Story Untold: “It’s a Miracle That I’m Here”

Story Untold with Michel Chikwanine

Photo from Michel Chikwanine via Instagram (@michelchikwan)

Michel Chikwanine didn’t set out to tell his story. Memories of being held captive as a child soldier, witnessing his native Congo go through two civil wars in the late 1990s, and fleeing with his family to become refugees in Uganda were painful ones to revisit, much less retell. Some stories, however, are too powerful to be held in. Sometimes, fate intervenes.

Listen to the podcast

Long before becoming a United Nations Fellow for People of African Descent, before becoming an author, human rights speaker, and peace advocate, Chikwanine was a grade 10 student in Ottawa facing a moment many students dread: being called out by the teacher — all because of a desk and a chair.

“He points at me and says, ‘everyone who sits in that seat has an amazing story to tell,’” Chikwanine recalls. “I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’”

The assignment was for each student to write about a pivotal moment in their life. In Chikwanine’s case, the real challenge would be in selecting just one.

Born and raised in Beni, a city of over 230,000 in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was just five years old when he was abducted after school and held captive by rebel soldiers. In the early 1990s, as Chikwanine tells it, the country was in a “moment of chaos.” Under a military dictatorship led by Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s army had been stretched thin by war, fighting battles on all fronts. The military imposed a curfew: no-one was allowed on the streets after 7PM.

“When I was five years old, I was abducted. Just playing with my friends. Something that was so normal for us every single day.” – Michel Chikwanine

“As a kid, you know, I’m four, five years old, I’m growing up [in] this era of uncertainty. And when the military puts in this curfew, my dad turns around and he puts a curfew in my house. He tells us that we need to be home before 6PM,” says Chikwanine. “And so, the little five-year-old kid that I was, like any child, you don’t necessarily understand the bigger ramifications of things; you just see military all the time, so for me, it was an opportunity to test the boundaries of my curfew.”

At the time, Chikwanine would walk to school each morning and wait around for his older sisters to finish school before walking home together again. With no bus system to take kids to and from school, the walk would take two hours. One day, despite his father’s warnings, he decided to postpone his return home, opting to play soccer with his best friend, Kevin, instead. On that day, rebel soldiers surrounded the field, capturing Chikwanine and his friend and putting them in the back of a truck. They drive for hours.

“We arrive at this clearing after hours and hours of driving on a bumpy road, and we basically get told that we’re going to be trained and put into this military. I’m panicking at this time — a five-year-old kid, I don’t know where I am,” says Chikwanine. “There’s people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.”

“There’s (sic) people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.” – Michel Chikwanine

Chikwanine and his friend are separated, and the rebel soldiers begin to divide the children into two groups, giving each a number. They’re told they are going to be initiated into the rebel army. Someone slashes Michel’s wrist and smears a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder into the wound. As his head begins to pound, he’s blindfolded and handed a gun.

“They start yelling at me to shoot,” he says. “Yelling louder, and louder, and louder for me to shoot. At this time, I’m feeling so woozy — literally, like [I might] faint — and so I pull the trigger.”

When the firing ceases, the soldiers remove Chikwanine’s blindfold. His friend, Kevin, is lying on the ground.

“As I keep shaking him, he’s not moving,” he says. “The soldiers behind me are laughing, and they tell me, ‘You’ve killed your friend; now your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’”

“The soldiers behind me are laughing, and they tell me, ‘You’ve killed your friend; now your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’” – Michel Chikwanine

Chikwanine remained a captive of the rebel soldiers for two weeks. He was drugged and led through military training drills, told that he and the other children would be part of the army that would liberate the country.

“Every morning I’d wake up, and I was still in the same situation, so every day became this sense of hopelessness,” he says. “In many ways, this is the tactic with [creating] child soldiers. They try to break you down, and then rebuild you up in their own image.”

He finally escaped during a raid on a neighbouring village. The children were sent out in front of the other soldiers, intended as a shield meant to give the enemy pause before firing. As the crossfire began, Chikwanine ducked to the ground and lay still, waiting for the fight to pass him. He ran for three days and three nights through rainforest, surviving on bananas and mangoes.

“To this day, to be honest with you, I don’t know how I survived,” he says.

