April 17, 2019

Remembering Margie

At five feet two inches tall, you might miss Margaret ‘Margie’ Kay Smith-Wingert if you passed her on the street. With her with size six shoes and a slow, only-slightly-steady walk, you might see that diminutive woman and pass her off as meek and mild.

She was anything but.

Margie, aged two 
Margie at St. Anthony'; her first communion. 
As a three-year-old, Margie, born in small-town Iowa, lost her mom. She and her older siblings were under the sole care of their father, but in time, they were all given up to live at Saint Anthony's Orphanage, Sioux City, Iowa.  Margie and her siblings lived there for a few years, and some of Margie’s earliest memories were of the nuns, and the communal bedrooms. Margie and her siblings were all adopted to different families, without decent records of who went where. Imagine being a young child, set adrift into middle America with a new family.

Life over the years after that was not always kind or easy for Margie, but through it all, she maintained her faith in God, and an optimism about life that can only be described as admirable. Margie loved to laugh, and with a big voice and traces of her mid-western accent, there was no mistaking Margie when Margie was talking. 

Margie thrived against some of the odds she faced. Various work roles found her bouncing around a bit in her younger years--Denver, Portland, and Seattle were among her stops.  It was there in Seattle, Washington, in the early 80’s, that Margie applied for a nannying job for a doctor’s daughter. That doctor was my future mother-in-law, and she needed someone to take care of my future wife, Kate, age four at the time. My mother-in-law reflected recently on the phone interview she had with Margie, saying she was head-and-shoulders the best applicant she had. A face-to-face interview firmed up the deal, and that was that. 

So began a life-long relationship with Margie.

Margie and Kate

Margie moved to Canada with my wife’s family after a few years in Seattle, and continued working, helping to raise Kate until Kate was 10 years old. She came to them a stranger, but left as one of the family. She also gained her Canadian citizenship along the way. Canada was Margie's new homeland. 

Margie, unfortunately, began to suffer from trigeminal neuralgia. A surgery attempt to solve the problem only made it worse. Margie would be on opioid pain medications for the rest of her life. That made matters difficult as the pain and medication made it impossible for Margie to do meaningful work, and prolonged medication use led to all sorts of other side effects. She had the shakes, suffered from painful kidney stones, detached retinas (she went blind in one eye in recent years), and more. Over the years her intersections with the health system were many. There, too, she wasn't always noticed. She had a few close calls for being sent home when there was a real problem that got dismissed. Given all her medication use for her neuralgia, one could easily dismiss her as a confused addict. But, her determination and optimism kept her going.

Over the years, Margie had managed to reconnect with her siblings, all of whom lived in the U.S.. Their upbringings were all pretty different, based on the families they were adopted into. Margie was thankful to have their connections. Between her Smith clan and her Wingert clan, it expanded her world to be able to include in-laws, nieces and nephews. She was able to travel now and again to visit them, and the advent of Skype and facetime calling kept her in regular touch.


I first met Margie when I was 17, maybe 18 years old. Margie was still very much in Kate’s life. Living in Surrey next to Vancouver, she’d come out for the occasional supper or family celebration, like our wedding, and for birthday dinners. She would fawn over our kids, bringing them little trinkets or stuffed animals every time she visited. 

"Aunty Margie" with Sacha and Heidi in 2015.
Heidi still wears that dress, which Margie gave her.

To them, she was their aunty Margie. Heidi, my daughter, was a particular benefactor of Margie’s collections of bracelets, costume jewellery, little dresses, dolls and stuffies.  Margie didn’t have much money, but she was always such a giver. Not just of things, but of her time and her warm spirit.
Margie would talk a lot about her church—she was a faithful Catholic—and about singing in the choir, one of her absolute loves in life.

Margie was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2018. As the cancer progressed, it was the loss of her singing voice she lamented about most often, never mind the tumours all over her body, especially that one late in the game which threatened to shatter her femoral head inside her hip joint. No, Margie didn't complain much about that. She missed her singing voice. 

In the fall of 2018, no longer able to live in an unsupported place, she came home. Home to Kate’s mum’s house, where she’d spent all those years taking care of Kate as a little girl.
One more Christmas Tree for Margie
Home to some of the extended family she’d made for herself. Her sisters came up to visit at different times, and friends came calling as well. Some time passed, and we brought her faux Christmas tree over. Our kids helped her decorate it, old Christmas favourites playing on the iPad as Margie reminisced about Christmas' past. 

When the time came that she could no longer be supported in the house, she spent a few weeks at the Vancouver General Hospital palliative care ward. There was a hummingbird nested in a tree just outside her window. In First Nations culture, the hummingbird is seen as a healer and a bringer of love, good luck and joy. Margie loved that she had one nearby, and saw it as a positive sign.

A few weeks on, a hospice bed was found for Margie. There, too, Hummingbirds came to feed just outside her window. She decided that maybe those little birds were some of her guardian angels. Margie was an animal lover. She talked in her final weeks how she hoped heaven had a doggy daycare where she could tend to some puppies for her eternity. 

During her weeks in hospice, she had lots of pastoral care visits, visits from friends, one of her sisters came to stay with her for a long stretch, and we visited, too, of course. 

It was there, at St. John hospice on the grounds of the University of British Columbia, her journey ended. She passed peacefully, surrounded by some of that chosen family: Kate’s hand, which Margie had held so many times before, was there to hold Margie’s as she took her final breaths. There’s something about that which just seems so right to me.

Today we’re all thankful that Margie chose to answer the ‘help wanted’ ad for a nanny job, and we know that Margie’s been delivered into the hands of her loving God in whom she placed all her faith and devotion, and that she is reunited with the mother she lost so long ago, and that she is feeling no pain. During her funeral mass, Father Paul Smith noted that there are many roads in life. On Margie's road, there were a lot of potholes, but that doesn't mean she didn't experience a full, rich life, full of love and laughter despite some of her odds. 

Before her time was up, Margie wrote many of us letters, which we all received this week. In her shaky hand, she wrote to those she held dear. I was lucky enough to be on her list. I’m not going to share precisely what she had to say, but I will paraphrase this piece:  she promised that once she got to heaven, she’d make sure to say hi to my mom and dad for me, and to tell them 'thanks' for the way they raised me.

But that was just Margie. Giving a million times more than she ever got, I think. 

No doubt the pearly gates were flung wide open for you this week, Margie, and you strode through with big-hair-don't-care-attitude, singing praise that you've finally arrived at your Forever Home. God's noticed you all along, Margie, and he's glad you're around to liven up the place. 

You will be missed, “Aunty Margie”. We love you lots.