New Life

‘Been down one time
Been down two times
I’m never going back again’
~Fleetwood Mac

This is a guest submission by one of my oldest friends, with a pseudonym of Layla.  Layla and I met at St Mary’s School in Barrie, Canada when we were tiny and became close because we had so much fun together AND we walked the same way to school every morning. (I’ve heard it said that young friendships have a lot to do with geography). All these decades later, we are still friends.  She still cracks me up as much as she did back then.  Back when we used to put Mark’s stereo on in the rec room with Fleetwood Mac blaring and do cartwheels and walk-overs in the dark.

Once Layla, with her reddish hair very similar to my brother Jobe, was accepted into our family, she was a regular at our family meals and was around our house most days.  I also spent a lot of time playing at her house, often the two of us alone, because her Grandmother would be at work at the hospital where she pulled twelve-hour shifts. I remember watching a ten-year old Layla cooking up a pound of bacon or ground beef to eat for supper without any other foods on the plate.  I remember that was really different because Mom would always have us build a balanced meal on our plate: protein, vegetables, starch. 

Layla had this really odd baby-sitter, Shirley, who kept her kidney stones in a small jar on her dresser.  We would sneak into her room to point and peer at them (the stones).  ‘Ewwww, gross!’ we would whisper to each other with freckled, scrunched up faces.  We were barely tall enough to for our eyes to clear the top of the highboy dresser.  One time Shirley caught us and tried to smack Layla.  We were too fast for her though as we used our guile to get away from Shirley who walked with a cane.  (But seriously, why keep them on your dresser?)

There was a group of us at times: Kelly, Paul Aikins (R.I.P.), Layla and I were often together cooking up mischief.  One time, we decided to light ‘strike anywhere’ matches in a closet in Layla’s rental flat in an old Victorian on Bayfield Street.  When her grandmother found out, she called my parents and I was punished.  I got the belt to my behind from my Dad due to the seriousness of the infraction.  It never happened again.  Another time we were in trouble with Sister Mary Catherine.  Layla received ‘the Strap’ for it.  I am certain that woman was a witch.  She was horribly mean.

When my older sister Amy became a hairstylist after attending the Barrie School of Hairdressing, I can clearly remember the time she gave Layla a ‘pageboy’ haircut.  It was the same haircut made famous by Dorothy Hamill the 1976 Olympic skating champion.  The haircut took place in our basement bathroom of our Peel Street house.  The large bathroom with the bright blue melamine counter-top opposite the sink.  Layla perched there on a stool, me watching from the edge of the tub while Amy snipped.  Twenty year-old Amy had long blond hair and baby-blue eyes.  Her slender fingers were entwined in Layla’s extra thick strawberry blond locks as she cooed softly to Layla to help her relax.  Layla had a very sensitive scalp.  Layla became the talk of the grade 5 class with that hair cut, it suited her so well.  It was so very ‘IN’.

When Layla moved away, I was heart-broken.  We would write letters back and forth and she did come to the camp once.  Then there was my trip to the Badlands where we re-connected.  Layla has been to my home in Nova Scotia twice and I will see her in Calgary soon.  Can’t wait!!!!                               

Here is her story of strength in finding a New Life. (She says it was God, but, I would argue that it was ALL HER!)

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Layla writes:

I was born into a Catholic family in North Bay, Ontario, baptized as a baby and attended the Catholic Church and school from birth to sixth grade. My earliest memories are of living with my Grandma and Grandpa. It didn’t occur to me to question it- that was all I knew.  But for a loving Grandmother, I would have grown up with strangers.  

My next significant memory is of moving to Barrie, Ontario with Grandma Bea – as her marriage of 25 years was ending.  She worked hard to support us.  At that time everyone in my class lived with their Mom and Dad.  The 30 of us moved up through the grades together.  We all attended St. Mary’s Church and school.  

My Grandma kept an orderly and safe home for us. She kept me in tap, jazz, and baton classes after school.  I also did gymnastics at school.  Downtime at home was spent playing outside with the other neighbourhood children.

