Ten months ago, I sat in Save On Meats diner on the Downtown Eastside listening to Cindy’s life story: a story of abuse, addiction, pain and suffering. It was day one of Beyond HELLO, and my first time inviting someone in need to go for lunch in exchange for an opportunity to hear their story. Together with a student, David, we walked the streets wondering how to begin. Looking back now, I recognize that the first miracle occurred when me met Cindy on the sidewalk. We had no idea how we would invite someone to lunch, and no idea if anyone would accept. After a few moments we passed Cindy. She did not ask for money. She asked for coffee or food. And so, within seconds, we invited her to lunch and headed to Save on Meats. We didn’t really find Cindy – Cindy found us.
The story of day one can be read here:
Despite the painful life of abuse and addiction, nothing pained Cindy more than the fateful day almost 28 years ago when she decided to give her daughter up for adoption, in hopes that she would find a better life. Sitting in a cafe on East Hastings, all Cindy knew was the birth name of her daughter. She had no idea where she was living or how to reach her.
This is where the second miracle took place. Researching facebook I found a woman in Ontario with a similar name. I wanted to contact her but couldn’t because her facebok account had been inactive for quite some time. I clicked the ‘friends’ tab to see her friend photos. For some unexplainable reason, a photo of a man named Matt stuck out. I clicked on this complete stranger’s photo and it popped up with a message – one mutual friend. An old student of mine from BC, Aaron, somehow new Matt in Ontario. I contacted Aaron. He reached out to Matt, his college friend. Matt remembered Paige from elementary school and knew she was adopted. He thought it could be a match. He tracked her down. Twelve hours later I was on the phone with Paige.
Paige, now 27, is an artist and writer in Ottawa, Ontario. Just last year she obtained her adoptive records, but she had no idea how or where to search for Cindy. As we spoke on the phone and via email, Paige felt she finally had answers to unanswered questions. As I spoke of her mom and her life in Vancouver’s Eastside, Paige showed no judgement. In fact, she could relate to her mom and offer acceptance as she too has had to overcome difficult obstacles in life. She asked if we could find her mom again and if we could help facilitate a phone call.
The stories of Day 2 and Day 3 and that first life changing phone call are told here:
After learning of our student project focussed on the Downtown Eastside, Paige emailed me to ask if I could take some time to read her favourite book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate. Paige had read the book years ago and a particular chapter called Pregnancy Journals had changed her life. The story in the book about a woman battling addiction while pregnant inspired Paige to stay clean during her own pregnancy. Paige was so moved by this chapter she had written to the author to thank him for changing her life. Days later, when I asked Cindy if she had ever heard of Dr. Gabor Mate and his work on the Downtown Eastside- she stopped in her tracks on Hastings Street, looked up and said “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?! That’s my doctor – that’s my story – the chapter called pregnancy journals is written about me!” Without knowing her daughter, she had already become her role model and changed her life.
As summer came to an end, Paige made a promise to save money with the hopes of one day travelling to BC. By early May she met her goal and found the money to take the trip. She left messages at her mom’s shelter. We both wondered if Cindy was still alive. We hoped Cindy’s battle with HIV had not ended and that she would still be willing to see Paige. After a couple days Cindy phoned Paige all on her own. The two shared stories, shed tears and dreamt of a face to face reunion. Paige promised to be out by the end of May.
As I drove home from work, two weeks ago, I received the amazing call. Paige called to say she had booked her flights, and found a friend in Greater Vancouver who would let her stay for two weeks. It was time to tell her mom. My students already had a trip to the Downtown Eastside planned as we were helping people on the streets write Mother’s Day cards. We popped into the Portland Hotel hoping to surprise Cindy with news her daughter was coming. Instead we were the ones to receive an amazing surprise. Cindy was no longer residing there. Knowing she would meet her daughter, Cindy had admitted herself into a treatment facility so she could be clean for the first time in five years. With help from Cindy’s nurse and the case manager, I was able to communicate with Cindy and find out that she was 100% committed to meeting her daughter.
Paige arrived in Vancouver Thursday morning. On Saturday, Cindy called me. I will never forget the call. She thanked me from the bottom of her heart, told me with pride that she is now clean, and arranged details for us all to meet on Monday. As we were about to hang up, she asked me to wait… she had more to say…. she wanted to make sure I would stay with her during the reunion as she wanted me to be there and be part of this with her. She was nervous, and she needed the friendship. I promised I would stay and let her know that it would be one of the best days of my life too.
I reached out to Dr. Gabor Mate to let him know the connection would happen. I asked if he could sign Paige’s book. He offered more. In an absolute gesture of love, he reached out to Paige and invited her to his home for a two hour visit. On Sunday morning he inspired Paige with knowledge of her mother, the latest research around AHDH, parenting and addiction. He signed her book, and gave additional books to both Paige and her friend, wishing her best of luck with the reunion. He gave Paige the strength she needed to meet her mom face to face.
Today I picked up my student, Miranda, and Paige, and together we drove to the DTES. Today was the day. Mother and daughter were about to meet. As we stood outside the treatment facility (our agreed meeting place), there was no sign of Cindy. Cindy had confirmed earlier in the morning and had let me know she had invited her boyfriend Ron (also in The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) to come with her. We stood and waited. Minutes later, through the crowded sidewalk, I saw the smile I fell in love with last summer. Cindy beamed as she approached, hand in hand with her boyfriend Ron. Her hair was cut short, she was well put together in a nice pink sweater and she swung a white Army & Navy bag. She had stopped at the store to pick up 3 t-shirts and a pack of decorated hair barrettes for her daughter. Time seemed to hit fast forward, and all of a sudden, the twenty seven year gap was over. Cindy and Paige embraced each other, smiled the same eyes and recognized themselves in each other’s smiles. While both ladies had asked me to help with the reunion, no help was needed. These two were meant to find one another. Today they found their other half. Without knowing one another they had so much in common (poetry, art, struggles with addiction, a love for reading and writing, a habit of continually tapping their right leg, etc) Paige, who has struggled to find connection to family in her own life, found it today.
The saying ‘A picture tells a thousand words’ seems accurate today. Here’s a walk through today with the photos that say so much:
Paige and Cindy Meet face to face for the first time since Paige’s birth
Paige shares her childhood journal and photos with Cindy and boyfriend Ron
Paige shares her work from elementary school and her childhood art work
Cindy presents Paige with art work as well: a collection of art, crafts and an amazing letter:
My Dear Daughter,
It has been a long journey to get to where we are only just beginning and
I hope and pray that we will get to have the friendship that my addiction took from me and my mother.
One day at a time. Sweet Jesus. All my love, forever.
Your biological coo X 2 mother,
Miranda, me, Paige, Cindy and Ron outside of Save On Meats.
Ten months ago, I sat in Save on Meats diner, listening to Cindy’s life story and her heartbreak of not knowing her daughter. Today, sitting in the same diner, I witnessed a miracle take place. Cindy, Paige and Ron connected as family with heart, compassion and understanding. They shared stories, caught up through photos, exchanged gifts and made plans to spend lots of time together over the next two weeks. They all agreed they want to share their story with the public inspiring other families to reconnect and to understand addiction. Although Miranda and I were there for support, the bond created was so strong, that I know in my heart that this mother-daughter connection is unbreakable. We drove home, knowing that everyone of us felt complete. Everyone of us had found what we were looking for.