Story Night: Lament and Hope

Since the early part of 2022 I have been meeting and listening to people working or supporting street related front-line work about their experience of the work generally, the impact of the pandemic, and what they identify as their biggest needs. The themes of these conversations have been consistent, with the most dominant being the accumulation of grief. Overwhelmingly, people have indicated a desire to gather in a space that honours the need to lament.

I am very excited to share about what has been born out of this feedback AND inspired by T.H.E. StreetLevel Network, a movement of people who believe in cooperatively addressing the issues that contribute to poverty- Story Night: Lament and Hope is a one-night event happening on Thursday, October 27th at 106 Trinity Street in downtown Toronto. This is an opportunity to come together, connect, share some refreshments, and listen to a program of music and stories from peers about our shared grief and experiences of hope. As author Cole Arthur Riley says, “Our hope can only be as deep as our lament”.

Story Night is a collaborative effort, one where we are invited to hold space for one another to feel what we need to feel. The intent is not to eradicate grief in a single night (as if that is even possible), but to honour and give expression to it. For some this will mean arriving first thing and being present for the duration of the night. For others it might mean slipping in for the program and out again once it ends. If you need someone to listen, there will be people available to do just that.

Please come! There is limited space, so get your ticket now (CLICK HERE). We do not want cost to prohibit anyone from attending Story Night. This is a pay-what-you-can event. If you are able to donate $2 to $100 (or anything in between), please choose the Donate Ticket option. If you are unable to make a donation, please choose the Free Ticket option. All money given will help to offset our costs. Any excess will be used for a future Story Night, as we intend this to be the beginning of many. One drink ticket and savoury snacks will be provided to all guests. Additional drinks will be available for purchase.

Can’t wait to see you there.

A Year of Hard (and Good) Things

I was sitting in bed one morning last August when it felt like the earth shook. Moments later a text from a neighbour explained the cause and had me running to the back window. A massive tree on a lot next to ours had fallen. It completely filled our yard, coming just short of the house itself while destroying our one-day-old shed in the process. The tree also blocked Dion’s only entrance/exit to the house. I felt stunned, especially hearing that Dion’s Personal Support Worker had been where the tree now lay, less than a minute before.

Shortly before the tree incident, workers had begun to fix the siding on our house. It was a job that we weren’t all that excited about needing done, though understood was necessary. We thought it would be done in about a week, maybe two.  It was not- mostly because the crew seemingly disappeared. In the meantime, we got someone to clear enough of the tree that Dion could get out and decided to escape to a movie. On our way there I had two difficult conversations on the phone- one trying to negotiate the covering of repair costs to our yard, and one attempting to track down the siding company. As I slid into a seat in the dark theatre, I began to cry.

After the movie, while still in the lobby, Dion looked at me and said he was in trouble. I asked a few questions and understood very quickly that “being in trouble” meant “get me to the hospital”. I got him in the van and drove to the emergency room. Though we didn’t know it yet, Dion had a very serious infection, one that would soon mean he could not move his body at all. Infections are no one’s friend but become especially scary when a person has Multiple Sclerosis. That day, even though he eventually recovered from the infection, was the beginning of Dion’s journey to Long Term Care. 

I had what I believe was my first ever panic attack in the hospital that first week of Dion’s admission. It was nearly impossible to talk to the health care team and no easy solution was apparent. I remember repeating the only prayer I could muster, “Speed to save us. Haste to help us. Speed to save us. Haste to help us.” Stumbling out of the hospital, I saw my brother and sister-in law drive by. I hoped they saw me too. Moments later we were on the sidewalk together, me a crumpled mess. My sweet nephew handed me some Kleenex and a bottle of water with concern written all over his face. Together we came up with a next step. 

What followed was a series of next steps, which included things like strong advocacy, hard conversations, and relentless prayer. After a battle to get Dion into a rehab program, we got word that he was accepted and to be moved the same day that I needed to get Cate into her new apartment. At the end of that day, I got into the elevator of Cate’s building and began to weep. I cried all the way home to an empty house. I decided to sit in that sadness and not try to escape it. In the morning I took a deep breath, relieved I managed to get through that first night.

There have been hundreds of nights since that first one. As August nears, I can’t help but reflect on this past year. It has been about living into the tension of so many things, embracing change both chosen and not, and weathering a spectrum of emotions. I have watched Dion adjust to Long Term Care, grieved that MS took him there, and felt relief that he has the support he needs. It is not how we imagined life to look at this stage AND it is our reality. 

