Let’s Talk About Death

In my experience, we don’t like to talk about death. This is understandable given that dying holds a lot of mystery and is something we would like to avoid. It is scary and sad. The grief it brings can catch us by surprise, so much so that we might try to tuck it away. But here’s the thing: death is desperately and devastatingly real. We cannot hide from it. I think there is something very important about sharing our sorrow and creating space to explore it together. While this won’t change the undeniable power of death, it can influence how we view death and the way we live.

I am no stranger to death. I have been with people when they took their last breath. I have identified people in the basement morgues of hospitals. It is not uncommon for me to lead funerals. Rarely would I describe a death as coming at what might be considered an appropriate time. No matter how frequently I see death, I am always struck by how obvious it is that the person is gone. This is true even when I can briefly imagine them getting up, probably because I cannot compute that they won’t.

In Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, she says “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” For me, the days between death and the funeral feel like a liminal space. It’s almost as though the person who has died remains very close, especially in the making of arrangements, sharing the news, and gathering with friends and family. Then the reality of loss settles in.

Today is known as Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. Jesus is dead, his body placed in a tomb. For those of us who follow Jesus, we believe that by tomorrow this story changes. He will be alive. Because we know this, it is easy to rush to Easter. I find it helpful, however hard it might be, to sit in the grief of this day. In a sense it is another liminal space, where I can reflect on the hopes which linger and the prayers which are yet to be answered. It forces me to consider who I am and what is important, propelling me to live (however much I may stumble) as authentically and faithfully as possible.

My faith tells me that the death we know now is not the end. I cling to this. In the meantime, death continues to be a thing. It would be false to say it does not scare me at all, because though I have been close to it, I still have no idea what it is actually like. What I do know is that death brings grief and mourning, which together are usually described as bereavement, meaning to rob. Death does that- it robs us of what we love, while also providing the opportunity for us to express that love. And love generates love. On this Holy Saturday I am going to think about that.

The Gift of Ashmeed

I met Ashmeed, more simply Ash, in my earliest Parkdale days. If I wanted to connect with him, all I usually needed to do was go out to the steps of the church where PNC (now The Dale) was housed. If not there, he wasn’t far- maybe by the big globe outside the library, or around the corner on Queen Street. We had a lot of conversations sitting on a bench in the bus shelter. It was often about Scripture and how he was writing down long passages in a notebook stashed in his pocket, family, or the regret and pain that was pushed down and masked by other things. Ash would attentively listen to me too, quietly nodding and affirming my feelings. 

I have a lot of memories with Ash. One particularly poignant one happened on a Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday, when we remember the way Jesus ate the last supper with his friends and washed their feet). We were gathered with another community for a traditional Seder supper, which includes having an empty chair at the table in honour of the prophet Elijah. Ash entered the room, grief-stricken and worked up. He sat in the empty chair and poured out his anguish over the reality of poverty. “You all don’t know what it is like”. And he was right. I remain convinced that Ash came as a prophet of sorts that night. He was one crying in the wilderness. 

Years ago, though he had arrived in Canada at a tender age with his beloved brother, Ash was being threatened with deportation. Ash asked me to write him letters and vouch for him as a person. I went to the hearing in order to stand with him in solidarity, along with a couple of his family members and another friend. I was so proud of Ash that day- the way he managed through intense scrutiny, being asked questions that no one should need to answer in front of strangers. There was nothing easy about that experience, though it miraculously ended with Ash being allowed to stay. 

I think getting through that storm helped launch Ash into a new stage of life. Over the last number of years he found a different kind of stability. It was beautiful and exciting to participate in. Already an artist, Ash began frequently painting again. He became a regular at our Sunday thing, almost always requesting #41 in our songbook: Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Since Covid he has been the face greeting and giving food to the community at our meals-to-go. Not long ago we were sitting together when he looked at me and said, “we are together whenever it counts, both good and bad.” Through tears, I agreed. Together on the journey.

