We can do hard things. In Glennon Doyle’s new book, Untamed, Glennon refers back to a dark time of her life, where she would pass an elementary school classroom intentionally each day, so she could peer through the window at the inspiring quote spread across the classroom wall: We Can Do Hard Things.
I’ve thought of this quote a lot lately. Collectively we are going through the hardest time in our history. School, work and friendships are simultaneously being re-imagined. We cannot visit, we cannot travel, and even the simplest of tasks requires new precautions. We are participating in a global re-set where we are examining the simplest of practices in an effort to protect humanity. I worried that I would not be able to go Beyond HELLO. The somewhat simple task of connecting with Vancouver’s homeless on the Downtown Eastside seemed impossible given the new rules of social distancing. I thought I would need to wait.
A few days into self-isolation, I received an extraordinary email. The email subject line read ‘Cindy and Ron’. My heart sank. Cindy and Ron are my favourite people on the DTES and seeing their names in the subject line grabbed my attention. So often I learn of deaths along Hastings Street, and I worried this may be an email sharing such news. Luckily, it was not. Instead, it was the beginning of another miracle.
Many of you are familiar with the stories of Cindy. I have blogged about her life many times and I tell her stories in my book Beyond HELLO: Rekindling the Human Spirit One Conversation at a Time. I first met Cindy on the streets in 2013. She was contemplating suicide as I offered her water. She looked at me with disgust and asked how water was supposed to help. My student, David, and I upped our offer and invited Cindy to lunch. Cindy accepted and told us about her pain: a life in Canada’s poorest neighborhood, where she lived with HIV, hepatitis and heroin addiction. Despite this, her greatest source of pain came from her grief, not knowing her daughters. As a teen, Cindy had given up her eldest daughter for adoption, knowing she did not have the means to care for her. Years later, while living as an addict on the DTES, Cindy gave birth to a second daughter, who subsequently entered ministry care, and later, adoption. The one thing keeping Cindy alive was the dream of one day meeting her girls.
As I drove home after first meeting Cindy for lunch, I felt responsible for her pain. Perhaps I had gone too far opening up wounds. I promised to search for her eldest daughter, yet all I had was a birth name (Paige) and a date of birth. I knew her adoption took place in Ontario. Finding her seemed impossible. I stayed up until the middle of the night searching Facebook for possible connections. Luck was on my side, and I found a profile of a possible match. The account was not active, but one of her listed friends showed that he was connected to me through a mutual friend on Facebook. A few phone calls later, and we had found Paige. We were ready to reunite Cindy with her oldest daughter.
In 2013, as I told Paige about her mom’s life, she told me she wouldn’t judge. She too had struggled with addiction in Ontario though she had found solace in Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, where the lifestyle of the DTES is explained. She was so moved by a character named Celia, in a chapter called Pregnancy Journals, that she had written to the author to thank him. I headed to the streets to find Cindy and let her know her daughter was interested in a reunion. I told Cindy that Paige had read about the neighborhood. Cindy looked up at me through her addicted state and mumbled: “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?”. I stared at her stunned. How did she know of the book?
“That book is about me. Dr. Gabor Mate was my doctor. In that book, he wrote about my pregnancy on the DTES. In the book, my name is Celia.”
Without even knowing it, Paige had been reading about her birth mom. Cindy checked herself into rehab to be clean for their reunion. In 2014 we reconnected Cindy and Paige, and they stayed in touch for years to come. Cindy turned her life around and spoke to her daughter regularly.
Just before Christmas, I received heartbreaking news. Cindy’s daughter Paige passed away from liver failure in Ontario. While she had reached sobriety, her previous alcohol addiction had significantly damaged her liver. I drove to Hastings Street and held Cindy as I told her the news.
