Sunday, November 13, 2016

I’ve been sitting this story for almost three months. I’ve spent a lot of the last three months sitting on my ass, without the slightest sense of guilt, while I worked my way through an difficult summer, and grieving two significant, personal losses.

I’m now feeling like I’ve processed what I can, and am feeling at peace, and content. There’s no completely recovering from the death of someone that is, or was important
in one’s life. Nor should there be. It’s part of the price, if you will, of love. The memories are the long lasting rewards. So are some of the lessons. 

We’ve all had a bumpy ride throughout most of 2016, let’s face it. It’s been a year marked with the loss of personal heroes; artists that influenced our youth, that enrich our lives, with their stories. We’ve had turmoil and sadness. 

While this particular story germinates in loss, it moves quickly to my intended essence; appreciation of the little things. The random moments of beauty and connection, the gifts of gratitude and remembrance, honouring each other. Acknowledgment of our differences, and highlighting, seeking out, our similarities. 

On the morning Tom passed away, in early August, I had planned to meet with his family, at his place, to help sort of Tom’s belongings. We had spent hours together with Tom the day before, and had each said our goodbyes. This was a chance to keep to our plan, and to spend some time together, in the shadows of his death. Going through Tom’s belongings was revealing, I saw a side of Tom I didn’t know. Seeing the things that he kept, that meant something to him. The personal stuff that we all have. The time together was comforting and oddly light. It was so profoundly moving. And sad, of course. It was also beautiful; here we were, three people absolutely comfortable in our shared and individual grieving. Four weeks prior to this, we had never met. This is family.

Tom apparently, was setting in for the zombie takeover. He had stashes of rolling papers, cigarette lighters, loose packets and cartons of cigarettes. Some opened, some not. And enough peanuts to feed the entire population of squirrels at City Hall, through a long winter! 

His Tilly hat collection. Tom’s leather biker jacket. He treasured that. On the last day that Tom was outside, I was walking him home and he had a bad fall. We sat on the sidewalk, me holding Tom up, while we made sure he was okay, relatively speaking. I recall saying to Tom that it was a good thing he had decided to wear his biker jacket that day; judging by the scuff marks in the leather from the sidewalk, it had most definitely limited some of the flesh wounds and road rash Tom suffered in that fall. 

I was gifted the jacket. It sits in a bag, under my bed. Time will decide what happens with this treasured memory.

I asked if I could have the cigarettes. It seemed silly to throw them away. We’re all non-smokers. I admittedly am the worst kind–a reformed smoker. I started smoking when I was 13, and stopped, finally, on my 40th birthday. I find it disgusting now, personally. I also understand addiction, intimately. I digress. 

I thought I’d give the cigarettes away. It seemed to me that’s what Tom would have liked. In all, there were FORTY THREE full packets of cigarettes, once we had collected them, from a number of stashes in various areas of his single room.

Tom passed away on August 05th, just two weeks short of him turning 61. On Tom’s birthday, I decided to go out, armed with this bag of cigarettes, and give them away to honour Tom’s birthday. It was liking spending time, going for a walk, with Tom. 

I was intent on giving them away to people that I felt might be appreciative of a free pack of smokes. Typically, I started to create a series of statements which I used to approach each person. This wasn’t about gathering anyone’s story. It was about sharing with another person. Connecting, however briefly, is a two-way gift. 

I approached folk who were asking for help, or collecting empties, or sitting on benches with what may be all their worldly possession’s, in a few bags next to them, or at their feet. 

When I found someone who smoked, and not everyone did, I asked if I could tell them a quick, short story. Not one person said no to hearing my story.

“My good friend Tom passed away recently, and today is his birthday. I inherited a bunch of cigarettes, and I wanted to celebrate my friend’s birthday by giving away the smokes to people that could do with a gift from Tom.” 

The smiles and instant, authentic connection was palpable. 

Then I made my the rest of my pitch. I explained that I wanted to do a small tribute project to Tom, and asked if I could take a photograph of just their eyes. Nothing else would be in the image. Only one person turned down my offer at that point. I get it. 

I gave each person a pack of smokes and then asked to take a photo of their eyes. In most cases I only took one photograph. I told each person “When I take your photo, I’m going to say something, and the picture will be only of your eyes, reacting to what I say.”

