Depression takes toll on family

Daughter follows her dad's walk into path of train


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On May 13, 1998, Melvin Toews walked to the outskirts of Steinbach. He exchanged pleasantries with an old friend and with a waitress at a cafe. Then he stepped onto the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/06/2010 (4564 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On May 13, 1998, Melvin Toews walked to the outskirts of Steinbach. He exchanged pleasantries with an old friend and with a waitress at a cafe. Then he stepped onto the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train.

His life-long battle with depression was over.

Melvin left behind his wife Elvira and two daughters, Marj and Miriam.

Winnipeg author Miriam Toews, shown above in 2008, wrote about her father’s bipolar disorder and 1998 suicide by train.

Almost 12 years later to the day, Marj Toews replicated her father’s final act. Last Saturday, she died on the Waverley train tracks. She would have been 52 the next day. Her suicide ended her battle with mental illness. She left behind her partner, Sean, her mother, sister, nieces and a nephew.

It’s so cruel this father and daughter suffered the way they did, that their demons led them to suicide. It is unspeakable their families lost both with sudden brutality.

In the anthology Dropped Threads, Miriam Toews wrote of her father’s bipolar disorder and his suicide.

"I learned he had been depressed all his life," she wrote. "I had wondered, when I was a kid, why he spent so much of the weekend in bed and why he didn’t talk much at home. Occasionally he’d tell me, sometimes in tears, that he loved me very much and that he wished he were a better father, that he were more involved in my life. But I never felt the need for an apology."

In her biography, Swing Low: A Life, Toews relentlessly examined her father’s illness. It struck when he was 17 and dogged him till the end.

With Marj’s death, the Toews family has demonstrated grace and courage, naming her sometimes fatal disease. Her obituary was plain-spoken, referring to "a hard struggle with mental illness." That honesty is rare in a world that continues to view mental illness as a weakness or a character flaw.

You don’t literally die of mental illness, of course. But sometimes you die from the strain on a soul that can accompany the disease. Sometimes suicide seems the only way to earn a blessed, necessary silence.

The Toews have honoured Mel and Marj in a straightforward and almost defiant way. They looked people in the eye and let them know theirs is not a silent shame. In fact, it’s not a shame at all.

Marj Toews killed herself because she was ill, not weak. She couldn’t talk herself out of it. She couldn’t chase away the blues because depression is not sadness. It’s a gripping pain that can blot out all previous evidence of joy. No amount of positive thinking will make it right.

When you’re mentally ill there is no pie-in-the-sky answer, no willing yourself happy and no true sense of understanding from the unaffected. There is only a relentless cycle of days devoid of energy and hope. With luck, they’re interspersed with calm periods when the meds work and the seas calm.

But, always, there is a hint of blackness lurking near as a constant, snickering reminder.

Marj Toews has killed herself the same way as her dad.

The funeral Thursday was packed. They kept putting out extra chairs and people kept filling them. The priest spoke openly of Melvin’s suicide, Marj’s earlier attempt and how her life ended. Her mother read a funny poem Marj had written for her. Her partner smiled as he told how they met in a rainstorm. There were photos of her from babyhood up, a girl smiling, gathered up with her family. She wore such big glasses. In the teen years her father stands next to her, tall and smiling.

Miriam remembered her as funny, talented, playful and gorgeous.

The Toews have fleshed out the woman who loved and was loved. Marj had a master of arts degree. She worked for CBC radio. She wrote for a variety of Canadian literary journals. She was a poet. She was the author of Black-and-White Blanche, a successful children’s book. She was a pianist, a community activist and a member of the Provincial Mental Health Advisory Council. She was a daughter, a sister and an aunt. She was more than her illness but her illness is crucial in understanding her death.

On Thursday, Miriam Toews remembered her sister as unflappable in crisis, a woman with gorgeous eyes, a beautiful smile and a real playfulness. She was stolen, as was her father, because the black dogs got too close and barked too loud.

That’s not a choice. It’s hell on earth and, sometimes, death seems the only way to silence the demons.

Marj Toews is dead at 52. Her family loves and remembers her. Her death is a tragedy.

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