My Mom showed up when I was 7 years old and wanted to reclaim me.  I had no idea who my Mom was, and neither Grandma or I were prepared to be apart from one another.

Through a series of events, and several more years past, it was decided that I would go and live with my Mother in British Columbia. This was just before I entered 7th grade. 

My safe predictable world came crashing down. My Mother lived very differently, so I soon found myself appalled and alienated.  Coming home after school to groups of people drinking and drugging was completely foreign and quite scary to me.  The mood swings the adults displayed were also new to me.  

I deeply regretted moving to BC I was small and lean at the time, and also got to learn what it was to be the new kid, get bullied, and have to fist fight to get past the gang to get home.  I hated my life.

Sometime during that year, Mother’s boyfriend threw us out during the night in a rage. We landed at a shelter and eventually moved to another home with another school- and another gang of bullies to deal with.  

I did okay at first in 8th grade.  I loved biology and participating in the gymnastics club. At some point though, with more chaos and confusion at home, I couldn’t cope anymore. I switched to another school that was a specialized alternate learning environment. I did okay there for awhile and then we moved again to another city.  Same scenario happened all over again…. I was completely done.

I dropped out of school and spiraled downward for many years.  My teenage years were an unstable mess.  By 15 I was done with life. Attempted suicide… failed.  Somehow I carried on- working, going to night school, and partying. 

By 19 I had to sober up and find a way to live with a new purpose. I was solidly entrenched in unhealthy living patterns.  By this time many friends had died due to the lifestyle- intentionally or otherwise.  Through all of this, I was starting to wake up a bit and notice some things that scared me.  God was drawing me…

Thankfully I had a good friend who had cleaned up a couple of years ahead of me.  She took me under her wing and walked me through the daily beginning steps of sobriety. For awhile, an AA women’s group was a lifeline for me.  

At some point in my new sobriety, I began to question the meaning of life.  A very clear turning point happened when I was in my downtown, Nelson BC apartment. Looking up and down the street, I began to think about the people coming and going.  What was the point of it all?  How did it start?  Where would it end?  

Thus began a new quest to satisfy these queries.  Nelson was a New Age hot bed with plenty of options to consider. Initially I returned to visit the local Catholic Church- only to be faced with a sexual advancement from a married man who attended there. I left and continued my quest.  I looked into a multitude of things that people seemed satisfied with and engaged in.  Gestalt therapy, Wicca, Mormonism, and others.  They all seemed interesting, but I was always left with a sense that there had to be more.  Something that was IT!

I had a friend at college who was sparkly eyed and always kind and friendly with me. She attended the local Evangelical Free Church.  So I asked her if they did any fun stuff.  I attended a campfire night by the river with the College and Career group.  I found them to be funny, interesting and had good music that I hadn’t heard before. The group also had a bible study at my friend’s house.  I went to check this out.  At the first one, they spoke of the fruits of the Spirit.  I knew I wanted those things.  Love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control. WOW!  I was very interested.

I finished my office administration training. I did my practicum and volunteered in local offices as I was unable to find work. The town was economically shutting down.  I had a student loan and the collectors were calling. So I moved to Calgary in 1990 to get some work and pay off my student loan so that I could go home again to Nelson, BC.

My Grandma had already moved to Calgary, so I stayed with her while I worked and saved.  We loved being reunited and savoured our time together.  

I am now celebrating 30 years of living in Alberta.  We make our plans, but God orders our steps.  This was not my plan. 

I got work right away.  Not long after moving to Calgary, I was invited to Grace Baptist College and Career.  Through this group I was introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and was told that I needed to be born again.  I really didn’t know what to make of this.  

