A life of prostitution and drug use took its toll on “Mary” as well as people around her. CNS photo illustration/Lisa Johnston

Comment: Meet 'Mary' ... my friend

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  • May 19, 2017

The request was simple: “I’m going south for a week, could you give me a ride to the airport and pick me up on my way back?”

I had known “Mary” for over a year and at this point we could call one another friends, although she persisted in her chosen profession of prostitution to support her serious drug habit.

Now “friend” is a dangerous designation to confer on anyone on the street. I remember my friend Deacon Mike Walsh talking of the implications. He asked rhetorically, “What do you do for a friend? You give them your phone number, you invite them to your home. Are you ready to do this?”

This young woman had already fulfilled all these requirements, and had been absorbed into our family gatherings at birthdays, Easter and Christmas.

Despite this, I was wary of agreeing too readily to her request. She did after all have a history of associating with drug dealers and importers, and so I proceeded to cross examine her with a skill and a tenacity which would have made Johnnie Cochran proud.

“Are there drugs involved in this trip? Who are you meeting? Where exactly are you staying?”

She passed my lie detector test, and so I accepted her request.

I received periodic text updates on her trip, but it became clear as the week progressed that her health was deteriorating rapidly. She had a history of both diagnosed and undiagnosed illnesses, and had accumulated many “frequent flyer miles” to the emergency department of St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto.

When the evening came to pick her up, I left the house for the scheduled 10:30 p.m. arrival, but was interrupted on the drive with a voice message: “Just landed, get here quick. I feel terrible.” This was shortly followed with a further update, “I’ve been pulled over in customs. They have looked at my record and want to search me. Get here quick, I’m dying.”

Despite her tendency to exaggerate, I was beginning to feel that this time it was serious.

I pulled into the airport, parked in an almost empty car park and ran to the arrivals where I was greeted with a further text. “They let me go, I am making my way to arrivals.”

It was now midnight and arrivals was empty, save for a few cleaners mopping the floors. When the doors opened, I saw her stagger out, looking completely disoriented. She came down the ramp, swore at me and started walking in the opposite direction to the garage. I shouted at her, which may have included an expletive, grabbed her arm and pulled her in my direction. Again she swore and I could see by looking in her face that she was delirious.

I had to make a quick decision. Do I call for security who will put her in an ambulance to take her to the local hospital, or do I drive her to St. Michael’s Hospital where both she and her medical history are well known? I decided on the latter course of action and, holding her arm tightly, walked her to a batch of wheelchairs. I pushed her into the chair and made my way to the garage, guiding the wheelchair with one hand and carrying her backpack and suitcase in the other.

She passed out as we pulled out of the parking lot for the 30-minute trip to the hospital. As I drove, I continually shook her arm to keep her awake and I gave her a running commentary on where we were. With each landmark, I was assailed by a barrage of expletives which could loosely be translated as, “I have little concern for this useless information. I do wish you would let me sleep.”

Reaching the hospital, I carried her to admissions and shouted, “Quick, here is her ID. I’m going to park the car.”

And so the vigil began, which ended three hours later as the doctor came to give us his diagnosis. Indeed, she had been close to death, but they had finally diagnosed some of her previously undiagnosed problems and they were all treatable. However, there was still the large “elephant in the room,” that if she continued her drug habit the respite she was now enjoying could be brief. The choice was hers and, to a large extent, mine. Was I willing to call her my friend, come what may?

Several weeks later, I picked up a remarkably healthy looking young woman, hardly recognizable from the one I had driven to emergency. Considering she had lived a precarious life of substance abuse and drug-induced visits to the emergency room, this was a testament to the skill of the medical profession that had provided her with one more tenuous grasp on sobriety. Upon discharge, the doctor again warned her of the Russian roulette she was playing if she persisted in her drug habit, but like a cat with a few lives to spare, her instinct was to get out as soon as possible and to let the future take care of itself.

Over the next couple of years, we continued to meet regularly, during which periods of hopeful sobriety were interspersed with a renewed descent into the abyss of drug use. They say, “It takes what it takes to get clean,” but after 10 years on the street she still had to be confronted by her moment of truth. She certainly had tried, but time and again the brutal reality of her upbringing had beaten back her nascent dreams of a new life.

I had not seen her for a few weeks when suddenly she reappeared and met with me in the downtown park that harboured many of those who are unjustly labelled the flotsam and jetsam of society — unwanted on voyage and hence disposable. She appeared unusually clean of drugs this particular evening, but I thought that like Mary the mother of Jesus, I should “ponder all these things in my heart” and not mention it. After a long and unusual period of silence, she turned to me and said, “I have news for you. I am pregnant.”

It was not her first child, but the others had long since been given up for adoption.

“So, what are you planning to do?” I asked. “You know Ria (my wife) and I will support you if you keep the child.”

“Of course I am going to keep the child,” she said. “I don’t believe in abortion.”

And so began a journey into renewed sobriety, focused on a future which would attempt to reclaim the innocence of a young woman who once had dreams of motherhood, stable housing, employment and college. The assistance she obtained from Family Services was exceptional as they progressively housed her in locations which supported her journey towards independence — each time moved by Deacon Kinghorn Free Van Service. By this time my family, extended family and friends had been co-opted into the support team in order to round up furniture and clothing.

While all this was going on, my wife and I were looking forward to the birth of our first grandchild. The phone call finally came from our son and early one morning we went to hold our first grandchild. Excitedly we returned home and relaxed in thanksgiving for the safe entrance into the world of Breccan Fox Kinghorn. However, our relaxation lasted but a few brief hours. The phone again rang, and it was the social worker looking after Mary.

“Mary asked me to call you and let you know she has just had a son.”

“Oh no,” I thought. “I can’t take this, a grandfather twice in the same day.”

True, one child was not really my grandson, but Mary had become like a daughter over these years and I thought over Deacon Walsh’s rhetorical question, “What do you do for a friend?”

It has been six years since the births and I am happy so say both children are growing into fine young men. Mary has reached three of her goals: motherhood, stable housing and employment, and the fourth, college, is on the horizon. There is much credit to go around in this transformation. Prayers have stormed Heaven from the Friends of the Street group at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, and the Christian community has rallied around.

However, grace builds upon nature, and Mary has to be justifiably proud of her decision to keep the child and to step courageously into an unknown future.

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

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