The Dale has lost another friend. Just days ago Nicole died in an unexpected way.
Nicole was a quiet woman, often choosing to immerse herself in making art or doing a puzzle at our drop-ins. She looked younger than she was, with long dark hair and olive skin. It took a while to get to know Nicole, but once we learned to trust one another, the conversations got deep. I always felt it a privilege that Nicole would look me in the eye after sharing her own struggles and ask me about mine.
Last fall Nicole came on The Dale’s annual retreat to a camp near Parry Sound. At the time she was newly dating another community member, a relationship they were both very excited about. We haven’t had many couples emerge out of The Dale, so this was new for us too. A now infamous story of the weekend is how the two of them took a paddle boat out on the lake, only to get stuck because of the wind. One 9-1-1 call later and multiple rescuers sent in canoes, the two returned good-naturedly saying, “we failed! We’re such city slickers!”. Nicole did add an eye-roll.
Having just received confirmation of Nicole’s death, I find myself thinking of her constantly. I have some of her things stored in my house. They were supposed to be tucked away in the basement until she found better housing. As I went through a pile of papers today I found one of her drawings from a drop-in with the following inscription on the back: “January 2017. At God’s house. For God. Nicole. I love you! A great loving start”. It took my breath away.
I know that Nicole always hoped for life to be easier than it was. She longed for healing. I think Nicole worked hard to be resilient, even when it felt nearly impossible. She also had the capacity to both identify and celebrate beauty: the stack of colourful glass jars and artwork in my basement are a testament to that. As friends we did have some difficult interactions, though we always came out the other side. I will remember how she was a regular source of encouragement, especially during hard times, including our last conversation.
Nicole, you were loved and will be missed. Peace to you.
And now to him who is able to keep us from falling, and lift us from the dark valley of despair to the bright mountain of hope, from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy; to him be power and authority, for ever and ever. Amen
1974 – 2017
“I can remember my life before The Dale, but I can’t imagine my life after it” said my friend. All I could do was nod, smile and allow the tears to well up in my eyes. The words I thought to say got lodged behind the lump in my throat.
I took a long look at this person and was reminded of the journey we have shared. He was brought to The Dale by another friend who is now no longer alive. I remember that first meeting. In fact, I even have a picture of it. He seemed cautious about us, maybe even perplexed, which is why I was so surprised that he returned. Five years later and he’s at every single thing we do.
The transformation that we have been witness to in the life of this person is dramatic, though it happened (and continues to happen) incrementally. The anger that admittedly still takes up some residence, is managed in a better way. We can talk about difficult things AND laugh. He is learning to pray. We have been allowed to help with finances and housing. A lot of fun is had. The Dale has become his place of belonging.
This kind of community building helps fuel my passion for this work. It isn’t easy and more often than not, extremely messy. From an outside perspective I can imagine that it sometimes appears to be happening at a snail’s pace. But it’s in those little moments that hope begins to shine: when an apology replaces anger, when one decides to stay instead of flee, when a person identifies their gifts instead of only their perceived deficits.
For me, some of the best things in life have taken a long time to develop and nurture. My closest relationships are with people who have been willing to talk through the hard stuff, sometimes again and again (and again). At The Dale we endeavour to slowly build these type of friendships, the kind that last and as my friend says, might even leave you feeling like you can’t imagine your life without them.
I stumbled upon a draft of a blog that I wrote soon after speaking out about my mother’s potential displacement from the hospital she called home. I took a deep breath and read it, reminded of that period when things felt so up in the air, though the piece itself was about our relief that the situation might shift. I can hardly believe how much has changed since then, and it has been less than a year.
I always felt honoured to be an advocate for my mom. I loved her. This love made me fiercely protective, eager to leap into action should she need help. I was routinely struck by how important it was for my mom to have people willing to speak on her behalf, and how easy it would be for her needs to fall through the cracks should we not. My mom was good at articulating her concerns, so I would first listen to her list and then excuse myself to share it with whoever was the most appropriate person.
My mom had a remarkable way of being gentle, yet firm and very careful with her words. This, along with the way she lived her life everyday, gave her clout. I know this because it was the first thing people would say when I would enter a meeting on her behalf. She taught me a lot about speaking truth to power. There is a huge hole left in my life that is shaped like my mom. Her absence is obvious, though I am fuelled by her memory to continue working against oppression and injustice.
Advocacy is difficult work. It involves having hard conversations, oftentimes over and over again. There are rarely easy answers. With my mom’s circumstances it sometimes felt like there might be no way through, but giving up was not an option. I feel the same about many of the things Dale community members go through on a daily basis. While challenging, advocacy is so deeply good. I still believe that truth can impact injustice, however messy it might be. My mom reminds me of this.
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”. Amos 5:24