Unconditional Love: Saving for tuition while battling addiction in the Downtown Eastside

Every parent wants what is best for their child, but sometimes love is not enough. Cindy and Ron know this all too well.

In 2004, Cindy and Ron learned they were expecting. The news was bittersweet as they loved one another but also knew they lacked the resources to raise a child. Cindy and Ron both struggled with addiction, spending their days on Vancouver’s most impoverished street – East Hastings.

Determined to break the cycle, the couple met frequently with Dr. Gabor Maté, leading trauma expert, and, at the time, resident doctor of the Portland Hotel Society (a non-profit organization providing SRO housing in the Downtown Eastside). Against all odds, they hoped they could beat their addictions and welcome their daughter into the world.

This was a second chance for Cindy, as she had given birth to her first daughter Paige in Ontario in 1986 when she was only a teenager. At the time she was in an abusive relationship and made the incredibly difficult choice to offer Paige up for adoption. She knew she had to leave the relationship she was in and feared her partner would be abusive towards her child. After choosing a loving home for Paige, Cindy headed west, eventually settling in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She hoped a move across the country would leave her pain behind her, but the memories of sexual abuse since age five continued to haunt her. The drugs provided an escape.

Not long after moving to Vancouver, Cindy met Ron. Once a member of the Canadian military, Ron struggled with post-traumatic stress and alcoholism. The two found comfort with one another and began dating. They hoped their relationship would give them the strength they needed to heal from past trauma and break the cycle of addiction. Both agreed to work with Dr. Maté, giving permission for their stories to be told in his national bestseller, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. In the book their names are Celia and Rick (shared with Cindy and Ron’s permission).

At a low point of Cindy’s pregnancy, Dr. Maté found her sobbing with this inscription written on her shelter wall:

“Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the Winds and whose breath gives life to all the World around me, hear our cry, for we are small and weak. Help me make peace with my greatest Enemy – myself” Cindy, as quoted in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, p. 61.

Cindy needed an escape to suppress decades of abuse, and unfortunately her addiction to cocaine and heroin pulled her away from motherhood. As Dr. Maté describes “the god-voice in her heart nor the support we can provide will suffice to help her carry out her sacred intentions to be a parent”.

However, Ron rose to the challenge. For the first two weeks he stayed in the hospital with their baby, bottle feeding her, showing love and devotion. For months, he cared for her day and night until he relapsed with alcoholism and their baby Ruby (pseudonym) was taken into foster care.

Years later, Cindy’s first daughter Paige began her own battle with addiction. When she learned she was pregnant she knew she needed to stop using, but she did not have the will. Almost 3000 miles away from Vancouver, she came across Dr. Maté’s book and read the stories of Ron and Cindy. Shaken to the core, she channelled their fighting spirit and overcame her own addiction. She wrote to Dr. Maté to thank him for the impact his book had had. At the time she had no idea she was reading the story of her birth mother.

I met Cindy in July of 2013. After years of volunteering on the DTES helping people write cards to loved ones, my students and I had decided to extend our project by taking one homeless person to lunch each month to learn their stories. Cindy was the first woman we met. She told us about her battle with heroin, hepatitis and HIV. She questioned why she was still alive, but then told us it was because she hung onto hope. Her unconditional love had never wavered. She wanted to meet her children. She knew that Paige would be an adult now, but knew nothing more than her first name, birth date, and that the adoption took place in Ontario. Naively optimistic, I offered to help.

I knew I had taken on an impossible task but could not erase the image of Cindy sobbing against a parking meter as we drove away. I needed to find her daughter. After a few days of searching Facebook, I miraculously found Paige through a mutual friend. Eager to meet her mother, Paige agreed to fly to Vancouver. Cindy, determined to be a good mom, checked herself into rehab for six months, and was clean for their face to face reunion in the spring of 2014. (reunion shown here)

In 2019, I published my first book, Beyond HELLO: Rekindling the Human Spirit One Conversation at a Time. I dedicated the book to Cindy and told the stories of our evolving friendship. I shared the details of Paige and Cindy’s reunion, and the miracle that took place when we learned Paige has turned her life around after reading her birth mom’s story. I described Cindy and Ron’s continued relationship and how they were not able to be the parents they wanted to be to their baby girl, Ruby, born in Vancouver in 2005. I also shared these stories on my blog www.beyondhello.org

Unfortunately, in December of 2019, I needed to let Ron and Cindy know that Paige had passed away at the age of 33 in Ontario. Her death sent Cindy into a downward spiral struggling with depression and alcoholism.

