Sunday, 4 December 2016

Donna Balkan: Blithe Spirit

The last time I saw Donna Balkan, she was bustling into my local Starbucks. Bustling, that's right. Donna didn't walk, stroll, or strut, she bustled.

She had a few minutes to chat -- just a few -- before a scheduled manicure. Later that day, she was off to a conference, so she wanted to look her pitch perfect best.

She told me she was retiring from her job at the Canadian Co-operative Association, a job she loved, and she and her husband Jim McCarthy were moving to the East Coast to engage in an endless number of activities which included square dancing, singing and acting.

She and Jim were also in hot pursuit of whatever Scrabble tournaments were afoot. They travelled all over to compete, and they were obsessed with word and mind games, so much so that their new home's basement was being turned into a gamer's paradise. We're not talking video games, here, we're talking games that tested a person's mind and intelligence, games that fed her competitive spirit.

At our Starbuck's meeting, Donna talked a mile a minute, as she always did, with eyes that glittered and the grin of the cat who swallowed the canary. I don't remember one instance when Donna wasn't smiling. It was just her way.

While some of us merely phone it in every day, Donna lived her life with purpose. Every moment needed to be filled, and every task needed to be performed with enthusiasm and relish. It's as if she knew that she didn't have time on her side.

And she didn't. She died yesterday from a cancer that took her quickly.

I first met Donna Balkan at Carleton University. I was an undergrad, and she was one of those smarty pants who'd already done one degree and was picking up another one in journalism. At Carleton, she was a bustler, too. She stood out, not in the way some students did by being professional ball breakers, but in a sunny, Gosh, gee, get 'er done sort of way.

When she graduated, she immediately got a job at the Ottawa Citizen as part of Nelson Skuce's odd exercise in community building called Neighborhood News. Donna and her cohorts travelled around the city like Sheiks on parade, in their own personal sunflower yellow Citizen cars. They became, if only for a brief moment in time, the newspaper's calling card.

There was no story too small for the Neighborhood Newsies, and their efforts got star billing in the newspaper. It wasn't exactly a "hip" job but Donna took it on as if she'd been appointed to the national news bureau.

Because that's the way she operated.

Donna was engaged.

After she left the Citizen, she threw herself into the union movement, then worked in human rights, and finally landed in the government where she worked for years at the Canada Council for the Arts. Finally, she found herself at the CCA, in a job she truly loved.  Donna always loved making a difference.

She told me she was retiring, but Donna could never retire. After Donna and Jim moved out East, she took a job at Dalhousie University as a communications officer. Like a shiny penny rolling down hill, she just couldn't slow down.

She was always the centre of attention. She liked it that way.

But it was her role as wife to Jim that became her star turn. When they were together, they sparkled. I hate the word "soul mate," because it is over-used but it fit them like a glove. They shared so many interests and adventures, along with a lot of laughs over the years.

In a world of uncertainty and pain, they presented a united front of joy and fun -- right to the end.

I was sad to hear of her passing today. We will miss Donna, and wish her well, as she
dances among the stars.

Here's to you, kid.

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