“My auntie outlived all of her brothers and sisters and what is in-between those pages is her guilt for being the one who survived” Sarain Fox
Several years ago while volunteering at a Hospice, I met a man named Gary who had the biggest smile I have ever seen. When I entered his room for the first time, he was reading a book and looked up to see who had entered his room and his gift for me was a big beautiful smile and he said “welcome, “I”m so glad to meet you, my name is Gary and yours?” he asked as he held out his hand for me to take. I took his hand and I said my name is Johanne and it’s nice to meet you. I had read on Gary’s chart that he didn’t have much longer to live and I was confused because he was full of energy and ecstatically happy. He motioned for me to sit down on the chair beside his bed and told me to help myself to the beer that was stocked in his mini fridge. I thanked him but declined his offer and said “I’m pretty sure they frown upon volunteers drinking on the job.” He laughed and said, “I won’t tell” and then he proceeded to talk non-stop. He asked me if I was wondering how he could be so happy as he was dying? I told him, “I wasn’t really pondering why, more like feeling in awe of the brightness of your spirit.” He smiled and at that moment I noticed his eyes smiled as well. They say if you look into a person’s eyes, you can see their spirit. I was sitting with Gary’s spirit that day and we both knew it.
He then proceeded to tell me his life story. He had been raised in a very abusive home and was removed from that home at a young age and bounced from foster home to foster home. No one ever adopted him and he told me, in his whole entire life, not one person had ever said I love you and he was made to feel inferior everywhere he went. He went on to tell me how this affected his life in many negative ways and ended up in difficult circumstances. As he came to the end of his story he said that being in the hospice was the best thing that could have happened to him because he felt the love of everyone in the hospice; the nurses, the doctors and the volunteers. He felt like he had found his way home to Jesus and the hospice had given him that sense of family and belonging that he spent his life searching for and that he only felt love and forgiveness for all of his abusers and was at peace.
It was quite the conversation, and a rare one at that. Often when working with hospice patients you talk about the weather, the horrible food and their favourite tv show, you rarely have the kind of aha moment as I experienced with Gary. After some time, I had to leave Gary’s room to finish my rounds and before I did so I made sure he had everything he needed and he was comfortable. He asked me when I would be back and I told him next week. In a very matter of fact voice, he said to me, “I won’t be here, but know that I love you!” I said to him, “I love you too and I wish you peace.” I’ve never said I love you to someone I barely know before, but the words came out without any awkwardness nor hesitance as I was speaking to the spirit of Gary and his spirit was infectious. True to Gary’s words, he was not there the following week; he died the following day of my previous week’s visit.
On my way home after my visit with Gary, I wondered if I could forgive abusers who robbed me of so much life and I was very inspired by his spirit. For a second I thought maybe he was a little delirious, but I knew this wasn’t true as the conversation was raw, honest, beautiful and I prayed that he had sincerely found his peace.
Gary came to my mind this week as I have been struggling with the news of the 215 remains of children found on the residential school grounds in Kamloops, BC. The bodies were found in undocumented graves and this news has been a trigger for many people as the abuse in these schools went on for many years. With the announcement of this discovery, social media and newscasts have exploded with the horrible chilling stories and calling the situation genocide. The schools were federal government sanctioned schools with several churches running them from the ground. The children were forcibly taken from their homes and exposed to horrible abuses all in the name of God with the agenda to remove the “Indian from the child.” The churches involved were Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian and their mandate was to deliver the federal government’s policy to strip indigenous children of their language, culture and identities. As a Catholic, I am greatly struggling with this and if I am to be honest, I have been struggling with this for a long time as the stories of the Residential School horror is not new and there have been countless clergy abuses in other communities and other countries.
As I sat to write this, I must confess that I almost chose not to write this piece. The hesitance I felt was not one that was born from fear rather it was born from confusion, anger, guilt and sorrow. I simply did not know how to articulate my feelings without demonstrating anger and resentment. I prayed and meditated about this situation and sent peace, compassion and healing to the indigenous nations. However, I was feeling angry with my church and I needed to be honest about those feelings. As mixed as my feelings were, my faith was intact. This was not the work of God, I knew this much, but in God’s name these men and women committed unspeakable crimes against innocent, unprotected children and I felt sick to my stomach. Today, I stumbled across a mini documentary about a residential school survivor and while watching it, I thought of Gary. He held no bitterness, no hate and no anger for his abusers, he only held forgiveness, love and was grateful to rejoice in Jesus’ love as he came to the end of his life.
This documentary introduces us to Mary Bell, a residential school survivor, and she tells her story. Her whole family has been greatly affected by this tragedy and she has gone through so much. Consequently, at one time she held resentment and hate for her abusers. She talks about freedom and forgiveness being one, she says “there is a difference between saying you forgive and actually forgiving. It is in the forgiving we are free.” Watching this documentary, I realized that right now our path to healing must start by listening to the survivors to absorb their pain and the effects that the trauma has had on their their lives. There can be no healing without truth, we must face the truth, we must hear the stories and we must listen to the stories without getting defensive. We must look deep into our souls and ask ourselves tough questions and answer those questions with unequivocal truths. If we cannot answer those tough questions in absolute truth, then we must ask ourselves “who and what are we?” As for the next step in the healing process; I think the best path is to put one foot in front of the other and along the way let us make sure we take care of one another and each other’s children.
“To heal is to touch with love that which we previously touched with fear” Stephen Levine