Judy O’Sullivan: Bridge Builder
The mother frantically searched through the house calling to her young child. Finally she dashed out into the cold January night, and stopped dead in her tracks.
‘What are you doing out here?” she said in alarm.
The child stared up at the night sky, eyes searching, and solemnly replied: “They said Mrs. O’Sullivan went up to the stars – but I can’t find her Mommy – I can’t see her anywhere.”
The mother’s heart broke a little. She gathered the child into her arms, and took him inside. It had been a very long day.
Judy O’Sullivan was a bridge builder.
She created wonderful long-standing structures and solid foundations throughout her lifetime. Building enduring structures takes a lot of time, energy and intelligence. But instead of bricks, metal and mortar, she worked with stronger elements - light, enthusiasm and encouragement.
Judy built bridges of love.
Amazing Woman, Amazing Bridges
She built bridges of respect between herself, her community and her peers. She built bridges of love and friendship with most of the people she collected around her through the years, and she maintained long- standing relationships with friends all over the world.
She embraced and enjoyed the culture of the Native community she served for decades, and formed amazing bridges with many people based on mutual respect.
She was open-minded. Like real craftsmen, she realized there are endless opportunities to hone and improve one’s knowledge and skills. She was a life-long learner in every way, an enthusiastic teacher of many subjects, as well as an apprentice of life, who formed bridges with her peers, her mentors and her students alike.
Judy was my sister. And she was my friend.
Judy was a powerful woman. Interesting, challenging, and in her own way, formidable. Unfortunately for me, I only realized that late in our relationship – for the first 25 years or so she was just my big sister that everybody loved.
We were five girls, Judy the eldest, then quickly following was Rita. Janet was 10 years younger than Judy, then Carolyn, and myself – the youngest by 14 years.
Unfortunately, Janet, the third sister, was severely handicapped and needed constant care. She died when I was about seven months old, so I have no memory of her whatsoever. However, I can imagine that caring for her must have been difficult for the whole family. Running a grain farm in Canada in the 1950s was not an easy task. The closest place to buy milk was 10 miles away, the nearest grocery store another 30 miles beyond that. And there were no social services, as there are today, to help with Janet, or even to advise on how best to manage her care.
Although we didn’t speak about it much, I’m sure the whole situation was a burden on both my parents, especially my mother, as well as on Judy and Rita, my eldest sisters. Nevertheless, it may well be that caring for our sister Janet was one of the factors that influenced Judy’s decision to become a teacher, and later to specialize in working with severely disabled children. So in that way, Janet’s short life became a blessing to other children through all the wonderful work Judy did.
I know in my heart they both influenced my childhood in some ways, even though they were seldom “at home” with us on the farm. To me they were wonderful, perfect, interesting strangers who would show up once in a while to visit. I looked at them and their friends or companions in awe.
So it was my great and endless joy to find, as I matured into a young woman, an elder sister that I barely knew who would become a constant advocate and champion for me, my opinions, my fledgling voice, and my life, which she continued to do up until the day she died.
The Cowgirl Finds Her Cowboy
Judy was a true cowgirl at heart. From a young age, she embraced everything, good or bad, about horses. I heard stories about her youthful adventures (most of which involved horses in some way), from neighbouring farm families as I grew up. Horses, horses, horses. Clearly, she was smitten.
To no one’s surprise, shortly after graduating from university, she brought a cowboy home to meet my parents. Not a garden-variety cowboy, with boots tucked in the back corner of the closet – a REAL cowboy, who had years of experience in the saddle, and the life she yearned for. She built that life with him, on a small ranch near Fort Macleod, Alberta. (Left: Judy on horseback with her dog Kahlua along for the ride)
I'm not sure when Judy met Roy O'Sullivan, but they married August 17, 1972. I remember her bringing him home and introducing him as her husband. At 14 years her senior and with a grown family of his own, I'm not sure he was exactly the 'catch' that Mom and Dad were hoping for, but he had some land near Fort MacLeod, and he was a cowboy, and Judy loved him.
Gone With the Wind
Roy and Judy’s relationship was quite unique. They both had full-time jobs – Roy ran the local hardware store and Judy taught school, plus they took care of the ranch and all their animals. But they both also seemed to find time for themselves. Roy would go off roping or team roping, and Judy would go ‘tootling about’ as she called it.
She would often jump in her truck and see where the wind took her - an unscheduled trip to Calgary, or a putter about in the mountains, or she would drop in unannounced on a friend. You'd never know in advance when she was coming, but she'd seldom show up with out a little gift or treasure, and she'd generally have her toothbrush -- just in case.
She also loved to travel further afield, and would often visit family and friends in British Columbia and Ontario. She had also traveled abroad to be with friends in Denmark and Australia, and she visited Israel as part of a University course.
So, while she and Roy had a strong bond and a good life together, they enjoyed their independence as well.
Judy claimed to have decided to become a teacher because it would be the easiest way for her to make “good” money AND have summers off. In the end, it wasn't about the money - she became completely devoted to her profession and her “children.” (Right: Judy with my daughter Nikki and Bessie the cow)
She began her career in High River and Claresholm, Alberta, both for fairly short stints, but then settled in at the Standoff Blood Reserve elementary school teaching the youngest grades. She treasured her time teaching on the reserve. She had many stories that she liked to share about some if the interesting observations of her native children.
One of her favourites was about the little boy who asked her if she had been a bad girl when she was little.
“No, I was a good girl,” she replied, “Why do you ask?”
“You must have been a bad girl,” he said in disbelief, “because your Mom spilled chicken soup on you and you got all those spots.”
Judy then spent a good while trying to explain to the six year old what freckles were!
