‘Sixtyfive Roses’: A tribute to her sister Guttenberg resident writes about sis’s battle with cystic fibrosis

When Heather Summerhayes Cariou was a little girl growing up in her native Canada, she faced the pain and anguish of her younger sister Pam’s battle with the dreaded illness cystic fibrosis.

Pam Summerhayes was just 4 years old when she was diagnosed. She couldn’t even say the name of the disease, telling everyone instead that she had “sixty-five roses.”

Pam Summerhayes battled CF for 22 years. Her parents started the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Canada, determined to do whatever they could to help save their daughter.

In 1980, while Pam Summerhayes was dying at the tender age of 26, she turned to her older sister with a request.

“On the weekend that she died, she asked me to tell her story,” said Heather Summerhayes Cariou, who has resided in Guttenberg for the last 10 years.

At the time, Heather was an aspiring actress in her native land, performing in classical theater like Shakespeare in Ontario.

“I honestly had started acting at CF Foundation meetings that were going on in our living room,” Cariou said. “I was performing for the adults at those meetings when I was about 9 or 10. I knew I always wanted to be an actress, but I also knew that I loved to write. I think my first intention was to be a writer.”

Added Cariou, “I don’t think Pam thought I was a bad actress, but she said that I wouldn’t meet the people that I needed to meet unless I became a writer. She made me promise to write her story.”

New inspiration

In 1984, she met her husband, famed Tony Award-winning actor Len Cariou, who already earned his notoriety in the Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd.”

“I’m what I call ‘post-Todd,” Cariou laughed. “People told me that they saw the play 11 times, and I had no idea what they were talking about.”

But after marrying Cariou, her new husband gave her the inspiration to write Pam’s saga.

“Len gave me the courage to go forward with this,” Cariou said. “He said that whatever it takes and how long it takes, you should do it. I just don’t think either of us thought it would take 20 years.”

The result is “Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir,” which was published first in Canada in 2006 and was just recently released to book stores and markets in the United States. The book was published by McArthur and Company and features a forward by famed Canadian songstress Celine Dion.

“I think the real reason why it took me 20 years is because I really didn’t know the story I was telling,” Cariou said. “I had to get beyond the myth and get to my truth. It wasn’t the same truth as my parents might have had or my brother or even Pam. I also had a lot of healing to do. Pam died and my first marriage ended within six months of each other. I then ended up in New York, away from my family.”

She added, “Part of the healing was marrying Len. He gave me a second childhood and I learned how to enjoy life in a different way.”

Cariou said that she also studied writing, attending the International Women’s Writing Guild conference at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., an event that she now attends every year.

“I think it also took me time to learn the craft of writing,” Cariou said. “I had to gain confidence in writing. I spent so much of my life where Pam was the center of everyone’s attention and everything evolved around her. I was struggling with building a sense of self-worth and I got that through going to the conference. That’s where I learned the craft. I developed faith in myself. It helped me believe in myself.”

Cariou said that she wrote notes over the years on anything and everything, like legal pads, cocktail napkins, the margins of magazines.

“I also came up with draft after draft,” Cariou said. “I felt like I became a better writer, but I wanted to always aspire to take this book to a higher place. It was a very emotional process, reliving my sister’s illness and death and it was very painful.”

Staggering result

But the result is staggering. It’s a descriptive journey through time and place, through emotions and happiness, through life and death.

“I don’t know if I’m seeing the world through her eyes now or she’s seeing the world through mine,” Cariou said. “But I’ve been getting e-mails from readers who can relate to the story and appreciate it. I wasn’t interested about writing the pretty stuff that sells in Hollywood. My sister wasn’t exactly an angel. But it’s a story that had to be told beautifully and the right way.”

Now, Cariou feels like an author.

“I’ve found my life’s purpose,” she said, as she is currently working on her first novel. “It goes beyond people reading the book. Part of the joy I have is sharing what Pam and I learned from each other. I’m amazed that it’s done.”

Cariou made sure that a portion of the book’s proceeds went to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Heather Summerhayes Cariou will have a reading and book signing at the Barnes & Noble on River Road in Edgewater on Saturday, April 12 at 2 p.m.

To learn more about Heather Summerhayes Cariou’s book, log on to www.sixtyfiverosesthebook.com and to learn more about the International Women’s Writer’s Guild, log on to www.iwwg.com.

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or jhague@hudsonreporter.com


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