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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

My dog walks start through a well manicured city park. It’s in what you’d call a nice area, a calm amid swanky condos and well-heeled residents. Benches under a canopy of linden trees offer a perfect shaded spot to rest weary limbs, catch up with a friend or in my case, draw strength from nature, while struggling with the pain of loss.

It is on the fringe of downtown. There aren’t many homeless people around, but we see them occasionally seeking respite in the park too. Some summer mornings, sleeping bodies stretch out on a bench, huddled in sleeping bags or with cardboard as their only shield from the early morning chill. I would imagine how the breaking sun would soon disturb an uneasy slumber, turning gentle warmth into the heat of a sauna.

The homeless people never stayed, they were transient. Once a tent appeared in the bushes, was occupied for a week or two, then wasn’t seen again. Anything else would have seemed out of place to the privileged of us who lived nearby and shared the park’s simple pleasures. We saw it as made for couples strolling, walkers letting their dogs sniff and snarl at squirrels. The park was my peaceful refuge.

I turned detective to discover the history of my old Toronto home

My son had died three years earlier. My grief work was relentless, but the walks through the park were a special time for reflection. I cherished my solitude, the restorative power of the trees.

Until him. I had seen him over the years. He had once responded to my attempt at eye-contact and a nod with an obscene gesture. But something changed, he wasn’t fleeting any more. He came last summer, and he stayed.

He chose a carved out section of a stone retaining wall, just off a major path, to which to anchor himself. Off to the side but not far; he was perfectly visible. In a stoop just wide enough for him to sit and just tall enough for him to stand up. Not a home, not even a shelter, just a niche in a stone wall. He claimed it as his and stayed there, defiant. It didn’t matter to him that he might have looked out of place.

Day in and day out over the bewildering summer, through no masks and masks, through lockdowns, physical distancing and social circles ... he stayed. Through tropical heat and then driving rain and plummeting temperatures ... he stayed.

The more he stayed immobile, glaring out into the distance from his sorry niche, the more I found my reaction to him shifting shape. Slowly his steadfast presence became a challenge to me.

What kind of person takes up residence in a carved out wall in a city park, my park, and doesn’t move? He may be a little intimidating-looking, but isn’t he also a human being, in obvious and great need? These questions started to occupy too much of my consciousness. I had a nice home in one of those condos, just steps away. He lived in a wall! With a dirty sack of belongings and a mangled bicycle. I wanted to help but felt powerless.

For a while I hoped that someone else would take care of this problem. There are good people all around! That lady, feeding the birds – surely she’ll be able to connect with him. The landscaping crew – they’ll have an extra sandwich to offer. But I soon lost hope for a benevolent rescuer. There’s no one to see him, except me and a sprinkling of others like me. And we all did mostly the same – avert our eyes, shuffle past.

The days grew shorter and the nights much, much colder. Rounding the corner before his niche in the wall came into view, I grew apprehensive. Would he still be there? It rained all night. And then it snowed. Will he freeze to death?

What to do? Drop a card with the number for a shelter? Toss him a blanket? A twenty? Those things seemed right but also small and insignificant. I vote. I support charities. I volunteer my time and skills. But I had no clue what to do when faced with a daily reminder of an enormous problem. It felt like my humanity was failing me on a personal level. It was deeply unsettling.

The more my discomfort grew, the more I resented his presence. He’s living a miserable existence. But I had my own emotional struggle. I was trying to crowd out deep sadness to make room for remembering what a joy my son was to me. How fortunate I was to have been his mom for so many years. It took all my energy, this search for balance. I needed the serenity I had formerly found on my walks in the park for this effort. His presence felt like an invasion.

I called a homeless helpline. The outreach team knew him. They had delivered him sandwiches. They knew he refused shelter beds. I read that on any given night, an estimated 35,000 people in Canada are without shelter. Part of the problem is not enough beds. But the shelters also have a reputation for being noisy and dangerous and some, including him I supposed, preferred being in peaceful city park, even if it meant exposure to the elements.

Memories are golden, and I was trying my best to be focused on them. As I remembered the many lessons my children have taught me, I started to ask myself what they would have to say about this intruder in my thoughts. It took just a second for my lovely son’s face to appear in my mind.

Be uncomfortable, I could hear him say. It’s not your park, you live in a society. You live, he would say – his voice and sweet smile on the edge of scorn – in a pretty nice place, Mom. Why can’t he have a tiny corner, even the entire park, to call his own.

My resentment and thoughts of blankets and dollar bills suddenly seemed ridiculous. What difference would any tiny Band-Aid I could apply make in a world marked by terrible inequality. But, my son’s voice reminded me, I could let myself be aware. It was only in losing that ability that all would be lost.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, my son’s voice told me. It’s the foundation of change, the path forward. Besides, it’s as much his park as yours.

I walked past him. I see you, I said with my eyes. There’s room in my heart for the painful loss and the glorious memories, and room in our park for the healing linden trees and the two of us, seeking their comfort.

Kyle Elizabeth Johnson lives in Ottawa.

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