Just this past summer Ash moved into his own apartment, the first time living independently in years. A group of us got to help him move in, an honour that I will never forget. We had a picnic of coffee and pastries before picking up all his belongings in two vehicles- mine, and Morrison, The Dale van. Ash was so excited and nervous. He couldn’t shake his smile. Even though his place was not in Parkdale, he made sure to be consistently around.

In the early hours of this morning, we received word that Ash died this weekend. At first it did not feel real and I just sat in stunned silence. I looked at the picture included here, one I took just this past Thursday. It wasn’t until calling the Dale team with the news that the tears began to pour. I imagine the sense of disbelief will return periodically, as it usually does. The weight of this loss is heavy. I want to extend my deepest condolences to Ash’s family and friends who knew him best. I am so sorry. 

Ash. I don’t even know where to start. Thank you for letting me in all those years ago. I will always be grateful for our friendship, and that you were willing to count me also as pastor. Our Mondays and Thursdays will not be the same without you. If you weren’t available for a meal-to-go we would always say, “who wants to Ash today?” It was your role and you did it so well. I will miss praying together on the street, laughing, working through the hard stuff, and trusting that when we parted it wasn’t a goodbye, but a see you later. I do believe that last part is mysteriously still true. I trust this isn’t goodbye. I will keep singing #41.

When you’re down and out

When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard

I will comfort you

I’ll take your part

Oh, when darkness comes

And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will ease your mind. 

Ashmeed Ahamad, 1963 – 2022

Not Just a Pet, A Companion

Not that long ago The Dale began to raise money for our long-time friend Sanchez and his beloved dog, Maggie. Maggie had a growth on her belly that required surgery, except the cost was prohibitive. Joanna launched a Go Fund Me on our behalf, and slowly but surely, the money came in. We felt so excited about being able to come alongside Sanchez and Maggie in this way. Many phone conversations and a couple of appointments in, the way forward became less clear, though we all remained committed to the process.

Today we received the difficult news that Maggie died peacefully in her sleep, while lying in bed. Having not dealt with this kind of thing before, both Joanna and I made calls to see what to do. This culminated with us, along with our dear friend Sam, picking up Maggie to take her to the appropriate place. We first gathered around Sanchez in order to pray: “For God, you love all things that exist- every creature an object of your love. Thank you for Maggie, and for all that she meant to Sanchez. Surround him as he grieves. Thank you for the joy that Maggie brought so many…”. And then, as tenderly as possible, we wrapped Maggie in a blanket and took her away.

It is with the permission of Sanchez that I share this story. Maggie was a very well known and loved dog in the neighbourhood and we know that the news is spreading fast. Wherever Sanchez was, so followed Maggie (and Chica, Maggie’s own pup). Plus, there were so many people that contributed to the GoFundMe. In that regard, we will be reaching out soon.

As Sanchez said today, Maggie was not just his pet, she was his companion. This is a palpable loss. We feel your pain right now my friend. The Dale loves you Sanchez, and we certainly loved Maggie. You are not alone in this.

Maggie & Chica

My Friend Ronnie

I’m not sure when I met Ronnie, though it was most likely more than a decade ago. I can’t remember a time in Parkdale without his bellowing voice. For a while it seemed he was everywhere: I would roll down my window as I drove past the corner of Dunn and Queen to shout hello, only to see him moments later at the Health Centre, and then again by the Library. I would tease him about how much he got around. With a twinkle in his eye he’d say, “oh, you know me- always around. I’m a fixture.”

Ronnie would routinely come to our Monday Drop-In, always sure to greet us as he entered the room. He loved to chat. I learned a lot about the art of checking-in with people because of Ronnie. No matter what he was going through (and it was often a lot), he would stop, look me in the eye and ask, “how are you, love?” He would then ask about life in general, my family, Cate, and finally, about my heart- in other words, how was I coping? Oftentimes he would chat and listen for so long that others would try to interrupt. His response would always be, “can’t you see I’m not done? I’m talking to my people”. 

Ronnie also taught me about asking for what you need. He was not shy in this regard. He would follow up any request with an acknowledgement that though we may or may not be able to help, it mattered to him that we would always try. Whenever possible, Ronnie would do anything to help us too. We liked to finish conversations by acknowledging the importance of journeying together and taking care of each other. “That’s it, love: we gotta help each other”. 

