NEIL Dempsey counts the time since his wife's death the way new parents measure the age of their babies. It's been 17 weeks, he says one night, 17 weeks and four days. There is an ache in this grieving man's voice and the tears that are always close to the surface threaten to spill.
When Marcy Dempsey died of complications from breast cancer this spring at the age of 39, her husband lost more than his life partner of 15 years. He lost the mother of his three young daughters, his companion on his spiritual journey and his best friend. He lost so much that he's afraid the vibrant, active and thoroughly delightful woman he married will disappear from the memories of those around him.
Eighteen weeks and three days later, the River Heights teacher struggles to preserve the essence of his beloved -- a woman he already knows was utterly unforgettable. She left behind detailed journals for their children, prayer shawls she wove for each girl and magazine articles published after her death. But mostly, she left. And Neil Dempsey's grief has swollen to fill the vacuum.
"You know that ride at the Ex where you spin around and spin around and the floor drops out? It's like that," he says.
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The sun was shining brightly the day they buried Marcy Dempsey. Eight hundred people crowded into Shaarey Zedek synagogue to pay tribute. They came from everywhere -- teenagers she had taught as program director of the synagogue's youth program, classmates and professors from the University of Manitoba, where she had tried to finish her education degree, Neil's students, her extended family, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the hundreds of people who counted her as a friend and mentor.
It was a three-rabbi funeral, smiles Neil Dempsey, a celebration of a woman who died too young.
Rabbi Alan Green spoke of Marcy's passionate intensity and how "she illuminated the world with incandescent fire."
"Marcy confronted her final obstacle, the obstacle of cancer, with the same iron will, clarity and determination with which she approached all of life," he said. "On every level but the physical, the cancer had no chance with Marcy. It ravaged her body but it never seemed to touch the invincible inner level of her life." Judi Shuster, Marcy's best friend since high school, began her talk with a deep sigh.
"She became the gold standard for so many attributes that all whom she touched tried to emulate," she said. Later, months after the funeral, she cries as she remembers. The women were neighbours. They became pregnant at the same time and were closer than most sisters.
"She was the most caring person I've ever met," says Shuster through her tears.
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It's the prayer shawls -- the tallitot -- that best capture the love Marcy Dempsey had for her daughters. In the October issue of Canadian Living, she talks about choosing the yarn, picking the colours and creating the shawls that her daughters will wear when they become bat mitzvahed. The girls were each taken on a shopping trip to choose her colours. Emma, 9 and the baby of the family, chose shades of red. Jillian, the mercurial middle child, picked reds and yellows. Haley, the eldest at 13, chose lighter, calm colours. Each tallit was woven with a mother's love and the determination that these girls would have something concrete to carry into their adult years.
"I weave only when I feel happy, peaceful and loving," Marcy wrote. "I want to intertwine positive energy with the threads, and I hold dear my image of my daughters wrapped in their tallitot and enveloped as well with my love and spirit. I invite certain special people to weave a strand or two to add their love."
The girls carefully unfurl the shawls. These wraps will be used to shelter their own children during their naming ceremonies. Marcy Dempsey, who was ill the entire time she was creating these heirlooms, will be present in spirit.
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"People who didn't really know her tend to talk about her as though she was a saint," says close friend Sandy Tapper. "She'd be laughing herself hysterical."
Tapper and Marcy Dempsey became friends at Shaarey Zedek when the younger woman served as youth program director. Tapper remembers her as a woman who drove herself and others relentlessly.
"Marcy would work until two in the morning," says Tapper. "Nothing she did was ever good enough for her. She was just so exacting. She cared deeply about everyone and everything."
The last couple of years, she says, Marcy's energy turned almost exclusively to her husband and daughters.
"They had a partnership unlike any other I've ever seen," she says of the couple. "They were great friends at the bottom of it. They shared a vision for creating a strong Jewish family."
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In the June issue of Palliative Support Care, a professional journal, Marcy Dempsey describes her five-year journey with cancer. In her last entry, December 2002, she says she doesn't fear being forgotten.
"I am more worried about the quality of life my daughters will have along the way," she writes. "It has not occurred to me I would be forgotten. Will I?"
On June 18, her husband and daughters celebrated what would have been her 40th birthday. There was a cake and stories and plenty of laughter. The girls need to know it's OK to talk about her, says Neil Dempsey.
The University of Manitoba will award Dempsey a posthumous Education degree at its fall convocation.
On Oct. 10, according to Jewish tradition, a marker with Marcy Dempsey's name on it will be unveiled at her grave. Her husband has gathered 40 stones to place on the headstone -- another tradition that proves people came to visit. He and the girls are painstakingly painting her name and a word on each rock. The words they've chosen? Family, love, hope and courage. The words of their mother and wife. Their rock.