A place of her own

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Rosa Hwang

On a recent visit back to my hometown of Calgary, I connected with an old friend.

Lisa and I speak by phone regularly, but it had been a while since we had seen each other in person. She was eager to show me her new apartment. She had a gift for me too, she said. A gift? Say no more, Lisa. “I’ll be right over,” I said a bit too quickly.

We went to high school together — Lisa and I graduated the same class, same year. I wish I could say I remember her from back then, but I don’t. I didn’t even know about our high school connection until we met a few years after graduation. Quite sad really, considering I attended one of the smallest high schools in Calgary. A priest, who I respected very much, asked me to befriend her.

She is special, he told me.

“I know you,” Lisa said when we were formally introduced. “You’re Rosa from St. Mary’s. I’m three years, one month and nine days older than you.”

Lisa was among a handful of unique students at my high school who were obviously present, yet invisible at the same time — the special needs kids. I didn’t give much thought to her or anyone else in that group — presumably too preoccupied with my own social standing to be concerned with hers. Isn’t it amazing how the things we found important as teenagers seem so stupidly trivial now?

In my post-high school years, Lisa and I have struck a friendship that can be best described as “honest.” She is legally blind and has other challenges, but possesses a clarity that still startles me at times.

Her freakish, yet remarkable memory, for example. Give her a date, any date in history, and she can tell you which day of the week that date fell on.

“You were born on a Thursday,” she told me.

I’ve tried to stump her many times over the years, to no avail.

She’s honest because she knows no other way to be. It’s an honesty she demands from me too.

“Why are you moving to the States?” she asked me years ago.

“It’s for work, Lisa,” I explained with an exasperated sigh.

“There’s more to life than work, you know.”

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She was right of course, but at the time she offered that gem, I didn’t recognize its value.

So when I finally got to see Lisa’s apartment, the significance shouldn’t have been lost on me.

High school isn’t exactly a distant memory yet, but enough years have passed that my classmates and I can start measuring the time gone by in decades, not just years. Most of us have lived at least one or two lifetimes since then — jobs, marriages, divorces, kids, success, failure, renewal.

For Lisa, this apartment was her first time living away from her parents. She led me through her suite and fretted what a mess the place was.

Actually, it was immaculate.

Her furniture — a combination of hand-me-downs from her parents to new purchases, like her dinette set and television — all perfectly placed exactly where she wanted them. Framed pictures on the wall, the colour of her bed spread — it all added up to a sanctuary she took a lot of pride in creating.

Kevin Bosch is a life-long friend whom Lisa adores. A researcher for the federal Liberals, Kevin has lived in Ottawa for years. Lisa still talks about him as if he lives next door.

They first met in kindergarten.

“Despite her disabilities, Lisa has always wanted to do what everyone else was doing,” Kevin told me.

She wanted to get a job, so she did. She wanted to go to college and it took her seven years to get her diploma, but she did it.”

It took her almost as long to get that apartment.

She had been on the waiting list for low-income housing since 2004. For Lisa, 500 square feet to call her own represents an independence most of us take for granted.

And it came just before her 40th birthday.

When Lisa handed me my gift — the one she was so excited to give me — she apologized for not wrapping it.

“I know it’s kind of a weird shape,” she said, handing it to me.

It was a mug she made in art class, in vibrant blue. It’s a colour I mentioned as my favourite, just once — about a decade ago.

I smiled.

“It’s imperfectly perfect, Lisa. Just like you.”

Rosa is Global National’s senior producer, based in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @RosaHwangTV.

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