After suffering cancer and meeting her nurse husband in hospital, the heartache of the old laments feels more bruising, but the joyful notes are sweeter still for Canadian fiddler Fleur Mainville.
Her jigs and reels have the same free-spirited intensity as when she toured North America with ground-breaking Celtic rock band MacKeel, but Mainville now sings as beautifully as she plays.
“I’m branching out, trying new things,” she laughs, adding that a diagnosis of carcinoid bowel cancer is apt to take anyone in new directions.
A few years ago Mainville was desperately sick and cancelling appearances.
“As a performer I knew what it meant for your career when you let people down but I couldn’t go on,” she remembers.
She’d been ill and in pain for so long she was momentarily relieved when she learned she had cancer. The relief was short-lived, though, and her initial prognosis was poor.
“I had to learn, my family had to learn, to wake up in the morning and make the most of every day,” she recalls.
Surgeries and visits to specialists followed as doctors struggled to identify her cancer and find the best treatment. Carcinoid is a rare form of the disease, generally slow growing and not usually found in someone as young as Mainville, who is 35. The fact that she became ill at a young age makes her cancer less predictable.
“I’m constantly being monitored. I’ve just started on a new drug that holds a lot of promise. There are some side effects but generally I’m feeling great and really hopeful,” she says.
Ironically, it was at the height of her illness that she met husband Andrew Heighton.
“I was in the hospital emergency department, sick and desperate for help. The triage nurse was this young guy and he was so kind to me,” she remembers.
Heighton got in touch after her diagnosis but Mainville was dismissive.
“He contacted me a number of times and I did my best to get rid of him. I remember telling him I was really sick and wanted to spend my time with my family and friends.”
When Mainville made an emotional appearance at a Nova Scotia Music Week show, Heighton was there to applaud.
“We had friends in common, it was obvious he was a very nice guy, so I had to open the door a little but he was the last thing I was looking for,” laughs Mainville.
She had to be persuaded her battle was one she could share.
“It is a big decision to share your life but as I got to care about Andrew I had to ask myself if I could involve him in all this. I’m so lucky he was more than willing.”
The daughter of a couple of hippies who loaded up a van and headed east from their home in northern Quebec, Mainville is not sure where her love of Celtic music came from. Initially, she played classical violin.
“I remember being in a music festival. I had played a Mozart piece and the adjudicator told me I should have put less of myself into it. It was a turning point because I knew I could play a reel or a jig, and even if I played it backwards, people would appreciate what I did with it. It has always been what I could do with the music.”
She teaches private lessons, runs fiddle programs in several Pictou County schools, has a weekly radio program and is back on the summer festival circuit. Between work and medical appointments she has launched two new CDs. The first, My Rare One, features 13 mostly rollicking, thunderous fiddle tunes while on the latter, titled Once, Mainville sings 11 of her traditional favorites.
In the midst of recording My Rare One, she got married and the CD is close to her heart.
“I was playing music again, music that is good for the soul and the spirit,” she smiles. “And I’m still playing and singing.”
By Rosalie MacEachern