Chikwanine eventually arrived at a village he recognized from his mother’s and father’s business trips, Butembo, about 60 kilometres south of his hometown. The last thing he recalls before passing out is telling a shop owner who his parents are. When he woke up, he was in the hospital next to his mother and sisters. They were crying.

“I start to cry, and I say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I start to apologize,” says Chikwanine.

Still, the story continues. Chikwanine’s voice catches as the memories come back.

For three years, from 1996 to 1998, he was sent to live with his aunt and cousins in Goma. His father, human rights activist Ramazi Chikwanine, was forced to flee the country for criticizing the government and its motives for war. When Chikwanine returned to Beni, soldiers broke into his family’s home, looking for documents his father might have left behind. At 10 years old, he was forced to watch as soldiers raped his mother and sisters.

“They grabbed a machete, and they slashed my left cheek — I still have a scar to this day,” he says. “And as I’m bleeding, they look at my face, and they tell me that this will be a day that I’ll never forget, and that this was brought down by my father, and I should never forget that.”

“As I’m bleeding, they look at my face, and they tell me that this will be a day that I’ll never forget, and that this was brought down by my father, and I should never forget that.” – Michel Chikwanine

No longer safe in Congo, Chikwanine and his family are smuggled out of the country to Uganda, reuniting with his father in the north of the country. For the first time in their lives, they were refugees.

“The experience of being a refugee is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can go through,” he says. “We left everything that we had ever known in the middle of the night. No choice of our own.”

The family slept together under a plastic tent, often surviving on little more than bread and water.

“We had no mattress; we had no bed. We slept on a mat that my mom had made out of grass,” Chikwanine recalls. “For our pillows, she had her flip flops, and she put her bikwembes on top of them. That’s how we slept. At night, there were no TVs — we’d tell stories. And the only way that you survive a refugee camp, really, is that you have to band together as a community.”

In time, Chikwanine’s father was able to contact a connection in Kampala where the family could stay, in order to be closer to the United Nations.

“We knew that if we had any chance of getting help or someone giving us an opportunity to survive, we had to get in touch with the UN. And the best chance was not in the refugee camp, but in Kampala,” says Michel. “My mom and dad would wake up every morning at 3AM and walk for hours in some of the most dangerous streets for anyone to try and get us a refugee number.”

“The experience of being a refugee is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can go through. You’re dehumanized to the point that you do not even exist in the eyes of many.” – Michel Chikwanine

In 2001, tragedy struck again. One day, while looking to secure his family’s place on the refugee list, Chikwanine’s father was poisoned. To this day, his family believes it was because of his political activism. That day, he had returned home complaining of severe chest pain. Michel recalls returning home to see his father in tears. Before passing, he left his son with one final message:

“He grabs my hands and he says, ‘Never forget that we are Congolese. That we have a home. That we have a culture. That we have a people. But most important of all, always remember that great men and great women throughout history have never been described by their money nor their success, but rather by their heart and what they do for others.’”

In 2004, Chikwanine and his family are granted entry into Canada as refugees, arriving in Ottawa in the dead of winter. (It is a cruel irony that it took his father’s death to expedite the process.) He learns to get used to the cold. He joins a school and makes friends. Some kids tease him for being an immigrant. Life goes on. Some years later, he becomes a student at St. Patrick’s Catholic High School in southeastern Ottawa, and in grade 10, sits at a desk that opens everything back up again.

“I never really wanted to tell my story,” he says.

Chikwanine remembers a classmate’s response to the assignment. Tasked with describing a pivotal moment in her life, one student had written about wanting a pink Motorola Razr, but getting a black one from her parents instead. She saw it as a lesson for parents to listen to their children.

“It was in that moment [I realized], they don’t actually understand what it’s like to live through a war — a war that actually feeds the minerals that create the cell phones that people have,” says Chikwanine.

It was a moment that stuck with him. Later, after joining Free The Children and becoming an “O Ambassador,” Chikwanine decided it was time to tell his story as a means of driving change. His first speech was delivered to a packed arena at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum.

“Retelling my story became a sort of way of letting go of these huge things that I felt were on my shoulders, and I just didn’t even know how to express them.” – Michel Chikwanine

“I was told, ‘You’re going to be speaking to 5,000 people for four minutes, so choose your words wisely,’” he laughs. “I was a nervous wreck.”

Since then, Chikwanine has made sharing his story his mission, writing Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War and speaking to audiences around the world — sharing the stage with the likes of Dr. Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama, and K’naan. In the last decade-plus, his speeches have reached over 800,000 people.

“Retelling my story became a sort of way of letting go of these huge things that I felt were on my shoulders, and I just didn’t even know how to express them,” he says.

More importantly for Chikwanine, it’s a chance to change minds — and one day, to ensure that no other child endures his fate.

“I want to end the issue of child soldiers,” he says. “The world isn’t just our little bubbles that we live in; the world is very open. And when we only see the world through the screens that we have, we lose out on our ability to see the humanity in others.”


Subscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Reporting Blog

Story Untold: “Be Willing to Take Risks, Even if You Fail”

Story Untold with Chris Burkard

Photo from Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0)

At 32 years old, Chris Burkard is still learning. The self-taught photographer and Pismo Beach, California native has become one of the most prominent storytellers of the social media age, amassing over 3 million Instagram followers with his stunning landscape shots from around the world. He has become a published author eight times over, a TED speaker, and creative director of his own studio.

Still, the husband and father of two feels most excited when he’s a student.

Listen to the podcast

“If you get comfortable in what you’re doing, and it becomes second-nature, that’s when growth stops. That’s when you stop learning,” say Burkard.

“Anything that’s worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer a little bit,” he adds. “If it doesn’t require sacrifice, then it’s not usually worth it.”

Over the course of his career, Burkard has come to know sacrifice quite well. As a 19-year-old falling in love with the craft, he had to walk away from the security of a job and the opportunity to be the first in his family to earn a degree in order to pursue his passion.

“I think every person comes to a point where they have to weave their own path and do their own thing, and that was my moment to kind of define [myself],” he says.

“I’d go back to my day job of being a mechanic, and like, ‘I don’t want to be filled to my elbows with grease. I want to find a way to stay out and play, and be in the ocean.’” – Chris Burkard

Living out of his car and looking for ways to stay afloat, Burkard began taking pictures of surfers at his hometown beach, chasing them down when they would return to shore in hopes of convincing them to buy CDs of his shots.

“I would just do anything I could to make ends meet in some way, shape, or form,” he says. “It was basically borderline begging.”

“I didn’t come from money,” he adds. “It wasn’t that [my family wasn’t] supportive; it was just that they were really worried. And they were really concerned — really fearful that this was going to turn out bad for me.”

At age 20, Burkard landed an internship with Transworld Surf Magazine, along with the first ever Follow the Light Foundation Grant. He used the money to fund a surfing trip along the California coast, and at 22, he published his first book, the California Surf Project, along with friend Eric Soderquist.

Still, the challenges weren’t over. Early in his career, Burkard was on assignment in the far south of Chile and nearly lost everything when a boat captain drove straight into a wave, damaging $30,000 worth of camera equipment.

“I had about $30,000 worth of gear get soaked in Chile when a boat captain drove us into a wave, and it was one of the most heinous experiences of my life. I thought my whole career was over, because that was everything I had — everything I owned at that time.” – Chris Burkard

“I thought my whole career was over, because that was everything I had — everything I owned at that time,” he says.

“The plan was to go out and shoot this outer reef, right? In the really far south of Chile. And we got out there, and the waves were incredible, and it was offshore, and everything we kind of dreamed about. And ultimately, halfway through the session, the boat captain — who was drunk from the night before — was kind of dozing off at the wheel of this small Panga boat […] Basically, the wave just launched over the bow and I was sitting there with all my gear. I was, like, pouring saltwater out of my camera.”

It is this lesson, perhaps, that Burkard wishes to impart above all. The challenges never stop, even as his list of clients has grown to include the likes of Apple, ESPN, National Geographic Adventure, and Outside.

“I aim to go to locations that inspire me, that make me excited — make me want to share a story. And I think when you get into those situations, you realize that’s where the best version of yourself is going to come about.” – Chris Burkard

“For me, life is full of imperfections. I just got back from a trip to Utah, and my car broke down like five times,” he says.

