A grandmother and Anglican priest writes about the tragic death of her grandson from opioid overdose in Vancouver
More than 1,400 people died from drug overdose in B.C. in 2017: 3.8 per day, with most of those deemed as accidental, fentanyl-based deaths. Sadly, my 20-year-old grandson was among them.
Like many who end up on the streets of Vancouver, Gordon was from the Prairies, where one cannot live outdoors over winter. He graduated French immersion high school in Winnipeg in 2014 but couldn’t find an ongoing job, and didn’t feel ready for post-secondary education. Wanting independence, he moved out on his 18th birthday to bunk with roommates in an apartment—a party place with drugs and alcohol apparently flowing freely. Soon enough, his computer, guitar and phone were stolen, his fractured jaw was surgically wired shut, and he’d entered a path of poverty, hopelessness and despair.
Gordon and a friend hitchhiked to Vancouver in late 2015, where, as naïve newcomers, they shared group drug needles and ended up with severe staph infections in their bloodstreams. After ferrying over to see me on Gabriola Island, they hitchhiked to Victoria, arriving around Christmas 2015. They moved into “tent city,” a community of homeless people who pitched camp on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse. Across the street, people from Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral responded generously to their new neighbours—even inviting them over for Christmas dinner.
Gordon and his friend made tent city their home. Because the courthouse grounds were governed by provincial laws, they could leave tents set up all day instead of taking them down each morning, as in municipal parks; they didn’t have to carry their “home” and belongings everywhere.
Having moved to Greater Victoria in 2016, I’m full of admiration for so many groups who try to help—not only the obvious ones, like Our Place Society (where my therapy dog and I volunteer), but even the main branch of the public library, which allowed tent city residents to come inside to use their computers and doze discreetly. A place to get warm and dry and use bathrooms each day was also offered by the Anglican cathedral—reflecting the life and ministry of Jesus, who aligned himself with the marginalized. While Canada’s west coast cities of Vancouver and Victoria rarely get ongoing snow, it’s chilling to remain in wet clothes and shoes day and night, as many of the homeless still do, leading to trench foot, interminable colds and other compromised health conditions.
In spring 2016, Gordon went back to Winnipeg for the summer and then travelled west again, arriving in Vancouver near Christmas. He stayed there, busking and enjoying this oceanside city, except for one brief visit to Nanaimo in June 2017, when I was delighted to meet him for some “sacramental poutine” at Dairy Queen.
He’d agreed to come home to Langford with me for a few days, but then his girlfriend got in touch, and they soon headed back to Vancouver. Increasingly sinking into deep addictions, he nonetheless appreciated his street family connections, especially on north Granville near the Anglican cathedral—where he was ultimately found on the street in cardiac arrest on September 8, 2017.
Paramedics used extensive CPR to restart his heart and brought him to St. Paul’s Hospital ICU, where he was placed on life support. His mother got a call from the hospital; she called her brother in Victoria, then they set out for Vancouver. Having travelled to Port Renfrew and being out of cellphone range, I didn’t see their urgent requests to join them right away.
The grace, mercy and love I experienced at the hospital last September 9-11 was phenomenal. Clearly, that ICU had been dealing with many drug overdoses, and yet their kindness and consideration never wavered. Even after brain death was almost certain, they continued to speak to Gordon and to us with compassionate regard. And most surprisingly, street people were allowed in to visit, if the family didn’t mind. In they trooped with their ragged clothes and matted hair and weather-worn hands and faces—in singles and pairs or larger groups—trying at first to help awaken Gordon from this accidental overdose, since many had previously overdosed and recovered.
“He’ll be all right though, won’t he?” his friends asked, and we said, “No…the medical staff are just confirming that he’s likely brain-dead, with just these machines breathing for him.”
To have these “unwashed masses” trooping into ICU, and to hear the affection they bore for each other was a privilege; and we loved hearing their appreciative experiences of Gordon’s final ten months of life amongst them. One youth services worker also spoke of the cohesive and uplifting force he’d been, saying: “Gordo, you’re doing what you’ve always done—bringing people together.”
We were soon told that Gordon would have to be palliated. At Covenant House, as his final hour drew near, they were flooded with people, all gathered there in tears and hugs, supporting each other through this hour of loss. John O’Donohue’s On the Death of the Beloved was read and then life support was shut down. Giving him a final kiss on the forehead, I thought of Shakespeare’s words in Hamlet: “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Since then, as a retired priest in Victoria, I’m grateful for love and support from friends and colleagues, and often wonder if other Anglicans have experienced something similar, especially in Victoria and Vancouver.
Gordon left many memories in his wake and inspired friends and family alike. In Winnipeg, Gordon’s artist aunt, with her own history of addiction, put on two art shows in his honour. And the UVic Centre for Studies in Religion and Society accepted my proposal for a community research fellowship about spirituality and the B.C. opioid crisis.
I’ve often sensed Gordon’s spiritual nearness, remembering the baby who loved flowers and grew into the affectionate and good-natured young man we lost.
On All Saints’ Day 2017 at the Victoria cathedral, I was moved to write this poem:
There you were
dancing in the sanctuary
A sort of harlequin note
to your light prancing steps.
I sensed your presence
smiling and winking at me
stretching your arms and hands
towards the great urn of flowers
inviting me to focus on beauty.
you said without words,
I’m free and happy now
and want you to be too.
His teasing loving smile
drew me into the spell
so great to feel him being so well.
Soon he had a dance partner
the one that usually or ideally
sashays around sanctuaries…
The two were like Vaudeville—
swoops and dips and funny smirks.
Exuberant joy and love
emanating from the ether.
Thanks for the visit, Darling Boy.
— The Rev. Adela D. Torchia is an honorary assistant at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria.