There was this girl. She was 14 years old. Skinny as a rake and absolutely beautiful. She smiled and laughed and had an utterly wicked, sharp sense of humour. I met her about 15 years ago.
I was working in a group home for teens, who had a wide variety of difficulties, but mostly behavioural and familial. She came to us on a Friday night, late, having been picked up by the police in downtown Ottawa. I met her Saturday morning when her social worker came to see her and do all the necessary paperwork. While the worker and the full time staff (I was there part time) did the paper work, she and I went into the living room to do a clothing and belongings inventory. The worker had brought about three big blue containers with all her stuff in them. This girl had been living at another home, but kept running away. So now she was with us, at our house which tended to specialize in short term, stabilization placements.
So there we were with three large bins filled with clothes. We needed to count and log how many of each type of clothing she had, so that when she eventually moved out, we’d be able to make sure she had all her stuff. I decided that the best way to do it, would be to have her tip everything out onto the floor and separate them by type and the. We could count them together. She was game, and so we began. Pants, tops, socks, bras and underwear, there were many piles. So I set her to counting. She was a little sheepish/shy when it came to the bras and underwear. I assured her that A: I would not be going near them and B: we didn’t need to write what type of underwear or bras there were, we just needed the numbers. At was the first time I heard her laugh. It was awesome. So she counted the bras. As she finished I noticed, in the underwear pile, what I assumed were the straps to a bra she’d put in the wrong pile. I hooked it with the toe of my boot and told her she missed one. As I began to lift it up, she blushed to the roots of her hair, and quickly said “no that’s a thong.” What I’d thought were the little straps on a 14 year old’s bra, were the many, many little straps on a very tiny, 14 year old’s, black thong. I blushed a bit too. I looked at the pile of undies again and noticed, for the first time, that they were all thongs. At 26 I’d seen a couple thongs. Granted, once they were on the floor, I paid them very little mind, but at the time I could safely say that I’d never seen underwear that was designed to cover as little as possible. Until then. She quickly said “That’s all I have.” and then just as quickly counted them.
Despite being 14, her life to that point, had given her a somewhat adult manner. Mature isn’t the right word for it, but she’s clearly been around older people a lot, and knowing some of her history, she’d been around a lot of adult situations. She ran away from the other homes she’d been placed in and spent a lot of time skipping school. So much so that the local school didn’t even want to register her again; so she spent a lot of time one-on-one with the staff during the day.
I spent September 1st, 2001 with her. We watched the towers fall, live on tv. I was on the day shift and had managed to get the other residents off to school. She still wasn’t registered for school, so was helping with chores around the house. Needless to say, little work got done that day. We sat in the living room together, in stunned silence, for a long time. We had some lengthy conversations it that afternoon and on several other occasions. She was compassionate and surprisingly insightful about the ramifications of that event.
She was serious and thoughtful a lot of the time. She’d play peace maker between other kids, and much like the staff, seemed to have a really hard time understanding how they could get so worked up over such stupid and small things. This definitely endeared her to the staff.
We were the first house that she didn’t run away from. I think we have her a stability that she was lacking and I think the she connected with some of the staff in such a way that she felt safe for the first time in a long time. She was so very much a child and capable of amazing silliness and fits of giggles and always willing to have fun.
One evening, my coworker and I were having the kids do after dinner chores. Our girl needed to tidy the bathroom, upstairs. My coworker was leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. When the girl started up the stairs, the staff turned the light in for her. The girl was surprised as the light seemed to go on by itself. When she asked how the light went on, my coworker told her that the motion sensors in the upstairs hall also controlled the lights. She proved it by turning the lights off again when the girl descended. She thought that was amazing and was equally amazed that she’d never noticed it before. She excitedly asked the other kids if they’d know that and excitedly explained to them about the motion sensor on the lights. My coworker shifted a bit so the she was simply covering the switch with her back and could turn the lights on or off with a slight move. No chores were completed that night. We spent a solid hour turning the lights on and off. At times, they needed to not just walk up the stairs, but wave their arms around because sometimes the sensitivity was off on the sensor. Sometimes it stopped working. I showed them that there was a spot halfway up the stairs, where if you tapped the wall just right, it would work again (due to a loose wire). Throughout she led the charge, laughing and smiling the entire time.
Along those same lines, she helped us convince a couple of the kids that we had a stray cat living in the wood burning stove we had. The stove was never used. She quietly made meow noises while we spin a tale of the poor cat who lived in the stove.
I think that the most enduring memory/story I have about her, from those days, was the Nair incident. She hated her body hair, what little there was of it. She’d been taught/convinced by some older men and some women, that body hair was no good. She’d never shaved before. So, she asked for some Nair, which we had because many of the kids we dealt with were not allowed to have razors. We thought nothing of it, until we heard her crying. My female coworker went into the washroom to see what was wrong. My friend had applied Nair to her body, from the neck down to her ankles. The only thing I could hear her saying was “it burns!” She looked like she had a full body sun burn for a few days after that. I can’t even begin to describe the smell that was up in the bathroom that day.
She was moved to long term homes several times over the 4 years that I worked there. As soon as she’d settled into the new house, she’d start running. She’d stay gone long enough to be discharged from the house and would then end up back with us. The boss decided, after the third time, to let her stay with us. We were happy to have her and she was always happier too. I think we made her feel safe.
Eventually I moved on. Briefly to Cornwall and then back to Ottawa, but I was done working in group homes. A few years later she tracked me down and showed up at my work to visit. I’d had no idea how much I missed her until I saw her again. Over the next year or so, she’d stop by and visit, filling me in a bit on what she’d been up to. During one of these visits she told me that I’d been very much like a father to her. She said it was because we had these childish and fun memories together and that when she thought of some of the childish fun she’d had, I was a part of that. By this point I’d actually become a father and was very much learning how it felt to know that I would be caring for someone for the rest of my life. When she talked about that, I realized that, in a small way, I already felt that way. I cared for her, very much and knew that I always would. That’s when I realized that she was my friend and that I hoped she always would be.
We stayed in touch. Mostly through social media and texting, but steadily. She knew of my passion for photography and we would spend time talking about that and about playing beautiful and elaborate shoots where she would be the model. We never actually managed to get around to it, but it was always fun to plan them. She’d ask me for parenting advice and occasionally use me as a sounding board for how to handle difficult men in her life.
I realize now that for all of what I knew about her, which was a lot, there was so much that I didn’t know. I knew that her emotions were always strong and near the surface. I knew that she could be brought very low. I knew that sometimes she was very much in pain. I didn’t know how much.
A few days ago, my friend took her own life.
I am going to miss her terribly. I am going to remember her fondly.