The Invisible One

We almost missed her. She was so quiet. So still. Face looking down, way down to the rocks that shored up the pillar far below. Feet stepped up, balanced on a ledge between the rungs of metal fencing. Face calm. Expression flat.

There, but not there.

Too often I see titles in the newspapers about our Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in Canada. Its purpose is to listen, give voice to, and in the process attempt to heal, the huge rift in our society caused by deep wrong-doing by our government decades ago to the indigenous population here: from taking away land and forcing people onto reserves, irreparably changing and obliterating the way of life of a nomadic people to forcing assimilation by outlawing expressions of cultural heritage, and pulling children from homes and families and sending them far, far away to residential schools where many experienced horrific isolation and abuse. It is far more than I can bear to read about over and over again in the news.

And so I callously choose not to read about it and turn a blind eye. And in my sheltered life, I rarely see or feel or encounter the ripple effect of this black spot on the history of our nation.

This week, I had to face it.

Looking back on Vancouver from Granville Island.

We were in Vancouver, probably the most beautiful city in all of Canada, for Bill’s work. Tucked into the coastal mountains it is a modern city full of glass and steel skyscrapers, tulip beds and cherry blossomed trees, fascinating architecture, a vibrant downtown, beautiful parks and 2.4 million people.

With this late spring season this year, the flowering trees were in full bloom in the city’s parks when we were there.
Looking back on Vancouver’s downtown from Stanley Park.

We had added on an extra day at the end of the event to relax and explore the beautiful city. Even though we were in an urban setting, we decided to do a long hike (that comes as no surprise to those of you who know how much we love hiking!).

Within the city limits are huge green spaces like Stanley Park, seen partially in this photo as we looked back on downtown from the Lions Gate Bridge.

A full-on day hike from downtown up through Stanley Park, across Burrard Inlet on an incredible suspension bridge, then up the river that divides West Van from North Van up to the city’s huge water reservoir, the Cleveland Dam, and then back would be just right. The plan: strap on comfy shoes, pack our raincoats, pick up a Whole Foods picnic lunch, and explore the urban landscape and some of its spectacular parkland gems.

Part of that journey took us across the Lions Gate Bridge. An impressive, engineering marvel of a suspension bridge it arches gracefully from the peninsula created by Stanley Park over Burrard Inlet, high enough to let gigantic ocean freighters pass below, over to the city’s north shore.

The bridge as seen from the lookout point on the downtown side of Burrard Inlet.
The Lions Gate Bridge is one of the main commuter ways (for bike & car) in and out of downtown.
As we started across the bridge, we saw this sign… and it soon became apparent why, as the traffic noise was loud!
The Lions Gate Bridge as seen from below on the seawall trail of Stanley Park.

Had I not wanted us to poke about on the trails in Stanley Park instead of doing the direct route, we’d have crossed too soon, and…

We’d have missed her. 

Had Bill not wanted us to take photos from the east side of the bridge where he was convinced there’d be better views back of the city, instead of the west side that we were set to traipse across…

We’d have missed her.

Had we ridden bikes or rented a car, and not been on foot…

We’d have missed her.

Had we not…. well, there’s any number of permutations possible here….

However we spin it we were, for whatever reason or by whatever design, in the right place at the right time, there to take notice.

It was a surreal scene. She was surrounded by so many people and so much activity, and yet she was alone. Hoards passed her by, and there’s no way they’d have seen her. Tight automobile traffic, intent on the narrow lanes and the volume of vehicles in the bridge roared by, just a few meters away. Fast bicycle commuters zoomed by, just feet away from where she stood.

Isolated, she was surrounded by humanity.

Tucked into a jog in the path that went around one of the massive bridge supports, she was literally invisible. Unless you were on foot. Unless you were acting like a tourist, with constant glances back over our shoulders to take in the views of the downtown as we were.

Was she going to jump? We’ll never truly know.

But what we do know is that we were able to stop and ask if she was ok.

We knew that we could find a dignified way to get her to step down off those bars.

We knew, if only in those immediate moments, that we could somehow find a way to convey that even strangers can care about her.

We knew we were there to wait her out until she could find the words to give us first her name and then, eventually, the name of a person she trusted us to call.

We knew that despite our best attempts, she did not want to talk to us. Fair enough.

We knew that she somehow found the strength to step down off that metal fence and to walk with us on that long, slow journey off the bridge. One foot in front of the next.

Bill hung back trying in vain to reach a suicide hotline live body. Three times he got only an answering machine. He hung back, giving me the space to work with her, thinking female-to-female might be best until she found the words to give me simply the first name and the phone number of someone to call.

It was far too noisy to call from the bridge, and we SO wanted her on terra firma. So we waited to call until we’d touched down on the other side of the inlet. Bill and I communicating in glances & gestures.

Having dialled the number she gave me, and thinking I was calling a friend, I was surprised to reach the voice mail of Annalee, a UNYA Mediation Counsellor. I left a message, then looked up the organization (Urban Native Youth Association) and called the main switchboard. (Thank goodness we walk around with little hand held computers in our phones these days!) Ultimately they were able to find Annalee, the person she had identified.