In March of 2020, another miracle happened. Ruby’s adoptive parents stumbled across my blog. They wrote to me to confirm details and shared that Ruby (15 at the time) would like to meet her birth parents. The global pandemic prevented a face-to-face meeting, but I was able to teach Cindy and Ron how to Zoom, and in April of 2020 we all met together for the first time. Ron and Cindy were overjoyed. Ruby shared her passions and interests and introduced her loving family. Ron and Ruby compared dimples and tried to determine who Ruby resembled most. The call ended with smiles and a commitment to meet again in the future.

After the call, Cindy and Ron were overjoyed. Ron turned to Cindy and asked if they should mention saving for Ruby’s RESP. They whispered quietly and decided to wait. I didn’t probe further. My own judgement got in the way, and I assumed their words had good intention but likely did not have merit. Unfortunately, in November of 2021, Ron passed away from liver failure. After 23 years, the only safe relationship Cindy had ever known came to an end.

Living in a poverty-stricken SRO along Hastings Street, the odds were against Cindy, however this time she found the strength to fight. It’s been five months, and Cindy has stayed clean. She’s found a new safe haven and spends her days reading in the Carnegie Community Centre library. Her body is exhausted from years of addiction and trauma. Her two joys have become sleep and literature. Books are her new escape.

Cindy and I have been friends for nine years now and we try to meet up every few months. She called me this week and asked if we could meet for dinner. Cindy explained she had something important she needed to share. I agreed to meet her on Thursday night.

I arrived in Vancouver feeling a little nervous, as I don’t usually walk through the Downtown Eastside alone at night. Cindy was waiting outside her shelter ready to go for dinner. As we walked, I asked Cindy if she ever felt unsafe. She looks at me perplexed, “Here? No. I’ve been here over twenty years and the only one I’ve been scared of is myself.”

As we sat down for dinner, Cindy looked across the table with confidence, and something I had not seen in her before – pride. Cindy explained that her addiction had ruled her life and robbed her from being able to parent her children, yet her love had never wavered. After losing Ruby to ministry care, Ron and Cindy had made a pact. Each month, they would scrape together what remained of their government subsidies and they would save for Ruby to go to college. Without knowing if they would ever meet her, their blind faith and unconditional love helped them save an average of $25 per month for fifteen years. Together, while living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood, they saved $5000 for their daughter to follow her dreams. Cindy had made arrangements with the bank to transfer the money to me so that I could pass it along to Ruby.

As dinner came to and end, we walked over to London Drugs so Cindy could pick out a card to send with the cheque. She smiled at me and offered “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing with class.”

Inside the card she offered the following:

“My dearest daughter – I hope you are healthy, happy and pursuing your dreams. You’re in our hearts always and always on my mind. All my love, mother and father.”

At the end of Dr. Maté’s chapter about Cindy and Ron, he concludes,

“This story does not have a happy finale – at least not if we want our stories to have clear-cut beginnings and endings. Yet, in the larger scheme, I chose to see a triumph in it: a demonstration of how life seeks life, how love yearns for love and how the divine spark that burns within us all continues to glow, even if it is unable to blaze into full, open flames. What will happen to this infant, this being of infinite possibility? Given her dire beginnings, she may well lead a life of limitless sorrow – but she does not need to be defined by those beginnings. It depends on how well our world can nurture her. Perhaps our world will provide just enough refuge – enough “shelter from the storm” as Dylan has sung – so the baby, unlike the mother, can come to know herself as something other than her worst enemy” (p. 72).

I suspect when Dr. Gabor Maté wrote these words in 2008, he could not have imagined such a happy finale in 2022. The world has nurtured Ruby, thanks to her loving adoptive family, who became her shelter from the storm. And despite the obstacles of trauma and addiction, Ron and Cindy’s divine spark never extinguished. Their flame burned bright and manifested itself through the gift of unconditional love.

5 thoughts on “Unconditional Love: Saving for tuition while battling addiction in the Downtown Eastside

  1. I am so moved. This is love! Thank you for writing this piece and thank you to the beautiful humans who shared their brave story.

  2. Thank you for such an incredible story. You have done such great work staying in touch with Cindy and guiding her along. It is such a great thing for Ruby to have had positive connections. Amazing.

  3. Wow! Such a story of determination, stick-to-it-ness and love !
    I have followed the stories of individuals from the DTES, especially Cindy and Ron.
    Thanks for doing what you do, bringing their story to all of us.
    Tears flow, with each reading.

    S.

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