Category Archives: Guest Stories

Gentle Into That Good Night

I lost a longtime friend on Friday night. I hadn’t spoken with him in a couple of months. And I hadn’t seen him in longer than that – probably it was that time our families bumped into each other at the mall or the hardware store, and we all pounced on each other with hugs and kisses and promises, yet again, to get together for dinner soon.

This is the week that I regret we never cemented those plans.

We all have people in our past who meant something, who, for better or for worse, helped shaped the person we became. Ray Cohen was my first full-time boss after university. Come to think of it, he was my only full-time boss, since, after working with him for 13 years, I left to expand my own business.

For a very long time, Ray was in my life on a day-to-day basis. We went to each other’s weddings, we cheered each other’s milestones. He knew all my bad habits, I knew his. He appreciated my strengths and I truly appreciated his.

As I often remind people, we are none of us girl guides. Like any pair of colleagues, Ray and I didn’t see eye to eye on all work issues. But we were simpatico when it came to the things that mattered more: friendships, family, laughter. He had a sharp and wicked sense of humour. He was a warm hugger. He was the pal you wanted by your side in times of crisis, because he always came through.

And since this blog is about good deeds, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about one of the biggest things he ever did. Ray established the Canadian Abilities Foundation and started Abilities magazine, a publication that connected people with disabilities nationwide and linked them to information, long before there was Internet. He did this because he saw a need. He met young people with disabilities who came of age and saw their childhood services and supports fall away. Ray knew that in order to be empowered as adults with disabilities, they needed access to advice and ideas.

Ray sacrificed a secure job, moved to a new province, to try and fill the gap that he’d identified. Not only did he publish a magazine for many years, but he ultimately oversaw production of a number of disability-themed directories and online resources.

He was truly passionate about his work, so much so that the lines were constantly blurred between colleagues and friends, between after-hours meetings and social life. I know he made a difference to a whole lot of people. And that’s the legacy he leaves behind.

This week, I’m extremely sad that he’s suddenly gone. I’m sorry that we never did do that dinner date. Within 24 hours of leaving the shiva for Ray, I’d cemented plans to get together with another longtime pal and her family.

It’s not the only way to honour an old friend, but it’s a good one.

“Could we see when and where we are to meet again, we would be more tender when we bid our friends goodbye.”

“Could we see when and where we are to meet again, we would be more tender when we bid our friends goodbye.”

Swindler’s List, Part Two

On Tuesday, I wrote about handing over cash or goods even as you suspect you’re being conned. A lively discussed ensued. In the end we all seemed to agree that sometimes, hoax or not, you just help.

So let me ask you this: Do you still do the good deed when it puts your personal safety at risk? I don’t necessarily mean those moments when you’re fueled by adrenalin, like hauling a stranger out of a burning car. But what about those shady dealings when you not only are fairly sure you’ll never see your money again, but could also be harmed as you lend a hand?

Last weekend, hubby went downtown for a haircut. As many of you know, the man in my life happens to be quadriplegic. It doesn’t stop him from committing acts of kindness. But it does mean he considers the danger of a situation perhaps a little more speculatively than someone with full power in his biceps.

As Ian wheeled to his parked van after his barbershop appointment (house rule: I am prohibited from referring to it as “the hairdresser”) a raggedy man approached him. And proceeded to greet him like an old friend. “How’re you doing? I haven’t seen you for ages! Remember me from the Greek restaurant? What do you mean, which Greek restaurant? You know, the one by the bus station!” and so forth. Then the guy got to the point. He hadn’t eaten all day. He was in need of a spot of cash – twenty dollars would surely do it – and, of course, he’d pay my hubby back.

Problem is, if my husband pulls out his bills, he can’t stop someone, not even a skinny guy weak with hunger, from snatching all his money. He can’t chase a thief down the street. Once he deploys the automatic ramp to his wheelchair van, he can’t prevent someone from following him inside the vehicle. He can’t jump in ahead, lock the doors and drive away. All these thoughts go through his mind when he’s pestered by a persistent stranger.

Unwilling to take out his cash on the sidewalk, my husband made a quick decision. “I’ll come back,” he promised, and entered a nearby convenience store. There, he picked out what he hoped was a suitable lunch – the guy was missing teeth, so Ian thoughtfully chose a soft chicken wrap over a crusty sandwich – and asked the clerk to put the change from his twenty into the bag. He came out and handed it over.