Little Deer Woman
Judy was always completely oblivious to race, religion, colour or ability. She actually couldn’t see it, in my opinion. She was blind. I think her earthly eyes could only perceive light.
She saw that light in everyone, and if it was flickering, or a bit dim, she would stoke it and fan it and help it grow until it shone bright and strong. She had the special ability to look into someone’s heart and tell them the very words they needed to hear – generally followed by a joke and a laugh. That’s how she built bridges.
The Native community, particularly the Native children, became so precious to her. She embraced them all. The Blood Indians, with whom she worked for a long time, greatly appreciated her efforts.
They recognized her contribution years ago by presenting her with moccasins and a native name –Ohpokawakaasaakkii, which means Little Deer Woman. (I always think of it as Dear). Being given moccasins is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a non-Native woman in the Blood Indian culture. (Left: Judy in younger days at a pow wow)
While teaching full time, she completed courses in Special Education, after which she worked with severely handicapped children, many of whom were considered virtually unteachable. She cherished each and every one of them, regardless of, or perhaps because of, the severity of their disabilities.
Partly because of her teaching, and partly because of the small size of the community in which she lived, Judy knew everyone.
I remember going to the local grocery store with her on one occasion when my daughter was three or four years old. What should have taken a few minutes took forever! We’d pick up a thing or two, then she’d introduce me and Nikki to someone new, then take a few more steps then a new introduction…. it was amazing.
When we got in the car I couldn’t help but comment that she must spend half her life shopping if every excursion to town took that long. She just smiled and said: “Oh, heck no – I drive to Claresholm (a neighbouring town), to do my shopping most of the time – it’s quicker to drive the 25 miles and back than it is to shop locally!”
Open to almost anything, she explored different dimensions of spirituality, and healing. She worked with horses, for example, as a ‘therapist’ using a self-devised form of chiropractic that engaged their energy centres to help correct wrongs. People brought horses to her from great distances to have her work her magic with them.
She was also extensively involved with a program to increase and balance all aspects of people’s energy flows to help them learn more easily and stay healthier. All of it was quite fascinating, and I was her willing guinea pig.
I remember one time we had the opportunity to hear Deepak Chopra lecture in Calgary. There were several hundred people there, but when I glanced towards the stage during a break, I saw that Dr Chopra was standing alone just casually looking around -- so I grabbed Judy's hand and we charged up there - and I introduced her to Dr Chopra.
She had all his books and was thrilled to meet him. What was really endearing is that he was very gracious, and they had a nice, albeit short, chat. It was fun afterwards because she couldn't believe that I would do that - and I said: “Why not? You're worth meeting - every bit as much as he is!” And I really meant it – Judy was just a wonderful person.
She was a real advocate and help to our parents, especially when our Mother grew more and more lost with dementia. As a bridge builder she always brought a little extra light into the room with her – she would often bang out some old tunes on the piano in the Seniors Centre, or sit and have a little extra visiting time with someone who looked as if they needed a friend.
Unfortunately, all her goodness and healing powers did not stop her from falling prey to cancer in her mid-fifties. She fought the disease in her own quiet way, but eventually succumbed, without a lot of suffering, on January 23, 2005, at the age of 56. (Read the letter Wanda wrote to Judy's friends about her cancer and passing; read the eulogy delivered by one of her colleagues at Judy's funeral.)
The Devil Made Her Do It!
Healthy or not, she certainly wasn’t a saint! She liked to stir up trouble, and was a terrible tease. Sometimes she'd take the joke past the point of being funny, but it was easy to forgive her. And she liked to be the centre of attention, but I actually don't think she could help it -- she was physically attractive, and internally beautiful, so people could just see and FEEL her beauty. I think that’s why they were attracted to her.
I remember as a joke I once gave her a little 'bubble' wand that was on a string that you hung around your neck. It was attached to a yellow rubber duck, which held the bubble stuff - a true fashion statement! But the funny part was that she'd walk up with her bubbles a-dripping, and ask guys she knew, jokingly of course, if they wanted “a blow job." She had that kind of funny sense humour that just made people laugh. (Above: at my 25th wedding anniversary when Judy was undergoing chemo; L-R: myself and sisters, Carolyn, Rita, Judy)
Another time I drove down to visit with a couple girlfriends, and we stopped at her house. She said: “I think there's roping at the arena,” so we all piled in the truck and raced off, only to find the show was over when we got there.
There were a few trucks parked outside though, and she walked over bold as brass to a group of fellows chatting, and said:
“Are you real cowboys? These girls have driven all the way from Calgary to meet a real cowboy and they’re hard to find these days.''
They all laughed, and invited us for a beer.
When my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, I watched her charm my guests, despite being weakened by chemo. She wore a scarf and sassy hat, and asked the younger men (married or not) if they’d like to run away together – “old ‘what’s his name’ at home is getting boring,” she quipped in fun.
Embracing The Light
As she came closer to getting ready to “go home,” and was embracing the light in her own special way, she still made people laugh with her own special brand of humour. While in the hospital, I overheard her sharing with a friend on the phone “It’s a bit of a crap shoot now, but at least I’m still standing in the crap!”
Honoured in her lifelong efforts to build bridges of light, Judy’s community came out in full force to bid her farewell at the memorial service held to celebrate her life – there were well over 500 people in attendance to say goodbye.
She changed the world she lived in – she saw the best in everyone and helping them celebrate it. And her legacy of loving and giving lives on in the hearts of so many of us who held her dear.
Judy Elaine Phillips O’Sullivan Ohpokawakaasaakkii was a bridge builder.
The parent of a child whom Judy taught told me the story of him searching for her amongst the stars. Given more time, I’m sure he would have found her, because I know she continues to build bridges in the heavens, just as she did here in this world – bridges of light and love.