Full Circle at the Fringe Festival

Coming full circle.

When my younger sister Gretchen was born in the 1950’s, her complex multiple disabilities meant that she would be institutionalized at the age of 4. My mother was devastated and her resulting depression along with the absence of my sister created a lot of sadness in our family that reverberated through the years and impacted on every relationship in the family.

Fast forward to the late 90’s when the institutions were closed and Gretchen came to live in a cul de sac group home in Toronto where she currently lives in a truly supportive environment.


Last year I spoke online with 2 women who also lost close family members to institutions. It was the first time in my life that I’d talked with others who really understood the family impact of loosing a sibling. One of those women, Victoria Freeman, is involved with creating a play about the impact of those places on both the residents and their families. Now that play is part of the Toronto Fringe Festival and today Gretchen will attend with one of her caregivers.
Part of the performance will be the reading of a poignant poem my mother wrote about her deep sorrow at placing Gretchen in a place that turned out to be so harmful to her and thousands of others in every way possible. I have bolded the section of the poem that will be used.

On a Lost Child
 by Sandy McConnell-Doehler

It did not matter when the learned prose,
with one-by-one and minus-two, foretold
the fearful question passing time would pose,
the dreaded day unfold.

It did not slow me when, through every door
we passed, we came as wise without again,
when down the same dim hallways as before,
we pressed our way in vain.

Ah, but the shadow lengthened as we went-
the spectre of that death without a grave,
when neither rite, nor prayer, nor sacrament,
nor mourners’ tears we gave.

I took your little velvet hand in mine
and down a hallway longer than the rest
I led you from your home and gave no sign-
it was “all for the best.”

Now all your needs are filled, or so they say;
kind, unknown hands that change each day, will guide
you in your everlasting childhood play,
the tower walls inside.

You will not miss the varied, lovely scents
of freedom; of fish-laden winds that blow
from the sea; of stained books, rained-on pavements-
they say you will not know.

You will not know how I remember eyes
blue as the hyacinth in a market square,
and listen still for your mourning dove cries
on the silent night air,

and search for something heavy I can hold
sometimes, to fill my empty arms again-
warm, my child, for you were never cold,
as in them you have lain.

So I put down my load.  Now starts the pain.
What can appease the fire within, once lit?
A little pass at fate is like soft rain
fallen in Hades’ pit.

A child in want or fear, or in distress,
that in my vacant path cries to be free,
just for a moment gives, in my redress,
my lost child back to me.

I know my mother would be happy to know that Gretchen has found a better life living at  Montage. And she would be glad to share her poem to help others in their healing processes.

Gretchen  and Larry and me at the Egyptian Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, 2016.

4 thoughts on “Full Circle at the Fringe Festival

  1. It must have felt like a ‘no win’ situation for your mother. So sad. I love her poetic voice. My sister (who died in 2012) had many health issues all her life. I am familiar with the guilt that comes from being the healthy one. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. SGC Admin: Thank your sharing the story of your family… it must have been very challenging and sad at times… thankfully great strides are being made regarding all mental health issues… 🙂

    1. We know much more about mental health now than 50 years ago, but the helping part is not supported as it should be. I’m very glad my sister has found a good home with Montage Support Services in Toronto.

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