In 2017 Ronnie’s mobility declined. He would show up to Drop-In using a rickety walker, more often than not with a story about constantly tripping and falling down. It was clear that he needed a mobility scooter, and so in true Ronnie fashion, he asked for us to try and find one. I will never forget the day we actually got what he needed and presented it to him. We were all crying. It didn’t take him long to make it his own, including a sticker on the front that ironically said, NO FUN.

Just this past Sunday the Dale team was walking the neighbourhood. Ronnie was seated in a familiar spot, but obviously not doing very well. We talked, trying to sort out what would be the most helpful for him. As we prepared to keep walking, Ronnie grabbed my mittened hand and pulled it to his face. We stayed like that for a moment, as I rested my free hand on his head. He wanted me to bless him. We both said, “love you”. As Meg and I moved along, I shared about how that interaction was scaring me. Ronnie really didn’t seem okay. 

Yesterday we learned of Ronnie’s death. I am still in disbelief. Wanting the news to be false, we have waited on sharing this until now. Oh, Ronnie. The block will not be the same without you. Thank you for everything: the check-ins, the little gifts, the laughs, the tears. You were the opposite of NO FUN. You lived life hard, and I so hope that you can now enjoy some much-deserved rest. I am very sad that Sunday was our last interaction, and yet you made our parting visit one I will never forget. 

Ronald Paul Gallant 1964 – 2022

Spirits in the Sky

I will never forget the wise counsel of a grief counsellor I once went to: “the loss of someone you love is not something you get over; it is something you move through.” Having faced a lot of loss, I can attest to this being true. How could I ever “get over” my mom or dad? Or the people I have loved over the 20+ years of doing the work that I do? The various griefs that I hold do not look the same now as when they first occurred. And yet, I can be sideswiped by a familiar scent or a look-alike I notice walking ahead of me. Oftentimes this happens when I least expect it, though the feeling is now very familiar. I call it a wave of grief. I try, whenever possible, to ride it when it hits. I find that when I do, I can take a deep breath after it slows and continue the work of putting one foot in front of the other.

One important piece of this grief puzzle is what typically comes right after death occurs: the funeral/memorial. Covid has impeded this. For us at The Dale, services have been largely prohibited. We were able to help with and participate in a service held outdoors near the beginning of the pandemic, but very little has been possible since. We did get creative and put together grief support bags for the community, an activity that was meaningful and still not a true replacement for a gathering.

At the beginning of November, The Dale was able to move its Sunday service indoors. Though there are many lovely things about meeting outdoors, it has nice to been in a cozy space. It also means that we can do something for our TOO MANY friends who have died since March 2020. Just as we began a conversation about what to do, a long-time Parkdalian and musician named Heinz, approached me during one of our mealtimes. He put to words exactly what we’d been thinking: we need a time to honour our fallen comrades, one that is also a celebration. Heinz suggested we call it “Spirits in the Sky”.

Spirits in the Sky is going to happen on Wednesday, December 15th from 1 – 4 pm at 201 Cowan Avenue, in the sanctuary of Epiphany and St Mark. The space will be full of pictures, light, music, and opportunity to write down memories. There will be room to sit and reflect. Kleenex will be provided. It will be a drop-in (25 people can be in the sanctuary at a time), and there will be refreshments outdoors. We hope that this might be a step, however small it might seem, toward moving through the mountain of grief. Come. Grieve. Remember. Celebrate.

Present to What Is

I have been reading a book that has challenged me to consider how to be very present to what is, or “consent” to be where I am. I will admit that the last few months have not been the easiest of times to venture into such a practice. It is a season of big transition: Dion living in Long Term Care, Cate leaving the nest, me discovering how to live alone. Then there is the general fatigue of Covid and the specific burden it is at The Dale: on both the staff team and the community. Add to all of this multiple deaths and limited ways to corporately grieve, systemic injustice, the list goes on. I even started to notice stress coming out in arguably small, but noticeable ways, including a sty in my eye and a kneecap that was moving around in ways it should not.

