By Sue Tiffin
As she remembers her friend, Zoe Chilco, Cheryl Bathe recalls a time when Zoe held a dinner part for her friends, many years ago. Surrounded by Zoe’s collection of unique finds, the conversation turned amongst her friends to what one thing they would want of hers, when she one day passed on.
“Zoe was kind of eccentric with what she collected and what interested her,” said Bathe. The one thing Bathe wanted were old books Zoe had in her bathroom, a Flower Fairies collection filled with little poems.
On one of the last visits the two friends shared, Zoe gifted Bathe with the books.
“Didn’t she give me the little Flower Fairy book, when I went down to see her?” remarked Bathe. “She remembered. I bet it was 20 years ago.”
The story speaks to Zoe’s unique look at life, her attention to detail and her insight into and care for others and is one of many shared after her death at age 75 this month, her family and friends speaking to her energy, her zest for life and her spark, in her memory.
Zoe grew up in a little bungalow in Scarborough, one of eight kids. Her son Chris was born when she was 23.
“Neither of my parents have ever gotten married. When she found out she was pregnant she just checked in with my dad, if he wanted to be part of raising me, but they were very young,” said Chris. “She was 23, he was 26, I was an unplanned pregnancy, so she decided to raise me on her own.”
Life with his mom, just the two of them, “was a good thing,” said Chris. And then, with a laugh: “In a weird way I always felt like she did an excellent job, and I ended up pretty well-balanced, considering.”
The two lived in Cabbagetown, and later in Parkdale, living at times technically under the poverty line but, in Chris’s memory, without a want.
“I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, it was just us, so we were definitely like a team,” he said.
His mom was fun-loving, open to acting like a kid, Chris said. She discouraged television, and encouraged reading and use of the imagination.
Bathe remembers that, too. When Zoe first visited her home after they became friends in the late ’80s, Bathe’s kids were in the living room.
“She immediately came in and sat down with them on the floor and started playing whatever board game they were playing, with them,” said Bathe. “When she left, they came to me very confused and said, is she a kid, or an adult? They had never met anybody like her … She didn’t have rules, she didn’t have rules like other people lay down for themselves about what you have to do as an adult.”
Zoe had interests in social justice, health and environmentalism before those topics mattered to most people.
“She was always ahead of her time in terms of all the things that people are talking about now,” said Chris. “Health food, climate change, mistrust of corporations, women’s issues, she was definitely a feminist, she wore radical clothes.” Zoe’s alternative lifestyle wasn’t always comfortable for Chris as he was growing up – over time he has come to see her as a visionary.
“But all of that stuff, I’ve seen it come around, now they’re all issues of the day and her independence is amazing to me now,” he said. “All of the stuff that she was consumed with back then, when it was very frowned upon to even bring up things like that, it’s all ended up being true: pollution, climate change, all of that stuff, she was on it back then when it wasn’t fashionable to talk about, and spent the last 30 years just watching one by one all of those issues come to the fore, and it’s pretty amazing.”
Zoe spent time as a French teacher – outwitting kids who had planned not to learn in class with the supply teacher that day – and as a massage therapist, sometimes practicing in homes before that was more common. She studied languages – including Latin, Gaelic, French, Italian, Spanish – doing so before travelling to places, in any way she could even on a meagre budget, where she might be able to use them.
“She was able to do it because that’s what she wanted to do,” said Bathe. “Her energy, her drive, she didn’t let things stop her. She found a way.”
“She worked to live as opposed to lived to work,” said Chris. “In the end she had two houses, she travelled the world, and she continued with that pace … So in the end she had way more free time to do what she wanted to do, which I think, again, I’ve come around, that’s the way to do it, if you ask me. Especially after COVID, again, people are coming around to her way of thinking. She was just very ahead of her time.”
In the late ’80s, Zoe moved to Haliburton County – “she followed someone who she cared about,” said Chris – buying 100 acres in Carnarvon and putting in a Pan-Abode cottage. She lived here, spending time at apartments she had in Toronto until she bought a house in Scarborough in 2008, then living here or there between 2008 and 2016. Chris bought the cottage from her a few years ago, while Zoe bought a little place elsewhere in Algonquin Highlands, across the road from the lake.
After landing here, Zoe was instrumental in founding the original women’s shelter in Haliburton County, steadfastly holding fundraisers, including the Thalia’s Voice concert held at Beaver Theatre, and working as part of the HERS (Haliburton Emergency Rural Shelter) Committee – not just in the ’90s, but in more recent years too, to keep the local shelter now in place funded.
“She was really a sparking kind of person,” said friend Heather Ross. “A lot came off of her energy. She didn’t back down and she grabbed things, she really was pretty fearless.”
While music was always a part of her life, it wasn’t until her 50s that Zoe really began to pursue it as a career.
One day while Zoe was at another musician’s gig in Toronto, he noticed she was writing out lyrics to her most recent song on a paper placemat, according to an interview she had with Mike Jaycock on CanoeFM late last year. The musician invited her to the stage, as he was prone to do.
