"I learned it is really more important to love than to be loved."
Death figures prominently in the murder mysteries of award-winning Knowlton-based author Louise Penny.
But to the creator of the wildly popular Inspector Gamache novels, which have sold more than 8.5 million copies in 29 languages, writing about death “is actually writing about life.”
She’ll be talking about both in a conversation on Sunday in Montreal with CBC Radio broadcaster and good friend Shelagh Rogers on the subject of “Life, Death and the Whole Damn Thing.”
Sunday is the final day of Projection Week, a community dialogue organized by the McGIll University Council on Palliative Care incorporating dozens of events about living well, loss and end-of-life issues. Death, after all, comes to us all.
“The key is to live until you die,” Penny, 61, in an interview this week. “It’s about the quality of life.”
If the fictional Eastern Townships hamlet of Three Pines in which the novels are set is reminiscent of Knowlton, Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is inspired by her beloved husband, Michael Whitehead. He died in September 2016, of dementia. He was 82. She was his main caregiver.
The couple met in 1994 on a blind date. Whitehead, a widower, was 60, a distinguished Montreal pediatric hematologist and scientist. Penny, 25 years younger, was a journalist and broadcaster with the CBC; she had never been married.
“You don’t know what life has in store,” she said. “I had thought the best was behind me. And you open the door one day — and there is the nicest man you have ever met. He had every right to believe that the best was behind him at 60. But life became pretty good.”
Whitehead was “gentle and kindly, the sort of person who would sit quietly in a room, having the best time,” she said. She believed she had a novel in her — “and Michael said that, if I wanted to quit to write the book, he would support me.” A few months before their 1996 wedding, she left the CBC and, in 1999, they moved to the Townships. Her first Gamache book, Still Life, was published in 2005; the 15th, A Better Man, came out this year.
When they learned Whitehead’s dementia diagnosis, in 2013, the couple decided to go public. “It was Michael who said we need to tell people about this — our neighbours, our friends, the wider community. And I was on board with it,” Penny said. “Some people decide to close the door, deal with it in private. That can be very isolating.”
Her husband had been her muse, her first reader and her cheerleader — and all that would go. But losing it gradually, as she did, made it bearable. “It was so important to have that time,” she said. “To lose him this way is the only way I could have got through it with equanimity.
“In the realm of it not being such a good situation, it was the very best situation.”
Because Penny worked at home and was young and healthy herself, she said, she was able to be his caregiver. They had good medical care — home visits by the CLSC and the resources to hire people to help with caregiving.
“And I had the love,” she said. “I think there are a lot of people out there who feel imprisoned. I never felt imprisoned looking after Michael.”
Not that it was easy at first. “A lot of it was adjusting, accepting. I was terrified,” Penny recalled. “The ground underneath us was shifting all the time. There was no normal. Michael could one day put on his socks, the next day he couldn’t. I would wake up and he was suddenly moving furniture into the bathroom.
“It took me a long time, but I came to the realization that I was the one who had to adjust. It was one of those moments of awareness and I am grateful for it.
“We laughed a lot. Things become so simple and so clear. All of the stuff that had mattered didn’t anymore … the power that other things had just falls away. My life was, ‘Is Michael happy? Is Michael healthy? Is Michael safe?’
“I was lucky. He wasn’t a wanderer and he wasn’t obstreperous. That’s the luck of the draw: Someone who is genuinely kind and thoughtful can become abusive. How dreadful for the caregiver.
“And I loved Michael — no matter what. I learned it is really more important to love than to be loved,” Penny said. “I loved him as much the day he died as the day we got married.”
AT A GLANCE
Life, Death and the Whole Damn Thing, a conversation between author Louise Penny and broadcaster Shelagh Rogers, takes place Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon at the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, 4100 Sherbrooke St. W. Admission is $20; tickets are available at the door.