One day and then another

This past week was pretty hard for me. Even after sixteen years of working with vulnerable kids, kids beaten up by poverty, cultural genocide and addiction, it is still hard to know that a kid who is talking about suicide can’t get a bed in a hospital for a night. To know that when you call for help for a kid what you’re going to get is cops with guns questioning them. Some cops are nice and some are not but everything about them: their handcuffs, their tazers, tell a kid they’re in trouble.  And after they talk to the kid they will more than likely leave them behind because they know when they get to the hospital they won’t admit them.  “I’m happy to sit in a hospital waiting room for five hours until they send her home,” the cop tells me. “But my boss is not going to like it.”  Sometimes even if the hospital takes them they release them a few hours later in a taxi alone.

It’s like a kid coming to you with a broken arm and having to tell them: It’s not broken enough.

Hang in there, I keep telling them. Hold on. This is just a day, a bad day, and tomorrow another one is coming. Tomorrow you may be one day further up the waitlist for a counsellor, tomorrow your social worker might have something they didn’t have today. A sense of  urgency. A new categorization on your file. Maybe one of these will give you something new. A skateboard, a telephone, a doctor’s appointment. A reason to hope things will be better tomorrow.

What does it take to save a person? I sometimes think I have spent most of my life trying to answer this question. Here is a piece I wrote about my cousin Dana who died in a suicide pact when she was fifteen. It appeared in the Globe and Mail’s Facts and Arguments section in 2007. Facts & Arguments Page 1 of 3

POSTED ON 15/03/07   Patience trickles down


It’s a conversation triggered by happiness. In the heart of every moment of joy there is a part of me that still talks to her.

See how lovely it is.

At concerts, and empty beaches. Learning to snowshoe in fresh-fallen snow or walking home from a bar just after last call. A moment illuminated by a spark of wonder at my luck: To be healthy and warm and well-fed. To be loved. Among so many other possible lives in the world, this one is mine.

If only you could have waited, I tell her.

My cousin was 15 when she died. She didn’t hold the gun that killed her, but she signed her name to a suicide note. I was 16, and losing her almost brought me down, too; a domino effect of grief. I was heartbroken, but I was angry too. Not at her, and not even at the man who shot her. I saved my anger for the living. Mad at my aunt for being schizophrenic and unable to be a good mother, at my uncle for being distant, my grandparents for not speaking up for their youngest grandchild. Mad at myself for being too young, too far away to be of any use at all. By the time I was in my mid- twenties, this anger had settled into a kind of resignation. It seemed like it was her fate, to be that girl who died too young, that girl with all the bad luck.

Now I work at a community centre in a bad part of town, with girls who are the way my cousin and I used to be. Poor kids with complicated stories they don’t want to talk about. Girls who need to listen to the same song 10 times over, just to calm their nerves. Girls who write fragments of poetry on their hands and the back of math tests. Girls who chase after boys, looking for love, or at least fresh grief — some new sadness to distract them.

My heart aches for these girls so full of anticipation and disaster. Maybe the conversation I have started with my cousin, nearly a quarter of a century after her death, is really what I cannot say to these girls.

Let me save you. This time, let me save you.

Although I know that isn’t something I can do. It’s not even something I’ve been hired to do. I’m only the Computer Lady, the woman reading over their shoulders, making sure they’re not surfing for porn or being lured away by strangers. The one who helps them research and format their first essay. I hover, I help, I hope. Because I no longer believe in fate. That is their gift to me, to show me that no little girl should ever be thought of as doomed, as destined, not even in memory.

And in return, there is something I want them to know about luck and circumstances: they change. Fast or slow, they do change. That just because they can’t imagine the future doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Believe me when I tell you that this is not your life. This is only a small portion of your life, you won’t be 15 forever. Except if you die.

If you die, the world will go on without you. Some day your friends will have owned sweaters for longer than you were ever alive, and your memory will come back only as the small cinder of regret, which burns no matter how we try to hold it.

And you could have been so much more than that.

If only you had waited.

Maybe my cousin would never have been happy. Maybe she would have grown up like her mother, tortured by her own mind. Maybe bad situations and bad wiring would have conspired throughout her life, keeping her sad, keeping her poor and on the margins. What were the chances that she would avoid that? Were they really less than the odds that she would get involved with an older man who, his ex-wife says later, always had a thing about suicide pacts?

What were the chances?

It’s me again. I live by the ocean now, just like you did. The world is everything you ran away from, but it’s this too: the ocean rocking back and forth on the land for a million years. I can’t give you a reason to live. Not even now. But the truth is our hearts beat, our lungs look for air. It’s not a reason, or a philosophy but it’s a fact. Maybe you’ll think it’s not enough, these sudden surges of joy, these sparks that burn even as they illuminate. It might only seem like sugar melting on the tongue, it might not seem like enough to be called happiness, a reason to live.

But trust me.
Believe me this time.
It is.
Sonja Larsen lives and works in East Vancouver.
© Copyright 2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved. and The Globe and Mail are divisions of CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc.

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