“There’s trips I come back and I just feel heinously sick, or I come back with some rash, or I’ve got parasites — I mean, this is just the reality of being on the road for as much as I am.”

What makes it all worthwhile, he adds, is the chance to capture and share something special, something that might inspire someone else or bring them closer to another part of the world. That, and the knowledge that he’s pursued the things that inspire him most.

“If you have an opportunity and you don’t take it, the feeling of what could have been will eat away at you,” says Burkard.

“Be willing to take risks, even if you fail, because you’ll learn something about yourself and your life.”


Subscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

Leave a comment

Filed under Reporting Blog

Story Untold: “Conversation Can Save a Life”

Loizza Aquino Story Untold

At just 18 years of age, Loizza Aquino has already found her life’s mission. An 11-time award winning mental health advocate, Aquino — a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba — is the founder of Peace of Mind, a nonprofit comprised of young people working to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health.

Listen to the podcast

For Aquino, the cause is one that hits close to home; at the age of 15, she lost her best friend to suicide.

“It’s always the people that you never expect,” says the TD Scholar and University of Toronto student. “He was two years older than me, and as I was growing up, he was a lot like a brother to me.”

“To lose someone at that age is just something that you’ll never forget,” she adds. “You sit there and you look for answers.”

“You can never be too sure of who’s struggling and who’s not, and you can never judge a book by its cover.” – Loizza Aquino

It was around the same time that Aquino started Peace of Mind 204 as a way of bringing youth together to share with one another. At the age of 16, she organized and hosted her first event: Youth Against Mental Illness Stigma. Aquino rallied together teens from across Winnipeg to share their stories at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People.

“The most important part about youth mental health is having youth talk about it themselves,” she says. “It’s so much more effective to have youth speak to youth than to have adults speak to youth. You’re more likely to listen to someone who looks like you, thinks like you, and experiences the same things at the same time as you.”

“We had students who talked about suicide attempts, students who talked about sexual assault, students who talked about self-harm, students who talked about what it’s like to be depressed and have anxiety, students who talked about how it feels to not be able to open up to your families or to anybody,” she adds.

“When people ask for help, they’re not weak for it. If anything, they’re stronger, because they’re able to say ‘I cannot do this alone,’ and we all know that’s not an easy thing to admit.” – Loizza Aquino

Emboldened by the response she got within the community, Aquino continued sharing her story and hosting more events throughout the city.

“When people ask for help, they’re not weak for it,” she says. “If anything, they’re stronger, because they’re able to say ‘I cannot do this alone,’ and we all know that’s not an easy thing to admit.”

These days, as Aquino begins university career in Toronto, Peace of Mind has followed along with her, growing from one province to another. Her story has landed her in the pages of the Toronto Star, as well as on TVO’s The Agenda and CBC’s Metro Morning. This year, she has pledged to give away $2,000 in scholarships to four different youth who have become mental health advocates in their own right.

Throughout the process, Aquino has realized the power of conversation.

“Conversation can go a long way, and conversation can do so much for some people,” says Aquino. “We really need to start working together as a community and as a society to ensure that people are feeling safe about talking about mental health and mental illness, because at the end of the day, conversation can save a life.”


Subscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

Leave a comment

Filed under Reporting Blog

Story Untold: “When We Talk About Trauma, We Always Want to Look for the Smoking Gun”

Stephane Grenier on Story Untold

Photo from speakers.ca

Few careers can be as fraught with potential for post-traumatic stress as the armed forces. Stéphane Grenier knows better than most. A retired Lieutenant Colonel, Grenier spent 29 years in the Canadian military, during which time he spent nine months in Rwanda alongside Roméo Dallaire during one of the worst genocides in modern history.

Listen to the podcast

“General Dallaire was trying to muster the international community to care about what was happening in [Rwanda],” he says. “At the same time, you had Bosnia, where the attention of the world was [focused]. My initial task was to bring some media, because expatriates had left the country. It was pretty dire out there.”

Grenier arrived in Rwanda in 1994 to a downpour on the tarmac, just two days after he had been briefed about his assignment. The rain was the least of the troubles.

“That got overshadowed pretty quickly by gunfire. The Hercules aircraft that had brought us in didn’t stop very long,” he says. “It took off, and when it landed back in Nairobi, there were some holes in the aircraft. So reality hit fast — fast and hard.”

