Derek sits across the table from me. Dana sits quietly beside his friend and listens, offering the occasional supportive nod, just enough for Derek to continue sharing. Something tells me that Dana understands how difficult vulnerability is and that he is thrilled we are talking about Derek and not about him. I quietly remind myself to come back to this moment with Dana because it feels really important, though I cannot explain why.
With his voice trembling and his eyes gazing down, Derek takes a deep breath and asks me where he should start. I don’t give him a clear answer, rather I say “wherever you feel like starting” because I have learned so much in where people choose to start.
Derek chooses to start in 2007 when he moves from Niagara to Calgary with his family. For him, this is a wonderful turning point; it is the beginning of a three-year period of simplicity and ease and peace. Everyone in the family is working and spending time together…truly living the simple life. Mom is healthy and his brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew are close; Derek is enjoying lots of long walks on the beautiful Calgary trails with mom’s beloved Jack Russell – Jackie, of course.
In 2010, three years after moving to Calgary, Derek’s mother gets sick and passes away and he feels the heaviness of her death; she was too young and the glue in their family and although he feels her absence deeply he continues to work and rebuild his life as best he can. The ache of his mother’s death is ever present but he finds solace in living with his brother because for Derek, family is everything.
Another two years go by and Derek’s life circumstances change again with the adoption of a new nephew and cramped space in the home; Derek decides to move out and return to Niagara to visit because he is adamant about not being a burden – to anyone, ever.
After returning to Niagara and through a series of unlucky circumstances he finds himself without a place to stay or money to afford one and walks into Southridge shelter. Derek tells me several times how at the time it felt like moving back to Ontario was the worst decision he had ever made.
He begins to rebuild his life again, this time in Niagara.
He lives at the shelter for 6 weeks but refuses to sit around and tries to do whatever he can to help himself – something, anything – to get him out of the shelter. He leaves every single day and job-hunts at a downtown agency. After a short time he lines up a job and starts working and putting some money together for first and last months rent, but through no fault of his own the job comes to an abrupt end.
Back to square one.
He chooses this moment to tell me about his faith…. he calls it passive Christianity. He knows God exists because his mom taught him as much, but he doesn’t actively feel anything beyond himself; his faith feels mostly empty. Derek feels very much alone and completely responsible for his situation and beats himself up about having to start over. And over. And over. And although he struggles to see the bright side, he keeps putting one foot in front of the other, day after day.
On the days when Derek is around the shelter, pastor Drew invites him to attend bible study but Derek declines and thinks: no thanks, I have bigger problems. Weeks go by and one day he takes Drew up on his invitation. When I ask him why he said yes, he tells me he cannot explain what changed that day except to say he had a small inkling something good might come of it. So he sits in bible study with an open, tender heart hoping….
Hoping for relief from the noise of his self-criticism.
Hoping for a job opportunity.
Hoping for a solid lead on safe place to live.
Hoping to stop feeling so alone…
Soon after he finds a decent job through a temp agency and eventually it leads to full time work and it feels like maybe things are starting to come together for him. He starts to open himself up to meeting other people at the shelter, begins interacting with Southridge staff, and even begins to attend on Sunday mornings. He begins doing Lifegroup with a few staff members and then starts volunteering and feels the heaviness lift a little bit.
He is part of a community where he can contribute and belong so he feels less like a burden …and that feels really good.
He tells me one day he found himself surrounded by people who want to be better….better at loving, better at serving, and better at friendship. He cries when he tells me how grateful he was (and is) for thiscommunity, how he has so much to learn, and how moving back to Niagara and walking into Southridge shelter wasn’t the worst thing after all…and I find myself finally exhaling with him.
Then Derek meets Dana one day while walking Jackie and they recognize each other from Southridge and begin chatting. Derek explains how Jackie is everything to him because she belonged to his mother. He feels a deep, unconditional love from Jackie… she was the one constant and active reminder of his mother, a reminder that brought comfort during several exhausting up and down years. They begin walking their dogs together and a friendship starts to unfold.
The first thing Dana says to us after about 45 minutes of silence is “you’ve left out a lot of stuff, Derek” and I begin to understand just how much falling and getting back up Derek has had to do
Dana starts to share a story about the day he went to pick Derek up for his volunteering shift and found him walking down the driveway covered in blood. Derek had slipped in the shower and fallen through the glass panel, severing three tendons in his arm. He wasn’t able to call anyone for help because there was too much blood to dial the phone. The paramedics came and took Derek to the hospital where he received surgery to repair the mangled tendons; it was his dominant arm so therapy was painful and arduous but he stuck with it until he could return to work.
Derek begins physiotherapy for his arm and moves away from Dana’s neighbourhood but they remain friends as Derek continues to volunteer at Southridge with his good arm. He decides he won’t take a break from volunteering to heal because he feels useful when he serves. And although he no longer lives close to Dana, his new rental feels like home to him and he starts to feel like he and Jackie have finally caught a little streak of good luck.
A while after returning to work, Derek gets laid off. Back to square one.
Then, just before Christmas, Jackie gets sick; Derek uses his savings to care for her but cannot keep up with the mounting veterinary bills and is forced to put Jackie down. Derek is heartbroken and feels the loss of his mother all over again when Jackie dies.
Dana jumps in and explains how he doesn’t understand why some folks have an easier path than others and he wonders why some people seem to have bad luck through no fault of their own. He watches Derek work so hard day after day after day and shakes his head at the roller coaster that is Derek’s life and so badly want Derek to catch a break …or two or ten.
Derek has tears in his eyes again as he talks about Jackie’s death and I pause here to ask him about his tenderness and resilience and humility. I ask him how he keeps getting back up and starting over again with the same gentle, trusting heart. Is it faith? Is it friendships? He looks at Dana and then back at me and says “yes, Cate”. He continues and explains that even when life exhausts him, even when he can’t see where things are leading, good things happen…and in that moment, I realize he is talking about Dana and the Southridge community – and it is clear Dana has a very difficult time receiving such a beautiful compliment.
Dana admits: “it’s all about love …and I don’t love very well”.
I interject to tell Dana he is brave to admit he doesn’t love well and I suggest that all God requires of us is that we are doing our best to love well …and that perhaps Derek might disagree with him since he’s just shared how their friendship has been foundational to his resilience and tenderness. Derek continues and tells Dana he finds him inspiring and is grateful for all the time he has for him; Dana struggles to receive this too, although he admits their friendship has softened him and has made him want to be better at loving others.
Dana lovingly begs me to end the conversation because he’s had enough vulnerability for one day and I concede, but not before I am left changed by both of them.
Because both Derek and Dana have so much to teach us…
About telling the truth and remaining vulnerable, even when it’s terrifying.
About feeling the painful frustration of starting at square one again and again…and choosing to trust God in our blindness.
About giving your broken, bleeding heart to a friend, trusting it will be kept safe…even when you’re not sure you want to.
About the truth that you are no less worthy of love and abundance and luck than your neighbour or your friend or your colleague.
This article is as much about the beauty of Derek’s resilience and humility and trusting heart as it is about Dana and his ability to create a safe place for his friend, even if he struggles to receive that.
It is about continuing to get better at being the kind of community where people feel heard and loved and safe in their pain and struggle.
It is about understanding that when we are at the end of ourselves and have nothing left to give and no solution in sight…
Faith helps. Friendship helps. Pretending we are better than we are doesn’t…but being loved and heard does.
And that is exactly, perfectly enough.
~Cate Moore – 2018