Life is full of miracles. I’m not exactly sure why we choose Cindy from the crowded streets of the Downtown Eastside. She just seemed to be the right person at the right moment. When we left Cindy after our first day, I questioned whether our trip had done more harm than good. We left Cindy behind, sick, drug addicted and longing for money we were not willing to provide. We left with a promise – a promise to try and find her family and send messages of love – a promise we hoped we could keep.
And this is when the miracles started to happen. Late Wednesday night I sat awake writing my first blog post about Cindy. I also searched Facebook and found a profile for a girl with the same name that Cindy had given us of her daughter who she had given up for adoption in Ontario. She had the same first, middle and last name that so I was optimistic we had found her. I sent a message and the waiting began. A couple hours later I realized the last Facebook post on this page had been months ago so I felt discouraged, not knowing whether or not the message would be received. And then I had an idea…. what if I randomly scrolled her ‘Friends’ list on Facebook to find someone active with their account who could perhaps reach her. I scrolled past 20 or so photos – and then the first miracle took place…. I saw the magic words (1 mutual friend) under a man’s photo. It turns out one of my students from years ago went to University with a guy who went to grade school with Cindy’s daughter in Ontario. Within minutes my student and I connected and he confirmed he is great friends with the man in Ontario and he would try and help. By mid day Thursday, Cindy’s daughter sent me a message, confirming her identity and wanting to connect with her mom she has never met.
Overcome with joy, Cindy’s daughter and I began to email back and forth. She is a writer and an artist and writes poetry under the pseudonym Keronica. Two years ago she requested her adoption papers in search of her mother. She had found out her mother’s name and knew she had travelled to BC decades ago. Not knowing anything else about her mother, she has been writing poetry about the topics of ADHD, addiction and adoption. With her permission, I share with you this poem that she wrote before I contacted her about wanting to meet her mother.
Frakasine, in t-shirt and jeans,
was nursing her head on the sofa.
The previous night, she was drunk and uptight.
Now she is calm, but hungover.
Upset she knows little about her mother
and even less of her dad,
she dragged herself to happy hour,
drank herself drunk, and went home sad.
In feathered boa, miniskirt,
and heels with tiny straps,
she called out to the bartender,
“Martini- make it fast!”
Across the room, she danced and pranced
until her feet could take no more.
She tried to sit on the barstool- misjudged-
falling, backside on the floor.
“Are you okay, Miss- are you alright?”
A kind woman asked while standing above her.
“I’m afraid I’m not and never have been,”
asked Frakasine, “could you be my mother?””
I don’t think so,” the woman replied,
“my only child’s at home- he wasn’t planned.
Being a parent is a full-time job…
If I could help more, I would, but I can’t.”The woman kept talking as
she helped the girl up.
“I suppose some decisions are easy,” she said,
“whereas others are pretty tough.”Right then and there, Frakasine understood
why her parents, perhaps, had chosen adoption;
some things are much harder done than said,
tough decisions can lead to even tougher options.
The woman spoke, “don’t despair, Frakasine,
you’re not alone, just take it from me.
Sometimes you may think
your parents forgot about you,
but in their own ways, they know what you’ve gone through.”
And at the exact moment of Frakasine’s epiphany,
her parents awoke from within the same dream.
Such sorrow, still felt from ‘giving her up.’
Both wonder constantly…
how has she been?”
Amazed at these connections, I ask Keronica (not her real name but I will use it for this blog post) to send a photo. She sends me a photo to share with her mom. I print out the poetry and the pictures and plan for day 2 of Beyond HELLO – hoping to find Cindy again. Keronica and I work out details and she waits in hopes of speaking to her mom for the first time.
