It Takes A Village

It takes a village.

When my daughter learned she had been selected as one of the 2018 Top 50 Under 50 in our community, this is what I said to her.

My daughter grew up in Fort McMurray. I always knew her future would likely take her away from this community, and so it has as she studies engineering in the sunny and warm community of Kelowna. But while she has left Fort McMurray, it has never left her.

When she first started university, she was asked to deliver a speech to the incoming students who were recipients of major scholarships. When she told me the focus of her speech, I recall feeling such pride; her speech was not about her accomplishments or her plans of future career success.

Instead she spoke about her excitement over what she hoped to be able to contribute to her new community.

And I have no doubt that is because she grew up here, a place that prides itself on contribution – to our national economy, to our social profits, to philanthropy in general and to each other.

When she was named one of the Top 50 Under 50, I knew she would see it as an honour – and a challenge. After all, we can sit on our accolades or we can build on them, choosing to continue to strive to achieve more; and not just for ourselves but for the benefit of others, including the communities in which we reside.

I am pleased to say she is very active in her university community; she serves on the executive of several student organizations while continuing to pursue her degree, because she knows life is about more than jobs and degrees and personal success.

Life is about service to others.

Fort McMurray, the honour my daughter received isn’t hers alone. It belongs to all of you, as you are the village that raised her. It belongs to the Fort McMurray Public School District and Beacon Hill School and Ecole McTavish and Westwood; it belongs to the Fort McMurray SPCA and the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and the Centre of Hope; it belongs to the Westwood GSA; it belongs to all the adults and kids who touched her life when she was growing up and who contributed to who she has become.

And yes, I am proud of my daughter. But I am also proud of Fort McMurray, the kind of place that raises kids like mine and so many more, who take what they learned about contributing in their home town and use that knowledge as a launch pad to contribute to the world.

And yes, I am so proud that when she is asked about her home town, she proudly says she grew up in Fort McMurray. As her path takes her to other places, she and the children like her who grew up here serve as the best kind of ambassadors.

It takes a village. And like my daughter, I am so glad her village has been Fort McMurray.

My Mother’s Voice

The flight was late. And the connection was tight.

We were flying out of Fort McMurray, a plane packed mostly with shift workers heading home after many days away. In front of me was a group of men from eastern Canada; the flight delay meant they had already missed their connection, so in making the best of it they were drowning their sorrows with selections from the airplane bar.

I was in my seat, anxiously eying the time and trying to figure out the chance I would make the connecting flight; it was the last one of the day to my destination, and even worse I had been listed as stand-by on the oversold flight so I would need to plead my case to the passenger service agent when we arrived.

Every second counted.

When we finally pulled into the gate after what seemed to be an endless time on the tarmac, the group in front of me was slow in collecting their belongings; after all, they had missed their flight and so there was no need to rush.

On airplanes, the usual approach to disembarking is to go row by row, waiting patiently for those in front of you to move along.

I am normally a patient person; I am not a line jumper. But this time I did not have the time to spare, and so I grabbed my things and brushed past the group of slightly older and now slightly intoxicated men.

“I guess she must be special to be in such a rush” sang out a voice from behind me.

“Must have some place very important to be,” said another, and a chorus of laughter arose.

The words were like arrows in my back. Despite my hurry, despite my need to move quickly, I paused for a moment. I considered saying something to them, something to answer their derisive comments; and then I straightened my back and hurried off the plane, where I pled with the gate attendant to put me on the flight, to give me the last standby seat.

So I could get there before my mother died.

That is what I would have said to them.

“I am in a hurry,” I would have shouted. “My mother is dying, and I am trying to get home before she does. So I can say goodbye.”

I suspect it would have shamed them; in my experience folks from the east coast of our country are some of the very kindest I have ever met. I imagine it would have changed their attitude, perhaps even provoking an apology; but I did not say those words as while I had thought them I wasn’t ready to say them yet, because it would make the entire surreal experience, which had begun just twelve hours before, real.

In retrospect, I think that experience – a few casual words on an airplane – changed me forever as it proved a lesson I already had known to be true but had failed to yet come to know first hand: you never know what is going on in the life of another person.

My rush to get off that plane undoubtedly seemed rude; it went against the norms and protocol of airplane travel. And yet I am almost certain that not a single person would have resented it had they understood the reason for my hurry, or the nature of my travel.

That I have never forgotten this incident, despite it occurring several years ago, is evidence of how deeply both those words and that experience impacted me.

It is perhaps the moment when I first really understood the need to reserve judgment, to assume goodness, to believe that there are reasons why people do things we may not always understand.

The truth is we may not always know the entire story.

Kindness and compassion cost nothing; and in the absence of the entire story, they should almost certainly always be our default setting. They were something I had always practiced, but after that experience on a plane as I flew to be with my mother before she died they became my guiding principles.

I never wanted to be the person who hurt someone else simply because I didn’t know their story. And we all have a story.

I tell this tale not to shame the men who said those words; and not for some sense of retribution or revenge. I share this tale as we head into a new year as a gentle reminder (both to myself and to any who wish to hear it) that we have the power to show kindness and compassion even when it challenges us to do so; even when the situation does not seem to warrant it.

There was one person in my life who embodied the kind of compassion and kindness that allows us to practice it when we don’t know the entire story; and that person was my mother.

In the end, I boarded that last flight to my final destination, and I had the opportunity to not only say goodbye but to hold my mother’s hand as she left this earth. I learned so many lessons through her death: the tremendous gift of life, even when it is fragile and fleeting; the need to live – and love – every day as if it is your last; and that kindness and compassion are two of the few things we can give freely and without reservation.

And now when I think back to that day on the plane I don’t even hear those voices anymore, the ones that felt like arrows in my back; instead I hear my mother’s gentle voice, filled with the kindness and compassion I now work every day to instill in my own voice – and my heart.