Jan 052011

A post, a post tonight for a broken heart, but I digress, all hearts are broken and mended in time, yes? So it was fitting today that Daniel called me.

Daniel is in his late-60s. He is paraplegic. He was in the hospital, for a long time. Now he is in a care home, somewhere in Winnipeg. Daniel is lonely. He’s allowed an hour of phone time every day. And every time he can, he calls me.

Students, take note: this is the part of journalism that nobody prepares you for, that nobody ever mentions. There are people in the world for whom the only person who will listen is a journalist. And so they call — usually with some minor issue that they secretly know won’t make the news - because they need a human voice. You are a lifeline to a world that no longer has time for them.

So what will you do, when that call comes?

The first time, Daniel called the paper on a Sunday morning to report senior abuse at his care home. Goodness gracious, I thought when the call came in, if this checks out, it would be a very important story.

“They’re not feeding us here,” he told me.

“Goodness, Daniel,” I said. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”

“Well,” he said, “not since 9 a.m.”

By then, it was 11 a.m. In other words, they fed him breakfast, and were waiting to feed him lunch. Mentally, I move the story to the… um… back of the pile.

But people’s stories don’t end when the media’s do. Sometimes, in this job, you become de-facto counsellor, because what else do you do when people need help? It was a slow Sunday, no new news. I Googled some numbers for seniors’ counselling and support lines. I talked to him about his life; how he became paraplegic; how he ended up in hospital; how he found himself alone, now, in a care home somewhere in the city, without family, without support.

We said goodbye, I assumed forever. I was wrong: he still calls me, two months later. Once a week, sometimes twice. “I saw your Santa Parade story,” he says. “I used to go to that, when I was young.” Or else, “I looked for your name in the paper today! I didn’t see it.” Or else, “I’m just so frustrated and I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re a saint,” a coworker said to me once, after I got off the phone with Daniel.

But I’m not. Because I’m walking, because I have friends, because I have family, because I have health and autonomy and time.  The city makes me sad, but for me, it is a lover that spurned me and my love for it that keeps me so fascinated. For Daniel, the city is a grey pastiche, painted beyond drab care-home walls, framed by double-pane windows. It is as the Mona Lisa: small, two-dimensional, inaccesible. But any city would be.

So what do you do when the call comes? Easy: you take the call.

There’s enough in this job that can make you feel inhuman. Don’t believe me? Wait ’til you’ve gone door-knocking the family of the victim of a terrible accident on Christmas Day. You’ll never really look at yourself in the mirror quite the same way as you did before, when you didn’t spend your day walking into people’s private grief. Nor should you look at yourself the same way as you did before. These things change you.  

But in callers like Daniel — and I have a few, but none so regular as him -  there is some small chance to restore, and be restored. You are a lifeline. You throw yourself out there. Five minutes of your time, maybe ten.* And what is ten minutes, when you’re young? 

This blog was dedicated to Winnipeg. This story and all this work-talk may seem to be losing the plot, but I don’t think so. Winnipeg is made up of Daniels, just as much as it is made of Katzes and Selingers and Aspers. The latter’s stories make headlines, while Daniel’s gets moved to the bottom of the pile. But a city is built of a million stories, and the sad and lonely ones are no less a part.  

Bad liver, and a broken heart. **

* My usual style guide would dictate the use of the numerals here: “10.” But screw that. I think “ten” is a pretty word, spelled-out.

** With endless respect and props to the brilliant Scott Nolan.  Still, after all these years, my favourite Winnipeg singer-songwriter.