“I had this paper placemat in my hand, and these guys of course are all professionals, they just start playing it, taking off with it,” she said. “I’m up there singing, looked down, one way to my right, one way to my left, and I thought, oh my God, this is incredible, this has got to be the best night of my life. And you know what, it has stuck with me as that because it was so gratifying to have these amazing musicians playing this piece of music that I had just written, many were just sliding with it, and it was the greatest high. It really was incredible. Even though I wasn’t doing all of the performing I ended up doing later, that had to be the biggest stand-out for me.”
Later when she was at the Minden Fair, she told Jaycock, “by that time I was a little nervier,” and she asked the band if she could play a song. Someone in the audience told her there was a guy in town looking for a singer, and that guy turned out to be Gord Kidd, who she sang with for almost six years.
“And that was the beginning of my musical career,” she said.
Over time, Zoe would release 10 professional albums, all originals, her work also available on streaming services under her name. She performed jazz and blues concerts at cafes and restaurants, in Whitby and in Mexico, at Hugh’s Room and the Old Mill Toronto, and also locally at Music by the Gull, the Minden Hills Cultural Centre and for events in Head Lake Park. She hosted two radio shows on Canoe FM – The Blue Canoe for eight years, and Zoe’s Haphazard Saturday Nights for seven.
“I just have to sing, every day, because that is what always frees me from the madding crowd, and it’s what inspires me, and makes me feel good, better, and best,” she wrote on her blog in 2019. “So I will keep on singing.”
Zoe was also a writer, telling Jaycock that at one point she had a mountain of notebooks that went back to the ’60s.
“I’ve been writing for a long time, didn’t realize how much stuff I had until I started organizing,” she said.
Blog posts offering details into her life, her experiences and her frustration with illness, and essays available on WattPad share insights into her philosophy and experiences. A novella she wrote, Wind Dancing, became a podcast, documenting her creativity across paper and technology and showcasing the energy she had for creating, and living, even when she began feeling unwell.
“She realized that there was so much she wanted to get done and I think it helped normalize things,” said Chris. “I would have a busy day, she would have a busy day, it’s not like she was just sitting there staring at the wall. Both of us were kind of feeling the same way in terms of what we accomplished that day. You don’t have to push yourself at this point, you can just relax, but I think it made her feel less sick … She kept on doing it. She could have used another 20 years obviously.”
Though she always took care of herself, Zoe had let some check-ups lapse, and so when she was finally urged by a friend to see a doctor about some changes to her body, her family doctor pursued it urgently. Zoe was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and immunotherapy for many months.
“It’s a weird feeling,” said Chris. “You’re so used to doctors having a what’s next kind of thing, and then we got to that point where they were like, there is no next step, it’s cancer, that’s it, there is no cure. Those were moments that we shared together that were kind of like, holy shit, this is for real.”
Zoe decided to get off of chemo, Chris said, because she just wanted to face it naturally. She lived another six months after that.
“Obviously in the last couple of years, especially since the diagnosis, which was 18 months ago, we had a lot of time – thankfully – to just basically take advantage of all that time we had, whatever time we had left,” said Chris. “We spent time together obviously going to the hospital and all that stuff, and going through that whole cancer journey thing with chemo and all that. But then we would just talk on the phone every night, which was really great, because they were good conversations. She kept up on current events voraciously, she would always listen to the news, listen to what was happening, so we could talk about anything. And then she always had an interest in what I was doing, which was nice to have.”
“We did get down to see her a few times, recently,” said Bathe. “It was nice to be able to go and have her be the same. Even though you knew she was dying, she was the same, it was amazing. You felt like it was the same old Zoe, other than her low lack of energy, she still had that spark, it was quite amazing. And she was just as interesting, or even more so.”
For the most part, Zoe’s experience of cancer was fairly discomfort-free, said Chris, but eventually she knew the growth would cause her to become incapacitated.
“She received world-class treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital for ovarian cancer and, as it worsened, chose to end her journey the way she lived it: on her own terms,” reads her obituary. Zoe died peacefully at home by way of a medically-assisted death on Oct. 6.
“At the last moment, she realized what was happening and she was trying to control it,” said Chris, with a gentle laugh, remembering his mom’s everlasting command of her own life. “She was playing the song, Into the Mystic by Van Morrison, and she said, OK, you can open up the IV drip at precisely this time, she was band leading right up until the end.”
Family joined Zoe by her side and neighbours gathered on the street.
“There was laughter, there was tears, we toasted her with champagne, and then … we showed her video of the people out on the street, so she was really happy about that.”
Everyone else said goodbye, and then it was just Zoe and Chris.
“And then …” he takes a moment, pausing, composing himself, and then names her favourite beach, on Twelve Mile Lake, across from Twelve Mile Lake United Church Cemetery, her final resting place. “It’s ideal. It brought her great comfort that she was going to go there … So she called that up in her mind, and then gave the go ahead.”
Zoe’s obituary notes that she “lived life to the fullest, inspiring others to do the same.” Her story, it reads, is of a “powerful, creative force who fought for justice and equity, was loved and loved fiercely, and will be missed deeply by all lucky enough to know her.” It’s the story her friends and family think on now as they carry on after saying goodbye.
“It’s a good one,” says Chris.