Stanley Park, Lion's Gate Bridge, Yaletown, Gastown, Granville Island...these names all have meaning for me now. Queen Elizabeth Park, VanDusen Botanical Garden, Butchart Gardens in Victoria...I can now say I've been there. Whistler, Black Comb, Deep Cove, the Grouse...I can say I've hiked (and proudly say I hiked the Grind!). Ferries, buses, trains, gondolas, bicycles, kayaks, taxis and cars...you name it, I rode it (even ski lifts!). Bears, sea otters, orcas, parrots and butterflies...we saw them. Ramen, sinigang, sushi, gyros, fresh seafood and homemade chili...we ate it. When ever it was meal time and we saw a line outside a restaurant, we got into it and NEVER were we disappointed.
But in spite of all the beautiful, amazing experiences I had these past two weeks...that's not what this trip was about. My good friend (from work) invited me to spend two weeks visiting with her family in Canada. There would be a 70th birthday celebration for her mother (whom I already knew) and lots of hiking and excursions. I excitedly accepted her invitation and we booked our flights last February. In April her sister committed suicide, shocking and leaving her family with a load of guilt, grief and the resounding but never answered question: "Why?" My friend immediately flew out over Easter and spent a very stressful week with her family.
She then returned and I immediately assumed our trip would need to be canceled or at least my part of the visit. But she insisted that she wanted me, so off we went three months later, our plans unsettled to say the least.
The first 5 days we had a timeshare booked at a lovely hotel in the center of downtown. After that? Homeless? At the last minute we booked a private room and bath in someone's apartment off of a reputed website. This turned out to be a disaster as we discovered the owner did not even live in Vancouver and the room was very dirty and unsanitary. My friend's cousin picked us up the next morning at 7am (we slept in our clothes on top of the comforter) and brought us to the aunts' house...where we proceeded to spend the rest of our trip, crowded in on top of 8 other people!
This turned out to be my favorite part of the trip...being so closely knit with my friend's family. Her mother and sister were there along with an aunt and cousin from Australia. We slept on couches and air mattresses and anywhere there was an inch of room.
Getting to the heart of why this was so special: I had wondered several times before our trip, why, in all the time I've known my friend, this is the first time she has invited me to travel with her and why it just happened to be right before this tragedy struck her family. I didn't know if God wanted me there because of this recent occurrence, but I felt that for some reason, He did.
So many of them had feelings of guilt or anger, and some were afraid of how it was affecting the others in their family. I think it helped to talk about what they were thinking, individually. And God, for whatever reason, often gave me the opportunity to listen.
My friend comes from a beautiful, close-knit family with different faith backgrounds, but strong beliefs and practices. We shared many conversations between the two of us, about life after death and who God is (her faith does not believe in a triune God)...and in such an open way I never felt like I was uncomfortable or that she was put on the spot. We even, for the first time in our long friendship, actually talked about the differences in our churches and she was able to honestly ask me some questions about the Catholic Church that showed she has some knowledge of its teachings, albeit incompletely understood.
On our last full day we somehow came into possession of one of the cousin's cars. We drove out to Burnaby Mountain and hiked for three hours in the pouring rain, mountain bikers zooming past us. A chatty 75 year old man stopped us as we climbed to tell us, "Don't you know that you are gods? Every step you take forward is with your own energy, your own electricity." Partly in jest but mostly in earnest I responded, "Oh I certainly hope not! The last thing I want to find out is that I am a god." Can you imagine? Humans being the greatest or highest level there is? Yikes!
After we returned to the car, we immediately took off in the wrong direction. Since we didn't have cell phone access in Canada we were using a map we had printed off the internet. One thing led to another and with me naviguessing we found ourselves, without intent, on the very street that my friend's sister was buried on.
At first reluctantly but then with a certain peace, my friend led the way to her sister's fresh grave. As I prayed by the graveside, I resisted the impulse to make even the sign of the cross. This is hard to explain but suffice it to say that I felt I should refrain out of respect for my friend. This moment was not about me ("Look! I'm saying my Catholic prayers for your sister!")....rather it was something internal and between God and me, because after a suicide...our hope can only be that in the moment before death she was granted a great mercy of repentance.
It was such a blessing for me, similar to when I was the travel guide to Padre Pio's shrine with my friend's parents, that God allowed me to be a part of something He was so intimately a part of. I spent days with a distracted friend, an impatient friend, an anxious friend and eventually a peaceful friend. Exhausted from days of crazy activity...it was worth it in every way.
Many times I felt the need for clarity..."Lord, why am I here?" But in the end, it is as Mother Theresa once said, "I have never had clarity, what I have always had is trust."
Could someone else have counseled, prayed, helped or met the spiritual and emotional needs around me in a better way? A thousand times "Yes!" But God, for whatever reason, permitted me to be a part of this family and at such a time as this. Grateful.
Please pray for the healing of my friend and her family. And for God's great mercy on their deceased loved one.
*Quote in title from George Stanley, author of Vancouver: A Poem