This speech is one I gave at our second Celebration of Life in May 2019.
When I was 19 years old I started volunteering for the Distress Centre. One night I was working an afternoon shift, by myself. It had been quiet but just before my shift was to end I got a call. I answered with the appropriate Distress Centre greeting, and a man said “I am going to kill myself.” I immediately began trying to engage him in a dialogue, utilizing every skill I had been taught to keep him talking but he interrupted me to say “you seem like a nice girl. I just wanted to tell someone, I just wanted to hear someone’s voice before I die”. And he hung up.
I am 45 years old standing before you now. As you can imagine I have thought about him often over the last 26 years. I think about a man so profoundly alone that he calls a stranger to hear someone’s voice before dying. I have thought about him, wondered if I had ever crossed paths with him, would I have known his face? Our lives are like that, crossing paths and never meeting, but as you wait in line at a store you see them, you see them again as you dine in a restaurant, another day they pass outside a window you are looking through. Years of seeing but not ever knowing each other.
In the last 100 years we have made advances of all kinds unmatched in any century previous. Through technology we are connected globally – and yet, we no longer know our neighbours. We have made budget choices to eliminate libraries and community centres and schools and parks from our neighbourhoods. We have chosen big box over small shops. And in all of those choices we have made our daily lives perhaps more affordable and perhaps more convenient but we have lost the opportunities to connect with each other. To see each other every day and not only see, but know each other. There are many of us who are alone despite being able to access the whole world. And for some on a dark journey of trauma, of poverty and homelessness, of addiction, of mental illness all the world is is their sadness and their loss, and they are alone.
I believe with my whole heart that we can change the world by saying hello when we pass a stranger on the street. There are so many of us who feel invisible. If a person shows a kindness like a simple greeting while passing – what they say is “hello” but what we hear is “I see you” – and maybe what we feel is “I matter”. I believe that nights like tonight, when we come together as a community, when we put aside all the differences between us and embrace that which is our most fundamental commonality – our need to belong – we are sending a message to everyone, even those who are there in the unlit places – your life has meaning, even at your darkest, you matter.
I can’t go back to that night at the Distress Centre. I don’t own his choice to end his life – but I have felt a responsibility every day since, that whenever possible I share the message that maybe, maybe, could save a life - I see you. You matter. And though we are here to celebrate unknown lives lived and lost to us now - those unclaimed, those who’ve died alone or laid wordlessly to rest – we are still able to say we see you, you mattered.