Stories that stay with you

When you write for a liv­ing, you enjoy each story as you work on it. But once it’s pub­lished, it’s on to the next one. That’s the way it hap­pens most of the time. But some stor­ies stay with you. They become a part of you just like your shad­ow on a sunny day.

A couple of years ago pho­to­graph­er Barry Peterson and I cre­ated a photo-journ­al­ism pro­ject called On the Edge. We invited people liv­ing on the edge of main­stream soci­ety to let us  pho­to­graph and inter­view them. They reviewed the text and picked out a photo and Barry framed them.

All togeth­er we inter­viewed 15 people. Their stor­ies touched me in a way I nev­er ima­gined and forever changed my thoughts about home­less and street people. The stor­ies con­tained heartache, ill­ness and tragedy. But there was also a love story, humour and hope.

I had seen Kevin before I met him. He often sat in his wheel­chair on the edge of the Superstore park­ing lot look­ing out over a field. But what struck me most was the flock of seagulls that were always with him. Sometimes they were perched on nearby build­ings but often they sat on the pave­ment very close to Kevin.

We inter­viewed and pho­to­graphed Kevin behind Superstore. That’s when I found out that he fed the birds on a reg­u­lar basis. It was fas­cin­at­ing; he knew all the birds as indi­vidu­als and filled me in on their dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity traits and the ins and outs of the seagull hier­archy.

Kevin was warm, funny, smart and com­pas­sion­ate. But what really impressed me was his abil­ity and will­ing­ness to help oth­ers even when he was in need of assist­ance him­self.

Somewhere near Superstore Kevin met a couple who had been home­less but were now housed. They became close friends and vis­ited often. Like many on the edge folk, this couple deals with phys­ic­al and emo­tion­al prob­lems on an ongo­ing basis.

Kevin was always there to listen and offer encour­age­ment and sup­port. The couple was — and still are — dev­ast­ated that Kevin is no longer here.

About a year after Kevin died, a woman in Calif. tracked me down. In a series of emails she told me how Kevin had trav­elled with her fam­ily in the US and Canada when she was young.

It was a hard time for her fam­ily as her fath­er was begin­ning to exhib­it signs of men­tal ill­ness and became abus­ive towards her moth­er and even his good friend Kevin. She said Kevin helped her and her broth­er by teach­ing them about birds, to play the gui­tar and just being a stable, caring per­son.

She said he stayed with them even after her dad became abus­ive just so he could help out.

Now in her 30s, she had been look­ing for Kevin for years so she could tell him how much he meant to her and her broth­er and how much he had influ­enced their lives. They still study birds and she plays the gui­tar pro­fes­sion­ally.

Earlier this month the On the Edge show was dis­played in shop win­dows on the main street of Courtenay. Kevin’s photo and story were at The Golfer’s Edge and the own­er told me that Kevin used to be the doc­tor of one of his employ­ees.

Many people were intrigued by the stor­ies and pho­to­graphs but Kevin’s made the strongest impact. His is the story that reaches out to people and makes them aware that, giv­en the right cir­cum­stances, any­thing can hap­pen to any­one.

Kevin, age 58 
“There are three things that will do a per­son in: poverty, men­tal ill­ness and phys­ic­al dis­ab­il­ity,” explains Kevin. “You can live with one or two for a while but when you have all three, you’ll nev­er get back what you’ve lost.”

For more than 30 years Kevin was a med­ic­al doc­tor in east­ern Canada and BC. He enjoyed the chal­lenge of remote loc­a­tions and being on call 247. His favour­ite pos­i­tion was as a health con­sult­ant and lands claims assist­ant for the Inuit in Labrador. He’d work, earn a grubstake and then spend time hik­ing, kayak­ing and trav­el­ling.

Kevin also worked on many Canadian mil­it­ary bases includ­ing CFB Comox and, after mov­ing to the Comox  Valley in 1991, was phys­i­cian for sea cadets train­ing at HMCS Quadra for ten sum­mers. He often bought books to donate to day­cares, sent care pack­ages to Labrador and bought a spe­cial TV for a nearly blind girl. He even gave a home­less fel­low
known as “Bob the Bum” $500 to buy a van that Bob lived in for a time.

Tormented by bouts of depres­sion since he was 27, Kevin suffered a major relapse in 2004 that cost him his med­ic­al license. His phys­ic­al health deteri­or­ated leav­ing him par­tially blind, hard of hear­ing and with high blood pres­sure. Then his left leg was ampu­tated due to com­plic­a­tions from dia­betes.

Last winter Kevin was isol­ated in his small apart­ment by the heavy snow­fall, mal­nour­ished and depressed about the loss of his leg. A scratch on his thumb got infec­ted. When the fin­ger was lit­er­ally hanging in two, he cut it off him­self. A short while later, his second leg developed gan­grene and was ampu­tated. Chronic pain is a con­stant com­pan­ion.

Kevin behind Superstore

I used to earn $10,000 a week, now that’s the annu­al total of my dis­ab­il­ity pen­sion,” says Kevin. “My sav­ings are gone; I don’t know where I’d be without the sis­ter and aunt that help me out.”

Even so, he still man­ages to dis­trib­ute small gifts to hos­pit­al res­id­ents dur­ing the hol­i­days and reg­u­larly feeds the birds that hang around Superstore.

Now the home­less and poor are my peers instead of doc­tors and law­yers,”
he says. “I try to laugh a lot and make the best of things.”

 

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