It seemed like eons since my heels clicked their way down the endless corridors of Toronto, Canada’s Pearson International airport. At the same time, it seemed like just yesterday when I had boarded that early morning flight back to the West coast of the United States.
I embodied and shed so many versions of myself since that day.
As I walked through the sliding glass doors and let the sharp chill of the November air fill my lungs, I looked at my partner, Michael, and smiled.
I remembered, with gratitude, how this place changed the trajectory of my entire life. I was bent, and broken here. I found out what I was made of. I had found my soul, and my soul family.
No one knew I was back except my sister, Lena. I phoned to let her know I was coming. I wanted to surprise my older sister, Sue. Lena told me a family gathering was happening two days after I arrived and I should simply “show up”. I couldn’t wait to wrap my arms around Sue and Lena and see the rest of my family. The excitement was almost as palpable as the fear.
I heard once that when we numb the pain in our lives, we drown the joy.
Something I knew all too well. When I walked away from here, I distanced myself from both the harsh memories and the people I loved.
I would check in with my dad on occasion. Sometimes, when I felt he could manage to keep his temper under control, we would even have a pleasant chat. My sisters and I checked in a couple of times a year and stayed up-to-date through the observation of each other’s lives on Facebook.
I don’t remember when exactly, but at some point in my journey, I had found a sense of peace about the fact that I might never see this place or them again.
The pit and the butterflies competed for the space in my gut as I recalled how it had taken me years to love myself through the wounds. To truly find acceptance around what had happened to me and for me here.
We drove the rental car to the condo we had found on AirBnB. The corner of Bay and Bloor. A far cry from the shoddy streets in the shady West End where I grew up.
I would be completely lying if I said I didn’t feel guilty about how amazing the place we were staying at was. Especially, knowing that just a short drive away my dad was renting a furnished basement apartment.
It was late and I couldn’t seem to find sleep. The buzz of the city was calling me. So I edged out of the bed and made my way to the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room. I grabbed a nearby blanket from the couch and wrapped it tightly around my shoulders as I tiptoed out onto the balcony.
I had never experienced the city from this view. It was like a completely different place. Lights were draped in every window and wrapped around every light post. Christmas was on its way and the city had embraced the occasion. It was magical.
I softly landed inside myself. I had finally come home.
Damn, I missed this place.
Later, after a few hours of sleep, I was up and ready with the sun. I drug Michael out of bed with the excitement of a child on their way to Disneyland.
Today was the day I would show him the West End. Where I “grew up” in more ways than I can begin to count.
We headed down Sheppard, found our way through the Sicilian neighborhoods, to the stand-alone project apartment building I had first come home to the day I moved to Toronto.
235 Grand Ravine Drive
My eyes welled with tears as we pulled into the back parking lot and stepped out of the car. I tilted my head back and gazed up at the window of our old place.
The small, narrow window with a view of a few lonely trees and a few dirty dumpsters.
This was the window where I would hang my head out, in order to breathe in fresh air; instead of the air thick with the smoke of my father’s Dunhill cigarettes.
Aluminum foil was still the drapery of choice; next to cardboard of course. The smell of curry and jerk mingled into a pungent cloud that surrounded the whole building.
I closed my eyes and the tears gently traveled down my cheeks as I remembered what it was like to live here. No running water in the kitchen, no flooring in the kitchen, no microwave or stove in the kitchen, a barely working fridge. And, one bathroom I shared with three fifty-something year-old men. Yes, three grown men and teen-aged me.
Michael sighed and wrapped his arms around me. I could feel his disbelief that I had once called this place home.
He’s a good man – from a small farm town – who has a heart of gold. With deep roots and a deeper soul. He is a rock, my rock.
I still wonder what amazing things I’ve done to deserve him. I used to look at him and poke his face.
“Yes, babe. I am real,” he would say and giggle.
He is a miracle.
We headed onward, to Sentinel, and passed the first high school I attended. We stopped in the parking lot just so I could press my feet to the soil.
This is where I had first met the people who became my family.
Across the street, I pointed at the four-floor walk-up where my dad and I had lived after the project apartment. Then I pointed to the gas station with the Tim Horton’s next door where the first shooting I had ever actually heard had occurred.
We turned on to Hucknall and drove around the back of the complex to Sue’s old house. I had only ever been there in two cars before that day. One was Lena’s boyfriend’s and the other was the van of the night janitor who had driven me there.
A slight shudder slid through me. I recalled the numbness in my bones and my sisters’ faces distorted with shock and disbelief as I had walked stunned and disoriented toward them on that ruthlessly frozen February night.
