When physician and mother Gillian Presner gave her acceptance speech for the Freiman Family Young Leadership Award on June 14 at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa annual general meeting, the Choices committee decided their worldwide search for a keynote speaker for the annual event scheduled for November 1 at Kehillat Beth Israel was over.
Because of the young Ottawa native’s “positivity, strength and determination, the choice became clear,” said Choices Co-Chair Jen Zaret. For the first time in 11 years, the Choices speaker did not come from outside the community.
Choices is an annual women’s event presented by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa Women’s Campaign that is designed to inspire women to become involved and make choices that can affect change in their community. Co-Chair Jackie Barwin thanked the sold-out crowd of 300 for attending and paid tribute to all who helped make the evening a success.
Standing at the microphone in a striped emerald dress, her short dark hair highlighted by a tinge of pink, Presner, 38, spoke frankly about how her life of “great privilege – comfortable home, loving family, never lacking necessities, access to an excellent education, and good health” – was shattered 15 months ago by a devastating medical diagnosis.
“When you’re in your mid-30s, with a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and about to have a newborn, and you’re told you have a malignant tumour the size of a tennis ball in your brain, there is no lemonade to be had,” she said. All you can do is pick up those lemons and do the best you can to either learn to juggle them, or, more likely, just learn to look at them in a new way so they don’t make you cry.”
A graduate of Hillel Academy (now the Ottawa Jewish Community School) who attended Jewish summer camps, Presner is a longtime community volunteer. She joined her husband, Neil, and family members Bernie and Donna Dolansky, and Shawna Dolansky and Grant Overland, as co-chairs of Federation’s Annual Campaign kickoff last year while also still canvassing for the campaign, as she has done annually since 2008.
After her diagnosis, she was suddenly inconsolable, she said. “All I could see and focus on was my imminent demise.”
Presner said friend Staci Zemlak-Kenter helped her reframe her “limited time” as “deliberate time.”
“However, for a long while, this held me back even further. By my regular standards, I wasn’t using my ‘deliberate time’ well enough,” Presner declared.
One of her epiphanies this year, she said, is that “it is normal, healthy, and, indeed good to be ‘good enough.’ I can be a ‘good enough’ mom, wife, person, doctor, and patient – excelling in some things but not all, and still experience success and happiness… I will continue doing the best I can every day and be content in the knowledge that this has to be ‘good enough.’”
For instance, she said, “I no longer wear makeup aside from when I’m ‘dressing up’ and I want to wear it for me. To be honest, I no longer care what the strangers I meet throughout the day think of my face.”
She said she frames everything in her life by her role as a mother, and her legacy.
“For me, this underscores the importance of raising my children with good values, ambition, confidence and a sense of family and community, and self-discipline. I don’t want my kids defining themselves through the lenses of others, as I did for far too long.
“We all have horrible days, but we can be thankful, on those days, for the wonderful things we do have. And that changes everything. For example, while I have been generally well since my initial recovery, I still struggle with the effects of both my cancer itself and of its treatment,” she said.
“I can’t return to the career I love full-time because of difficulty with high-level decision making under pressure and multi-tasking, and from time to time I still feel the effects of my intra-operative stroke. However, I’m thankful every day for these struggles because it reminds me that I’m here to have them, and the fact that these are at the fore means that I’m not yet struggling with a much bigger demon – recurrence.”
Presner said she decided not to devote any of her limited energy to feeling guilt.
“What has happened to me has also completely changed the way I view getting older. While I still fret about my little grey hairs, I’m also happy I’ve made it to the point of my life to have them, and that I can have fun covering them up with bright pink. I relish and savour birthdays like never before. I love learning new things and I take great joy in planning for my family’s future, picturing it as I plan, instead of being devastated that I will probably miss most of it.”
Presner also spoke about the “absolutely amazing power of community” and stressed the importance of choosing a partner who will be “both our greatest champion and our most honest critic.
“In keeping with my philosophy of not forgetting myself, I will not say that I owe all my successes to Neil Presner, but I certainly do owe a great deal.
“I’m sure it’s clear by now,” she said, “that I think that life and what we take from it is defined by the choices we make… If I inspire even one of you to look at your life through a bit of a different lens, I’ll be very happy and excited.”
Presner used ice cream as a metaphor for her current outlook on life.
“I’m absolutely committed to making my latter years my best years,” she said. “In that vein, I encourage all of you to do the same. Go out there, jump in with both feet, and eat all the ice cream with your face.”