Random Thoughts…and otherwise

Walter’s Gift: A Lesson in Empathy and Humankind


Last week, while out running errands downtown, I ran into my old friend, Walter. Today, still, if I were to win the lottery I would care less: by, finally, seeing Walter, I’ve already won.

Walter is a survivor of both the Indian Residential School System and traumatic brain injury, whom I met as a client of an agency where I used to work. At that time, some nine or ten years ago, he was a complete and utter mess; a 50-something posterchild for “those people” who live on the streets of any city’s downtown.

Having recently received a pittance of a settlement from the government in exchange for his childhood, culture and the abuse he sustained, and being, in turn, shafted by the ‘friends’ new money attracts, he was deep in the wretched grip of his addiction to alcohol. Once his newfound wealth was lost, his drink of choice downgraded from cheap wine to Final Net hairspray—easy to lift from drug stores in the neighbourhood, and an affordable, instant drunk that would obliterate his pain for a time.

There were few rules at our agency, and most that there were were bendable, but the one hard and fast rule was that anyone under the influence was not welcome to stay, for the safety and comfort of others who were often struggling to stave off addictions of their own.

Yet, there was always Walter, who often appeared at my office door, usually in the morning or in the late afternoon as we were about to close for the day, strung out on hairspray, his disgust in himself at his self-medicated stupor, compounding the pain of his other pains, inconceivable, awful, awful pain.

Always polite, kind and respectful, he wore the pleading helpless expression of a little boy needing a hug from his mommy, any mommy, compassion, care, anything. Sweaty, greasy face, stained with the driblets of blood and puss seeping from the open sores on his face, where the toxic mix of Final Net poison found refuge from his blood stream and tried to break free, he would stand there, at my door, crying.

“Walter, hun, you know I have to ask you to leave.”

“I know. I just need a hug.”

“Thanks for being here, Walter. Me too. So, do I.”

Hug. Repeat. A sorry script we played out often and for seemingly ever and ever.

He would leave, and I would hope and I would wonder. Until next time, sometimes the next day, sometimes not for weeks. Sometimes, Walter would be assaulted. Sometimes, he’d be hungry, and on those days we’d do the best we could to find a few things in the pantry to send him off with. Some comfort, some care.

While he wasn’t always welcome, he always was: Sometimes the value found in a connection trumps anything else, like rules.

Sometimes a connection, spawns a strength and an ability to believe and value oneself. And sometimes, like one day, something miraculous and beautiful happens: Walter, for the last of many, many times, made the decision to stop drinking. And did.

Walter started looking after himself—he exercised relentlessly, ate well, reconnected with his family, worked every minute to stay sober, for Walter, for himself. And, then he thrived. For the first time, perhaps in his life, Walter believed in himself, and in turn others believed in him. He accepted an offer for supportive employment and felt great pride in contributing to his community.

I knew Walter had won when about a year later I read a comment he’d made about a snow shoveling job he’d completed: The look on that old lady’s face was something else I’ve never seen.

Last week, when I met Walter, he was on his way to the bank to cash his pay cheque earned from the job he still has. He is beautiful—his long hair braided and tucked beneath a warm toque, his tan skin clear, clean and glowing, save a few scars. And, his smile, proud and confident, contagious, has replaced that pleading, helpless expression of a lost little boy.

“In May, I’ll be sober six years,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m taking a month off soon. My brother has cancer and I’m going home to build him a cabin.”

Sadly, Walter’s story and plight is not unique. Walter is alive and struggling in every community in this country, in “those people,’ who merely survive on the streets of our downtowns, huddle in doorways, ask if we can spare a quarter. Sometimes, it’s easier to turn our heads and pass by, complain about their existence, make up stories about how they could or should clean up their acts, get a job, make better choices, pretend they don’t exist. Truth and reality are uncomfortable. They force us to look at ourselves.

But sometimes, most times, by doing so we miss out, like I would have if I’d followed the rules.

And, because, I didn’t—we at my agency didn’t—Walter didn’t need a hug that day last week, he’s good, but I did. I needed to hug him in gratitude and relief. I needed to thank him for all the lessons he taught me, about resilience, overcoming our struggles, forgiveness, kindness, generosity of spirit and love, that if we are without empathy and humanity we are nothing.

Mostly, I needed, after four years of wonder since I left that job, to thank him for what he gave me: In knowing, and believing in, someone as important as Walter, I received a gift…I am rich.