The night that bonded our souls forever.
I hadn’t told the story of that night in a long time. I remember briefly mentioning it to Michael once during our first few months of relationship. I recounted the incidents to him that had set me on a path of healing and spiritual connection, but never in great detail.
We headed downtown and grabbed a bite to eat from the little Rabba at the corner. Tomorrow was the day I would get to see the family who had chosen to love me.
My head wondered if they would still embrace me as they had all those years ago. When I was just a simple, small town, 13-year-old white girl who had been dropped into the circus of the big city and their lives.
The anxiety crept up as I curled my hair in the mirror. A mix of excitement and doubt. Would I be welcomed back with loving arms?
A part of me laughed at the question; knowing Sue and I had a bond nothing would change, or could it?
So many things happened in the 14 years since we last saw one another. I was a mother, and so was she. We were in secure relationships, working and home-making.
I shook off the notion that our time had passed. Family is forever. Another truth I only partially believed.
We hopped in the car and headed to the apartment building on York Mills. The same one Lena’s parents lived in for decades. The memories came flooding back as we parked.
I saw the smoke of a cigarette and the head full of thick bouncy curls. Lena was crouched in the corner by the front of the building waiting for us. She lit up with a smile when I saw her and we shared a huge embrace. After a moment of chatting, she could tell I was anxious to see Sue.
We made our way inside and up to the floor where the rec room was. I stepped off the elevator and took a deep breath to settle my nerves. I opened the door and familiar sounds filled my ears. Music, kids running, laughter and conversation.
I stepped inside and immediately scanned the room for Sue. My heart sank a little when I didn’t see her. I walked in a little further. I noticed two men standing in a kitchen area with their back to me. Obviously not Sue. I turned to the left and began to scan the room again.
“Excuse me? Are you looking for someone?” a woman’s voice said from behind me.
I knew that voice.
I whirled around and looked right into Sue’s eyes. She clutched her chest and gasped.
“You’re here!” The tears flowed from her eyes as she rushed over to hug me.
We embraced each other and sobbed for what felt like hours. I missed her so much. I missed her love, her warmth, her high standards and her silent demand that I hold myself as a strong and powerful woman. In that moment, I remembered all the pieces of me that were her, molded by her love.
We sat and talked late into the evening. It seemed as though only a few weeks since we last saw one another. The only thing that had changed was a deepening of love for one another.
I was looking around the room again. This time for Sue and Adam’s daughter, Zoey.
“Is Zoey here?” I asked.
“Yeah! She’s over playing with the kids, I will warn you not to get your feelings hurt. She doesn’t really go to people she doesn’t know.”
My heart sank a little. I had prayed over that baby. The whole time Sue was pregnant – I cannot describe it – but it was like I could literally feel her and know how incredible she was through my prayers.
We walked to the other side of the room and Sue called to her.
“Zoe, come meet your Auntie.”
Zoey turned around and lit up when she saw me. She was breathtakingly beautiful with a light that seemed to surround her sweet face in a soft glow. She dropped everything and ran across the room, leaping into my arms. I took a knee and held her sobbing. Sue stood in amazement at what she was witnessing.
“Wow. I have never seen her do anything like that before.”
I carried Zoey to a chair and we all sat around chatting. Michael was deep in conversation with Sue when I heard him ask, “How did you guys become so close?”
Sue leaned over and took in a deep breath, shaking her head. She looked at me.
“You have to tell the beginning of the story because I don’t even know what to say about how everything happened.”
There isn’t a way to talk about “us” without talking about that night.
How do you talk about any amazing thing without discussing its origin?
And although that night wasn’t the beginning of us, it was the cementing of our bond and souls.
I sighed and began to recount the whole experience: A boy I was seeing at the time and a few new girlfriends from my school invited me to hang out one night. The girls and I had all spent hours getting ready and were supposed to be heading to a dance. When we left the house of one of the girls, Chantel, she told us we were meeting the guys in a wooded park area behind the subdivision before heading to the bus stop.
When we got there, Scott, the boy I had been seeing, was with a couple of his friends. We started talking and laughing when a bottle of whiskey came out and a few joints sparked up. I never really drank and smoked at the same time, but I was desperate to fit in. When it was passed to me; I took a sip from the bottle and a drag off the joint. It wasn’t long before I was disoriented. Moments even.
Right about that time, another girl joined us; one whom I had never seen before. She introduced herself and let me know I was dating her boyfriend.
I giggled because clearly he wasn’t her boyfriend if I was dating him. Bad move.
