Former actress shares thoughts on life, art and living with COPD
It’s exactly 3 o’clock when I arrive at the Montreal Chest Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) for my interview with Mrs. Marilyn Gardner. As I walk through the room, I introduce myself and wait for a voice to invite me in.
Mrs. Gardner calmly sits by the window of the hospital’s activity room, chats with the other patients and enjoys a piece of cake.
“You’re thirty minutes early,” she says with a busy tone. “We said 3:30 and right now I’m enjoying my dessert, you see. I guess you’ll just have to wait.”
Her comment amuses me. I automatically sense the type of character that lies behind her 82-year-old tiny frame. She is an unapologetic woman, ready to say about everything that comes to her mind.
Marilyn Gardner’s eccentric personality perfectly fits with her artistic background. A former theatre actress, she spent most of her life among Quebec’s entertainment elite. She lived in Paris and married prominent actor Jean Gascon, founder of Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.
As a long-term-care patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Mrs. Gardner started smoking when she was only 12 years old. She would go through two packs of cigarettes a day and, because she was an active and healthy woman, never really had to deal with the consequences of her habit. “Back in the day it was chic, it was the norm. I was at the local skating rink when the other teenage girls came and showed me how to smoke. They thought it was cute,” she says with enthusiasm.
In fact, Mrs. Gardner stopped smoking only six years ago, when she was taken to the Montreal General Hospital of the MUHC after suddenly collapsing at her nursing home.
“I was in intensive care for about a week, completely out of it,” she explains. “They thought I would never wake up, but I suddenly did. The place where I lived could not take proper care of me, so I had to move here.”
It was on Mother’s Day of 2013 when Mrs. Gardner entered the Montreal Chest Institute to receive specialized treatment for her COPD condition. While her experience was “not very nice at first,” she explains how the environment led her to appreciate every aspect of being a long-term-care patient.
“I just love it as no one could possibly imagine,” she points out. “Look at the stone floors and their magnificence, look at this beautiful building and its walls.”
“Soon, the long-term care patients will be moving to the Lachine Hospital and we were told we can even choose the colours for our rooms. Isn’t that fantastic?”
In fact, Mrs. Gardner is not only fascinated with the hospital’s architecture, she is even more so with its staff. “My doctor by the way, Dr. Jennifer Landry, is the epitome of Montreal’s specialist. She’s young, she’s vibrant, and she just lets you understand many things. My relationship with her is just wonderful.”
But how exactly can an eccentric woman, with such a glamorous past, be so in love with living at a hospital? I ask. “I had to come down, have I not?” she says between laughs. “Listen, I just had to stop feeling sorry for myself. The other patients who are connected to these big machines and have all sorts of complications, they inspire me. They are just smiling all the time and they don’t bitch like me… So yes, my lifestyle is different, but I don’t look back.”
Mrs. Gardner and I laugh together. Not only is she fully aware of her colourful personality, but she is quite proud of being who she is. “Did I tell you that I have dined with the queen five times?” she says. “As an actress for the Montreal Repertory Theatre, that’s what my life was like. I worked with every one: Denise Pelletier, Louise Marleau, Gabriel Gascon, we’re talking about huge Quebec stars! Do you know any of them?”
I suddenly blush, and she can sense that I have no idea who she’s talking about. “Oh dear! Just go and look them up,” she tells me with disappointment.
“What do you like the most about being here at the Hospital Mrs. Gardner?” I ask her.
“As you can see, there are many things that I love. God bless the other patients who play bingo with me and the staff that takes care of me. You know, when you come 30 minutes early, you’re taking time out of a moment of the day that makes me very happy. I get ready to see these people and do those activities,” she says.
“A lot of this is very emotional and the staff here gets it. They are patient with me, they are gentle, they are nice. They just gave me back my life! They gave me a raison d’être and I could never thank them enough for that.”
Shortly after this interview, Mrs. Gardner passed away during her sleep at the Montreal Chest Institute. With this article we would like to salute her life and artistic legacy. May you rest in peace Mrs. Marilyn Gardner.