Sajjin Thandi smiles when he thinks about his mother.
Specific memories of family vacations to Disneyland may be a little vague, but the intimate one-on-one time with his doting mom are not easily forgotten.
“I remember playing outside with my cars and I fell, and my knee was bleeding,” said the shy 12-year-old. “She put a Band-Aid on it and it felt much better.”
A quiet, guarded person, Cyndi Thandi was firm, but fair when it came to raising her two sons – Sajjin and Jeevin, now 9.
Working as an elementary school teacher in Surrey, her goal was to raise strong, social-minded young men.
That’s the image her husband Gary Thandi wants both his kids and the community to remember now that Cyndi is gone.
In 2013, Gary began to notice signs that his wife was not well.
A normally soft-spoken, “on top of things” type of person, Cyndi, began to forget things. Conversations with other people often turned to rapid-fire inappropriate or intrusive questions – almost inquisitions – about how much money they made or comments about their appearance or employment.
Happiness, sadness, anger and empathy all faded into a grey, passionless abyss.
Cyndi began to repeat herself over and over, and sitting still for any length of time seemed impossible.
When visiting friends’ homes, she was found going through things in their bedrooms. She started wandering the neighbourhood near her home, knocking on strangers’ doors and asking to come in.
However, Cyndi was unable to see the increasingly irrational behaviour as a problem.
Gary hoped his wife was suffering from a mental illness that could be treated with medication. It would turn out to be much worse.
Years earlier, Gary and Cyndi had met on a blind date. He was 26, she 24, and after dinner at an Earl’s restaurant on Scott Road, the two went for a walk in a local park and found instant chemistry discussing their educational goals and plans for the future.
At the time, Cyndi was finishing her degree in child and youth care and Gary was a probation officer.
Cyndi soon realized she wanted to be a teacher, so once she was accepted into university, within three days, the two moved to Vancouver Island so she could finish her teaching degree at the University of Victoria.
After her graduation, the two, now married, moved back to Surrey with their first child Sajjin in tow, and Cyndi found work with the Surrey School District as a teacher-on-call (TOC).
Things were going well. Gary earned a masters degree in social work and Cyndi received one in special education. She also became pregnant with their second child.
“That was the thing with her, she was so driven, she didn’t put things off,” said Gary. “She really inspired me.”
After a few years working as a TOC, Cyndi landed a full-time position with the Surrey School District.
And that’s when she started showing signs that something was wrong.
An MRI was inconclusive, however when she had a CT scan done, doctors saw an abnormality in Cyndi’s brain.
“Her symptoms weren’t like Alzheimer’s disease, where you can have your lucid moments,” said Gary. “Over the last four years, her behaviours were so significant and she had no idea. I didn’t want it to be this condition that was untreatable, progressive and would shorten her life.”
But it was.
Within weeks of the scan Cyndi was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), a disorder that damages nerve cells in the frontal lobes of the brain. It causes deterioration in behaviour, personality, and language skills, and loss of muscle and motor functions. There is no cure.
Cyndi was placed on medical leave and Gary took time off from work and his doctoral studies to care for her. He felt powerless watching his once active, responsible wife fall into a world of chaos and instability.
In 2015, Cyndi needed more assistance than Gary could give and she was placed in full-time care.
Fifteen months later, on Jan. 5, 2017, Cyndi died. She was 40 years old.
“Sometimes I’m grateful because it was not a good quality of life the last few years,” Gary said. “She’s finally free from this illness. I felt so guilty that she was suffering.”
For the last few years, Gary has been the executive director of Moving Forward Family Services, a non-profit “pay-what-you-can” family therapy and clinical counselling service he created that provides affordable help to families by university graduate practicum students studying counseling psychology and social work.
In his wife’s memory, Gary has plans to open a centre focused on youth, his wife’s passion.
Cyndi’s Centre for Child Education, Counselling and Support will offer support to vulnerable children and youth throughout the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley areas, with a long-term goal of providing tutoring and homework clubs as well.
A proposed location has been identified near 84 Avenue 128 street, however until the location can be secured, all services will be offered through the Moving Forward site nearby.
“My wife was such an advocate for education, so this is a perfect fit for her,” Gary said.
For more information Cyndi’s Centre for Child Education, Counselling and Support go to movingforwardfamilyservices.com or call 778-321-3054.