Under the blue skies of an April morning, Deanna, in her wedding gown, and James, in his traditional Scottish kilt, leapt off the helicopter into three feet of fresh fallen snow and onto the summit of Mount Charles Stewart just north of Canmore. The couple had travelled from Calgary to exchange vows before a small group of loved ones. It was a dream wedding for the love-struck couple, whose fondness for the mountains and outdoors kept them camping, hiking and travelling for a good portion of their time together.
They were happily married for four days.
The couple decided that the original wedding date of Aug. 7, 2010, had to be pushed up after Jim’s doctor explained the results of his latest CT scan just a few short weeks before. Hundreds of microscopic tumours, previously undetected, were blocking up his biliary tree and making him jaundiced.
When Jim had first been diagnosed in October 2006 with stage IV colorectal cancer, the tumours found in his liver were larger and more manageable. Now the only thing to do was to continue living until his body could not endure the cancer any longer.
For Jim, that moment happened in the comfort of his family’s home back in Windsor, Ontario, just days after the wedding.
That morning, Henderson brought him breakfast. She reached out to help him sit up and then, as he embraced her, it happened. “I swore that I could see the light just go out of him,” she says. “He went very quickly.” To her, it seemed that he waited until he’d had the chance to talk with his family once more over those four days before allowing himself his own peace.
Henderson knew from the beginning of their relationship that Jim’s prognosis was poor, but it hadn’t scared her away.
“True love is rare enough to not go through with the risk. I knew what the outcome was probably going to be, but to run away from true love I think is one of the most detrimental things someone can do in their life,” she says.
The minute Jim had walked into her workplace where she was making travel arrangements for his family to visit Australia, Henderson knew he was the man she had dreamed about for years. The intensity of that first meeting was no different for him. For several moments, they simply stared at one another, she recalls, thinking of the odd but comforting recognition each one had for the other despite never having met.
From then, the two were inseparable, and Jim, who once wondered if he’d ever have an opportunity to have a family, had immediately become a loving stepdad to Henderson’s then 11-year-old daughter.
Even when Jim’s chemotherapy sessions kept him tired, weak and groggy, the couple made plans for in between sessions. Jim’s doctor encouraged the couple to live to the fullest, allowing them to rearrange treatment schedules in order to accommodate trips they really wanted to take.
“The whole point was to give him as much life as possible,” says Henderson.
Following Jim’s death, Henderson set forth to spread his ashes over some of their favourite destinations from coast to coast that were special to him. In the end, she went to 33 different spots over five months, marking each year of his life.
Her travels also became a personal journey of reflection and mourning. After all, her first stop at the Bruce Peninsula – a personal favourite of Jim’s that he hadn’t the chance to show her – was only a week and a half after he had peacefully died in her arms. Where the happy newlyweds should have been sharing the awe and beauty of these locations together, Henderson often stood there alone with bittersweet memories of their joyous but shortened relationship.
“It made me realize that life is not about where. It’s not about the places you go, how much you manage to see. It’s about sharing it, and sharing with somebody who really matters to you or even with people you meet along the way,” Henderson says.
Despite the outcome, Henderson feels Jim’s life is truly inspirational. Their original wedding date became a memorial in celebration of his life and accomplishments.
Jim was valedictorian of his high school graduating class and recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Academic Achievement as well as a full scholarship to the University of Windsor. He had several hobbies and skills, contributed to his favourite environmental causes such as the Bruce Peninsula National Park trails and he was passionately involved himself in the creation of accessible programs and resources for young adults with cancer in Canada. One such contribution was the creation of an online Flash game called Mullet Mayhem for the “Shave for the Brave” cancer fundraiser.
The couple had originally planned to donate half the money they received from their wedding to the Alberta Cancer Foundation. The other half was to be spent on their honeymoon, but given Jim’s fate, Henderson felt donating the estimated $8,000 was more worthwhile.
As for Henderson, she’s found inspiration to do the best she can to help others experience true happiness like she has. She’s taken her job as a travel agent to a different level, specializing in planning destination holidays for people with life-threatening illnesses.
“It’s all about what I can contribute to others now. My daughter, for example, now knows what true love looks like. That is one of the greatest gifts I could ever give her because she is going to want that for herself.”