Annalee talked to her by phone for a while, while Bill and I waited out of earshot, giving her privacy. Annalee must have worked some magic as she was better, more full of life when she handed me back the phone. Annalee told us she’d drop everything, cancel her afternoon appointments and work with her. We were to put her in a cab that would take her to the centre. Annalee was confident she’d get there and come in to see her, and not flee.

We arranged for a cab to come and get her, saw her off and wished her luck with what I was adamant to call her “fresh start.” And then we continued our walk, and boy, did we need a long walk more than ever to process that intense event.

About an hour later, we got a text saying that she was there, and that things were going well. Thank goodness!

Did we handle this perfectly? Most likely not. 

But we muddled through it, guided by instinct, and a strong sense that this girl would be more successful if she could connect with someone she knew. More empowered. More grounded. And that the experience would be more dignified without the jarring noise of sirens and the unwanted attention and stares of people passing through a traffic jam that would have come from a 911 call.

The Cleveland Dam as seen from above… where we were when the text came in… rather ironic, I think.

Landscapes, especially large urban ones, come with their beautiful and their scarred features. As it is, even on a mountain top or ridge walk, if you look closely, if you really see your surroundings, you can be in for some incredible experiences. Be it on a huge expanse of steel and concrete, an engineering miracle that inspires some and acts as a pinnacle of despair for others; or be it on a peaceful hike through a redwood forest… big landscapes are incredible things.

Our hike through the forest afterward took us past beautiful scenes like this.

The opportunities we have in landscapes, and in life, are so full of potential. In short, this life is an incredible gift. I will never look at suspension bridges the same way again. But I say that without dismay, sorrow, regret or remorse.

Organizations like UNYA exist to help aboriginal youth navigate this crazy world and come to terms with their challenges, and often their highly difficult life circumstances.

The main point I’m trying to make is that I’m so very grateful that people like Annalee do the incredible jobs that they do. Annalee had built up a relationship filled with trust with this young girl. She had forged a powerful connection. And that is no small feat. That is what saved her here.

May your adventures take you unexpected places and may you find yourself changed in the process.

For more posts about our Vancouver trip, please go to the Vancouver Travel section of my blog. And for other places we’ve been around the world, poke about under the Travel tab of my Blog.

16 Comments on “The Invisible One

  1. I lost for words. You and Bill were at the right place at the right time indeed. I think you have saved her life by not calling 911. Thanks for sharing the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. Incredible story. Relationship is so important as you said. I’m glad you were there for her. I don’t believe in coincidences… you were just the right people to escort her to safety.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow. What an amazing powerful story. It was providence you were there. Thank you for saving someone’s friend, someone’s daughter – you didn’t just save one life that day. I can only imagine the emotion you carried with you for the remainder of the day and maybe still today. Thank you for sharing, and for stopping.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank-you. That emotion is still there and will be for a while. I wasn’t sure if I should write about it… well, that’s not exactly true… I knew I had to write about it as writing is a creative outlet for me and an important part of coming to terms with the intensity of the experience… it was sharing that I wasn’t sure about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am glad you shared. How often do we look past those who need help. Your story has made me stop and look and help if needed. Not in the same way as your instance – but reaching out to others in need is the greatest gift we have to share. Thank you again!


  4. Doing your best is always the perfect solution for the moment, even if it’s possible there was a more optimal solution (and I don’t know what more you could have done.) Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The first thing I want to say is – you did well. The second thing is – lucky,lucky ,lucky. Lucky you came along when you did. Lucky there were two of you. Lucky you said the right thing. Lucky the woman at the agency eventually picked up the phone. Lucky ( for you) she could be swayed and talked down. Sheri I read this a few mornings ago when you posted it. Speechless , I didn’t know what to say. i wonder what your first comment to her was….
    This is an amazing story and huge. You did a great job, full stop. Not sure if you would normally get more people commenting on post, if you do I think many have not responded because it is outside many people’s realm of reality.
    Dressing gowns and pjs night be a good thing for everyone settling down and working out this story.
    Kisses to you both.Louise


    • Thanks, Louise. I said nothing profound, I just held my finger up to my hubby as if to say “hold on a sec.” (He told me afterwards that he hadn’t even noticed her there and wondered what I was doing.) Then I stepped right up to the railing beside her and said, “How are you doing? Are you doing ok?” And then waited her out. I looked down where she was looking and then back at her and said, “How about you come and walk down off the bridge with us?” It was then that she turned and looked at me and tears started to roll silently down her cheeks. It still took a long time to convince her to step down and come with us, but I promise you that nothing I said was extraordinary.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my goodness, Louise! What a brave man! I have goosebumps reading this! I found it so hard to do this once. I can’t imagine the courage this man could call up, the personal strength reserves he must have had, the presence of mind (not to mention the huge heart) to do this again and again and again. What an incredible man! And to think that he sold life insurance as a profession! The irony in that leaves me smiling. I wish that like him, I could have brought her back to my home for tea and cookies… I did, in fact, offer her food (cookies too!) from our picnic lunch, but it’s just not the same sitting on a concrete barrier! Lol. Thanks so much for sharing this, Louise. What a man! Wow.

      Liked by 1 person

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