He got on the subway and took a seat. If he recognized me, he didn't show it. He glanced towards me passively and then pulled out of his bag, not surprising me in the least, a comic book to look at. No one much noticed him, no one paid much mind at all. I sat there, in my power chair, as if riveted to the spot. Three stops later, at Dundas, he got up and got off. I watched him as he walked, part of the crowd, away from the train.
I still dream of the place. I suppose I'm destined to be haunted by it for the rest of my life. Sometimes, in my dreams, I'm walking through the underground hallways, just past the morgue, and listening to my footfalls echo into the distance. It's dark in those institutional corridors, darker than it was in reality, and I can hear the sounds of people, their voices made inhuman by the distance and the darkness. I always wake from those dreams disconcerted.
It was in that place that I met him. He was young then, maybe in his late teens. But then, I was young then too, maybe in my early twenties. Though we were close in age - our lives held little in common. He had lived caged. I had lived free. He had lived without expectation. I had lived with hope for better. There was a gap between us, made larger by the power that my position gave me, that would never really be bridged. But I liked him. I liked the momentary acts of defiance that I saw in him. I liked that the spark of life had not died in his eyes like it had died in so many others there. I liked the fact that he had passions, like the comic books he carried with him everywhere, that still gave him joy.
I remember once taking him out to the mall and the surprise on his face when I let him choose where he wanted to go. I had thought it was his trip to the mall, not mine, and this he found unusual. But he adapted quickly and we had a fun afternoon. It was very, very, early in my career, only a year or so in, and I remember then - back when the idea of community living was in its infancy - wondering what he was doing in that place. I wasn't mature enough, or strong enough of imagination, to wonder what all those living there were doing there. But I did wonder about him. I didn't know his life story or how he wound up in that place, and neither did anyone else really. He was disabled. He was institutionalized. That's the way of things.
I didn't last there long, less than a year. When I studied psychology in University, when I made my mind up that I wanted to work with people who had an intellectual disability, this wasn't what I had pictured. I hadn't pictured working in this place - bare walls with echo as a soundtrack. I hadn't pictured the 'prisoner / guard' relationship that I was expected to develop. I hadn't pictured the hugeness of the crime of institutionalization. The pictures in the textbooks didn't prepare me for the smells and the sounds and the sensations that hit me when first opening the door of a building with a kilometer long hallway.
So I said 'Goodbye' and was on my way. I never again went into an institution unless it was to take someone out. I never again crossed the threshold without bringing the offer of community in my back pocket. But then, when I left, I had no idea that one day I'd be back, to that very place, in a different capacity with a different offer. When I told him that I was leaving he reminded me of the day in the mall and thanked me for being kind. I told him that he should expect kindness. I realize now that that had been cruel.
And there he sat. On the subway. Reading a comic book. In Toronto. Alone. He got off not even looking in my direction. Not even seeing the big guy in the power wheelchair holding for dear life onto a pole. He got off and went into his life. As he passed in front of me I could no longer smell the stink of captivity, I could no longer see the shackles of imprisonment in his movements or his gestures. He was simply ... free.
None of those around him, those who didn't notice him, would have understood that they were sitting next to a man to whom society had been violent and cruel. A man who had been ripped from the life he should have lived into a life that none could imagine. A man who bore captivity with grace and with dignity, and who's ever step in freedom is a condemnation of every step he took caged. A man who's life store will never be told, yet who's story has the power to shame those in power, to blame those who accepted, to hold accountable the evil of prejudice.
It was a gift to see him free, now.
I have lived long enough to see the captive freed. I know that the building that housed him, without ever becoming home to him, sits closed and empty. I hope that the next time I dream of being there, I will hear only the echos of my feet, and not the sounds of others there. I hope that even in my dreams, the place is empty.