I am discovering that these less than ideal conditions (and let’s be honest, are they ever ideal?) are a very good reason to slow down and really notice what is going on both internally and externally. For example, what am I feeling? What do I need? What things might be necessary to root out of my heart? What are my hands busy doing- is it good or not? Together with my counsellor, I have been addressing these and many other questions.

We are now in the time of Advent, a word that means “a coming into place, view, or being; arrival”. For Christians, this is a period of preparation before Christmas and the arrival of Jesus. This year I am especially aware of how God is right in the place where I find myself: in the middle of the pain, the loneliness, the grief, and the stress. There is not an absence of God in the hardest of things. While I don’t always understand this, I do know it to be my experience.

By noticing and not ignoring the big things going on in and around me, I am re-discovering the joy found in being fully invested in a conversation with a person, cooking something, doing dishes, choosing a Christmas tree with Dion and Cate, creating home, making music, advocating, and remembering. It’s as though being present to where I am helps me experience the sacredness of living, in all of its complexity. It helps me to do what I can and know what I cannot. It propels me to rest. It rejuvenates my work.

None of this is easy. I have cried buckets of tears. Some days I am exhausted and would be content to hide under the covers. The transition that we face as a family is settling, but still strange and hard. The effects of the pandemic, injustice and grief are real. And yet. And yet, there is a coming into view, a sense that light is penetrating the darkness. I am (we are) being asked to walk this road and fortunately, when I pay attention to the terrain, I am confident that I am (we are) not alone.

Stilled Waters: The Long Journey Home

Sometimes words fail me. This week has been significant, and I want to tell you about it, but I am all verklempt (overcome with emotion). 

We were walking along “the block” as it gets referred to in Parkdale on outreach. There are a few key spots on the strip, including outside the library, beside the Pizza Pizza, in the bus shelter, and in front of the liquor store. As we crossed at Dunn and Queen, we spotted a long-time friend, one whose health we have been concerned about and felt relieved to see. He and I have known one another since 2007. Initially we would primarily connect outdoors, then we would sit together at The Dale’s Monday Drop-In and share a meal. Our friendship formed quickly and has deepened with time and through many shared experiences. We have seen one another through a lot, navigated grief, and sung “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” together more times than I can count. 

On this day he had an urgent request: find his family, people he had not seen in close to a decade and worried he had pushed away. I immediately said yes, explaining that I could not promise I would be successful, but that I would do my best. Armed with a few names I began to investigate, a process that led me to a Native Friendship Centre in the area my friend is from. I sent messages in every form I could, praying that it might help. Within hours I had a stream of messages from various family members, all eager for a reunion. I nearly ran to find him, communicate how loved he is and help facilitate the re-connection. Today he was picked up by his nephew to visit home. 

A second story: He and I first met along the block too. I remember it clearly: we were introduced by the big globe beside the library. Since then we have journeyed together through a lot. Along the way he took to heart The Dale’s invitation to full participation and became pivotal to our breakfast program at the Health Centre, and more recently at all of our meals-to-go. He, just like my other friend, loves to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, referring to it as number 41 (the spot it lives in The Dale’s Songbook). It is no small thing that on Tuesday we got to help him move into an apartment of his own, a long-time dream that is finally a reality, his quiet excitement both palpable and contagious.

Things don’t always work out like this. Sometimes reunions aren’t possible. The road to housing can be impossibly long. But this week miracles happened. This week the troubled waters were stilled. 

Shannon “Chevy” Timmerman

It was just over a decade ago that I met Shannon “Chevy” Timmerman. Before I knew her name, I came to remember her amazing hair: auburn and curly and long. At the time she was painting with great frequency and would show up to ask for supplies like canvas and acrylic paint. It didn’t take long for our relationship to blossom. I don’t know when it started, but she came to adopt me, Dion and Cate as family, even referring to me as “mom” (though in reality our age difference made us more like siblings). 

