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Three B.C. figures share their stories of the worst year of their lives – and how they made it through the dark times.

Where do you turn after your doctor tells you you'll never walk again following a catastrophic accident? What happens when you lose the most terrific job you've ever had and nobody in town will hire you? What's next when your business is bleeding to death and everything you do to try and fix it only makes things worse?

Here are the stories of three successful British Columbians – a retired pharmacist, a celebrated television host and the owner of an art gallery – who faced these trials. While entirely differently motivated, they are the three people who share a passion for life and the sense that what they do makes a contribution. They also believe in something outside themselves, whether it's gratitude, religion or the law of attraction. Here's how they beat the worst years – with faith, the help of friends and a little drink.

Charles “Chuck” Ingvaldson

The burglar alarm of the Kitsilano drug store was routinely tripped in those days. There had been a lot of break-ins in 1994, and it wasn’t unusual for the alarm company to phone the Ingvaldsons in the middle of the night.

What was unusual was the day itself. Charles and Marnie Ingvaldson had bought a property that day in the upscale Morgan Creek area of South Surrey. “Just a hayfield” at the time, says Charles, but that’s where they planned to build their dream home. “Our lives were blessed,” says Charles. They had two children and a prosperous business, and had travelled the world – Europe, Israel, Turkey, Australia, Fiji, the Far East.

 

When doctors told successful pharmacist Charles "Chuck" Ingvaldson he'd never walk again, he told them Christ would prove them wrong.

Charles Ingvaldson, now 72, was a pharmacist, a drug-store pioneer who worked with Cunningham Drug Stores before joining the legendary Sam Bass. Ingvaldson helped Bass open the first London Drugs in New Westminster and was the first manager of London Drugs on Broadway, the chain’s busiest store, processing some 2,000 prescriptions a day. Working with Bass, Ingvaldson says, “I learned more in two years than the rest of my life.”

As an innovator, Ingvaldson himself was no slouch. When he bought the Kitsilano Shoppers Drug Mart on Fourth Avenue and Vine Street, he eschewed the pharmacy counter, spoke at seniors’ centres and personally delivered prescriptions. Ingvaldson remembers, “Most of the owners said, ‘You’re crazy. You have to pay people a fortune to fill your prescriptions. Why don’t you do it yourself?’ I said, ‘No, no. I have to talk to the people, the customers. They’re the ones who bring in the business.’” Business skyrocketed. His was the first store to attract Lancôme to the cosmetic counter, and one of the first to install a post office. When the bank wanted a cash machine in his store, he said, “No, it’s going to take up too much selling space,” and convinced them to install it on the street outside, where transaction volumes became so heavy his store was the only one in the chain to get a bonus. On a per-square-foot basis, Ingvaldson says, his store had the highest sales of any Shoppers Drug Mart in Canada.

But what was not routine about that 2 a.m. phone call from the security company, says Marnie Ingvaldson, was that Charles always kissed her goodbye when he had to leave their Burnaby apartment to attend to the alarm. On this night, he didn’t.

At the store, Ingvaldson had a good look around, found nothing amiss and phoned the alarm company to tell them he was leaving. He locked up, reset the alarm and got into his Honda. He drove along Fourth Avenue, caught the green light at Burrard Street and headed for home. That’s the last thing Ingvaldson remembered before he regained consciousness in Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).[pagebreak]What he didn’t remember was the Ford F-350 truck – packed with three men and a woman who were all drinking – racing a van, blowing through the red light and plowing through his Honda at 100 kilometres an hour.

In one moment, from “a life that was blessed,” Ingvaldson was trapped inside a body irreparably broken. His skull was fractured, his neck snapped in four places. He could not move. He would not walk again, the attending doctor told him.

Yet Ingvaldson believed it could not be true because Jesus would not want it so. It was not the voice of the Divine that Ingvaldson heard. It was his own voice, his faith speaking to him. With his wife, Ingvaldson had long been born-again as Pentecostal, a member of the Christian Life Assembly. Church-going alone, of course, would not be enough to evoke miracles, but Ingvaldson is nothing if not a true believer.