As I considered the information, I felt like no matter where I went, I was being shown very clearly that there was good and evil. I needed to make a choice.  The fence sitting was not going to be permitted much longer.  At a crossroads, I called out to God. However, I was still unconvinced if He was real or not. Was I going to dive in- or walk away?  I earnestly asked God, if He was there, to show me clearly.  I opened my bible at a random place and my eyes landed on Proverbs 23:18. “There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.” I prayed then and trusted the blood of Christ to wash away all my sin and to make me new in Christ. Thus began my journey as a Christian…

Not long after this, a lovely senior lady from church came over to my Grandmother’s place to teach me the scriptural basics and disciple me.   

As the years went on, trials and growth opportunities were abundant.  I journeyed through legalism, deep marital pain, divorce, isolating from believers, failure….but God.

I began to learn, at a heart level, verses like Isaiah 26:3 “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You.  Because he trusts in You.” Also, Philippians 4:6-7 “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” And Philippians 4:19 “My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

Despite all the pain, the unfaithfulness, the confusion- God has continued to win my heart.  With so many distractions in this world, singing praises has always guarded my heart and has become an essential way for me to set my mind on Him.  Being in fellowship with like-minded Believers, who lovingly point each other back to truth, has also been a huge blessing and lifeline for me.  

By the grace of God I can now say- I belong to Jesus- heart, soul, mind and strength. Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ [in Him I have shared His crucifixion]; it is no longer I who live, but Christ (the Messiah) lives in me; and the life I now live in the body I live by faith in (by adherence to and reliance on and complete trust in) the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

Slip Slidin’ Away

You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away
And I know a father who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he had done
He came a long way just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and he headed home again
Slip slidin’ away
~Paul Simon

I was awake at 3:30 am when the sirens went by on Main Street down below our house.  I had no idea to what sort of tragedy the sirens were responding.

Then I received a call at 6:30 am.

Come over right now! My closest girlfriend said.

What’s going on? I asked.

Just come over.  Her voice urged.

On my way.  I said.

I envisioned helping with a flood or some other household problem, like a lost dog.

I was up, dressed in the car and driven the snowy few blocks in six minutes.  What’s going on?  I called out in the direction up the steps from the entry.   The air was thick with emotion and fear.  I could almost see it hanging there.

He died. She said simply.

Who died?  I screeched as I ran up the steps in my boots, snow falling off.  I was glancing around for a body.

Calvin.  She said.

A sound came out of me involuntarily.  I grabbed her and hugged her small body fiercely.  The sound was primordial.  Painful.  A deep keening.  Her Ex, the Dad, appeared and enclosed us in his arms and we all cried together for a few seconds.  In my mind’s eye I was still looking around for his body.

I asked… where is he?

He had been the first of three steps at age three, when we moved in next door. Our Leo was the second step at four and his older brother Kevin at five was the third step.  Fast friends who ran all over the neighbourhood together, Calvin usually bringing up the rear, on his toes – he was a toe-walker then and so cute as he nimbly rushed to be included.  Countless sleepovers, snacks, tumbling, trampolining.  He would sometimes gather up his courage and ask me for a drink of water, almost like I might say no.  I must have been scary to him??  In recent years, in their teens, Leo would visit and and he would later tell me how Calvin had offered him tea, or soup, or whatever was available.  Leo told me how kind Calvin was.

I had watched Calvin grow into a six foot two, curly blond-haired, blue-eyed quiet young man.  He loved the outdoors, experiments with pond-like aquariums, fishing.  He was a fierce competitor in jujitsu and, sadly, had some other darker pastimes which I would guess were self-medicating.  He struggled with anxiety, addiction and with social situations.  For the past several months, he could not sleep, due to anti-depressant medication.  This would be the straw that broke the camel’s back – the not sleeping.  I had heard about many many attempts to get him into counselling and to a psychiatrist or even to get him to emerg.  He just would not go.  How does a parent force this?  It’s next to impossible.