In the coming months, Cindy spiraled downhill and spent more and more time drinking. It seemed her hope was deteriorating. We stayed connected, though it was evident that the loss of a child wore heavy on her. She had dreamed for twenty-five years that she may one day meet her daughters. Unfortunately, Paige and Cindy only shared six quick years together. There was no way to connect with her youngest daughter.
Three weeks ago, when I saw the email entitled, Cindy and Ron, I had no idea another miracle was about to unfold.
The email came from a lady who had stumbled across my blog. She had read the stories of Cindy and Ron. She and her husband had adopted a toddler in 2008. Their daughter, now 14 years old, had birth parents named Cindy and Ron. Could it be that Cindy and Ron from my blog were their daughter’s birth parents? She wrote to me with wonder and asked if I could inquire. Perhaps their daughter was the baby Dr. Gabor Mate wrote about in the chapter Pregnancy Journals? She suggested I ask Cindy for the birth name of her daughter. She suspected it may be a match.
I phoned Cindy immediately. Cindy was at the bar and didn’t want to talk. She shouted that she couldn’t hear me, though I knew she could as she was answering my questions. I shouted back “What is the name of your youngest daughter?” She shouted a name back at me. We had a match. (At the request of the family, I am not including their names to protect their confidentiality)
It was time to start planning another reunion! I explained that the COVID-19 situation Vancouver was keeping me close to home, so it may take a while before I could get downtown to facilitate the reunion.
As days passed, Cindy stopped going to the bar. She moved in with Ron, away from the lure of Hastings Street. She had lost one daughter but gained hope of meeting her other daughter. Ron and Cindy were ready to say hello when the time was right.
On Friday, April 3rd, Ron and Cindy called my cell. They were eager to meet their daughter and wondered if we could find a way. I asked if they could find WIFI access. They could. That evening, I taught Ron and Cindy how to use Zoom. We were ready.
On Monday, April 6th, at 2 PM, I sat in my school office in Maple Ridge and facilitated a beautiful reunion via Zoom. Cindy and Ron said hello to their daughter Zoey (named changed for confidentiality) – a daughter they loved but could not raise while struggling with addiction.
Zoey spoke of her love for the outdoors, horseback riding, and sports. She shared compassionate examples of her efforts to help others. Zoey’s parents beamed with pride, sharing how much joy Zoey has brought to their life. Zoey’s brother popped his head onto the screen to say a quick hello.
Cindy shared her story of addiction and the struggles she faced when Zoey was born and Ron told his story that I was unfamiliar with. Ron had served in the Canadian Military fighting for our country in Afghanistan and serving as a peacekeeper in Europe. He shared photos of his time serving and spoke of his efforts to learn how to raise a baby on his own after Zoey was born. Zoey’s mom and dad thanked Ron for his service. He smiled humbly and said “Thank you – It’s nice to hear that.” Cindy and Ron spoke of a memory where Ron would lift Zoey up to the apple tree and she would reach and stare with wonder. It was clear that despite their struggles, and their inability to provide care for Zoey, they had always loved her.
Zoey was excited to see that her birth parents were still together. She asked if the reunion provided closure for them. Ron smiled with pride and was overcome with emotion. He spoke of the red tape he would have faced if he had attempted to find Zoey on his own. He expressed gratitude to Zoey’s parents for their courage to reach out. Zoey smiled back and compared her cheekbones and facial structure to that of Ron’s. Together they compared their dimples. We all spoke of where Zoey got her good looks from. In our hour conversation, it was evident that Zoey’s beauty came from all four parents. Raised with love, Zoey is thriving and is beautiful both inside and out.
At just 14 years old, Zoey had the courage to go Beyond HELLO and say hi to her birth parents for the first time. Her parents had the confidence and love to invite Cindy and Ron into their world. Cindy and Ron found hope and purpose to keep going in Vancouver’s darkest neighborhood.
Thank you to Zoey’s parents for raising an amazing daughter and for reaching out to allow me to be part of this miraculous reunion. May we all connect with compassion.
We can do hard things.