Photo: Mary Barber
> First Person
Cathrin Bradbury’s Year From Hell
In her new memoir The Bright Side, the Toronto journalist recounts how she found solace and strength in a cascade of catastrophe / BY Kim Honey / March 2nd, 2021
Cathrin Bradbury’s annus horibilis begins in 2015 when her beloved Toronto house – which she fought for and won in the divorce from her husband of 25 years – is raining plaster on her head as it is being rewired. Then a promising new love cancels the night before her fabulous 60th birthday trip to Sicily, her mother dies in March, her father dies in November and two weeks later she loses her high-profile job as editor-in-chief of the Metro newspaper chain. It is also a year of jubilation as her brother David, unshackled from the chains of an alcohol addiction after a near-death experience, turns his life around and she reconnects with her childhood friend, Meryl, whom she met when she was six and living in Grimsby, Ont.
The veteran journalist’s first book, The Bright Side: Twelve Months, Three Heartbreaks and One (Maybe) Miracle, is a memoir of longing and loss as well a lightness of being that comes with the dawn of her seventh decade.
Its charm lies in its relatability, which is underscored by Bradbury’s wry voice, black humour and frank assessment of the world and her place in it.
In this Q&A, which has been edited and condensed for length, Bradbury, the senior director of news for CBC, talks about how she found value in introspection. It is followed by an excerpt from the book.
Kim Honey: Who did you write the book for and who do you imagine reading it?
Cathrin Bradbury: The more I thought about it and the more I began to work on the book, I began to believe that the ordinariness – the thing I feared the most – was the thing that might connect most with readers. Everybody has a terrible year. Everybody goes through remarkable upheavals: love and marriage and their home and their parents and troubled family members. And I just thought why not share it with everybody who has the very same experience?
KH: I want to go back to the house, which you call No. 9, because it does represent much more than shelter. What does it mean to you?
CB: When I look back sometimes, I wonder why was it so important for me to keep this house. There are other more important things, for sure. But partly it was the kids. I think divorce is very hard on children, whatever age they are. It was a very, very important refuge to them, and I think in a way it was to me with the end of a 25-year marriage, my parents dying, with so much upheaval. I just needed something that grounded me.
KH: I want to talk about later-in-life relationships, because falling in love with the guy you call Promising New Man was so different. You say you came to it “slowly and carefully.” What was the hesitation?
CB: He was so different from the men I was used to. He was very straight up, a conventional guy, not too intellectual, not stupid, but just a solid citizen or so he seemed, and he didn’t seem to play games and was very, very direct and forthcoming in his love for me very quickly. It was so refreshing, such a change from the reprobates I had throughout my whole life. This was the opposite and I didn’t really a 100 per cent trust that. And it turns out I was right not to.
KH: I did laugh when I read about the email you wrote after he canceled the Sicily trip, and your brother said it would drive him to suicide. And you say, “ Really, which parts?” and hit send. It was funny, but it was painful, wasn’t it?
CB: The Sicily thing had been such a public event. I had told everyone; everyone was excited. As I said in the book, I told the dry cleaning clerk with great excitement and my colleagues made a cake. So the humiliation was bad. But I think a guy like that, it’s all about the pursuit. Then he had me; I went all in. And from that moment on, he started to get cold feet.
KH: In the end it’s a mystery. So you still don’t know why?
CB: I still don’t know why. I really don’t know why.
KH: Is that how it ended? You sent him that letter and then that’s it?
CB: I never heard from him again. It was pretty bad, and I think he always lied. That was what the letter was about. I have heard women tell the same version of that story, women about my age who meet an all-in guy who drops them like a hot potato a year or two later.
KH: What did you learn from that relationship?
CB: I think I’ve learned through that relationship and a lot of things in the book, thinking back on my marriage, to take myself more seriously, to be a bit less glib about life. My children have challenged me a bit, now that they’re in their late twenties, about some of the decisions I’ve made around staying in the marriage. They love their father, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t a good marriage for a long time. I was just peddling so fast to keep up – the work, the kids, the home, the problems with the relationship – and I wish I had just sat down and really thought through what I was doing and why and where the value was being added.
KH: What was the hardest part of caring for your aging parents?
CB: At the time if felt like the hardest part was the insane schedule of fitting in parents who were in decline. In retrospect I have a lot of regret around that, and I think of the conversations I might’ve had with my mother. I did feel a tremendous freedom when my parents died. Partly you’re free from the work of two very elderly parents who for at least two or three years had needed constant attention and care. That part was gone, but the surprising part was what I tried to describe at the end of the book. Their example, their assessment of me – I was suddenly free of all that. I was just who I was.
KH: It’s your seventh decade. Isn’t it the time everybody gets introspective?
CB: Suddenly something comes over you, a calmness, a wisdom, a thoughtfulness. So, yes, I think there’s a massive part of it that’s about age.
KH: What’s the next chapter?
CB: It’s a false human construct to think that we could ever really have power over what’s next, and I’m not looking at the bright side of COVID-19, but I do think it’s forced us to a place where we have to think about what’s right in front of us. So maybe what’s next is just seeing what’s next, waiting for it to happen.
