Sandra Whiting has a way about her. When she asks for a favour, it’s hard to refuse.
Between her personality and track record for getting things done, she’s admired by many.
Add her contributions as an arts-supporter and artist (Sandra is a storyteller with a great sense of humour) to her voluntary work for Canada’s Black and Caribbean communities, and you get the picture.
But that didn’t make me immediately accept her invitation to give the keynote speech at the premier annual event of PACE, the charitable organization she leads.
I love PACE. It’s helped tens of thousands of children in Jamaica and Canada. But I hadn’t given a keynote speech since the car accident of over a decade ago and the very thought was frightening.
My husband intervened. He reminded me that at each stage of my recovery, I have done something that terrified me, and that, even when the results were miserable, I usually felt better for trying.
Further, the topic was something I knew well: What we can teach children and ourselves from gardening and nature.
“What if I stutter?” I asked, panicked. “And what if they hate me?” “What if….”
“You won’t stutter and they won’t hate you,” he reassured.
So, with a lot of help and encouragement, I said “Yes”.
Having said “Yes”, I was even more scared. What to do?
For inspiration, I went searching for stories I’d written about gardening in earlier years. And here’s where I got a big surprise: I came across a whole manuscript I’d written about gardening, growth and healing — years earlier.
Surprised, for two reasons. First, it was almost completely written. I’d thought it was only partly done. Even more surprising? It had been professionally edited. How could I have forgotten that?
The answer came quickly. I had forgotten because my beloved husband had become ill and nearly died of a pulmonary embolism. I had put everything aside in the frantic weeks and months that followed.
My husband is a courageous man. I watched him fight to recover, despite frequent frustration over his illness. His bravery and sheer grit were so obvious, they inspired me to return to a tough subject I’d been avoiding: what it’s like to keep pushing ahead, to try to squeeze every moment of joy from a life painfully changed.
So, instead of the gardening book, “An Honest House”, based on my personal journals, was published in 2016. It won The Diamond Award for book of the year.
My husband recovered and returned to being a highly-regarded consultant and public speaker. This man knows how to create a strong speech.
We chose three excerpts from the unpublished gardening book, and built a speech around them. I realized I could simply read whole parts of the speech, as I’d done at author-readings.
We arrived at the event. Inside, people were already admiring the flowers at the Enchanted Gardens sale. There was a joyful feeling everywhere.
Several people approached me. They had bought their tickets because I was the speaker, they said.
The pressure intensified.
My husband helped me up the steps to the podium. At our table, my daughter and son-in-law sat, supportive, encouraging.
As I looked out at the large audience, I recognized several people I knew. They were smiling, beaming love and support.
Even strangers beamed encouragement, I think. Though they might have still been smiling over the introduction. Maxine, the woman who introduced me, told everyone what I’d written in my bio but also forgotten: that I’m a terrible cook, knitter and floral arranger.
I started to speak, then read, growing more confident as I went along. There were times when people seemed glued to what I was saying. They even laughed at the right times. That was a relief, because I’m a terrible joke-teller too.
It still feels like a miracle that I got through it, and that it was well-received. But I did and it was.
And now, in a touch of grace, I will have two books published this year.
First, of course, is the new children’s book in the Myrtle the Purple Turtle series, co-written with Lauren Reyes-Grange and illustrated by Jo Robinson.
The gardening book will also debut. Years after it was put aside, this book will see the light of day — because I said “Yes”, and decided to do what scared me.
Dedicated to Sandra Whiting and the children supported by PACE.