During our planning stage, Keronica also emails me to say she is fascinated by the work of Dr. Gabor Mate – author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – she recommends this book to me as an educator as it gives an inside look at addiction. In fact, Keronica is so moved by Dr. Mate’s work that she has been in contact with him via email asking if she can share her poetry with him on addiction and ADHD to which he has agreed to receive. I let Keronica know that this is another strange coincidence. Dr. Mate and I share a mutual friend through my last school Dr. Charles Best. When I began Project HELLO in 2009 he signed a copy of his book and thanked us for our work on the Downtown Eastside. It is a gift I treasure. And then – another miracle…. when I google the phone number of the government funded home that Cindy lives in, Gabor Mate’s name pops up. Intrigued – I click the link only to discover that he has been the resident doctor with the organization supporting Cindy. Amazed, I write to Keronica to let her know. We keep our fingers crossed that we will find Cindy on Friday and make the connection.
This morning David and I met at 10 AM to drive downtown. With photos and Keronica’s poem we are hopeful that we will find Cindy. We walk to her residence and meet with the workers at the front desk. They are hesitant to get Cindy as her mental state can vary and they don’t know if she can handle our news as she is quite sick and unstable these days. They worry our news may trigger depression. I think the opposite and wonder if our news could give her hope and inner peace. The worker knocks on her door but returns to say she did not answer and that she is sleeping. We leave our number and they agree to call us when they see her. We agree to stay in the neighbourhood.
Approximately an hour later, we decide to move our car to a new meter and charge the phone for a couple of minutes. As we drive down Hastings, we see Cindy dancing on a street corner, next to another lady we know from our project. We quickly park the car and approach Cindy. She looks at us, we look at her – and there is a pause where I am not sure if she is happy to see us. That changes in an instant. She is in a great mood and busy selling plants. She has three beautiful potted plants – two lavender and one aloe plant that she is selling. I have no idea where they came from, but I’m shocked at how many people who clearly do not live in this neighbourhood are walking by asking how much? Cindy tells me the plants are $5 each. I offer to buy two making her day. For some reason I feel better buying plants than giving her cash, even though I know where the money will go. However, there is something symbolic about the plant and the connection we are about to make. The thought of watching is grow sits well with me.
We ask Cindy if she remembers our lunch meeting two days ago. She looks at me like I’m crazy and says of course! We then proceed to tell her we have found her daughter. In this photo you can see the emotion as she is shocked and overjoyed. Tears flow and at one point I reached to support her as she appeared she may faint. She reads her daughter’s poetry and listens as we tell her everything we know about her daughter. When we tell her that her daughter travelled to BC at a young age, she smiles and comments that she has her mom’s adventurous spirit. She hugs me tightly, clings to the photos and begins to celebrate by showing her friends in the neighbourhood the photos. She asks us to join her in a corner store to show the shop owner who she knows. He offers to take a photo for us.
I then ask Cindy if she ever met Dr. Gabor Mate, filling her in on her daughter’s interest in his books. She looks at me with what I first suspect is a blank stare… and then says – do you mean Dr. Mate – the author of ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
?’. I say yes. She is stunned – not only was he her doctor, she IS one of the people in the book
that he has written about, chronicling her pregnancy journals from her last pregnancy just five years ago. She cannot believe her daughter has read the book that is about her. Neither can I. Another miraculous moment.
With life seeming to fall into place, Cindy is ready to go to the hospital and asks if we can take her. Armed with photos of her daughter she has found the strength to get better. We ask if she is ready to call her daughter and she says not quite yet – this is overwhelming – I’m not quite ready. David asks her what she plans to do with the third plant.
Inspired by the events of today, Cindy asks us to join her at a community garden on the DTES so she can donate the plant and write a note to her daughter to leave beside it. She finds an old paper plate and within minutes writes a beautiful poem to her daughter. She gets close to the earth and using her hands, she begins to dig the soil and plant the lavender. Beside it she leaves the photo we have given her from our lunch date, and a note saying
donated by Cindy… July 19, 2013… to my daughter with love…
Spirits – seeds that bleed yesterday sorrow
In search of serenity in a new tomorrow
I comment to Cindy that her poetic spirit seems so similar to that of her daughter.
David waits with Cindy on the street while I go and get the car. In the time that passes 10-15 people purchase drugs off the street from an older lady who looks unassuming, who is a good friend of Cindy’s. Many shoot up right there on the side walk. While waiting for the car Cindy lifts up her pant leg, removes her bandaid and injects her leg with drugs.