The tree got cleared. The siding on the house was eventually completed. Cate comes to the house with frequency, much to my delight (and actually will be living at home again in the fall until going to the UK in January). You might spot Dion speeding down the street in his wheelchair, as the lack of Covid restrictions means he can get out and about. My therapist continues to help me navigate all the change, as does Dion, Cate, my Dale team and a community of family and friends. Some days I am full of energy and ideas. Other days I am hit with waves of sorrow. Death has hit again and again. So has opportunity to listen to live music, eat really good food, receive and give gifts, and experience the embrace of loved ones. 

There is a painting by a friend named Gil that hangs above the piano in our living room. It is pictured below. I stared at it a lot last August, especially as I was pleading for help. I felt like I was/we were stuck in the most turbulent part of the water. I couldn’t imagine the calm. “Haste to help us. Speed to save us”. I can’t claim that the answers came quickly, or that they were the ones I wanted. A way forward was made possible. I do look at that picture now and reflect on how different things feel a year later. There is nothing easy about this road. And somehow, it is also mysteriously good. For that, I am grateful. 

Artist: Gil Clelland

Cristian “Sanchez” Castillo

I have no recollection of when I met Sanchez. Not remembering where and when I met someone is rare for me. I imagine it says something about the way Sanchez inhabited the neighbourhood. He was one of those people who seemed to be everywhere all at once: in the parkette beside the Health Centre, on the bench outside of what used to be the Coffee Time, by the steps of 201 Cowan Avenue, and always, always with his dogs, Maggie and Chica. 

Sanchez came to Canada from Chile. You could always hear the Spanish in his voice. Sometimes there was a language barrier between us, but in my experience, Sanchez always dealt with this patiently. Usually it made him grin, look down, and slowly shake his head while quietly saying, “I really need to teach you Spanish”. To which I would reply, “PLEASE. Please teach me.” 

I could usually recognize Sanchez, even from a distance. He had a recognizable gait and silhouette. Sometime this year he also started wearing a helmet, to protect him from the falls that were increasingly a nemesis. He didn’t seem to mind, if anything claiming it as a cool new accessory. I loved that about Sanchez. Though there was a lot that he struggled with, he somehow seemed comfortable in his own skin. 

If Sanchez was having a bad day, there seemed to be one thing that would bring him to life: talking about his dogs, especially Maggie (who was actually mother to Chica). These dogs were not simply pets, but true companions to Sanchez. If you look at his Facebook profile, the vast majority of photos are of them. It became a huge concern that Maggie had what at first seemed a growth but proved to be a tumour growing on her belly. Because the surgery required was cost prohibitive, The Dale launched a GoFundMe on behalf of Sanchez.

Heartbreakingly, though the money arrived, the tumour proved too much and Maggie died. I will never forget receiving the news. Nor will I forget what became a necessary support to Sanchez: me, Joanna, and our friend Sam going to pick up Maggie to transport her to the vet. We gathered around Sanchez, with Chica hiding close by, to hold him in the grief and pray. The last time I saw Sanchez was the day I returned with Maggie’s ashes in an urn. 

Not long after this, Sanchez entered the hospital. Because of Covid restrictions, we could not visit him. However, he and I started to communicate on-line. I would occasionally receive video messages- usually short updates and always ending with how much he missed Maggie. I think it is fair to say that recovering from this loss felt unimaginable to Sanchez.

Sanchez was released from hospital, though we had yet to see him. Just yesterday we were alerted to his death through a flurry of calls and messages. I know that I am not the only one in a state of shock. To be candid, it doesn’t feel real. On behalf of The Dale, I want to extend our condolences to his family. I extend the same to those who counted Sanchez friend. There has been a lot of loss in our community over the last few years, something that Sanchez felt acutely. Saying goodbye to a friend is never easy. 

Sanchez- thank you for all of the chats over so many years. No matter how hard the day was, you would always stop and say, “let me first ask: how are you?” I will miss seeing you in the neighbourhood. We all will. I don’t know what you are experiencing now, but I really hope you are tossing Maggie a stick and feeling pride every time she brings it back. Estoy agradecido por ti. I hope I have that right. I mean to say, I am grateful for you. 

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.