I wrote and delivered this piece for an event honouring the amazing group of over 300 children’s hospice volunteers I was privileged to have worked with. To donate to Canuck Place, see the link at the bottom of the page.
Helen Keller said that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. As I look out at all of you today, on this day where we have gathered to show our appreciation, I don’t just see kind faces and unique talents, I see beautiful hearts.
Many of you may not know this, but I have been to the hospice before. Seventeen years ago, I wrote a story for a magazine I published on this then-fledgling children’s hospice. I was given a tour by Brenda Eng, a quiet and unassuming nurse and visionary who founded the organization. During the tour, she described the significance of the green lamp, which was turned on. She moved softly, as she explained that a child was nearing end of life; spoke in quiet, comforting tones.
Little did I know that all these years later I would have shifted into that front-and-centre seat I now inhabit, perfectly positioned to observe the comings and goings around the house. Little did I know I would become a gatekeeper of sorts, and unofficial keeper of that same green lamp. And as I’ve sat at that desk day after day, I’ve not only been blessed to witness the many profound moments between family members struggling to embrace each inhale and exhale in this shared space together – I’ve been blessed to have witnessed all of your hearts.
Everyone who is drawn to this place – staff and volunteers alike – has a shared purpose, and swirling in the background, behind the veneer of a seemingly normal work environment, is always the echo of impending death and the unspoken need to allow space for the immense swell of emotion which accompanies it. Paradoxically, moments of pure joy pierce this silent swirl, and thus the unspoken recognition of the need to celebrate each experience and every interaction. There is nothing normal about this.
Yet, your warm presence, and the routine normality of your loving actions comforts us.
I don’t know all of your stories – why you have felt compelled to volunteer here – but I do know that our individual stories, tiny tributaries in some vast river, have merged to become a shared story. Our paths have crossed like mystical threads in a rich quilt, merged with the paths of the families we’ve come in contact with, and together we all have become part of a larger, collective story.
We are drawn to this place for our own reasons, yet we are bonded by a common goal; a reverence for life. When I forget this, on days when I’m weary from too many tasks, too many phones ringing, doors buzzing, your smiles remind me. Your humble ways guide me home.
I, for one, am a better person by having witnessed your love-in-action. You have taught us what it means to care. Words can’t convey the language of a well-versed heart, resonating with a rhythmic poetry that requires no explanation. It is only through the quiet wisdom of a heart in service to another, that it can truly be felt and understood.
We acknowledge you.
I want you to stand proud, each and every one of you. Stand proud for making the small quiet decision to put your own worries, fears, and longings aside, and to give. Just give. And in so doing, you unleash your wild and tender hearts, so the world can see them shine.
This is no small feat, for it is people like you who build dreams, restore communities, heal others by reminding them that there is kindness in this world, there is hope. It is people like you who let others know they are not alone.
Never underestimate the power of a well-stuffed envelope or a finely baked cookie. We’re onto you; there’s no fooling us. We all know the tasks you so willingly fulfil are merely camouflage, for the true orchestrator behind of all these good deeds is a well crafted and fully-functioning heart.
We see you.
So, why are we all here? Why do we actively choose to place ourselves in this precarious realm, this space between life and end of life, where the death of the most innocent and vulnerable of our human tribe becomes a baffling and heart wrenching path to witness? One can’t help but ponder the bigger questions in the midst of such profound happenings. Why are we really here? What is our true purpose, and how do we find peace, joy, love?
Let’s face it, some days Canuck Place is not an easy place to be. It is a one-of-a kind melting pot of polarities, a pseudo-reality, an unreal and all-too-real place to be. At once tragic and joyous, normal and utterly surreal. And you choose to come, asking nothing in return.
On behalf of all of the staff: We honour your courage.
And just as we struggle to find some way to keep coming back, after those tough days, blow after devastating blow; we recognize that you struggle too. You grieve too. You carry the burden of those little hearts who have stopped beating all too soon; carry it gently in the palms of your outstretched hands. Isn’t there comfort in knowing that we all struggle together? That other hearts are breaking, and mending too? Doesn’t this make us all feel less alone? For what heart isn’t made more beautiful by a few delicate etchings and deep, collective scars.
Canuck Place is a symphony of great, pulsating hearts beating in unison; our own vibrant chorus of caring and compassion to keep us steady amidst the wildest of storms. And just as the solitary note merges with other solitary notes to become a beautiful melody, this patchwork of willing hearts blends together to become something better than they were by themselves. To become something more. This is the powerful collective force, that spirit of caring and compassion which is the true essence of Canuck Place.
We couldn’t do it without you.
So, how to navigate that fine line between caring too much and caring too little? Between being engulfed by the cumulative layers of unexpressed grief, and the deep honour and heavy burden of being the silent witness to such profound goings-on. You do this brilliantly; with great compassion and dignity. Not perfect, but through your humanity, we see the shimmerings of deep soul.
Who of us is perfect, really? Within our gloriously muddled humanity, there is a tiny spark of divine inspiration; the desire to rise to our full potential as loving, caring human beings, with the capacity to treat ourselves and others with the reverence and respect we so fully deserve. Within our shared humanity, we recognize ourselves as being in the midst of this sacred spiral of becoming whole.
We are in this together.
Each of us is doing the best we can in each moment. And isn’t this moment all that we really have? And isn’t embracing this moment the path to witnessing and experiencing our full humanity? Our hearts are made stronger by allowing ourselves to be fully human, informed by some primordial wisdom which stems from that deep rooty place, where wild and beautiful things may grow.
It is not in the great and lofty achievements that we discover our full capacity as human beings. It is in the divine simplicity, that purity of intention, a complete and utter willingness to simply show up, be in the moment, and try.
You, who do this beautifully, teach us that this is how we find our way home.
I’ve often thought of Canuck Place as a great apprenticeship in the deeper lessons of life: a divine opportunity to witness ourselves and others with compassionate awareness, to become more than we ever thought ourselves to be, to share, to grow. To stretch the heart as much as we possibly can and merge our intentions with other like-minded hearts in order to build a stronger collective heart. And then, to stand back in awe as we watch the compassionate deeds of each individual beautifying and expanding the collective whole.
If life is a classroom and our purpose on earth is to learn, share, and grow, then the prescribed homework for this advanced course is surely to figure out how to fully realize and embrace the gift that has been granted to each and every one of us; the gift of life.
In your spirit of giving, you are realizing and embracing the gift of life. You are saying thank you to life. In giving, you are honouring your life, the lives of others, and the precious lives of the children and families we serve.
From the bottom of our hearts to yours, the solitary and the collective, in this moment, and every moment, we thank you.