“You have this sort of notion of a ceasefire and peacekeeping, and then of course reality hits, and it’s not at all what we dream about, right?” – Stéphane Grenier

Grenier’s book, After the War, documents his time spent in the country, describing the countless situations he witnessed.

“This woman had walked I don’t know how many kilometres with a hammer stuck in her head,” he says. “The hammer was literally stuck in her head, and scar tissue had grown around it, because she had been attacked during the genocide and survived.”

He returned to Canada in 1995, but as the months progressed, he realized that he had been dealing with lingering effects from his time in Rwanda — symptoms he described not as post-traumatic stress, but as what he coined ‘moral injuries.’

“I remember feeling mixed up like a bag of nails, having difficulty concentrating, having a very short temper, being impatient, because I thought everything here was so futile,” says Grenier.

“There were many, many false starts in my attempts to get help and seek help […] I was an equal part of the partnership of why it wasn’t working.” – Stéphane Grenier

During one incident, Grenier lost his temper when his daughter was playing outside and he was cleaning the remaining Rwandan soil off his army boots on the driveway. The water from the boots was running down the driveway towards his daughter, connecting two worlds he never wished to see brought together.

Another time, Grenier found himself veering towards a hydro pole while driving — an incident that led him to seek help the following day.

“I didn’t even know how to articulate what was going on with me,” he says. “I grew up in an era where mental health wasn’t on any human being’s radar, unless you were a psychiatrist or psychologist.”

As Grenier began his own journey through the mental health system, he took a greater interest on how the Canadian Armed Forces was taking care of its returning soldiers. In 2001, he developed and implemented a government-based national peer-support program for the Canadian military. In 2007, he was tasked with creating a Canadian Forces-wide workplace mental health education program.

“[People need to understand] that they’re not the only ones to ever experience this. It’s a very isolating journey to recover from, and while physical injuries will probably recover with or without hope,” says Grenier, “the mind doesn’t recover as easily if there’s no hope.”

Now retired from the military, Grenier continues his work by speaking about his story and running a private mental health consulting company. In 2009, he was awarded a national Champion of Mental Health Award by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. He continues to provide advice on peer support to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“I think a lot of people go about their lives with carrying some baggage of some sort,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they can’t live a happy life, a productive life, an honest life.”


Subscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

Leave a comment

Filed under Reporting Blog

For The Birds

image

Two and a half weeks. That’s how long I lasted in Australia before something tried to kill me.

That it happened at all was not, perhaps, a surprise; a quick Google search is all it takes to end up deep in a rabbit hole of articles detailing the continent’s deadliest predators—the U.S. Department of Defense’s Living Hazards Database, a compilation of more than 500 species worldwide reported to cause “serious injury or death of humans,” lists 66 in Australia alone, third-most of any country. I had read about most of them before embarking on this adventure: a six-week trip with an old friend travelling from Melbourne to Cairns, climbing the country’s east coast. It was to be the trip of a lifetime.

The surprise, rather, came in the delivery method—one that left me questioning whether anywhere was truly safe on this massive island continent. It wasn’t the spiders or snakes, their fangs laden with lethal poison. It wasn’t the sharks or crocodiles, their jaws capable of crunching bones and tearing through flesh. It wasn’t even the jellyfish, their toxin-tipped tentacles stretching up to six feet.

It was the birds. Plain, ordinary birds.

Australia is home to a dizzying array of feathered fliers, from the laughing kookaburras to the colossal cassowaries. In any given moment, you’re just as likely to see a lone brush-turkey running past as you are a company of cockatoos perched overhead. It’s part of the allure of visiting the country: behold, the land of wilderness. They just don’t mention in the visitor guides that some of those colourful characters come with a mean streak.

The warning signs were there all along. Arriving in Port Macquarie, a laid-back, sun-drenched town of some 45,000 where the Hastings River meets the Tasman Sea, my friend and I spied the bicycle helmets with long spikes jutting out of their plastic protective shells. Everywhere you went, cyclists were wearing them—a town full of two-wheeled Hellraisers.

That’s odd, we thought. Australian fashion sure is different. If only we’d known the truth of the matter.