Not to say that he did not face depression. Like any of us would, he broke down. He asked, “Why me?” He saw himself like Job: tested by God. But that inner voice was insistent: “I can get through this, but I can’t do it myself.” However strong his will – and Ingvaldson’s will is iron – he knew there was something stronger to rely upon: his faith. And ephemeral as that idea is to some, to Ingvaldson it is as real as gravity. It would ground his recovery.

At 3:15 a.m., the phone rang again at Marnie Ingvaldson’s bedside. It was Charles. He managed to say, “Don’t worry. I’m okay.” Marnie dressed and rushed to VGH to find her husband in Emergency, strapped to a gurney, his head supported by sandbags. The doctor tried to prepare her; it was unlikely her husband would walk again.

When the doctor gave Charles the news, Ingvaldson, in his drugged state, stammered, “No, I will walk.” The doctor answered, “I’m afraid you can’t be sure of that.” Ingvaldson instinctively blurted, “I am sure. I have a deep faith in Christ, Lord Jesus.”

On the second day, Ingvaldson began to move his fingers and toes. “Then I could move my legs a little bit,” he says, “and it felt pretty good.” He was in hospital six days while Marnie was taught how to adjust the cervical neck brace and take care of her husband. He spent the next seven months in a rented hospital bed in their home, on his back, unable to move, with a towel folded in half behind his head – the only pillow he was allowed.

When he started moving his legs, the specialist told him to try to sit up and be as mobile as he could, just as long as his neck was rigidly clamped. He would get his feet over the bed, swing his legs and finally learn to stand. “Next thing you know,” he says, “I could toddle off to the kitchen.” Every step was an adventure. “The hardest thing when you’re straight as a board is that you can’t see your feet. When you come to steps, you can’t put your head down to see where the steps are. You kind of feel where the step is with the toe of your slipper. You take one step at a time very carefully. A doddering old man, that’s how I was.”

He walked with a cane and he was given exercises, but his physiotherapist was so concerned about his fragility she wouldn’t let him do them. He joined the Canadian Back Institute, which runs exercise clinics, where he spent four hours a day doing “the hardest work I ever did,” he says. His neck loosened sufficiently for him to take off his brace, place one hand on his chin, the other on his head, pull and turn as hard as he could.

“You have to judge how hard,” he says. “The rule is when you can’t stand the pain anymore, count to 12. Then do 10 more on both sides.” Throughout these strenuous rehabilitation exercises, tears of pain ran down his face.

Some might argue it was character and determination that moved Ingvaldson through his darkest trial. Ingvaldson credits Christ.

“I prayed a lot, an awful lot,” he says. “I would pray in the morning before I went out for exercises. I prayed through the exercises. Prayer sustained me. Without Him I don’t think I could ever have made it.”

It was more than four years before Ingvaldson could give up the cane and nine years before he could walk safely again. Incredibly, during the first four years of his convalescence, he ran his drug-store business from his bedside. “It gave my mind something to focus on, and I was blessed to have such a good core staff.”

After Shoppers Drug Mart bought back his store in 1998, he needed something to do. When his sister-in-law died, he discovered his brother paid $12,000 for the funeral. The next funeral in the family Ingvaldson arranged himself – organizing a band, a church lunch and a cremation for about $2,000 – a memorial service that the family told him they preferred over the $12,000 model.

Ingvaldson decided that was something he could do. He joined the board of the Memorial Society of B.C. and helped renegotiate the society’s recent contract with funeral providers. The contract limits the price of services, cremations and caskets.

“This is one way I have of paying it back,” says Ingvaldson, “trying to help people when they’re most vulnerable.”[pagebreak]

Fanny Kiefer

Fanny Kiefer
Fanny Kiefer

Because her talk show Studio 4 is so fre­quently replayed, over the past nine years Fanny Kiefer has become the virtually omni­present face of Shaw TV. We spoke at her desk in her broadcast studio, her natural habitat. American-born Kiefer, who traces her family tree back to the Sioux who outflanked Custer, is visually lovely and verbally dynamic. Maybe I’m watching too much TCM, but Keifer reminds me of a young Barbara Stanwyck in her bright, brittle, fast-talking, Capraesque heroine days – tough but vulnerable, a wise-cracking dame (as they used to say) who can spin on a dime and then Shirley MacLaine you.