Daisy told me the whole story of the few days leading up to this disaster. We sat by the fire on her couch in the early morning hours.  When the door opened and her eldest, stepped in, he collapsed against the wall crying and keening loudly in despair.  I slipped unnoticed out the back door.  My Blunstones leaving their distinctive print in the freshly fallen snow.  Down the back deck steps and around the house to my car.  I drove home in a daze.  I walked in to find my husband Dean and my son Leo silent with despair.  All I could manage to do was to make a pot of soup for my friend in her grief.

In the wee hours, Jonah had followed his son’s bootprints (and many obvious signs of his slipping and falling on the trail, like bad snow-angel attempts).  He entered the park, slipping and cursing the hidden ice as he went.  A few hundred meters in, he saw Calvin’s backpack at the base of a tree and looked up, his headlight finding the silhouette of  his youngest son hanging in the tree.  Jonah struggled to get him down.  He was still warm.  He did CPR for almost an hour, crying, praying and shouting at him to wake up but systematically counting in keeping with his advanced military training.  The paramedics finally arrived having had a hard time locating them in the dark woods and slipping and falling many times due to the deceptively slick ice under the layer of snow.

Jonah called his ex-wife, The Mom, telling her not to come to the park.  She went up there anyway.  At the gates she was met by a cop who loved Calvin – knowing him through the dojo they shared. He avoided her eyes.  Her heart sank to its deepest despair.

Where do you go when your child takes his own life?  There is nothing worse than this.

Dean and I organized meals and visits to Daisy so that she wouldn’t be alone, especially at night.  The outpouring of support was incredible and humbling.  Thousands of dollars were raised through a single email asking for support on her behalf.  Daisy couldn’t work due to grief.  No income, bills and life carrying on.  A full day of yoga was organized by a group of women with lunch, live music and incredible local art in a silent auction.  Daisy was given therapies like massage, osteopathy and reflexology.  Two cords of wood were delivered, fully paid for.  The guys from the dojo arrived and stacked it in fifteen minutes, based on a simple request to them that morning. We cleaned her house, Dean shoveled the driveway.  Another friend swept the chimney.  We walked the dog, picked up the mail, painted a room, helped her sort through the bills, baked her a cake and brought flowers. A woman knitted a special scarf to encircle her in love and comfort.

The celebration of life was at a large hall downtown.  Every aspect of the day was taken care of by volunteers: planning, decorating, food, drink, crafts for little ones, boughs of evergreen, writing implements for sharing snippets of memories.  Hot drinks and marshmallows outside by the fire.  A beautifully hand-crafted wooden box to store parchment pages of written memories — the blond wood the colour of his beautiful hair, his name etched in the sliding cover.  The place was packed.  One friend introduced the speeches and thanked all those who helped.  The owner of the dojo gave a recounting of the fierce fighting competitor that Calvin was and also of the kind teacher with a huge heart for his young charges.  The gym guys shoulder-to-shoulder, sniffling, their hands folded tightly.  Eyes lowered.  Cheeks wet with tears.

Jonah and Daisy talked about Calvin’s life.  The kind of person he was, the kind of brother and son he was.  His personality and some funny memories of him.  Jonah finally said that he had decided to find solace in the joy of seventeen years that they had had with Calvin.  At least they had had the honour and pleasure of him for seventeen years.

Extreme grief and mourning ensued for the loss of one of our boys – the first step of three.

A year has passed and not many days have ended that I haven’t thought of this young man.  I feel that he slipped through the cracks in our mental health system.  He was so loved and so well taken care of, yet he still slipped through.  Can you imagine the youth who do not have attentive parents?  I feel sick that I personally couldn’t DO anything to help with this nor could I stop the loss of his life.  I replay my last face-to-face with him when I dropped off a huge bag of dog food because our Lady-Jane had passed.  Could I not have asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about?  Could I not have swallowed my pride and told him that I too suffer with mental illness?  It’s so fucked up.  I find that I am still quite angry about my lack of ability to help with this.  To take action.  To DO SOMETHING.

I know one thing for sure.  The next time I detect a sadness in someone, I will ask them if they need help.  I will simply ask them.

Rest In Peace dear dear boy.