her, looped so she could play it and listen to it many times, and come up with just the right lyric. I’ve asked professional lyricists to do this and they just laugh!

Our lives continued on this roller coaster until, one day, I returned home to find her, as usual, sitting in her office chair. She looked stunned and when I talked to her she didn’t respond. She had had a paralytic stroke, a TIA. After a while when I tried to figure out what to do, she seemed to recover and I thought she would be alright. But this was the beginning of many of strokes which left her right side without sensation. As always Penny looked on the bright side. “Well, I’m left handed. Isn’t that lucky because the stroke has affected my right side?” I had a hard time not choking back tears. During the weeks and months that followed she would stagger to her office to work, but as time went on work became more and more difficult for her. Not being able to stand at the stove to cook was a major blow. She loved cooking (we watched innumerable cooking shows together) and to not be able to make meals was, yet, another pleasure taken away from her. On top of this, she had contacted a dreadful Noro virus. For whatever reason, vomiting caused her to panic. Perhaps because of a fear of choking. Her diarrhea was severe but she was fearful of taking anything that would stop it because if it did it would cause her to vomit. Add terrible diabetic neuropathy in her feet which kept her from sleeping and you have the worst combination of symptoms imaginable. I desperately searched for solutions, but as soon as I thought I had found something for one of her conditions, another would surface. Knowing we were on a downhill slope, she told me I could put her in a nursing home or send her to the hospital. She would certainly understand. She could see the toll her condition was taking on me. But I was adamant that she remain home where I could, with some help, care for her. We spent a lot of our savings fixing up her bedroom and bathroom. We purchased a walkin bath which helped her feel she could, at least, bathe. (She would proudly show off her bedroom and bath to visitors.) And I do know all this made her more comfortable, but the reality of what was happening to her tore me apart. In spite of all this, she always greeted me with a smile in the morning and I always made her a crumpet with her favorite jam or marmalade. (But it had to be crisp, or back it went to be toasted again!) She insisted on getting a DNR (do not resuscitate) placed on the refrigerator. She just did not wish to be artificially kept alive. The strokes continued and then she had her first heart attack. She seemed to recover somewhat when, a few weeks later she had another one. I managed to get her to, ironically, Dr. Mayo, now specializing in heart disease, who was the first doctor to diagnose her condition almost 25 years ago. He felt she could have a heart operation but, unfortunately, she had fluid in her lungs which turned out to be pneumonia. He said he couldn’t operate until the pneumonia was cleared up. This could take weeks. Penny was having trouble breathing, so I got her an oxygen machine. This seemed to help her a lot and my thought was, if she could improve, she could go out with a portable oxygen machine. I was so hopeful, that when she asked me if we could afford an electric wheel chair, I said of course we could. All this gave her, and me, hope she could recover enough to have more time with some quality of life. By now I had rigged up a bell system which enabled her to ring me at any time. She used the bell fairly often, particularly when she panicked and/or fell out of bed. She would ring, often at 2 or 3 in the morning: I would stagger in trying to wake up enough to find her gasping for breath. I would turn up the oxygen and sit with her trying to calm her. She complained of pain in her back so I messaged her back as best I could. Finally, one day after a series of unremitting night calls, she insisted I take a break and go to a hotel or BNB for a few days because of the toll her condition was taking on me. I finally agreed because I was exhausted. I left her in the care of her wonderful care worker, Heather, who Penny loved as the daughter she never had. Heather had lost her own mother shortly before coming to us and adopted Penny as someone who could help her deal with her loss. I loved to hear the two of them giggling like school girls. Their relationship seemed to be one of the few bright spots in the unremitting pain that Penny was always enduring. However, the first night I was away on my respit, Penny had a massive heart attack. Because she couldn’t breathe she allowed Heather to phone for an ambulance. Penny insisted that I not be told what had happened to her because she felt I desperately needed a break. I was to be away for three days and, despite her appalling condition, she wanted to be home when I returned. The doctors told her she was in no condition to go home and, in fact, Penny would have to stay in the hospital for weeks. But Penny was determined to go home. The doctors told her that, in order to prove she was well enough to go home, she would have to walk the length of the hospital hallway and then walk back again. Penny forced herself to do just that. I can’t imagine the grit, pain, and determination she called forth to walk such a distance on her crippled legs. But she did and the hospital had to release her into Heather’s care. I heard all about this when I returned home and could hardly believe what had happened and what she endured just to get home. When I got home I found her in bed, comfortable enough, but very weak. From then on Penny seemed to sink. I think that her hope of recovery became less and less. Even still, she put on a brave face and tried to smile. Her muscles got weaker, the diarrhea and vomiting got worse, she couldn’t eat much, if anything. All through this ordeal our wonderful cat, Scottie, (her bed buddy) stayed with her and was certainly a comfort. The strokes continued, although she didn’t want to tell me knowing it would upset me even more. Finally, on Thursday morning, February 8, at 2 a.m. she rang my bell. And yet, again, for the umpteenth time, I staggered out of bed and into her room. She was sitting on the bed aspirating blood! I removed the oxygen tubes from her nose because the tubes were clogged with blood. She was gasping and trying to breathe. I held her and tried to calm her and tried to massage her back, which had helped her before. Then she seemed to relax so I gently let her sink onto the bed. I realized later that it was at this moment she died. It has always been a comfort to me to know that she died in the arms of someone who loved her so much, in her own room and in her own bed and with her wonderful “bed buddy” Scottie, our cat, and not in a strange place with total strangers. I phoned Heather who came and sat with me. Penny was lying on her side with her eyes closed and she seemed at peace. That is the last image I have of her. The police doctor came and confirmed what Heather and I already knew. Penny was gone. At last her terrible ordeal during all those years was over.

As I sit here with tears streaming down my face and hardly able to see what I’m writing I’m all the more aware of the awful loss I feel. I know in my heart that I wanted the pain to end for Penny, but still feel that a good part of me has gone too!

Penny didn’t want a funeral. She said she had no friends and no one would come to any service in her memory. I know this just isn’t so. I have received a flood of letters, cards, phone calls and emails from people who loved her. Many of my friends have said that Penny and I were an example of what a true marriage should be. This is more rewarding for me than any of the other achievements I may have earned. To all those reading these words I just want to say that it’s not just the good times that make a long and lasting relationship, it’s those times when we think we just can’t carry on, but we DO carry on. It’s the carrying on that proves the strength of our character and compensates for all those times we could have, perhaps, tried harder to be kinder and more caring. The most I can say about myself is that I tried. I know, for certain, I failed many times but, at least I tried to live up to being a decent and loving husband. I believe that the secret to our lasting relationship was based on true mutual admiration. Certainly, on my part, Penny was the most admirable human being I’ve ever known.

Michael Conway Baker

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