We could have talked about her brain aneurism (“but we’ve already done that a hundred times, and I lived, so I have to categorize that one as a good year”). We could have talked about her divorce. (“I hang on forever. ‘Learn to turn the page’; maybe that will be my new motto.”) But we decided the worst year was the one during which CKNW fired her.

With the aneurism, regardless of the odds (only five per cent survive without some loss of motor skills), Kiefer knew at some essential level she was going to be all right. Losing the job at ’NW, she wasn’t so sure; was she ever going to work again at the job she most loved?

Kiefer tells me she is not her job, that thanks to her inner spiritual work her identity is intact without her celebrity. She’s a strong woman and I believe her, but I’ve also been around media for a lifetime. When you’re in the flow, it’s terrific. I know the rush. I’ve felt the loss.

Kiefer knew the business well enough to know that there are no sure things. It’s seldom an agenda we control. What we take for granted can be taken away. What she discovered is that, like a broken heart, it can come back even stronger.

“I picked a career where you’re hired to get fired, like a pro athlete,” Kiefer says. After 10 years at CKNW, the best job she’d ever had in radio, the clock ran out. “I thought I was going in to talk contract, or maybe they were going to give me a two-hour show, or maybe they were going to give me a raise. I had no idea,” Kiefer says. She then switches faster than a channel surfer to her inner guide, adding, “Pay attention to everything that happens to you every minute of every day, because when they called me to say Mr. Plasteras would like to see you tomorrow, I said, ‘Of course, as long as he doesn’t fire me. Well, okay!’” Then she’s onto what happened: “They fire you and you can’t go back to your office and get your purse. They lock you out of the building and walk you to the door. They say, ‘Well, we’re downsizing and it’s not about you.’ Don’t you love that? ‘It’s not about you.’” Kiefer’s reaction to bad news is effusion; she chatters. “Because I’m such a yakker, I talk it out. I don’t wait. Somebody said to me, ‘You know, you should take some time. Go to Hawaii. Relax.’ And I can’t. So I start making phone calls immediately to everyone I’ve ever known. Anybody who can help me, get me work, get me out of this mess. I’m very immediate that way. I can’t seem to sit back, digest it, meditate. On the day I lost my job at ’NW, I probably made 20 calls looking for work. Not openly, just saying, ‘So, what’s up? Guess what happened.’”

But the bad patch didn’t end there.

“’NW booted me off the air, my dog died, and on the way to catch a plane for my dad’s funeral I auditioned for a show on the CBC. The producer said, ‘I don’t think you should be here.’” Kiefer didn’t get the gig.

Besides a wealthy boyfriend at the time (“Thank goodness that happened when I had him here”) and Kiefer’s extensive network of girlfriends (“They all rallied”), there was alcohol. Most of us wouldn’t admit to the drug being supportive, but then Kiefer is as frank as she is disarming. Letting it out without letting you in is all part of her allure, her public persona.

“Drink is good. Oh yeah, drink, always. Drink is really good because it helps you cry and it helps you celebrate who you are, you know, if you don’t do it every day. I’m not suggesting we turn into total alcoholics, but I come from a family where we celebrate with drink: the good gin martini if it’s a tragedy or a 95th birthday. We just celebrate with liquor. We always have.”

On the day of her release from ’NW, all the girlfriends came, she says. “Immediately the fine champagne comes in the door. Not the plonk, the fine champagne.” She adds, “We always drink our way through a crisis.” That’s when, she says, she really starts to chirp. “I am chirpy anyway and I really start to chatter. My friends endure it. They let me paint the worst-case scenarios you could ever imagine. They let me rant and rave.”

You talk out all the “high-drama loony-tune scenarios,” she says – the bag-lady fear, working at the Bay in gloves and the most frightening one of all, moving in with friends: “Oh, no, what if she comes to live with us forever?”

