An epiphany happens in a moment — a sudden perception of essential nature or an intuitive grasp of reality. I've had two epiphanies in my life, moments when I suddenly understood so much more than I did even a moment before.
My youth was spent playing on Long Island, New York. My parents were Leonard Canton, Jr., a strong, compassionate man and a successful CPA, and Mary Wallace, a Southern Belle. From them I learned both the fiery independence for which New Yorkers are famous and the sweet charm and easy talk of the South. I grew up happy and strong in Black America.
At the tender age of four I discovered my life's passion — planning weddings. I had an Easy Bake oven, a tin box with a light bulb for heat, which I used to create wedding cakes. As I grew, my fascination turned to fashion and I purchased as many bridal magazines as I did Teen Beat and Seventeen. I was, and still am, a romantic. Eager for the Cinderella fantasy, I fell in love, and by age nineteen I was married. My husband and I were soon blessed with beautiful twin boys, and it seemed the fantasy would go on forever.
But the first of my life's epiphanies was just around the corner. The energy of youth soon gave way to the realities of life — my husband and I were unprepared for the responsibilities we had assumed. Our marriage ended in divorce and I found myself raising two young boys alone. I was twenty-three and quickly becoming an all too common statistic. With New York independence and the maturity that comes with epiphany, I resolved that my children would not suffer the usual difficulties of single-parent homes — but life wasn't done challenging me.
In the early 1990's I contracted uterine cancer. The disease was debilitating both physically and emotionally. Wherever I went I carried an airsickness bag and frequently used it. Constant medical care left needle tracks in my arms. Imagine what people saw: a young, single Black mother, ill and exhausted, with tracks on her arms. I was the vision of an addict. If it had not been for my faith in the Divine, my love for my children, and the support I received from family and friends, I would have given in to the depression that was constantly nearby.
I can't overstate the value of a loving and supportive family. My mother helped me enroll at Empire State College. My sister tended my boys, Sean and Scott, while I worked days and took classes at night. My father became the male role model for my sons, attending their school activities with us. He accompanied me to my endless medical treatments, taught me the fundamentals of business, and encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a wedding consultant. Without the energy of my family I wouldn't have had enough to succeed.. .But I did. In 1995, after countless treatments and what felt like a lifetime of indignity, I finally won my battle with cancer through one final treatment: a hysterectomy. I grieved the loss of future children, but I had long ago decided to never be a statistic.
Life was teaching me invaluable lessons in trust and self-confidence. The first was the result of my New York independence and my unpleasant divorce. This led to the decision to raise my children myself — an unpopular choice, to be sure, but I felt I'd lost too much control over my future and that of my children with the loss of trust in my husband. I had determined to see both my sons graduate from college, and I wanted nothing to interfere with that goal.
The second lesson came with the cancer and the loss of trust in my own body. It was a terrible feeling that I pray no one ever faces. Yet, nearly ten years of struggle had created strength within me that I didn't know I had. When I was finally free of the disease with my energy and dignity restored, I felt I could take on the whole world — so I did.
I helped plan several weddings that year, applying what I had learned from college and my parents. I wanted my own consulting business, and I finally had the strength and resources to do it. I chose to focus on the full-figured bride for two simple reasons: Genetics and ten years of trial had made me a full-figured woman, and I knew too many full-figured women who hadn't fully enjoyed their wedding day. The Southern charm I learned from my mother was ideal for working with the tender issue of self-image — but life still wasn't done challenging me.
Just as I started to build my reputation as a consultant I was struck down by another illness — Multiple Sclerosis. Cancer is a terrifying disease, but it's well known with several paths to a cure. Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, is much less known and doesn't yet have a cure. I fell into a state of denial. I attempted to live my life normally; I worked full-time and pursued my growing business on the weekends. As symptoms appeared, I ignored them. But the disease finally caught up with me in 1998.
In short, MS progressively attacks the nervous system until the victim is left disabled. Mild cases result in loss of muscle control, usually expressed as jerking limbs. Serious cases result in complete paralysis. Modern medicine combined with a healthy lifestyle can hold the disease at bay — but only if you're ready to deal with the issue. I was dead set on ignoring the whole thing, until a serious attack put me in a wheelchair. I was sure the disease and the world at large had won and I had lost. Then the second epiphany of my life happened.
I suddenly realized that I was no longer an inexperienced nineteen year-old. I was thirty-one years old. I had two wonderful sons showing all the promise of youth. I had a loving and supportive family and my faith in God, and I had a disease that I couldn't be rid of. But I also had the experience of having overcome another serious disease. All my life, I'd been fighting for control over my circumstances. Now I realized that I'd had that control all along. My life was my own, and I had others to live for. So, with the help of my family, I made the decision to get up out of the wheelchair.
Time would prove that my decision was much easier to make than to execute, but making it was half the battle. I focused my energy on getting back into the life I'd been building. Physical therapy and a healthy lifestyle soon lifted me from the wheelchair. It also fueled my desire to help full-figured women. The message I wanted to convey to them was suddenly clear — you need to be healthy and happy, whether you're a size two or 22! With the message clear in my mind, I worked hard to finish my college classes in business management. I also contacted my sons. school to apprise them of my situation and to monitor the boys. development. This, too, was therapeutic — a public admission of the changes in my life and a bold statement that I wasn't going to let those changes rule me.
One last therapy would change my life. To overcome my depression, I was encouraged to take up writing. I wrote and published two books: You're Getting Married? (Writers Club Press, 2000), the story of a plus-sized woman dealing with her upcoming wedding, and Ms. Doesn't Stand for Multiple Sclerosis (Writers Club Press, 2001), the story of a single parent dealing with MS. Both books are reflections of my own life and writing them helped me bring many of the emotions I had been feeling into the open. They also proved to me that I could communicate my passion for beautiful weddings to the world. Soon I was writing my third book, Down that Aisle in Style! A Wedding Guide for Full Figured Women (WindRiver Publishing, 2006).
My re-energized passion for life was not lost on my sons. Unbeknownst to me they wrote an essay about my successes and submitted it to the Long Island chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Because of their efforts I received the MS Mother of the Year award for 2002. My pride in my sons redoubled — and redoubled again when they graduated in the top twenty percent of their class in 2005. Both have been accepted into college. One has been awarded the New York State Lottery's Leaders of Tomorrow Scholarship based on an essay about the true meaning of leadership; the result of his work with the National MS Society. My life's journey has been long and difficult, but I have won, and my family is proof of it.
But this isn't the end of my story. Graduating from college, raising two sons, building a successful consulting business, writing my books, and working with my publishers convinced me that I could help women like myself with more than their wedding day — I can help them through their writing. I am now the managing partner of a small literary agency, the Canton Smith Agency, that's dedicated to first-time women authors. Our goal is to represent literary artistry in a commercial venue without sacrificing artistic integrity. This isn't always easy; authors often see their work as art, but publishers must see it as a commodity. Still, it can be done. We currently have twenty-eight clients, seven of whom have signed publishing contracts and have books due out through 2006.
The challenges of life could have torn me down and made me one of the statistics I feared so much, but the strength of my faith and family buoyed me up. It made me so much more than I ever thought I could be. We are now three generations looking forward to a fourth. and life couldn't be sweeter.