We were in town to take in Port Macquarie’s beautiful coastal walk, a nine-kilometre one-way trek through beach and rainforest. From May to November, humpback whales splash playfully in the warm waters offshore as they continue their migration from the feeding grounds of the Antarctic to their breeding grounds farther north. Along the trail—spanning eight beaches in total—1.5 metre-long goannas bask in the warmth of the sun, scurrying to the safety of the forest upon your approach. High up in the trees, koalas munch lazily on eucalyptus leaves. It’s the kind of place you’d imagine Steve Irwin must have loved.

Legs tired and stomachs hungry after a day of sightseeing, we were walking back to our hostel when danger reared its head. It was innocuous enough at first: two masked lapwings taking flight in the distance. A mixture of brown and white, with black heads and yellow wattles, the birds are seldom larger than a seagull, but are known for being fiercely territorial of their nesting grounds—and like the clueless tourists we were, we had walked right into one. Lambs to the slaughter.

The birds shrieked and squawked. Their eyes spelled murder. Death was in the air.

Like tandem kamikaze pilots, the lapwings dive-bombed the two of us in a series of attacks. We ducked and ran for cover, Hitchcock’s sixties thriller come to life. Human screams and bird calls became indistinguishable in the fray, one chorus of chaos building to a crescendo. As we made it to relative safety, heartbeats thumping in our ears, we realized one thing was missing: our sunglasses. They lay tantalizingly close in the grass, prisoners of our feathered foes. We tried edging closer, only to endure one winged assault after another.

They weren’t going to make it easy.

In an act of equal parts folly and courage, my friend let out a primal scream and made a mad dash into the fray, scooping up his shades. Mine were nowhere to be seen. I tried looking a few more times, to no avail—each time, being greeted with an aerial attack. I plotted my moves like an in-his-prime Barry Sanders evading tacklers, juking and pirouetting through the grass, eyes fixed on the ground for any glint of reflected sunlight. By the end, I was ready to give up and call it a day. To the victors go the spoils, as they say.

As we prepared to leave, we heard the sounds of laughter from across the street. A woman watching from the apartment building nearby walked over, still chuckling, and plucked my sunglasses from the ground, handing them to me. She said she’d finished having a good laugh and decided to put me out of my misery.

I walked away with my sunglasses that day, but my pride is still somewhere in the grass. All the more reason to go back.


This column appeared in the Calgary Herald on Saturday, May 12th, 2018.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Reporting Blog

The Littlest Rascal Bids Adieu

Charlie

He had breath that could light a candle. It smelled like the back of a refrigerator once the milk’s gone bad and the onions have grown sprouts — as if his pipes had rearranged themselves, and his head and his tail had switched ends.

It wasn’t always that way, but as his teeth fell out over the years, it became his calling card: instead of turning heads as he walked into a room, he turned noses.

He was a stubborn son of a gun. He didn’t walk so much as he sniffed his surroundings for food: whatever scraps of chicken bone, pizza crust, or rabbit droppings he could find on the boulevards lining the sidewalk when garbage day came around. In winter, he’d plant his feet on the pavement and spread-eagle until you caved and turned around for home.

He wasn’t much of a listener. He could sit and lie down on command for a year or two, maybe, but he was never going to win the Westminster Dog Show. In grade school, he bit a hole in my friend’s ear who thought he wanted to play rough. He couldn’t have been more than 15 pounds at the time.

He was the runt of the litter. By the time we got him, he was the only one left — the bichon frisé whose sandy blonde curls stood out from the milky white of his brothers and sisters. He was so small, he hopped through the grass like a rabbit. We fell for him instantly.

He was a handsome fellow. On his third birthday, we threw him a party with a few of the neighbourhood dogs, and they ended up stacked three-high, humping one another. He was neutered by then, but it didn’t matter; his smile was as wide as can be.

He was infinitely huggable. No matter how many years passed, kids would still call from across the street, wanting to say hello to the puppy. On the couch, he would nestle himself into the folds of the blanket, resting his head on your legs and melting your heart into butter.

