Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kindness Finally

I'd asked myself a question long years ago that was answered only days ago.

The Question: During one of the early waves of closures of institutions in Ontario, I was involved in the planning for a number of men who where moving from Pine Ridge institution. It was an all male facility that housed a few hundred men. Over the course of my work, I saw the institution go from capacity, a place teeming with life and bustle and (finally) hope, to a place of barren walls and long empty corridors. One day, shortly after the last person left, I walked into the building and found myself alone.

In one of the wards, now without a stick of furniture in it, I found an old time out booth. I stepped inside and pulled the door in. I could not close it, it scared me too much, but I had the sense of being locked in. As I stood there, something else happened. I began to feel the fear and the anger and the outrage and the terror of hundreds upon hundreds of men, men who had been locked inside this little booth. Men who had been punished at the whim of others. Men who's outrage at outrageous treatment had been contained in this little box. I felt first their fear, and then, almost a ghostly sense of their presence, the real men, who had been locked in a standing coffin. Chilled, I got out. I stood there not knowing what to do. I wondered aloud, 'What would you all have me do?'

A few days ago, Beverly Herrin, a reader of Rolling Around in My Head sent me a tidbit from her life. I have her permission to print it here. This was the answered, I'd waited for:

Nearly 20 years ago during the of closing of one of the largest state institutions. One of the older buildings – a large “cottage” from the turn of the 20th century was often used as housing for out-of-town staff of community organizations. These community program staff were coming to the institution to meet the people who were going to be moving into their community programs. I know you’ve been to these “cottages” where hundreds of people would live in areas that were separated only by lockers, rows of single beds, bathrooms with no doors on the toilet stalls & large shower rooms where the water temperature was set slightly above room temperature so no one would get scalded, etc.

For a variety of reasons I was staying in this cottage by myself one night. It was huge & old & seemingly vacant except for me. One of the staff from the institution came to check on me late in the evening to make sure everything was going okay. He asked if I knew much history of the building and if anyone had told me the ghost stories about the folks who had lived there over the past 100 years. Well golly, no one had. He went on to explain that he was glad that none of the staff had shared the ghost stories of the “baby cottage” so I wouldn’t be too scared. Yes, it turns out that where I was going to be spending the night alone was, was for many years, where babies & youngsters had lived and died.

Anyone who has lived or slept at an institution knows that it is an animated place 24 hours a day. There is noise, there are lights, there is the sense of movement ALL THE TIME. Even if the buildings are separated by great space the very air seems to be agitated. As I was trying to settle into some sort of sleep I was aware of the untold ghost stories of babies & toddlers who just never had a chance. My own sweet child was snug in her bed 90 miles away. I missed her and I wanted to let her know how much I would do my very best to protect her from harm. I wanted her warmth. As I tossed and turned I realized how much being a mother was at the very core of my being. Finally it dawned on me that I could, at that very moment, fulfill my maternal instinct. Tossing back the blankets of the bed I spoke out to the ghosts, “if you want to come snuggle with me, come on over.” As I pulled the blankets back over me the bed felt different. I have no idea if there were souls who had joined me, but I will tell you I slept very soundly for the rest of the night.

I was very moved by this story of kindness come, not too late, but finally. I wished myself back to that empty ward, to that time out booth sitting akimbo to the wall. I wish I had addressed words of kindness to the memories of the men there. These men were not dead, these men were gone, but I knew that part of them remained here, like a part of all of us resides in trauma from the past. I wish I had not fled them but embraced them, given a comfort to those who needed comfort. I wish I understood that it wouldn't be kindness, too late, but kindness finally.


theknapper said...

what a powerful bog.

Kristin said...

Wow, Ms. Herrin sounds like an amazing, empathetic woman. And, Dave, I'm sure, some how, some where, those souls heard you.

Jan said...

Dave I too walked the halls of an institution that has been closed in Ontario and felt the lives that had been brutilized and damaged over the years.
After reading your blog tonight I wish I had offered some solace and comfort to all those who had lived there. Even just saying that I remember and that they mattered would have been better than the feelings of sadness and emptyness I felt that day. Congrats to Ms Herrin for falling back on her big heart and maternal nature

coffeetalk said...

I pray that we are doing a better job today and not just brutalizing and damaging in a different way. Thank you for, once again, making me think about how I do what I do.

CT said...

Oh, Dave. Heavens.

Offering comfort if one can in some way is good. I think Jan is right that even remembering and bearing witness to what must have happened -- what did happen -- is good.

I think bearing witness is awful. As humans, we are hard-wired to turn away from witnessing pain. It hurts. It makes you want to run away, to do something else, to have it not be so. We seem hardwired to rewrite memories and even the immediate interpretation of our senses to deny what is right in front of us.

But as much as the cruelest role is that of causing pain, the second cruelest has to be denying it. This happens even when we have the best of intentions. when you are faced with someone in terrible grief ror pain, the impulse to "find the bright side" is HUGE. The conversation feels raw and unended (for you, or at least for most of us) unless there is some positive note on which to close, something that says "well ... at least X."

But sometimes there is no X. Not for them.

You bore witness. Even if you did not offer comfort then, or even if the comfort you offer now doesn't work that way, you did bear witness. You didn't minimize it, you didn't deny it, you didn't deny them. That is good, too.

Belinda said...

Wow, Beverley, so beautifully and poignantly told. Thank you Dave, for sharing it here.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

We won't forget and it won't be in vain. All the people who lived in those desperate places, all the souls who passed from this life with so little comfort and love and kindness. I promise you we will not forget and it will not be in vain.

There is a man, Joe Clayton, who lives a couple of hours from here. He came to me one day a few years ago now and asked if he could tell his story of living in an institution to my students. He comes to them very early in the program and they never forget him. He moved to a place in the country where there was no public transportation and asked his support workers to help him find a way to come and tell his story to my students - they told him there was no money for that and really minimized the importance of his passion for telling his story. My wonderful husband helped me to go get Joe and bring him to the students. Joe knows and is passionate about the fact that telling his story is one way to make sure we never forget and it never happens again. He talks about the ones who died - this is not an abstraction to him, these are memories of real people who he shared his life with.

Thanks for this post Dave.