Chevy lived with many challenges, some she would admit, of her own making. Over the years she willingly shared about her time living outside and all that went along with that. At one point she gave me a stack of hand-written pages containing her story. She hoped that in the future she might be able to teach others through her experience, a journey that included finding and losing and finding housing, addiction, Jesus, family, and friends.

Chevy found community at The Dale. She became a regular at most of our programming, almost always accompanied by one of her many pets. For a long time, that meant a cat, or two or three, all in a hand-constructed carrier/bundle buggy. The animal we came to know best though was Jacob, a little meek dog who only had eyes for Chevy. I have never known a dog to love its person like Jacob. 

I loved when Chevy began to attend The Dale’s Sunday service. She would often arrive while I was practicing songs at the piano, offer a hug, and disappear to the kitchen to make us both a cup of tea.  She had a particular spot she liked to sit near the front, with Jacob beside her. During our community prayer time Chevy would regularly share shockingly transparent prayers, ones that acknowledged her gratitude, struggle and longing for healing. She was hungry for communion and liked to offer the wine or juice to people with a “Jesus’ blood shed for you, get it in ya”. 

Chevy and I have shared a lot over the years. Just last week she was reminiscing about the Big Macs I would treat her to after successfully getting to important appointments. We have sat in countless waiting rooms together, visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, gone on walks, and shared meals in drop-ins. When my daughter Cate and I went on a trip to Italy, Chevy was insistent that I give her a picture of our experience, one that she framed and put on her living room wall. I have held her hand while she lay in the Intensive Care Unit, and she held mine when my mother died. 

Chevy could also drive me crazy. She liked to say, “I’m a loveable thorn in your side” and she was right. When she got a cell phone, I would sometimes get called more than twenty times a day. When she figured out voice-to-text, I would get streams of messages, often asking me for ice cream, Doritos, or Skittles (her favourite) and a long hug. Sometimes our interactions were challenging because she would ask me to do something that I simply could not. I do know that the depth of our relationship was possible, in part, to a strong commitment to boundaries. For that I am grateful. 

Just this morning we learned of Chevy’s death late last night. Right now, I am feeling a heavy sense of shock and deep sadness. I know the sadness is similarly felt by Joanna, Meagan and Olivia, along with the rest of the community. Chevy was one of many people I know who seemed to have more than nine lives, something that made it easy to feel like this day would never come. I want to extend my deepest sympathies to her family, those who knew her as Shannon. Shannon spoke often of wanting to get out to you in BC for another visit. I am so sorry for your loss.

Chev. Oh Chevy. I wish I could have been there to hold your hand. I trust you knew how much I loved you. You never let me forget that you loved me. Thank you. I wholeheartedly believe that you are being welcomed into the warm embrace of the Creator you always cried out to. This isn’t goodbye. 

Shannon Lee Timmerman June 21 1967 – May 5 2021

Maestro Ernesto

Ernesto was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Parkdale. He looked me in the eye and said, “Ciao, Buongiorno, Bonjour, Buenos dios- do you know what I am saying?” He went on to introduce himself as a Maestro with a sly grin, explaining that he loved to play the piano and sing, especially opera.

Music was something that marked our entire relationship. I still have handwritten lists of songs that Ernesto asked me to learn on the piano so that I could accompany him. We regularly performed Speak Softly Love- The Love Theme from The Godfather, Ava Maria, and O Sole Mio in Monday drop-ins and almost always at our annual February Feast Open Stage. Whenever Ernesto sat at the piano himself, he would end every single song (everything from the Brady Bunch Theme to the most serious of classical pieces) with a little, happy, almost comedic flourish. Music regularly brought him to tears.

Ernesto also loved to bake and cook. He liked to describe his favourite meals and always had a deep desire to share food with others. I remember him making a special Italian dessert at a Dale Retreat. For years he actively dreamed of making linguine with clams for the entire drop-in community. When The Dale experienced financial constraints Ernesto offered to make a table of pies to help raise funds. I always knew him to be both hospitable and generous.