The guy wasn’t exactly turning cartwheels over the free food, but he didn’t turn it down either. Especially after Ian told him there was money in there, too. He thanked him and walked away, slowly, down the street. From the corner Ian watched for a moment, saw the man peer into the bag, hoped he wouldn’t take out the lunch and toss it. But then he turned away, figuring he ought to give the man his dignity.

A sensible solution to a potentially unsafe situation, don’t you think? Have you ever taken risks to be generous?

More than just good looks… that’s my hubby.

More than just good looks… that’s my hubby.

A Gift For Froze Toes

Regular readers know that I have generous friends and kindhearted pals. Turns out many of their kids are so brimming with kindness it takes your breath away. Ema (pronounced “Emma”) is the 19-year-old daughter of an old high school chum of mine. (Yes, I’m old enough to have school friends with 19-year-old children; moving on, moving on.) On a freezing-cold night in late January, Ema, a college student in Kingston, Ontario, spotted a disheveled man out on the street wearing a tattered coat, running shoes… and no socks.

The sight shocked her. It also moved her to instant action. “I don’t even think I took a moment to process it all before I was trying to find a bench to take off my boots and give him my socks. Before I knew it, he was gone.”

After that, she says, she couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d seen. You know when you feel like you’ve just got to do something extra to make a difference? Apparently, even 19-year-olds who go to college, work a part-time job and volunteer weekly at a mission for homeless people can feel as though they’re not doing enough. This night, Ema went straight to the dollar store after work and stocked up on the toastiest socks she could find, determined to bring warmth to a few people in need. “I was in tunnel vision mode,” she says. “All the other things going on in my life just went away.”

As she forked over a few of her hard-earned dollars, the cashier remarked cheekily: “Someone must be cold.” Ema fessed up. The socks were for street people. That’s when the man next to her told her she was amazing. (“I laughed so hard,” our modest Ema says. “I wouldn’t consider myself amazing. They’re just socks.”)

Next Ema headed to a main street to hand out her new purchases. “Everyone I saw along the way was extremely thankful,” she says. “Although they were originally asking me for money and smokes, they were blown away when I gave them socks.” You can imagine how rewarding that must have felt. Ema was on her way to catch a bus home when a man stopped her and asked: “How are the socks going?” It was buddy from Dollarama. Since even he looked like he could use a hand up, Ema gifted him one of the last pairs.

“He thanked me a few times, and we went on our separate ways,” Ema recalls. “Then he yelled back at me, ‘You’re amazing, Ema! I’ll never forget this, or you!’”

If there ever was any doubt that she’s made a difference.

“I know there a lot of shelters and groups who do a larger aspect of what I did. I know it didn’t make worlds of difference,” says this sweetie. “But I helped the people I helped for one night at least. It just felt like it was what I had to do.”

And proud mom? My friend admits her daughter is often too humble to talk about the good she’s doing in her community. “There truly are so many wonderful people out there,” she says. “We may simply not know it, because we just don’t know it.” Well said.

My friends make good-hearted kids… they also make good-looking ones. Check out pretty Ema.

My friends make good-hearted kids… they also make good-looking ones. Check out pretty Ema in this awesome selfie.

Embrace Me, You Irreplaceable You

Some inventors spend their time working on a better mousetrap. My friend Ryan wants to perfect a better way to hug.

It’s not that Ryan has a problem with the conventional, tried-and-true method of hugging. It’s just that his arms don’t happen to work that way. Ryan was born with a muscular disorder called nemaline myopathy. He uses a wheelchair, among other aids. “My disability affects me in many ways,” he writes. “But in this case, I’m unable to independently raise my arms, wrap them around someone, and have them stay in place.”

Ryan is no stranger to intimate relationships – his last one lasted almost nine years – but he would like to offer something new to his next sweetheart: a full embrace.

“To me, getting a hug is like a longer-lasting kiss.” Ryan says. “After the hug, you can keep holding them, kiss them, look into their eyes. It’s a way of saying that you’re there for them and always will be.”

Ryan enjoys receiving hugs. And he hugs friends and family members with his legs. But he wants help to design a device that will somehow suspend his upper limbs in the air so that he can, for the first time in his life, squeeze them around a special someone without losing his grip.