Then, in conversation, Kiefer trips back to her inner MacLaine: “I do a lot of spiritual work and have all my life. And if I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I’d go because I go deep inside and find it, and the strength is there and the answer is there. I spend a lot of time in what I call an active dream state. I am a very good active dreamer.”

When does she actively dream?

“When you’re at home and you’re quiet and you go way deep inside and find that delicious part of you that knows you’re okay. You’re not your job. You’re not what you do. By your very essence alone, you’re fabulous.”

You might expect that for someone with Kiefer’s personality and following, the phone would ring off the hook. “You expect it, but it doesn’t,” she says.

For about a year, Kiefer survived on camaraderie and her spiritual strength – yes, shaken and stirred now and then with whatever the gals were having – but she also understood destiny needs a hand. So this was a year of living perseverance, staying psychologically ready and simply keeping in touch – remaining visible in a marketplace where we can all quickly become what’s-her-name.

Kiefer searched out work and found MyCityRadio.com. In 1997 Internet radio was just a little ahead of its time. MyCity­Radio.com didn’t last long; Kiefer remembers the period as “agonizing.”

Then the phone did ring.

“When Shaw called me, it was one of the first times in my experience in the media somebody has made the phone call and said, ‘We’d like to talk to you.’ I was so relieved because MyCityRadio was going down the tubes. In the end, they weren’t able to pay us.”

These days Kiefer is again waiting to be called into the program director’s office, but this time for a renewal of her contract with Shaw. She’ll be on alert for signs and portents because this is one time she does not want to exercise her new motto and “learn to turn the page.”

“It’s very important to me that I work at what I love,” Kiefer says. “In my opinion, I have the best job in Canada.” [pagebreak]

Diane Farris

Diane Farris
Diane Farris

The LCD monitor displays image after image of the street: barriers, cranes, trucks, closures, jackhammers, workmen.

“Look at this guy,” says Diane Farris, 65, proprietor of Vancouver’s Diane Farris Gallery, the woman whose imprimatur has launched a thousand canvases, the chatelaine of Gallery Row clacking at the keyboard, “He hated me.”

On the monitor, the guy in the hardhat is caught turning, glowering.

“I’d follow him,” Farris says gleefully. “He’d say, ‘Stop that. You can’t take my picture.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, I can. Would you please get your men to stop parking in front of my gallery!’ Guys across the street on the balcony would give me the finger. My staff would ask me to go home. It was a nightmare.”

The worst year of Farris’s life began in the spring of 2000, when an upscale seniors’ condominium started construction on West Seventh Avenue across the street from her gallery.

It’s clear after spending even a little time with Farris that her temperament has more in common with the artists she manages than it does, say, with her accountant. She is all drama, strung as tightly as a Stradivarius. She becomes obsessive about the computer images. When I manage to distract her from the monitor, she fidgets; the lapel mic ends up in her lap and she taps a paper clip on her glass-top desk. As she recounts her story – eloquently, with wit and self-revelation – it’s also clear Farris approached the chaos without a plan. She didn’t even realize she needed a plan. She depended on what had worked in the past: her high-octane personality and network of friends and associates.

What she discovered is that too often friends and customers turn away from other people’s messes and that intensity itself isn’t always enough. Only when she stopped flailing and acquiesced to the best and most timely counsel did she find resolution.

From the outset, Farris understood the construction on West Seventh would be disruptive, but it quickly got out of hand. The agreement was that there would be no construction on Saturdays, but the company simply broke the law, paid the fine, and the crew parked in all the available spots on the avenue. When the construction hit bedrock, they brought in the hydraulic impact hammers. Because of the telephone poles in the back lane, cranes blocked the street for months. “It would have cost a hundred thousand dollars to bury them,” Farris learned later about the poles. “Hell, I would have paid for it. I lost more than twice that.”

For a year, West Seventh was either closed, partially closed or its sidewalk was restricted, with potential customers warned off by “No Parking” signs.

“I’d get calls from people in their limousines coming in from the airport, flying in from France or Texas, people we had worked with for their homes at Whistler over the years. They’d say, ‘We can’t get in there. We’ll try to get in on our way back,’” Farris remembers. “But, of course, you get settled in in Whistler, you’re not going to come in again.”

