I knew Robert Wilson as Cowboy. I met Cowboy outside of the library at the corner of Queen Street West and Cowan Avenue, where he was hanging out with a crew of people I knew from The Dale drop-in. He finished that first conversation with a certain hand gesture: one where he would wiggle his fingers and bring his arm back to signify that things were “groovy”. From that time on we used it to greet one another hello, though our goodbye would inevitably include a hug.
I learned quickly that Cowboy lived life hard. He was an admitted alcoholic who I got used to seeing inebriated. Drunk or sober, Cowboy could articulate that he was numbing difficult things and wanted to be able to stop. It was not uncommon for him to attend our little Sunday afternoon church service where he would pray aloud for healing. In some of his worst moments he would sit atop the small flight of stairs into the space away from the service, close enough to be safe, far enough to be entrenched in his own thoughts.
Cowboy became a good friend. He would always say, “girl, how ARE you today?” I knew he really wanted to know and would call me out if I didn’t give an honest answer. When I needed to share hard things he would look at me with compassion, nod his head and say, “in the end, in the end, in the end…things will be okay”. Coming from Cowboy, this sentiment was the opposite of trite. I knew that he understood the challenge of life and was pointing to our future hope.
The last time I had a conversation with Cowboy was near the beginning of June after a little memorial service we did for a community member’s father, a man none of us had met. It was a beautiful time, full of love and support for the bereaved. I sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ at the request of Cowboy. Afterwards he sang a couple of lines to me, unashamed of the tears that accompanied them. He spoke of how much he loved his friends and family, gave me a hug and left.
That night (I will spare the details of how) Cowboy ended up in hospital, unconscious and on full life support. Upon hearing the news the following day, I went to the hospital and met the family that surrounded him. Over the course of the next month and a half Cowboy was well cared for until his body couldn’t do it anymore. It is hard to believe he is gone.
I think about Cowboy a lot. I miss him. The Dale misses him, as do so many people in Parkdale. My prayer is that in the end, in the end, things have been made right for him. I live in hope that our goodbye is actually a groovy ‘see you later’, finger wiggling and all.
Toronto Star notice: Robert “Cowboy” Wilson Obituary