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Archive for the ‘People’ Category

I have been thinking a lot lately about the story Linh* shared with me some years ago.  I want to share it with you.

Linh was a carefree 18-year-old student who lived with her loving father. One day she woke to chaos in the streets of Saigon. Quickly she and her father packed two small bags – their documents, money. They joined the panicked crowd swarming to the port. It seemed that everyone in the city was trying to get on a ship, any ship, to flee Vietnam. Linh, wearing a sleeveless pink sundress and sandals, lost sight of her father in the chaos. She found herself swept up in the crowd and, frightened and alone, she handed over her money to the captain of a rusty old ship. As the ship, overloaded with frightened people, pulled away from the pier, she scanned the crowd in vain for her father.

The captain sank the old ship just off the coast of Malaysia and dumped the refugees into the waves. Linh, unable to swim, struggled to shore, half drowned, losing her bag, her documents and even her sandals. Many did not make it that far.

The Malaysian authorities, overrun with refugees, took these “boat people” to a desolate internment island. It was a place stripped of trees and plants, without clean water or enough food. Linh and many of the refugees become very ill. More died. Linh was so sick and filthy that she was spared being raped. Linh told me: I had lost my father, I was so sick, I wanted to die. I lost track of time. Sometimes I thought I was already dead, that I was in hell.

Eventually a small group of brave Christian aid workers arrived on the island, living in the same terrible conditions as the refugees. Overwhelmed by the need, they offered what little medical care they could from their tent. Linh, still very ill and in deep despair, was suspicious. She asked through an interpreter why these people came to live in this hell to help strangers. Their incomprehensible answer was simple “Because of Jesus.” Still barely alive, she felt a glimmer of curiosity, a spark of hope. Inexplicably, against all odds, someone cared.

One day, as Linh sat limp on the rocky ground in the hot sun, she heard her name called on the loudspeaker. She stirred. The people around urged her forward to the aid workers tent. She was still numb, ill and didn’t speak English. But before she knew it, she was on a ship, then a plane. She did not understand where she was going, but she didn’t care. She followed and walked as if she was dead. Someone gave her a pair of flip flops decorated with pink flowers.

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The street was lined with cherry trees covered in blossoms.      (photo: B.Brewer)

Eventually the plane landed and Linh stepped out in Vancouver in her dirty pink sundress and pink flowered flip flops. Without a word of English, without documents, alone, weak, in a daze of grief. But when she left the terminal she saw a street lined with cherry trees, covered with blossoms.

Soon Linh was reunited with a relative in Vancouver, and three months later her father was found at a refugee camp. Together they started a new life in Canada, and Linh found her way to a church to learn more about this person called Jesus.  She learned English, went to college and worked as a graphic designer.  Her children are in university now.

Every spring, when the branches on the cherry trees are covered in blossoms, Linh gives thanks for her life and her home in Canada.

* name changed for privacy.

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For the past three years, instead of a list of resolutions, I have chosen a single word to focus my year.  In 2013 the word was trust, and I focused a lot on trusting God acting through me and through others.

snow, trees and sun

I still find it hard to be grateful for snow – even when the sun shines.

In 2014 I kept hold of the word trust, and choose a new word, gratitude.  Well, that word was seriously tested while I recovered from a badly broken leg for the second half of the year!

Still I found so much to be grateful for – from heat and light after an ice storm, to family and friends who fed and helped me for months after my accident, to people at work, and everyone I came in contact with.  I got back in the habit of writing thank you’s … and I ran out of thank you cards three times.

It seemed that each time I expressed gratitude, I received another gift in exchange – sometimes the gift of a person’s time or the sharing of something important in their life, perhaps a life lesson or the opportunity to help others in ways I had not even imagined.

I have been travelling on Wheeltrans, our city’s paratransit service for the past six months.  Often the rides are shared in a contracted taxi.  It’s a big city but eventually I have got to know some of the taxi drivers.

The other day I got in a cab and the driver said to the other passengers – “here’s Louise, you’re in for a great ride.  She always cheers people up.”  I was taken aback. But on reflection I realised my focus on gratitude had changed the way I interact with strangers.  I always speak to the driver or people in the taxi or bus – if they want.

I have listened to a stranger share his grief at becoming too ill now for a kidney transplant after nine years on the waiting list, and to a blind woman share her love for her job. I have heard the worry of a woman on her way – alone – to yet another surgery, and the pride of a taxi driver from Rwanda who has put three children through university – a doctor, an engineer and a teacher.

I learned from a cheeky double amputee from Jamaica that all I need in an emergency is “food, water, liquor and weed,” and from a 95-year-old woman still living in her own home that swimming three times a week is the answer to longevity.  I can’t untangle who blessed whom in many encounters, but I am grateful for every one.

One driver from Sri Lanka asked my permission and then prayed for me and my family – out loud – for most of the trip, then finished with an excellent theological rationale against infant baptism.  I still feel blessed by that experience, even though I demurred from converting to his evangelical church.

So this year of gratitude has reminded me to be grateful for every human contact, never knowing which encounter might make a small difference in someone’s life, including mine.

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Street blocked with broken trees and ice

The aftermath of the ice storm in our neighbourhood.

