Playing Florence Nightingale

by Joanna D'Angelo

Half my family is sick with a wonky virus right now - combo stomach flu/chest cold. So it’s my turn to play Florence Nightingale. A role that I know all too well.

My Mother died of cervical cancer in June of 2004. The first time she was diagnosed was in 1998.  But it returned in her bowel in late 2002.  But another fun little event happened during the course of my mother's illness - the production company that I was working for essentially went under and laid off all the staff.  That was a blow as well because it came on the heels of the death of one of the owners to a brain tumour (the gentleman who had invested most of the money to launch the company in the first place). His background was in high tech and he had wanted to do something different in his retirement years.  He was one of the loveliest men I have ever known.

We had all seen it coming but it was still emotionally hard. Then the president of a very successful production company just down the hall strolled into my office one day (before I had even contemplated my next move) and hired me to plan his next market trip to Cannes.  I had been concerned about finding work after that just because - well Ottawa isn't Toronto or LA or NYC - it's a small market but then again being small has its advantages as well because everyone knows you. 

But during the course of my gig at this production house - it became apparent that my Mom needed more attention and care than my Dad had the energy to provide and it was out of the question that we would put her in a long term care facility. That would never happen. So I decided to stop working full time and help take care of my mom.

My Dad also had to make the tough decision to ask my Nonna - his mother -  to live with his brother.  My Nonna had also become increasingly frail and sickly - she was 91 and was rapidly losing her vision to diabetes but she was also having heart and kidney problems.  I will say that my Nonna was a woman who never allowed any ailment to stop her - in fact up until the age of 88 or 89 she traveled to Italy almost every other year where she still maintained her home. That was always very important to her - to never give up her house in the old country. She also had a very active social life and would go away on weekend trips with her seniors' group or to a dance on Saturday nights at St. Anthony's Soccer Club or in St. Anthony's Church basement hall or at St. Anthony's Banquet Hall across the street from St. Anthony's Church. If you haven't guessed - St. Anthony is the patron saint of Ottawa for the Italian community. Italians - no matter where they are - need a patron saint.  Mind you she'd only ever dance with her old lady friends. But they were quite the quartet.  I made a documentary short about my Nonna many years ago which featured her, along with her "Golden Girls". When my Nonna moved out - it was difficult for all of us because - well - she was like a second mother to me and I had a feeling that she wasn't going to live much longer. She passed away a few months later - in May of 2003.

But a few months before that - I  wrapped up my gig and took time away from the industry to help take care of my Mum.  I don't regret my decision because it led to much soul searching on my part - a realization that although I enjoyed working in production - I would rather work on my own projects. But it also concerned me a little because once you're out of the loop in this industry - it's tough to get back in.

When I had time I began to build up my ideas folder.  It was at this time that I conceived and started researching my documentary about romance writers  - "Who's Afraid of Happy Endings?" which as many of you know was commissioned by Bravo! Canada and has also been broadcast in Australia. I still get e-mails from people I know who've seen my documentary - as Bravo! has aired it quite often. At this point I don't even know how many times it's been on but I've even stumbled upon it while channel surfing. I can't help but smile to myself when that happens. It's kind of cool.

I was also doing weekly movie reviews for CBC Radio in Ottawa which provided a respite of sorts for me.  I don't know about you but I love going to the movies by myself.  I never feel this way when I go to a movie with other people - but when I'm alone and I leave a movie theatre - especially after watching a particularly inspiring movie I feel like all my senses are on high alert.  I see, hear and feel more intensely.  That's when my brain starts whirring and ideas start popping.  And even if nothing comes of it - I quite enjoy the experience.

 I had also at the time been working on a film project called "A Windigo Tale".  Now, you may wonder - how I found the time to do all this stuff while caring for my mom.  Well, you do have time on your hands when you're sitting vigil at odd hours of the night while your mom is sleeping soundly beside you.  Lots of time to write.

