The police officer leaned in closer to the squad car radio, listening in disbelief. Dispatch was requesting backup for a traffic situation. An excited driver had just reported a woolly mammoth running loose on the Burlington Skyway. A what?
When he and about 10 other cruisers arrived they found traffic backed up and a large truck blockading the way. Beyond was an empty horse trailer attached to a pickup and a woman frantically attempting to catch a very angry four-legged beast. It did look like a woolly mammoth, but didn’t those have tusks, not horns?
A second woman informed the officers it was her Highland Bull. The injured bull had now lowered his head, waving its long horns in warning.
Together they cautiously circled the animal. After what felt like an eternity they edged him back toward the trailer where the first woman was waiting inside, trying to entice him back in.
“Jane, I was so scared in that trailer. I really thought that was it. One of us was not going to get out of there alive,” my sister exclaimed when she excitedly relayed the story to me the next day.
A year later I was serving breakfast to my guests and was surprised to hear one of them, a Burlington police officer, telling about the time he was called to capture a woolly mammoth that was reported running loose on the QEW. Small wonder it attracted so much attention from police — they were still talking about the “mammoth” incident at headquarters months later.
This was just another day in the life of my sister, Debbie Wiecha. Her big heart and her legendary “can do” attitude when it came to helping others leaves a legacy that few can equal in this little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. She was a jack of all trades and master of many.
Her Celebration of Life took place at Caroline Cellars on March 16. The room was filled with the golden glow of a late afternoon sun reflecting off the pine clad walls. Displays of her lifelike coloured pencil drawings, illustrations and whimsical papier mache animals were interspersed with bouquets of dried lavender and jars of her homemade canned peaches and preserves — symbols of the simple yet eloquent gifts that she loved to share with others.
The stories of love and affection shared by coworkers, neighbours and family members were a testament to the many lives who were touched by her warmth and radiance.
I’m sure she held the record for working 40 years in the St. Catharines General ICU. Nursing was Deb’s calling in life and she did it with extraordinary grace and patience, all the while keeping a keen sense of humour. Since her death in March, we have continued to hear stories from patients or their family members who experienced her compassionate care and the extra attention she provided to make them more comfortable.
Her tender heart became evident at a young age, especially when it involved birds and animals. I remember one summer day a young neighbour dropping off two baby robins with nothing but a few tufts of emerging fluff to warm them. Deb immediately took on the role of surrogate mom, an extremely demanding task because of the little ones’ voracious appetites. She stuck with it. Searching for worms became her daily obsession for the first few weeks and they bonded to the point that they were inseparable. We took them along in a hamster cage on a camping holiday to West Virginia at the close of the summer, with the deal that she was to leave them there.
The young birds were free, but remained close to the campsite the entire week. Tears were shed but mom stayed firm when it came time to leave. The robins, however, had other plans and flew along beside us. When we reached the park entrance mom relented, they hopped back in the cage, and travelled with us back to Canada.
They left in fall but returned again the following spring, hopping back on Debbie’s shoulder as if they’d never left.
On one of our many bike hikes as teens, she discovered Major McGill, a striking palomino on a farm in Effingham. The elderly owners were glad to let her have riding time in exchange for help with the chores and so began her weekly bike rides out to the farm.
“No horses until you practise piano and get your chores done,” mom insisted, hoping to dissuade her. Somehow she would manage to cram her obligations in, and with a final flourish, would leave a warm chocolate cake on the kitchen counter. It was a busy household with four daughters on the go, but when the house smelled like chocolate cake we always knew Debbie was off on her long ride to the farm.
This “can do” attitude and passion for nature permeated her life. She lived with my husband Brian and I while attending Mac School of Nursing back in the early ’80s. By then she was also enjoying fishing in the Niagara Glen and developed a keen interest in taxidermy.
Her lifelike displays of salmon and rainbow trout caught in the Niagara River captured a lot of attention at the Toronto Sportsman Show and she soon had more than enough business to pay her way through school. Our home was the subject of much curiosity by neighbours, with strangers carrying in odd shaped bags with feathered legs or fins poking out. I remember Dave Dick Sr. proudly picking up an extremely large Canada goose, and regular visits from Karen Falk, who became quite a collector of birds which had crashed into her patio doors.
Debbie’s fascination with owls intensified when she became friends with Dr. Kay McKeever, who ran The Owl Foundation in Vineland Station. On a few occasions she was given an owl that did not survive its injuries. She had an incredible gift that could seemingly bring it back to life on a perch so that others could learn about these amazing creatures.
After being hired as a nurse in the ICU at the St. Catharines General Hospital she started a new chapter of her life. She married Jim Wiecha, whom she had met while working on Fred Pohorly’s farm. Together they purchased a small farm on Larkin Road and started building their future together. They saw nothing but potential in the tired little farmhouse and neglected orchard and got right to work renovating and planting peach trees. By the time their third child was born, Jim had transformed a small garage into a two-storey barn and Deb was well-established in her nursing career.
Her children, Jamie, Connie and Scott soon took after their mom’s love of all things furred and feathered, and their farm was a constantly evolving menagerie of exotic birds and orphaned wild animals. Kids’ birthday parties were way more fun when there were ferrets to play with and horses to ride. Pygmy goats, donkeys, horses, a llama or two and dogs for constant companionship. This was truly a kids’ paradise.
Debbie loved her children fiercely and encouraged them to be brave and push past their limitations to achieve their dreams. One of her proud moments was when 14-year-old Jamie took his first few solo flights from the Niagara Flying Club — a passion no doubt inherited from his grandfather — wiggling the plane wings overhead while the family waved from the raspberry patch.Whether their passion was scuba diving, medical missions in developing countries or racing around a moto track, Deb always showed up, helped out, and participated enthusiastically right along with her kids.
Hiking, walking the dogs at Niagara Shores park, quiet time fishing at her secret spring-fed stream continued to feed her soul while she juggled the challenges of nursing and raising a young family. Farming was still a prime focus and after much deliberation a decision was made to go organic. At the time she had no idea of the incredible commitment and intensive labour it would require. Coordinating days off from the hospital during harvest was always a challenge. For 18 years, they loaded up the truck with fresh-picked raspberries, peaches and lavender and brought it to the farmers’ markets — the Dufferin Grove Organic Market, the Brick Workers, Cabbagetown and others.
It’s difficult to convey how deeply she was loved and appreciated. Her net was cast far with all the people she touched in her lifetime. After losing Debbie, those of us who knew and loved her now have to find a balance — to know how to hold this grief and yet let it motivate us to pursue the life qualities she inspired: kindness, generosity, hard work and humour.
Her love and legacy will continue to grow exponentially in the lives of all those she embraced.
“We hope that Deb’s death would not become a void in our hearts but instead drive us forward for us all to continue to chase life and find the sparkle and warmth that we found in her presence.” — Connie Wiecha