Sunday, January 08, 2012

Free, Now

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.


Susan, Mum to Molly said...

I love that you got to have that encounter Dave.

So glad your worlds collided again, just briefly, so that you could see him as he is today...

... the progress that has been made. How far we have come.

Yes there is much more to be done, but there is also the opportunity to reflect a celebrate a little.

Even a world away, this warms my heart.

I'm so glad you were on that train, in that spot. The right place at the right time.

Susan in Sydney, Australia

PS: I still think you should come visit us downunder sometime!

Tara said...

Beautiful, Dave. What a gift. We are travelling this year to a land that still has those places. We will be bringing a captive home, to freedom. Breaks my heart, already, for those we will leave behind.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

How wonderful that you got to see this man and know that he is free. I often wonder about the people that I worked with all those years ago. How gratifying it would be to know that they have ordinary lives now.

I want to tell you about something that happened to me at church - it is kind of related. I was sitting behind a young man who just from his haircut and the slope of his shoulders and the way his glasses slid down his nose made me think very much of my brother, Gerry, who passed away a couple of years ago. Gerry had Down Syndrome and lived most of his life in institutions. In my particular brand of Christianity we pray for "the repose of the soul" of deceased loved ones, which I often do for Gerry and so do the rest of my family. A huge wave of grief washed over me - who prays for the souls of those thousands of people who died unknown and unloved in the institutions - who prays in gratitude for their lives? Starting now, I will.


Dave Hingsburger said...


You have given me a remarkable idea. Thanks

Belinda said...

Wow, this is Hingsburger writing at his best.

I came across a file in which was the record of a case of abuse in an institution, that went to court. I flipped through it quickly. I had never read the whole thing. What I read flipping through was enough to give me a taste of a nightmare. I was going to shred the document but I don't think I can; I need to remember.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I look forward to hearing about your idea!

Belinda - don't shred it. We need to remember. So it never happens again. We live in a time where it could easily happen again. We have to be the resistance. We have to be the subversive ones. The ones who remember and who keep pushing until it stops now and who never let it happen again. If not us then who?


Belinda said...

Colleen, I am going to save it. You are right. The evidence in the case was horrific and I think there is a reason I have it.

Kristin said...

I love that you got a chance to see tangible proof of how much progress has been made. Moments like that give us the courage to go on when it seems like we are fighting a losing battle.

ivanova said...


Anonymous said...


This post was absolute poetry (in the Greek sense: beauty that reveals truth)

I am happy for you, but more importantly I am happy for the gentleman who gets to enjoy one of the true solaces of life in a city - being alone!

Molly said...

Love love LOVE.

This is how I feel everytime I see a photo or get to snuggle a Reece's Rainbow baby. To hold in your arms a seven year old who weighs 20 lbs and was in a crib in an orphanage just three months prior... It's just the most amazing thing ever. To see those kids run across the grass, eat s'mores, go swimming, go on the swings.. it's just indescribable.

Beannie said...

Dear Dave,

I am currently working as an EA (education assistant) and taking the courses required to become certified as such. I am doing this because, like you, I enjoy working with people who have developmental disabilities and want to be more efficient at my work. But I keep realizing that here is so much we can learn from them! One of your books - Do? Be? Do? - is part of our required reading and so I looked you up to learn more about you. Your book is an easy read, and so full of easy to understand examples and humor. Thank you for writing this book! It makes learning about teaching so much more enjoyable and interesting! I plan to visit your blog again in the future.

Thanks for your work!