The following article recently appeared on Grow Mercy, a wonderful blog by a wonderful and caring person--Stephen Thomas Berg. Stephen invited me to share how Whale Song, my recent novel about love, lies, sacrifice and transformation, is affecting people's lives.
Begging for Change
First, I’d like to pose a few questions. If you saw a beggar on the sidewalk, hand out for a bit of change, would you scowl, judge him and walk by? Or would you say ‘Sorry, I don’t have any change.” Or would you buy him a coffee and donut? Or would you hand him some money?
I know that these questions pose a moral dilemma for most. The first thing that seems to come to mind is that the beggar will only use the money for nefarious purposes--booze or drugs. And we have an aversion to helping anyone with those addiction problems. We also judge these people. Some of us think, “I worked hard for my money. Why should I give it to him when he can’t be bothered to get a job?” Some of us feel that we should ‘protect them’, buy them food or drink so they don’t spend it on a bottle of rye. Some of us give the money, thinking ‘it’s his choice’.
A while ago I heard two girls in a downtown Wendy’s discussing a man pushing a cart outside. They called him a “bum”, laughed at him, and said he “should get a job”. In their callous naiveté, they thought a job would solve everything for this man. They had no concept of the fact that a person with addictions is physically and mentally unable to keep a job, without a lot of support and therapy. Spurred on by a burst of anger, I stormed outside the Wendy’s with a nearly full container of fries and I asked the man if he wanted them. The light in his eyes was the only answer I needed. Everything he owned was in that shopping cart, with no money for the day’s meal. I talked to him for about 5 minutes, and that man had stories to tell. An avid reader and educated fellow, he once had a job, a family…everything. Then he lost them all. I gave him some money, let him make his own choice for his life.
The opinion of these girls is a common one, and I will admit that even I have had those thoughts, once, about two years ago. Until something happened to change the way I view other people, especially those begging for change. Something that made me want to face those girls and yell, “Don’t laugh at him! That could be your father! Your brother!” But I didn’t. Instead, I went outside and spoke with a man whose life was measured by the belongings in a rusty shopping cart. I’m glad I did. And I owe my actions to my brother Jason.
A number of years ago, I invited my younger brother to come stay with us in Edmonton, Alberta, to look for work and help him get a fresh start. He had been living on Salt Spring Island in BC, and like a typical young person, he’d been getting into some minor trouble. In his early 20s, he moved to Edmonton, and everyone thought his life was just beginning. We never suspected what would happen. Not really.
On January 23rd, 2006, my 28-year-old computer-genius brother with his crazy humor, copper hair and freckled face was brutally murdered. It happened early in the morning in a cold, dark alley not far from the Mustard Seed Church, with no witnesses. I try not to think of his last moments, but it is hard not to imagine him begging for help, or crying for my Mom. Even typing this now is difficult. It’s been over a year since Jason died, yet sometimes it feels like yesterday. I miss him. I miss his laughter, his practical jokes and his generous spirit.
My brother led the life of that man with the cart. He had been homeless for a time, had tried numerous jobs, but his alcohol addiction overwhelmed him. He was on medication, off and on, for depression, and refused to keep in touch with our family. In some ways, he was determined to break free from his lifestyle; in some ways, he wanted us to be separate from it. Even though he lived in the same city, I never knew where he was from one day to the next, and long months would go by with no contact. To be truthful, I was relieved. There is nothing worse than watching someone you love spiral out of control and know that there’s nothing you can do to stop it. His choice, his life.
The morning that the police found Jason was a day like any other for me. I didn’t see the news, and even if I had, they had not released a name. So I went to work, writing in my office like any other day. I was finishing a second version of Whale Song in hopes that it would get picked up by a bigger publisher. And then someone knocked on my door…or the doorbell rang. I don’t remember. When I saw the two men on my doorstep I immediately assumed they were politicians. It was election day. They asked if I was Cheryl Tardif. I said yes. Then they asked me if I had a brother named Jason Kaye. I said yes and let them inside, thinking my brother was in trouble with the law.
It’s funny, that day--funny in a weird dreamlike way. Everyone in my family, including me, had always said that we were expecting a call from the police to say Jason was dead. We had even imagined that he’d end up in an accident, or stagger into a ditch and peacefully fall asleep. We knew he was an alcoholic and we knew he suffered from mental illness. But still, as I sat at my kitchen table with the two detectives, I didn’t really see it coming. Not at first. Not murder.
But someone was watching over me. My brother had left me some ‘gifts’. My husband showed up a minute later. He’d finished work extremely early that day. (Thank you, Jason.) When the detectives told me my brother was dead, that he had been murdered, there was no screaming or crying, no sinking to the floor like I would have imagined. Just a quiet calm that settled over my heart, and a quiet voice in my head that said, “This is the day you knew would come. Jason’s gone.”
The police told me that they had some problems tracking down Jason’s next of kin. After all, my last name is Tardif. I use Kaye, my maiden name, for writing purposes only. They called some Kayes in the area but none of them are related to us. And here was another gift. Jason had told his friends that his sister Cheryl (no last name) was an author in Edmonton who had wrote a book about whales. That’s it. That’s what the police had to go on. They Googled my name--and there I was.
Another gift: three months later, Whale Song was picked up by a bigger publisher and was re-released as a special, revised and expanded edition in April 2007, with a special dedication to my brother Jason. Whale Song is his book now. And as a result, I decided early on that it would benefit others who are struggling with life, addictions and mental illness.
That is why every time you buy a copy of Whale Song, you are helping three organizations: Hope Mission, Mustard Seed Church and the Bissell Centre. 5% of my royalties will go to EACH of these, to help combat poverty, homelessness and addictions. I invite you to order today, spare that bit of change, because I’m begging for it now…on behalf of those in need.
Thank you again for letting me share my brother Jason with your visitors. For more information on Jason Kaye, please visit his memorial site at http://www.jaysporchmonkeys.com/
I am also begging for change—not money, but change in how we look at others. The next time you see a beggar with his hand out, I hope each of you will think for a moment, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Spare a little change in how you think, grow mercy…and gain a bit more soul.
~Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author of Whale Song, The River and Divine Intervention