KH: Are you one of those people who want to work forever?
CB: I used to think I was, but now I’m not. I do want to retire. I would like to have all that time. My ambitions have become smaller and I don’t think that’s an age thing. It feels more like a COVID thing. Like my pleasures have become very immediate. A year ago, I would’ve said I wanted to travel here and here and here. I don’t feel that nearly as much. Writing the book has opened up writing so that I can keep doing for my own pleasure, if nothing else.
KH: How hard was it to write about yourself?
CB: That part was not difficult. The belief in my ability to write sometimes at the beginning of the book filled me with absolute terror. I spent about three months writing what turned out to be the promising new man chapter. I showed maybe a 30th draft to somebody and they said, “good first draft.” And honestly, I went to bed for the rest of the day. The chapter about my mother and the chapter about my brother I had carried around in my head for a long time. And so once I got there, I found a kind of pace and confidence that didn’t stay with me to the end. The Meryl chapter was also another very difficult section, because it was really my mother, my brother and Meryl – these three people and the way they converged – that was the book I originally wanted to write. How my mother died, my friendship with Meryl came back into my life, then her mother died. Meanwhile, my brother David is back from the dead, and we all knew each other when we were little, and then here we were again. I wanted to understand in a kind of woo-woo way what went on.
KH: This was a crux of the self-discovery journey for you. You go back and see yourself as a younger person. What did you want to see there?
CB: I think another part of getting into your sixties is that you spend an awful lot of time going back to your childhood, and in some ways the person you are in your sixties is most like the person you were at seven, something unformed and open and unsure what’s next. There’s kind of a period of discovery in both of those times. I do think that understanding who you were when you started out is critical if you want to understand who you are as you’re ending.
KH: You say “the point was to find a slower, less relentless version of myself and at the beginning to see vincible as a way forward.” Vincible in what sense?
CB: That I wasn’t invincible, that I didn’t need to always be the one with the answers and the one who could handle it and the one who wouldn’t say uncle and the one who wouldn’t go to bed for the afternoon, but keep going. And that I could be flawed and weak and need help and be massively uncertain about everything. And that wasn’t only okay. It was actually a more interesting place to reside.
In the following excerpt from The Bright Side, Cathrin Bradbury has moved into phase two with her new beau, whom she calls Promising New Man, or PNM for short. He’d wooed her with a ferocity that would have had her running for the hills in her 30s, but at a battered 59 it was a spray of catnip.
Somewhere that fall, my early reservations about PNM left me. The more I loved the idea of what he offered, and the force with which he offered it, the smaller the step became to loving the man himself. What was so wrong with a man who was on my side? Who saw me and what I wanted now, which was a solid, conventional man, “so thoroughly square,” the kind of man Professor Higgins pretended to be? A man who relished opening utility bills. A man who was there, to take it down to its most basic level.
“I miss partnership,” I said to my good friend Ellen, a writer and also separated, who lived up the street in an elegant condo with a sweeping balcony where we often talked over wine. Before PNM, Ellen and I had taken a couple of stabs at online dating. One of her dates showed up in arm gaiters. “Not only that, he talked to me about his arm gaiters for some time.” When she declined to see him again, he said a woman her age (that is, his age) would be lucky to find anyone. After that, we made up imaginary boyfriends whom we occasionally fought over. “Peter the Architect just asked me to go to Oaxaca,” I said. “That’s odd,” Ellen replied. “Peter and I just got engaged in Paris.” It was funny until it wasn’t. “I miss partnership too,” Ellen said on the phone. There was a pause. “As if either of us had that.”
But now I had a shot at it, a second chance. I began to picture a life in the country, with Promising New Man barbecuing and me writing and reading; a quiet, partnered life of mutual respect. Leaning into his bulwark of a body, just leaning there, being safe. Waking up in the night and patting his face; walking into a party on his reliable arm. Finally, after months of getting to know this man, I did something I hadn’t done for a long time. I fell in love. I hadn’t been swept off my feet. I’d come to this love slowly and carefully, until it felt not just believable but reliable. I trusted him and the life he offered us, together. I gave him the gift of myself, all in; it was what he’d said he wanted.
This was also more or less when, as winter snowbanked the city, Promising New Man began to cancel things: a weekend in New York because of a sudden work meeting; a night at Number 9 after the dust from the rewiring made him sneeze. I heard the faintest warning bell ringing far in the distance, as across a mountain village. But none of that mattered because he had a plan, one that I loved: to take me to Sicily for my birthday in February. My sister Laura had wanted to throw a bash for my sixtieth, but Promising New Man said no. “I’ve got Cathrin’s birthday covered.” Instead, Laura shared her hiking maps of Sicily and her favourite place to stay, and I stayed out of the rest because it was a birthday present and not for me to boss my way into. I’d long since forgotten about the pro/con pad of his strengths and weaknesses in the bedside drawer. Now I began work on an equally complex and possibly more important list: What to pack for Italy?
The Bright Side: Twelve Months, Three Heartbreaks, and One (Maybe) Miracle by Cathrin Bradbury was published March 2, 2021 by Penguin Canada.