He was our watchful guardian. I would scoop him up under an arm and carry him around the house, giving him the bird’s eye view he always craved. In his younger days, he would scamper to the highest perch on the sunroom couch and look out the window as the neighbourhood kids walked by and squirrels performed high-wire acts on the bird feeder, angling for a free meal. He was Simba on Pride Rock, looking out at his kingdom.

Charlie would have turned 16 next Saturday — an old dog, even by old dog’s standards. His hearing wasn’t much anymore, and his eyes were cloudy with cataracts. He passed away this morning after a round of tearful goodbyes.

In truth, I had been mulling over the words of his obituary for months already — once the signs of old age became more pronounced and more frequent. Still, writing them today, the words don’t come any easier. Things fall apart. What begins must come to an end. Every now and then, a reminder comes along that life is made beautiful by its impermanence — even if it still hurts when they’re gone.

I loved him. And he loved me. And in the end, that was all that mattered.

6 Comments

Filed under Reporting Blog

Story Untold: “The Crazy Ideas Are Always the Best Ones”

Story Untold with Amy Tunstall

A lot can change in a year. Amy Tunstall is living proof. In February of 2017, she had sought help for depression and anxiety. In the past twelve months alone, the Niagara-raised Tunstall has hiked the Bruce Trail, raising over $3,000 for her home branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association; fought one of the busiest forest fire seasons in British Columbia; backpacked throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua; and hiked the entirety of the Camino de Santiago through France and Spain.

Listen to the podcast

All it took was a car crash for a change of perspective.

It happened in Montana–part of the 3,000-kilometre annual trip to begin the fire season. Tunstall was hit with a snowstorm in April on a remote stretch of mountain road — “we got about 30 centimetres of snow in a two-hour period,” she says — and she spun out on black ice, crashing into a berm.

“I was just stuck there, shaking,” says Tunstall. “In that moment, my life could have been over … If I was 200 metres down, I would have hit the curb and completely went off [the cliff].”

She was lucky. Not long after, a truck driver with a tow rope happened to pass by, helping her get back on the road and wait until police arrived.

“If I had gone any further down the mountain pass, I wouldn’t have had any cell reception to call the police,” she says. “I had been driving down this road for two hours, and I had not seen a single person on this road.”

Before the crash, says Tunstall, she had been wrestling with questions about her purpose and life’s direction. Entering her mid-twenties, she had already cycled across Canada, completed another cycle trip across New Zealand, and finished yet another cycle trip from Brazil to Peru. Still, the doubts entered her mind.

What am I doing with my life?” she says. ”I’ve been focusing a lot on travel, and a lot on adventures, and that’s not necessarily society’s way of wanting you to be.”

With a realization of how close she might have come to the end, she started thinking about what would become her next step: something that would benefit others and show them her love for the outdoors, too. When fire season ended, she left to hike the Bruce Trail and fundraise for the CMHA, calling it “A Million Steps for Mental Health.”

“A lot of the trails, I had hiked when I was younger, and that was really my introduction to the outdoors — just playing around,” says Tunstall.

Over the course of a month, she walked over 900 kilometres from Tobermory to Queenston Heights. For Tunstall, who lost her father to suicide and knows the experience of mental illness quite intimately, it was also a chance to get people actively engaged in their mental health.

“It’s been quite a process, but in the last year, I feel a lot more grounded, more balanced, and more aware of what’s going on. I’m not in this repetitive thought process […] I’ve started to move forward and really work on goals that I want.” – Amy Tunstall

“It was amazing,” she says. “The final twenty kilometres, my family met up with me, and by the time I made it into Queenston Heights, I had about fifty people walking with me […] It was just an unbelievable experience.”

Not long after, Tunstall left for Central America, intent on buying a motorcycle and teaching herself to ride. After surviving a crash and an infection scare that left her in the hospital — “anything and everything that could go wrong, probably did go wrong,” says Tunstall — she returned to Canada for a short stay before packing up once again and heading to Europe to hike the famed Camino de Santiago… never mind that it was winter.

“We’d get up to the top of the mountain pass, and it would be a full-blown snowstorm,” she says.

Some might have called the idea of hiking the Camino in winter crazy.

To that, Tunstall has one reply: “The crazy ideas are always the best ones.”


Subscribe to Story Untold Podcast on: iTunes | Google Play | Stitcher

Leave a comment

Filed under Reporting Blog