Ernesto was a big personality with big emotions. He could go from 0 to 60 to 0 in no time flat. This volatility was challenging, especially in the early days of our relationship. I learned it was important to not back down with Ernesto and that an injection of humour could help bring him back. I know that we grew to have real respect for one another. Whenever we parted it became custom for me to say, “Ernesto, you are a scholar and a gentlemen, and it was a pleasure to see you today” to which he would say, “it takes one to know one, and the pleasure was all mine”.

A favourite memory of Ernesto is when he insisted on taking me, Dion, Cate, and Joanna to Red Lobster. I don’t think he really had the money to do so, but it didn’t matter. We all knew it was important to honour Ernesto by accepting his gift. We sat in a large booth and chatted about all kinds of things. He even bought us flowers.

For as long as I can remember, Ernesto had a variety of health challenges. Just days ago those challenges came to an end when Ernesto passed away. Quite honestly, his death doesn’t seem real. He was a memorable person, one who guests of The Dale would always ask after, even after a single meeting. I know there are many people who will feel his absence, especially the family who survives him. I would like to extend my condolences to all who now grieve.

Ernesto, I know that Ciao means both hello and goodbye and so, “Ciao”. I will miss you, as will The Dale. I know that we share a faith that provides hope for a life beyond this one. This means that I look forward to seeing you again. You were a scholar and a gentlemen, and yes, a Maestro.

Ernesto Paparella, January 4, 1949 to January 10, 2021

Remembering Jessica

In grade seven I found myself in a new school where I didn’t know anyone. I met Julie that year. We quickly became the best of friends. I spent A LOT of time in Julie’s home, so much so that her father famously (and lovingly) referred to me as part of their furniture.

I remember first hearing that Julie was pregnant. I think any time one becomes pregnant it is both scary and exhilarating news, and the announcement of this impending arrival was no different. I was just 16 at the time, a year younger than my best friend. I got to journey alongside Julie through her pregnancy. I remember shaving her legs when she could no longer reach them, feeling the flutter of kicks, and even experiencing some sympathy nausea.

Jessica was born on September 4th, 1991. I got a phone call telling me that she had been born, a healthy child who bore a striking resemblance to her Mom, including the auburn hair. The first time I met Jessica was just inside the door of what had become my second home, now her first. I would often walk around with her in my arms, loving when she would grab one of my fingers with her whole tiny hand. Sometimes I would sit at the piano and serenade Jessica with Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, “blossoms of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…” I called her “Boof” more than I called her Jessica, and she would eventually call me “Auntie Ernin”.

I recently wrote a letter to Jessica where I shared many of these thoughts, including recalling one of my favourite outings with her to the zoo. Jessica, Julie, another friend, and I went. We were so excited to show Jessica all of the animals, especially the big ones like elephants and giraffes. Instead, Jessica was enthralled with one big rock. The picture I have included here is from the zoo. Jessica loved being outdoors and reminded us that day of how simple things can provide the most fun. 

Life did not remain as simple as that for Jessica. Through it all I desperately wanted to hold her again like I did when she was small and tell her again and again, “you are loved”. Julie once called me in a panic because Jessica seemed to be missing. I immediately began to search for her, reaching out to anyone (most of them strangers to me) about her whereabouts. I drove for hours one day to try and find her, eventually discovering that she was miraculously okay.

Just days ago Julie read my letter to Jessica. I don’t know how much she could hear, given that she was so near the end of her life, but I desperately wanted her to hear all of it, including this:

“There is much that I wish I could take from you: the cancer, the pain, the limited time. Since I can’t, I want to say that I will always love you Boof. I hope you can find rest and that as you do so, seeing the faces of your children and your family will remind you of your legacy. Jessica, you were created in the image of the Creator, one who calls you Beloved. I am praying that in this valley you will never feel alone. I am going to find a nice rock to sit on in your honour. Maybe I’ll hum Edelweiss at the same time.”

Jessica died last night. My understanding is that she had come to peace with dying, having spent much of her walk with cancer reconnecting and reconciling with family. My heart is with those she has left behind. I will never forget my time with the Stammis family; I will never forget Jessica. She will always remain Boof, and I, her Auntie Ernin.