As I was about to take each photo, I said what I’ve come to believe, are two of the most important words we can use. “Ready? Thank you.”

Packet 01 - I approached Henry, who was pushing a buggy with empty bottles and cans. Much to my surprise it turns out, Henry knew me, and remembered my name. We had met way back on Day 32 of TSP2014. I wish I could say I recognized him first. That said, it was so incredibly delightful to have the first person I approached, be personally connected to this very project about connection! So random!

Packet 02 - Eddy seemed unsure of my intentions. I showed him Henry’s photo to offer some validity, and sure, they know each other! The world is a series of circles, after all! While Eddy himself doesn’t smoke, his girlfriend does, and so I gave them to Eddy to gift to his girlfriend. We both walked away smiling from ear to ear!

Packet 03 - I was sitting at Tom’s Bench, when Bob, a man that I’ve seen around the neighbourhood before, approached me. He said “Hey, you wouldn't have a cigarette to sell would you?” That got him a pack! *A few days later, I saw Bob again. “They sure were strong cigarettes! It was like smoking a cigar, took me three days to get through the pack!”

Packet 04 - Dave was sitting on the sidewalk, panhandling on Burrard St. He had just come to Vancouver a few days ago. Originally from Halifax, Dave had spent a few months on the Island, in Victoria. “I liked how friendly the city of Victoria is. It was like Halifax. It reminded me bit of home. Not like Vancouver. This isn't like Halifax. Or Victoria.”

Packet 05 - David and his friend were sitting outside a restaurant, singing somewhat incoherently when I walked past them. His friend, Bassi, was laying down, with his head in David’s lap. When I gave him the cigarettes, David smiled. “Tom is with us in many forms.”

Packet 06 - Bassi was lying on the sidewalk, with his head in David’s lap. He tells me he thinks his names is Dave, which is also very funny to both these guys. Bassi laughs so much I have to take several photos to get one with his eyes open.

Packet 07 - Even though JoJo had a cast on his arm, the smile on his face was infectious. His grin literally went from ear to ear, his entire face smiling! I asked how he broke his arm. “I caught it in an automatic door that was broken and it slammed closed on me and broke my arm. But that’s okay,” he says, widening his smile again. “I prevented it from slamming on some frail old guy that was behind me. He didn't get hurt. And man, he would have!”

Packet 08 - Sean was standing in the middle of a busy street, at an intersection. I crossed half way to join him on the boulevard. He had a handwritten cardboard sign with “Spare change” in bold letters. I didn’t want to get in the way of his mission, so I quickly told him my proposition. “Sure. I’d love that. I could really use a smoke myself right about now!” I took his photo and reached into my bag, and handed him a pack of cigarettes. “Oh,” he said. “Just one pack?”

Packet 09 - When I gave Jordan the cigarettes, he smiled and started to say something, then stopped himself. I asked what he was going to say. “Well, I don't mean to be rude. That’s why I stopped myself.” I assured him he could say what he wanted. “I’ve had these smokes before. They’re popular on local reservations.”

Packet 10 - Ron was in a wheelchair, panhandling outside a transit station. He was a happy man of few words. ”Absolutely.” After I gave him the smokes, he reached out to shake my hand. “Thank you very much!”

Packet 11 - Peter leaned in close and said, almost in a whisper “I mean this not as a joke. Even though I never met your friend Tom, my most sincere and heartfelt condolences.”

Packet 12 Allan - “That's just beautiful.”

Packet 13 - Ralph was one of the cheeriest people I met that day. He was sitting on the ground, in the shade of large tree near the bus depot. I sat with him and we chatted a bit about friends dying and the valuable lessons we can carry from them. no problem! I'm a smoker. They're all mine!

Packet 14 - I was waiting at a crosswalk when I saw Nick asking a couple of people if they had a smoke they could spare. Neither person even stopped to acknowledge him. Admittedly, he seemed surprised that I just walked over and offered him a packet of smokes. “Really? The whole packet? No, I just take one.” As I walked away, I think he was waiting for me to turn around and come back to get them. I crossed the street and turned around, and waved.

What a gift. #notastranger