When I arrive with the car Cindy gets into the front seat and David hops in the back. Again, Cindy’s request is to see the ocean on the way to the hospital. She is elated and yelling goodbye to friends. She is hugging the photos of her daughter. She asks if I have a smoke. I don’t. She yells out my car window and within a split second, while we wait at a red light, a lady runs to her passenger window. Cindy says ‘Canadian’. The lady hands here a full pack of smokes. She turns to me and says ‘I need 5 bucks’. Again, not wanting to ruin the moment for Cindy I pay for the smokes and we start to drive towards Stanley Park to grant Cindy her wish of seeing the ocean. It’s 28 degrees in the city, traffic is thick and the drive to Stanley Park takes longer than expected. Especially when Cindy realizes we do not have a light. Regardless, she sits with her head out the car window marvelling at the sights of Downtown Vancouver and the ocean just a block away. She is mesmerized by the beauty. It has been more than twenty years since she has left the Downtown Eastside. We enter Stanley Park and she almost jumps out of the car when she sees a man smoking. I slow down so she can get a light. She sees the ocean but wants me to keep driving to a beach area so she can put her feet in the sand. While we drive I hand her my phone and also show her pictures of her mother, who we have also found but have not heard back from through Facebook. She is awestruck by the iPhone itself, commenting that the world has left their community behind with our modern ways of connecting. She sees her mom’s photo for the first time in over twenty years and stares, looking at a face that is familiar yet strange. She comments that she must be older now. I bring up the idea of calling her daughter just to say hello. I reassure her that her daughter will not judge. She says OK. Since we are driving we decide to find a place to park and phone.
When we see a beach just passed Lumberman’s Arch, we park the car. As I pay for parking, Cindy walks towards the water. We are on a grassy hill, looking down at the ocean. We are steps away from feeling the sand under our feet, and seconds away from calling her daughter when suddenly things change. The beauty and serenity of Stanley Park escapes Cindy with the sudden realization that she does not fit in. Children splash in the ocean, families pedal by on bikes, and Cindy stares at a world she does not know. She is overcome with anger and rage and yells out to the world that life is not fair. Tears fall and she shouts to the sky that she needs to get out of the chains. Not really knowing the best way to respond, I give Cindy a couple of moments.
People stare as they pass and we reassure them we are with her and things are OK. David and I discuss whether we should call an ambulance. We ask Cindy and she makes it incredibly clear there is no way she is getting in an ambulance. Cindy then tells me she needs $20 fast to get her drugs. She is experiencing withdrawal and the pain of her leg is excruciating. The sights of Stanley Park have shifted from mesmerizing to torturous. I explain to Cindy that I have no money left to give her, and that no one around us is selling drugs. This doesn’t sit well as Cindy is now once again fixated on her next hit. She tells me she needs to get back.
We drive in silence. Every once in a while Cindy turns and asks for money again. She mentions that I obviously do have $20 – just not for her. Traffic is thick and it takes time to crawl along Georgia. I am in the centre lane. As we slowly approach Burrard, I try and give Cindy a bit of a pep talk about her strength and the reasons to take care of herself. I tell her that Burrard St. is approaching. I tell her it is time to make a decision. If I turn right, we will get to St. Paul’s Hospital. If I turn left, I will get to Hastings. Without hesitation she says left. I let her know I will deliver the photos and poetry to the front desk. I drive her home, parking in front of her residence. Needing a hit, and still upset I am not providing cash, she takes off from the car, taking the two plants with her so she has something to sell to fund her next hit.
With my heart aching for Cindy’s daughter, I send her an email to explain our day. I explain the love and joy, the photos I can share, the community garden and note left with love, and the trip to the ocean. Unfortunately the phone call did not happen today. Her daughter understands, yet feels that contact with her mom is her missing puzzle piece. She wishes more than anything to speak to her mom before her mom dies. She is scared this may not happen. She too needs the connection to heal her soul. And so, with hope, we agree that in the near future we will visit again, to share her daughter’s newest email and hope that when Cindy is ready, we can help her reach out and make that first call.