To that end, Ryan has reached out to a non-profit organization of volunteers who create one-of-a-kind assistive devices for people with disabilities. “I realize that this project could be timely, and possibly expensive, but to me it’s worth it,” Ryan notes. “I’d love to be able to give someone that I care about a real hug, and experience another form of intimacy and closeness.” A hugging machine, he feels, will allow him to do that.

Plus, of course, hugs are good for the health. My friend Ryan is all about giving back.

Arms open wide… Ryan is going for it.

Arms open wide… Ryan is going for it.

“I’ll Need a Volunteer”

You know me as a blogger who doesn’t get paid a cent for writing cheeky stories about cheery news. But in my real life, where I have a mortgage, eat groceries and use light switches, I work as a freelance writer. Often these worlds collide. While researching an upcoming magazine article about Thunder Bay, I discovered a 60-second film about volunteering. You’ll want to watch this. I found it uplifting – but bittersweetly, once I learned that the starring actor, Thunder Bay resident Jari Sarkka, lost his life three weeks ago. Not only did Jari portray an active community volunteer on film, he actually lived it. So here’s to you, Jari. Thanks for the inspiration.

“Kids, just go out and do your best”: A kind soul doing what kind souls do best.

“Kids, just go out and do your best”: A kind soul doing what kind souls do best.

Now We’re Cooking

A friend of mine teaches at a college-level chef school. A couple of weeks ago, she posted an appeal on Facebook. It seems a pupil of hers, passionate about all things fried and fricasseed, was in dire need of a part-time job. He’s a promising culinary student, but had gotten his first degree at the School of Hard Knox and currently called a shelter his home. “I really want to help him get started,” my friend wrote. “If there is anyone that knows of someone that is hiring part time cooks somewhere in Toronto, please let me know.”

A string of supportive replies followed, including one from a guy I’ll call Z, which read: “I can make this happen. Message me with a phone number I can call you with.” Another friend, M, was apparently so touched by the entire exchange that she wrote a blanket thank-you to everyone’s awesomeness.

And things did happen. Less than 10 days later, my friend wrote this exuberant-sounding update, with a shout-out to the chef who made a dream come true: “I am happy to say that thanks to Z, he is now gainfully employed! …My fingers are crossed that he has found his calling.”

I’m with M. This was an incredible show. A college instructor who cared enough to put her neck out, a guy who pulled a few strings, and a life potentially steered in a positive direction. When folks pull together, awesomeness ensures.

Lucky Strike

As we approach the end of the year, it’s normal to take stock of just what kind of year it’s been. Has it been lucky? Have you had a team of invisible angels laying four-leaf clovers everywhere you step? More likely you’ve had your share of challenges mixed in with the triumphs. Perhaps you’ve had problems at work, or grappled with health issues, or been bereaved. Such is the way life pummels us from time to time.

But if you’re like my friend Brandie, you’re able to decipher and feel grateful for the moments of pure pudding. Because you know you’ve had them. Human nature is such that we are almost always in contact with well-meaning pals, and well-meaning people we’ve never even met.

I know Brandie recognizes this, because she made her sentiments known on Facebook this week. “In some ways 2012 hasn’t been the easiest year,” she wrote. “But I also have to acknowledge that it’s the year I left a purse full of cash and cheques on the subway and got it back, lost my car keys in the snow and had them turned in by a ski lift operator, misplaced my iPhone and found it, and – yesterday – recovered my bank card from the florist. Thank you, universe.”

And thanks, kindness of strangers. I might add cheekily that if a person routinely carries around a purse packed with cash and cheques, if they have both the means and the mobility to ski on their leisure time – if they own an iPhone and a bank card, for that matter – they could be worse off than all that. (I recommend this “First World Problems” video if you really want to feel like a dung beetle for ever complaining about your caffe latte being too sweet or your Internet connection too sluggish.)

It’s not easy to struggle, and we all do. But it’s also not a bad idea to make like Brandie, and take time to appreciate when things actually do turn out for us.

Good Buy

My friend Kevin is still buzzing after an encounter at the grocery store left him gobsmacked – and his pantry a little better stocked.

He was at his neighbourhood Sobey’s in Halifax, picking up a few essential items. Kevin knows these aisles and he was making good time, even hoping to make it back home before the six o-clock news. “I was doing very well, I thought, in and out!” he says.