She looks away from the screen. “It makes me hyperventilate.”

West Seventh wasn’t her only problem. Five blocks away, her gracious suite across from Granville Island and the sailboats harboured at False Creek had its skylight ripped out and replaced with plywood. The condo was leaking, and her renovators had found black mould in the walls which, as Farris says, “started to explain why I was having these hideous pneumonia sessions.”

She started living with friends. She stayed in a friend’s computer room at UBC for seven months. Farris has a dog. Her friend had two cats. The animals did not cohabitate well. She lived in another friend’s bedroom for a month. She house-sat another friend’s home.

Fortunately, her mother in West Van­­­couver adored the dog and was very supportive, and Farris went at least twice a week to visit. Then the worst thing of all happened: her mother died.

Farris was devastated. Their mother-daughter relationship had evolved into a long, deeply felt, loving friendship, and without her mother Farris felt the abyss in her life widening. She tried to pull herself together, at least long enough to give her mother’s eulogy.

On the day of the funeral, Farris went home to her apartment. Where the skylight once was, a workman’s leg hung down through the ceiling. Farris said to him, “I’m sorry. I have to get dressed for my mother’s funeral. All my black clothes are here. Look the other way. I don’t have time to hide.”

The worse life got, the more certain customers and friends avoided her. “I was probably quite emotional at times because pressure was severe, and I am an emotional person,” she says of her discovery that “you’re not as popular when things aren’t going so well.”

To keep her life in perspective, Farris would wake in the morning – in whatever home she found herself – and force herself to be grateful, thinking, “Oh, thank you, Lord, that I don’t live in Baghdad. Thank you nobody is planting IEDs on my driveway.”

Her charity passion is WISH (wishvancouver.net), a society that attempts to increase the health, safety and well-being of women working in the sex trade in the Downtown Eastside. Farris says, “When I really got bent out of shape about my situation, I’d go down there on Monday nights to serve dinner.”

Meanwhile the gallery was bleeding money. Farris lived on the telephone and the Internet. “That’s where the sales came from,” she says. To scrape by, she had to crack into her RRSPs and sell art she had personally collected. And her landlord would not let her out of her lease or “give me any consideration whatsoever.”

It was friends who came to her rescue. Several invited her to dinner regularly just as others had offered places to live. They gave her opportunities to debrief, and one friend changed everything.Farris bumped into Martin Zlotnik and his wife, Penny, at a party. Zlotnik is a lawyer, former Vancouver park commissioner, former high-profile commercial real estate agent and now an associate at ZLC Financial Group.

Making party small talk, Zlotnik casually asked Farris how she was doing. “Hanging in by the skin of my teeth,” she answered. When he asked what was wrong, Farris burst into tears. “I’m trapped,” she cried. “I just don’t know what to do.”

Zlotnik calmed her down and told her he would come by and look into the problem. When he saw her books, he told her she had to get out of the lease. He also understood she was in no emotional condition to deal with her landlords and told her he’d come along to a meeting with them.

At the meeting, Farris says, “I started to get so upset. There were certain things done by my landlord that really incensed me.” She blurted out detail after detail of past injustices. “And Marty said, ‘You know what? I think you should go away and let me deal with this.’”

After Zlotnik terminated the lease, it was his idea that she relocate her gallery across the street into the main-floor commercial space of the new building that had caused all the trouble to begin with. Who says the age of irony is dead?

Friends rushed in again. Zlotnik negotiated a new lease and a line of credit to maintain it. An architect friend fast-tracked the new gallery’s interior design and construction. More friends helped Farris physically move from her former 6,800-square-foot concrete bunker across the street to her airy, but smaller, 1,200-square-foot galerie intime.

The LCD monitor off, Farris now leans back in her office chair beside a hanging carpet-sized canvas from Attila Richard Lukacs’s famous Of Monkeys and Men series, an ornate Dale Chihuly blown-glass vase on her desk, her worst years behind her, and she counts her blessings.

Not so long ago, she attended a rally for the merchants whose businesses have been traumatized by the construction of the Canada Line along Cambie Street. “I know what they’re going through,” Farris says.