Life has an incredible way of bringing people together. There are moments we each cherish—snapshots in time that make a lasting imprint in our life stories. Last Tuesday was one of those ‘moments’, as I met for lunch with friends, under the most unlikely of circumstances.
This is our story, and the miracles that brought us together.
You may recognize Dr. Gabor Maté – world renowned trauma expert and author of many books including In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and his newly released The Myth of Normal. In the late 1990’s Dr. Maté worked in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, providing care to some of our city’s most vulnerable citizens. Rather than limiting the scope of his work to medical care, Dr. Maté listened deeply to the life stories of his patients, looked under the surface to identify the causes of their pain, and helped individuals understand how trauma influenced their sense of self. With a lens of compassion rather than judgement he asked “Why the pain? Rather than, Why the addiction?”. Cindy was one of his patients.
Cindy grew up in Ontario. In one of the worst abuse stories I have heard, Cindy was continually tortured and sexually abused by her step-father from the young age of nine. One story of abuse led to another as she escaped her home life, only to enter into a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. When she learned she was pregnant, she knew she had to escape her circumstances to provide more for her daughter. She offered Paige up for adoption and headed to Vancouver for a new life.
In Vancouver, she met Ron—a war veteran who was struggling with PTSD. The two began dating, and quickly formed a loving yet turbulent relationship. Plagued by their individual battles with addiction, and significant trauma, they found solace in their connection while fighting their own demons. In 2005, Cindy and Ron learned they were pregnant. Determined to change their life around, and raise their baby, Cindy and Ron turned to Dr. Gabor Maté as their physician. Not only did Gabor provide medical care, he also listened deeply to their stories, offered emotional support, and documented their journey through his best-selling book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Despite their efforts, Cindy and Ron were not able to provide for their daughter. Soon after her birth, she entered the foster care system and was adopted by a family in BC.
For the next decade, Cindy and Ron continued their relationship, supporting one another through countless cycles of rehabilitation and relapse. Ron lived in low-income housing while Cindy moved from the streets in and out of single residency shelters. This is where our friendship began. In 2014, I recognized that our student led card writing program entitled Project HELLO was only scratching the surface of untold stories. I decided to go deeper, and created Beyond HELLO with the intention of taking one person from the Downtown Eastside to lunch each month, accompanied by one of my students, so that we could help shift the perception of homelessness. Cindy was the first woman we met. As we sat in a café on Hastings Street, Cindy told my student David and I about her life with addiction and mental health battles. She cried telling us the story of her hard decision offering her baby girl for adoption. She knew that Paige would be an adult now, and dreamt of a possible reconnection. The only information she had was her first name, her birthdate, and that the adoption took place in Ontario. As we parted ways, Cindy hung to a parking meter sobbing, while I drove home, disappointed that I had opened wounds I would likely not be able to help heal. I promised Cindy I would do what I could to find Paige.
After searching into the early hours of the morning, I found a woman named Paige on Facebook with a matching birthday. The account was not active, though it showed I had a mutual friend with one of Paige’s Facebook friends. It turned out that one of my old students had gone to Ontario for university where he was roommates with a man who had gone to grade school with Paige. Within a matter of days, Paige was on the phone, letting me know she had just started the journey of accessing her birth records to find her mom. I paused, and told Paige that her mom’s story might be hard to hear. I asked if she had heard of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Paige cut me off and asked me to share everything. She shared that she was very familiar with the DTES as she had read a book by Dr. Gabor Maté, entitled In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The book had helped her fight her own addiction battle. She was so moved by a particular character in the book named Celia, that she wrote to Dr. Mate to thank him. Paige was eager to meet her mom, so my students and I offered to fly her to Vancouver to facilitate a reunion. We headed back to the streets to find Cindy.
When I found Cindy, she was incoherent. Despite her drug induced state, she lit up when I let her know we had found Paige. I told Cindy her daughter did not judge her and wanted to meet her. I asked if Cindy had ever heard of Dr. Gabor Maté, and shared that her daughter had already read about the neighbourhood. Cindy looked up at me and replied, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts?” Shocked, I asked Cindy how she knew the name of the book. She replied “The book is about me. He was my doctor. In the book, my name is Celia”. Without knowing it, Paige had been reading about her own birth mother. Cindy did not want Paige to see her in her addicted state, so she checked herself into re-hab. That spring, at Mother’s Day, we flew Paige to Vancouver so the two women could meet. I wrote to Dr. Gabor Mate to tell him of the miraculous connection, and he met with Paige to offer her the supports he had once offered Cindy.
Paige returned to Vancouver but communicated through me to see how Cindy was doing. Cindy would use my cell phone to talk to Paige whenever she could. Unfortunately, just five years after their reunion, Paige passed away of liver failure. Cindy returned to the streets, and began to use again, searching for a way to mask her pain.
Beyond HELLO continued, and each month students and I would hear incredible stories of resilience and hope. In 2019, I wrote my first book Beyond Hello: Rekindling the Human Spirit Once Conversation at a Time. With permission, I shared many stories about Cindy and Ron throughout the chapters of the book.
In early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, I received a miraculous email. A woman in BC had come across my writing and read about Cindy and Ron. She recognized their names and circumstance and realized she was the adoptive mother of Cindy’s second daughter, Ruby (a pseudonym). She reached out to me to confirm details. I reached out to Dr. Gabor Maté, and together we confirmed the match. Cindy and Ron’s daughter Ruby was in grade nine and living a wonderful life with her adoptive family. She wanted to meet her birth parents and asked if I could facilitate another reunion. In March of 2020, as the world shut down, and families were living in isolation, I taught Cindy and Ron how to use Zoom, and we hosted an online reunion. Cindy and Ron shared stories, and noticed Ruby had her dad’s dimples. They laughed, smiled, and asked each other questions to get to know more about one another. All promised to stay in touch, grateful to have a new connection.
Unfortunately, in 2021, Ron relapsed and passed away. Grieving another loss, Cindy asked me to join her on the DTES. We met for dinner, and she asked me to pass along a gift. Without ever knowing if they would meet their daughter, Cindy and Ron had saved $25 per month in a scholarship fund. Once Ron had passed, Cindy withdrew their $5000 in savings and asked me to deliver the funds to Ruby. This June, Ruby graduates from high school and will be able to use the funds to support her education.
As Cindy’s story unfolded, I emailed back and forth with Gabor providing updates. When my book released in 2019, Gabor graciously offered to endorse it. Despite our connection, and mutual love and respect for Cindy, the three of us had not connected. When Gabor offered to take us to lunch, we gratefully accepted.
Over lunch, Cindy spoke about her success being drug free for the last 18 months. Gabor asked how she had succeeded. Cindy explained that the drugs allowed her to run from herself, but being drug-free allows her to love herself, feel deeply and relate to others. I spoke of my work in schools understanding the stories that exist under the surface for children with challenging behaviour. Gabor spoke about his work in Canada and abroad helping people learn about trauma and work towards healing. As lunch came to a close, Gabor noted the similarity in our stories– connecting with compassion and seeing the beauty life has to offer has allowed each of us to see others and to heal.
It may have been one of my favourite moments. Three friends, a handful of miracles, and a story—united in love.
3 thoughts on “United In Love”
A powerful post
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Such a powerful story. The layers of meaning and emotions are heavy to read but also leave a feeling of hope. Thank you for the work you do. It is truly wonderful.
Just so beautiful, heartwarming and full of love of the human spirit.
Teaches me to never giving up on life and the incredible human spirit. Thank you.