The energy shifted and everything became heavy. The boys got up and said they were leaving and took off. I knew something was wrong. Soon the girls circled around me and walked me deeper into the wooded area. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I just knew it wasn’t good.
“Stop here.” Chantel pointed to the ground, commanding me like a dog. “Alright, so we don’t like it too much when someone messes with our men. You get five punches from each of us. You decide, face or gut.” She leaned back with her arms crossed, waiting for my reply.
Stunned, I looked at her. Was she joking? I quickly realized she was not.
“NO!” I exclaimed. “I am not choosing. That’s crazy.”
The girls closed in and Chantel let me know they would choose for me. Blow after blow added to the disorientation I already felt from the alcohol and pot.
I noticed a large branch on the ground at about the same time Chantel did, and I knew it wasn’t going to be good.
She lifted the branch and whirled it around, slamming it into my abdomen. The searing pain took my breath away and I dropped to the ground.
“Now get up and walk,” she commanded as she prodded me with the branch.
It was pitch black and ice cold.
February is notoriously the coldest month in Toronto, and this night was easily in the negative 20s.
I tried to stay focused. I tried to track where I was being led. We came to a ditch and the girls began to strip down my layers. I didn’t put up a fight. Maybe if I was compliant they wouldn’t kill me. Maybe it would all be over soon. I was down to a cami and thermals. I shook from the cold wind and the shock. Tears formed in my eyes as I wondered what would happen next.
“You’re going to lay down in that water and count to fifty,” Chantel pointed to the ditch. “When you are done, you can go.”
I was elated at the “go” part. I quickly laid down in the water and held my breath. I was numb now, and the cold was the least of my worries. When I got up, I was throbbing. I began to walk toward the street on the other side of the ditch and climbed up the bank.
Then came the moment that changed my life, forever.
I began to walk aimlessly; nothing seemed to be on this street at all.
Eventually, I saw the back of houses and some trees. But everything was dark. I walked for a long time, and I was starting to feel like there was no end in sight.
“Keep going. Everything is going to be okay. This is part of your story,” a voice in my head said.
“Part of my story?” I questioned back.
“Just keep going.”
A feeling of warmth came over me. Somewhere inside, a deep knowing appeared. The voice I was hearing was God.
Moments later, I saw the light on the side of a building. A white janitorial van was parked on a concrete slab adjacent to the walkway. I picked up my pace and walked as fast as I could.
Emotions welled inside me as I approached the door. “Thank you,” I thought to the voice inside.
When I arrived at the door, I banged hard on the long, thin glass window. A slender indian man in a blue uniform came around the corner and looked at me from down the hall.
He began to shoo me off with both hands and I banged even harder. I was begging for help and pleading for him to open the door.
He cocked his head to the side and realized I was not wearing many clothes. As he drew closer, his face confirmed my suspicions; it was bad.
He opened the door and pulled me inside.
“Oh my god! Are you okay? What happened here? Where are all of your clothes? Come in, come in.”
I could hardly speak. He led me down a short hallway to a tiny office and sat me in a chair. When he was confident I wouldn’t fall over he scurried off to grab something. I was so happy to see the thin fire blanket he held triumphantly in his hands before wrapping it tightly around me. I begged him not to call the police. I was terrified and not sure what to do.
He asked if he could drive me home and the thought of my drunk dad answering the door and seeing me made my stomach turn. I asked him to take me to Sue’s.
We got in the van and I navigated him to the Hucknall house, just a few miles away.
“I didn’t know who it was when she got out of the car,” Sue chimed in. “Her skin was exposed and her bra strap was showing. I remembered wondering why; because it was so cold. Then I saw her face, covered with mud. Twigs and leaves all in her hair. Lena and I rushed to her.”
They thanked the janitor and quickly got me inside.
“Mommy!” Sue called out to my Auntie V. She came quickly down the stairs and gasped at the sight of me. I still hadn’t seen myself, but based on the reactions, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. “Mommy, please pray over her, she is hurt.”
Lena, Sue and Auntie all rushed me up the stairs praying over me and pulling debris from my hair and wet clothes from my body. They stood me in the shower and washed me clean. Sue’s eyes welled with tears.
I hung my head and began to sob. I was safe.
“And that was it, we were family forever.” Sue wiped the corners of her eyes as she remembered that night.
And that was it, that was the moment we all became knitted together by faith and love.
The moment that has carried that faith and love forward for over 20 years.
And as we sat there reunited, laughing and talking, my heart filled to the brim with the gratitude of the realization…
We were part of a miracle.
Our love is a Miracle.
I am a Miracle.