The Niagara on the Lake Local – May 10, 2019
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 ten other cruisers arrived within minutes 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 wooly mammoth but didn’t those have tusks, not horns?
A second woman informed the officers it was her highland bull that was on the loose.
The injured bull had now lowered his head, waving it’s long horns in warning.
They joined in the calming process and together cautiously circled the animal. After what felt like an eternity they edged him back towards 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 their alive!” my sister exclaimed when she rather excitedly relayed the story to me the next day.
One 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 another just 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. 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 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.
Her tender heart became evident at a young age, especially when it involved birds and animals. I remember one summer day a neighbour kid dropping off two baby robins with nothing but a few tufts of emerging fluff to warm them. She immediately took on the role of surrogate mom, an extremely demanding task because of their 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 behind.
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.
One 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 practice 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 80’s. 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 caught 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 poised as if ready to take off in flight.
Debbie’s fascination with owls intensified when she became friends with Dr. Kay McKeever who ran the owl sanctuary in Vineland Station. On a few occasions she was given an owl that did not survive its injuries. She had the skills but also an incredible gift that could bring it back to “life” on a perch so that others could learn about these amazing creatures.
After getting hired as a nurse in the ICU at the St.Catharines General 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 Rd. 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 story barn and Deb was well established in her nursing career.
Her children, Jamie, Connie and Scott 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. Many of you will remember her ponies jingling with sleigh bells and neighbourhood children bundled up in a cart at the annual Christmas parade. Kid’s 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 companion. This was truly a kids paradise!
Debbie loved her children fiercely and encouraged them to push past their limitations to achieve their dreams. Whether their passion was wood working, scuba diving, flying or racing around a moto track, Deb always showed up, helped out and participated enthusiastically right along with her children.
Hiking, walking our dogs at Niagara Shores park or quiet time fishing at her secret spring fed stream continued to feed her soul while she juggled the challenges of nursing and raising a family. Their home was a social hub for local teens and the second floor of their barn was the place of choice for playing pool or hanging out.
Farming was still a prime focus and after much deliberation they decided to go organic. At the time she had no idea about the incredible commitment and intensive labour it would require. Coordinating days off from the hosptial 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 farm markets such as Dufferin Grove Organic Market and the Brick Works where she was one of the most sought after vendors.
I’m sure she holds the record for the 40 years she worked 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. We continue to hear stories from patients or their family members who experienced her compassionate care and the extra details she attended to to make them more comfortable. When her coworkers were feeling stressed her humour and chocolate cakes were the tradition that fuelled their energy until the end of their shift.
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 values she lived out daily – kindness and generosity, liberally mixed with good humour in even the most challenging circumstances.
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
Click on the “Celebrating Debbie” image to watch the video.