Once at checkout, Kevin qualified for the express lane and remained optimistic. He started chatting in line (as we all tend to do) with the woman ahead of him. My friend ascertained that the woman was from Vancouver, in town to visit her kid at Dalhousie University, and had stopped in at Sobey’s to “load up the larder” for said daughter and roommates.

As they talked, the lady helped him unpack his shopping basket (Kevin, incidentally, has a disability). But when it came time for my pal to pony up for his purchases, he was suddenly at a loss. Literally. With a sinking feeling, he realized his wallet was still at home.

You know where this is going, don’t you? Well, maybe you didn’t predict the part about Kevin’s involuntary cuss words and crimson blushes. But you probably guessed that the woman would come through. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll get them for you!” Above Kevin’s protests, and with a complete calm, she shelled out for his grocery bill.

“I was completely blown away by her kindness. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen any more… but it did!” Kevin says. (Now, faithful reader, you and I know that this kind of thing happens exactly all the time, don’t we?)

“She made my day – indeed my week, especially since I’d had a horrible time the day before,” Kevin added.

“Here is another incidence of generosity prevailing in this cynical, tired old world!”

Man with bagpipes performing at microphone

…And here’s Kevin contributing in his own special way to the wedding day of my husband and me, many years ago. Kindness – and talent – abound.

What Goes Around…

Have you ever had one of those perpetual verbal exchanges of gratitude – you know, where you start off with “thank you,” and the other person says, “no, no, thank you,” and you insist, “no, thank you,” and she butts back in, ”really, thank you,” and there’s apparently no end in sight?

My husband’s place of work held an AGM recently. And when his colleague wrote to thank the caterer – the food, after all, was awfully tasty – the response was glowing.

“Thank you so much for your email!” wrote back Jane, the corporate functions manager at Pappas Grill in Toronto. Then she added: “I have to tell you that I was touched when I realized what your organization is all about.” (For those not in the know, hubby’s agency provides peer support, info and empowerment to people with disabilities.)

“I have a brother who is deaf,” Jane wrote. “…I know that without the services of organizations such as yours it would have made his life a whole lot more difficult. All of you are very special, and what you give to the community is immeasurable.”

When a thank you in response to a thank you makes you feverish with warm fuzzies, it’s the sort of letter that is sure to get forwarded all over the office. That’s in fact how I heard about it. And when I contacted Jane to ask if I might publicly share her kind words, she agreed, then confided that she had been moved to tears after meeting the folks at my husband’s workplace and learning what they do.

“We often lose sight of the things that we have to be grateful for in this life,” she told me. “We all have our own personal challenges, some more than others. It’s a blessing that there are people in this world who dedicate their lives to helping others in need.”

It’s true. We’re lucky to have folks devoted to helping us. And I think that’s true whether or not we have disabilities, or enough to eat, or a roof over our heads. As I mentioned just this week, I have friends who make sure my family gets a Thanksgiving dinner invitation. I have another neighbour committed to keeping my lawn from getting overgrown. I have other pals who pitch in without waiting to be asked. I have colleagues who are generous with their time and support. I have family members who are dedicated to easing my burdens in whatever way they can.

So to all you people in this world who spend time and energy assisting those in need, thank you. No, thank you. Really, I insist, thank you.

You get the idea.

Restaurant scene

Table for four… who’s with me?

Out of Work but in the Zone

I received a phonecall from a friend of mine this weekend. Her husband lost his job. He had no warning. The family of four is devastated, not knowing how they’ll meet their monthly expenses, wondering how they can cut back.

A day later, I saw what she’d posted on her Facebook page. Was she pity-partying (“Need a hug, we’re unemployed now“) or, worse, vaguebooking (“My world is crumbling…”)?

Nope. My open-hearted friend was posting instead about the charity event she and her family had participated in over the weekend. She used the adjective “amazing” liberally. She sounded exhuberant.

And why shouldn’t she be? Contributing to a cause can help you cope with those events that smack you across the face. It can distract you, remind you that while you’re dealing with a job loss – or an aging parent or a bully boss or a diet fail – you’re not the only one who’s struggling. And, of course, there’s that kindness kickback, that feeling a few notches better just because you know you’re making a difference.

So, today’s advice to the job seekers: File away your ROE, sure. Update your resume, naturally. Submit your applications where appropriate, of course.

Then go get high on helping.