October 22, 2015

Harriet’s salvation

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Harriet’s salvation Screenshot YouTube

The screen faded to black and as the music drifted into the evening air the audience sat in silence. When the lights came up in the movie theatre, two women were standing in front of the screen and the audience rose in applause.

With my wife Ria, I was attending the world premiere of the documentary Mom and Me. The two women in front of us were the stars of the movie, Harriet Durham and her daughter, the producer of the documentary, Lena MacDonald.

What we had just witnessed was an explicit documentary of redemption through the determined patience of a daughter longing for the homecoming of her prodigal mother. The story began on the streets of Toronto more than 15 years ago when Lena “lost” her mother to drugs and prostitution. Various theories were proposed as to what led Harriet to leave her husband and children and hit the streets — an ectopic pregnancy and the trauma of the operation, or the grief of a lost pregnancy which led her to question where her life was going. But in the end the theories lay silent in the presence of the eternal questions, “Why? Why now? Why me?”

It had not always been so. Time was when all was golden in Harriet’s life. She and her husband had been successful producers working for the CBC’s Fifth Estate TV program. Toronto was party city for them and they travelled extensively producing stories on drug use, gun violence and the dark underbelly of life in the world’s fast lane.

Then Harriet became the story. She hit the streets, and the streets welcomed her with ferocity. In alleys and crack houses she exchanged her pride for drugs, and ended up sleeping it off in whatever bed was offered.

At home, like the biblical loving father, Lena sat and longed for some sign of her mother appearing on the horizon. However, patience was not Lena’s strong suit. She eventually grabbed a camera and went to find her mother. This was to become an all-consuming passion, to one day rejoice in the return of her mother.

For 15 years Lena would film meetings with her mother, first on her own and then with her boyfriend as cameraman. The meetings were graphic, the language explicit. Harriet would return home from time to time, or else sober up in a shelter, before again being pulled or pushed back onto the streets.

It would not be long before the inevitable drug-laden voice message was left on Lena’s phone, “Hello Lena, it’s your mom calling. I’m just calling to say I love you. Can you give me some money?”

Lena would then search her mother’s favourite haunts, crack houses and shelters. In an encounter shown in the documentary Lena confronts her mother as she injects herself with drugs. As Lena shouts at her mother to stop it, Harriet screams back angrily, “It’s no use. I can’t do it. I will never change.”

In calmer moments, Lena faces the camera and allows her fears to escape her much-wounded heart. “I can’t do this anymore. It’s killing me.”

St. Paul said that the way to salvation is to remain “In Christ.” For Harriet, it went through Lena. Slowly and painfully the pleas of Lena began to heal the woundedness of Harriet’s heart, and Harriet began to believe in herself, and believe that freedom from drugs was possible.

In front of the theatre audience, Harriet embraced her daughter. “Lena is my hero,” she said, and in her strongest Cape Breton accent she added, “and I am pretty good too.”

To family and friends in the audience this sentiment was already shared about Harriet, but it was only beginning to be claimed as her own. She had almost four years of “clean time,” but was wise enough to know staying clean was still a daily struggle.

The path to sobriety was only one battle Harriet fought over the 15 years. Another was waged within her soul, the battle with God. She shared that battle with me from the first time I met her on a cold winter’s night nine years previously on a downtown Toronto street corner. But the story of that battle must wait until my next column.

(Robert Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: robert. kinghorn@ekinghorn.com.)

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