Once Sylvia Cotton decided to do something, nothing would stand in her way. When she needed to fence in her young children to avoid tempting the black bears in the B.C. Interior, she looked up plans and bought materials, figured out how to use the necessary power tools, and built the fence. Her husband Ron made dinner.
The third child and only daughter of Rob and Doris Wilson, Sylvia grew up among brothers Rick, Greg, and Jeff in Lake Cowichan, on Vancouver Island. She earned a bachelor of science in occupational therapy in 1987 from the University of British Columbia, where she met Ron Cotton, who was studying to be a forester.
They married in 1987, and over the next few years moved around the Interior, where sons Zach, Aaron and Jared were born. During her time at home with the boys she began volunteering, including stints on the boards of the boys' preschool, the library, the hospice society and the museum. In 2000, the family moved back to the Island and settled in Shawnigan Lake, close to her parents. She took a job fitting wheelchairs, which satisfyingly combined her university training with her mechanical skills.
She also took up cross-stitching, gardening and painting with zeal, and had her first art show in 2010. She took the same approach with her boys, encouraging them to work hard and aim high.
In December, 2010, Sylvia had been suffering from back pain but threw herself into the Christmas festivities, getting to better know her nephews, who were growing up as quickly as her own boys: Zach was home from Royal Military College, Aaron was in Belgium on a student exchange, and Jared was in Grade 9.
Four months later, Sylvia told the family that she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and that her prognosis was four to six months. She carried on as she always had, sorting her belongings and labelling family heirlooms. She used an advance on her life insurance to renovate the basement into a man cave, complete with weight room and wide-screen TV. "My going-away present for my family," she called it.
By summer, Sylvia had arranged her funeral and written her obituary. After reading about Jack Layton "battling" cancer, she sent out an e-mail update to the family:
"The best word I've come up with so far is 'endure.' I'm not fighting or battling cancer.... I've had few to no choices through this experience, and resent the implication that I will have 'lost a battle' that I never really had a chance to wage."
Sylvia reached milestones that she hadn't expected to see: her 24th wedding anniversary, her 47th birthday and Christmas. She often wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: I am woman. I am invincible. I am tired.
On Jan. 17, Sylvia called her family to say she had decided to go into palliative care - not that she was happy about it, but it was time. She moved to the hospice in Victoria on the 19th, and died in her sleep two days later.
Sarah Harrison is Sylvia's sister-in-law.