"A Windigo Tale" began with the production company that I had been working for but when it went under, the filmmaker took his project back and essentially became the executive producer.  The film was based on an interesting concept  - exploring the myth of the Windigo in Native culture as a metaphor for  Canada's residential school system.   From the 1920s to the 1960s Aboriginal children in Canada were torn from their homes and forced to learn the ways of the "white culture" in Catholic and other church-run schools where they were physically and sexually abused.  This has had a lasting impact on Native culture in Canada.

After many years - and long after my involvement with it ended - "A Windigo Tale" is finally complete and I believe the fillmmaker had been invited to send his film to the Sundance Film Festival and to the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto.


  1. Hi, Jo!
    I hear you. There is the same expectation in West Indian families. We would never consider putting a parent in a home, unless perhaps there was some sort of critical medical care the family members couldn't provide. Even then, it really wouldn't happen. :-)

    Congrats on seeing your project finally finished! Will you be coming to Toronto for the ReelWorld Festival? I'll be there!

    Take a moment to take care of yourself while you're taking care of your family...

  2. Jojo -

    I left my adopted city of Toronto and moved my husband and myself back to my home province of Nova Scotia so I could help my mom take care of my gram. Financially it was a disaster for us. Emotionally and spiritually, it was not even a question for me.

    My film school days faded into the netherworld as my daily schedule wrapped around care for my gram and the secondary care for my mom, the primary caregiver. But we juggled it all, and we enjoyed 8 wonderful years together before my gram passed away at the end of 2007.

    There is always difficulty striking that balance between family and career, especially when your chosen field is in the arts. But time is fleeting, as you know. The time you can spend with loved ones is precious. The thing to hold close to your heart is this: whom is it that your family wants to turn to and spend time with? An authentic, real version of you will always include the creative side of you, the side that needs to be 'selfish'.

  3. Kayla - thanks my dear - I know what you're going through to - and how well you understand the role of the dutiful daughter. :) I will always find time to see you dear friend. ;)

  4. Julia - the more I connect with you on this blog - the more connected with you I feel. If that makes sense. You truly are a beautiful spirit. Thank you for your kind words and your wisdom. I think there are some of us gals - who are just late bloomers - a lot of film directors who are women for example don't make their first film until they are older. So there you have it! A film is in your future if you want it. ;) Peace.

  5. Wow, Joanna, I'm swept away. Your life is an authentic Italian saga, so rich and flavorful, even bittersweet, that, honestly, I love you even more.

    Your writing...

    Wow, again. And THANK-YOU for an incredible glimpse into life itself. For The Windigo Tale, and Nonna (how I envy you in experiencing life with her:-), your sharing as always is exquisite.

    On a personal level, your fortitude inspires me. You do 'step up to the plate'. :-D Also, if Happy Endings is on Bravo, I should be able to find it!!! Feeling excited about this!

    And Julia,

    An authentic, real version of you will always include the creative side of you, the side that needs to be 'selfish'. This had such a powerful impact on me. Thanks to you, too...


  6. Chiron - I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your blog posts inspire me as well. I am grateful for your bright and spirited presence here. Thanks again.

  7. Joanna, my heart goes out to you. Isn't it strange how life events galvanize your own heart's desires and nudge you in the right direction? A few years ago that happened to me as well with my daughter's health crisis, and a string of other smaller crisis followed (isn't that always the way?). I love your Nonna! She sounds like a wonderful person, and a great inspiration. Wishing you and your family the best of health, and that your hard work will pay off in success!

  8. Thank you so much Cate! I agree - sometimes it's the rough times that make us who we truly are. My Nonna was one of a kind! I hope that all is well in your family is well. Thanks so much for being part of this wonderful gang of gals!

  9. Sorry to hear about so much illness :(

    Very kind of you to always take care of your family. BUT you do need to be "selfish" sometimes too and take care of you!

    So you better relax, read, hike, cook, watch SATC, shop or whatever allows you to relax! :)

  10. Thank you Celeste - SATC has always been a lifeline! ;) love. that. show. You're right - my goal is balance - certainly building my career but also enjoying what life has to offer. Thank you so much for stopping by and your lovely comment. ;)


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