Twelve years ago, this month, I moved into a shelter for abused women and children.
Pregnant and scared, already the single mom of a three-year-old boy, it was hands down one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Making the decision to leave behind our home, the city we lived in, friends and family, and pretty much all our belongings was extremely difficult, but it was also necessary. I wanted my children (and myself) to live a life free of violence and I knew that wasn’t possible if we stayed.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Father Mike, my Poppa’s priest, for helping us to escape what was a very, very bad situation. I couldn’t have done it without him. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to tell him as much, and to thank him from the bottom of my heart, at Poppa’s funeral a few years ago.
I have not considered myself Catholic (or religious) in many years, despite my upbringing and love for my creator, but I will never forget the kindness I received that early December morning when I turned up with my son at Father Mike’s office, significantly underweight, broke and broken down, belly full of fear and guilt and shame. After making sure my boy was happily occupied with some paper and a pack of crayons, Father Mike sat across from me silently, and listened intently as I poured out the whole awful story.
When I had finished, he gazed into my eyes with a depth of compassion I was convinced at the time I didn’t deserve, and spoke words I never thought I’d hear from the mouth of a holy man:
“You have to get the fuck outta dodge.”
As I contemplated what he’d said, Father Mike excused himself for a moment. When he returned, he handed me an envelope with two hundred dollars or so inside. Then he told me to book the train tickets I needed, and return to his office the next day, so he could give me enough money to cover the fare.
Three days later, as streetlights illuminated the falling snow that shimmered like diamonds in the sky, my young son and I stood on the doorstep of Maison D’ Amitié in Ottawa.
I rang the bell.
Once inside, we were ushered into the small but cozy office at the back of the home to complete some paperwork. Finally, we were led to the room that would be ours for the foreseeable future, where I was given a Welcome basket containing a pair of slippers, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a few other basic necessities. After the on-call counsellor had explained that I could come to speak with her at any time, she left us alone, closing the door softly behind her. I sat on the bed and looked over at my son, who looked back up at me with absolute trust, and for the first time in a long time, I smiled. He toddled over to me for a hug. I buried my face in his blonde curls and sighed.
We were safe.
It wasn’t easy. Many nights, after I’d tucked my little one into bed, I went back downstairs to talk (and cry) with one of the on-call counsellors. Or I’d sit in the tiny Smoking Room with some of the other moms and chain-smoke, one after the other, as we shared our war stories and tried to figure out what the hell came next. We had chores to do every day and took turns cooking dinner. Some nights, we had group meetings, where we could air any grievances or make requests. Occasionally, we played games.
Every Wednesday evening, after the kids were settled down for the night, we would gather in the main room for Donations. Big, black garbage bags would be brought in from the garage, opened and dumped on the floor, and we would rustle through them for the items we required as we started our new lives: blankets, bedding, pots and pans, cooking utensils, second-hand clothing and toys, for example.
The holidays were tough that year. It was hard to be away from the familiar, and I was traumatised, drowning in fear (of the future), shame, and guilt. Luckily, we were able to spend Christmas Eve at my parent’s house, so my son was surrounded by people who loved and cherished him on Christmas morning.
I spent the next several weeks running around, going to appointments and getting things organised and, by Valentine’s Day, we had moved into our new, government subsidised townhouse.
A dozen years have passed since those days. A lot has changed. But I have never forgotten the kindness shown to my son and I, nor the generosity of spirit of the women who worked tirelessly to keep that shelter running smoothly on a tight budget, who navigated conflicts between various residents, and who provided wise, gentle, honest counsel for those of us who felt so afraid, so lost and alone, so ashamed.
This morning, as I loaded up the car of one of the shelter workers with bags of donations for the women who are currently in the same position I was in all those years ago, I felt incredibly blessed to finally be able to express my most sincere gratitude, and to pay forward the love I received when I needed it most.
Sometimes, in life, we are Givers. Other times, we are Receivers. I believe that it is an honour, a true blessing, a gift, to be on either end. Give when you have something to give and be open to receive when there is something you need. This is the circle of life. Love makes the world go ‘round.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!
All good things.