On December 23, 2013 Toronto was in the aftermath of the Ice Storm.  Huge swaths of the city were without power.  But I had been visiting “Edith” in palliative care for a number of weeks and I was determined to visit her for Christmas.

I didn’t have power nor internet service at home, and last I had heard on the battery radio the subway was not running where I needed to go.  An hour cab ride later the sun had set by the time I arrived. The hospital was surrounded by darkness.  Inside the corridors were hushed and dim, the whole complex was running on backup power, the lonely corridors filled with the scent of institutional food and humanity…

I walk into Edith’s room – shared with two other people.  Only the emergency lights are on, and outside the window the city is dark as far as I can see.  The two other women in the room are asleep or unconscious – surrounded by loved ones keeping silent vigil.  A breathing machine roars and hisses in the corner pressing a dying grandmother to take one laboured breath after another.

Edith is sitting up and alert.  She greets me:  “You came!  No one else is coming because of some problem on the roads.”  I explain about the ice storm, the city-wide power outages, the trees toppled by the weight of the ice on every street.  Cut off from the news, she didn’t know about the storm. I water her plant, give her a Christmas card and settle in for a visit.  I ask what she remembers of the candlelight Christmas Eve services at her church.  We reminisce about the smell of the oil lamps and the music. Especially the music.

“Since you can’t get to church, shall I read from Luke?” I ask.  She nods.  I pull out last year’s Christmas Eve bulletin – which I had somehow found in my darkened home – and read Luke’s account of the nativity.  In a loud voice, over the roar and hiss of the breathing machine in the corner, I read about angels and shepherds and a newborn baby.

Edith is rapt, soaking up every word.  I can feel the other visitors in the room leaning forward, listening.  “Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  The words have new meaning in this room where the patients are weeks or days or even hours away from leaving this life.

The room is focused on me and I feel a little self-conscious.    “Would you like me to sing a carol?” I ask Edith.

“Oh yes!” she replies, her eyes gleaming with delight.

Summoning my best and loudest voice, channeling my meager music training, I sing a verse of Silent Night over the sound of the roaring, hissing breathing machine.

Edith mouths the words with me.  Her eyes shine.  A nurse changing a bed behind a curtain joins softly in the singing.

I launch into Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  The nurse comes out from behind the curtain and sings with me.

As I start O Come All Ye Faithful  two more nurses join in, singing from the doorway, and the visitors sitting with their dying grandmother sing too.  At that moment it seems that all the company of heaven is in that palliative care room.

It turns out that was Christmas for Edith.  No-one else managed to get through the ice clogged roads to visit her.  And there was no candlelit Christmas Eve service at her church either – the power was out.

Edith fell asleep in God’s arms a month later and passed into what awaits us on the other side of death.  I think she is singing with choirs of angels this Christmas. Tonight I will remember that precious night in the darkened hospital room as I sing Silent Night.

 

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Society’s alarm bells

red squirrel

Squirrels act as nature’s alarms.

Squirrels in the forest chatter and scold if they see a problem. They act as nature’s alarm bells. Today I met one of society’s alarm bells: a woman who scolded and nagged non-stop at me about accessibility problems for people with physical disabilities. She was deeply passionate about the issue, and I could see how she might annoy administrators and politicians.

In just 20 minutes of listening – I couldn’t get a word in – I learned about the challenges of getting to work from outside the city on our commuter train. I hadn’t quite realised that when someone with a disability gets off the accessible commuter train or subway downtown they are on their own, unless they are lucky enough to wait on a street corner for our para-transit service, assuming their train was not delayed.  Many struggle with streetcar stairs and impossibly long walks to get to work.

In one case, staff located at a building near a subway station were moved to a building a 20 minute streetcar ride away. The commute is now hugely challenging for those who cannot manage the streetcar stairs.

Like a squirrel in the forest, this woman acts as one of society’s alarm bells. Someone who gets right in our face and demands answers. And we need people like her. People who scold and push and insist that we are not doing enough for accessibility, or homelessness, or food security, poverty, special education …

Through them God works for change in our world.

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An angel on the bus

For the last few months I have been travelling on Wheeltrans, our transit service for people with physical disabilities.  I have met all kinds of people – sad, discouraged, bitter, but also optimistic, cheerful and inspiring.

sketch of an angel with a cane

Be alert, for you may encounter an angel on the bus.

One inspiring woman works as a receptionist.  She always has good things to say about her employer, her colleagues, her husband, her nieces and the bus driver. She is brightens my day every time I share a ride with her.

Yet I see how much she struggles to walk slowly and painfully, leaning on a sturdy white cane.  I have to introduce myself every time we meet, for she is blind and cannot see me.  I wonder that a person beset with difficulties can be a beacon of joy to those around her and, frankly, I wonder if I could do the same.

One day she told me how she used to babysit her nieces when they were very young.  Before the babies could talk they knew their auntie couldn’t see them, so they would come straight to her when they needed a hug or wanted their diaper changed!  Laughing, she described how she fed them with her fingers because it was impossible for a blind person to feed a toddler with a spoon.  “Can you imagine,” she exclaimed, “the mess that would be?”

I am grateful for these chance encounters with God’s beloved people.

 

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