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Where Dreams Soar


Kisses for Cigarettes

Resilience is defined as a capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It describes an ability to recover readily from illness, depression, and adversity. It’s hard to find a better word to describe Debbie Redsky. Of course, she has many other admirable qualities. Those who know Debbie are well acquainted with her resourcefulness, creativity, confidence, and determination.  However, if asked to use one word, resilience comes quickly to mind.

Debbie’s difficult journey began the day of her birth, on September 5th, 1962.  Born with both physical and intellectual disabilities, she was not expected to live beyond five weeks.  Her tiny body fighting to survive, she was immediately removed from her family and culture, and taken to live with a foster family in Winnipeg.

Daughter of an Ojibway Chief, Debbie’s lineage boasts a proud ancestry of Redsky’s, Whitecloud’s and Bluesky’s. Her parents lived in Shoal Lake 40, an Ojibway First Nation reservation, cut off from the Manitoba-Ontario border a century ago, to divert fresh water to Winnipeg. This isolated reserve, detached from the mainland, lacked resources to care for Debbie’s complex needs. We can trace the beginning of Debbie’s resilience to her mother Martha, a woman who selflessly handed her sick infant to another family. Martha was a survivor, living in abject poverty, on a reserve rife with human rights violations, with unsafe drinking water and scant economic opportunities.

Debbie’s foster sister Grace McDonald recalled a visit to Shoal lake; sharing that “All Martha and her children had to eat were crackers…she had no food….and she was apologizing to me because she had nothing to offer…”

In her new foster home with the McDonald family, Debbie was doted on by her loving foster mother. Lillian McDonald worked tirelessly as a foster parent for Indian Affairs. Grace remembers dresser drawers filled with infants, sometimes half a dozen or more at a time. In this busy and loving home, and against all medical predictions, Debbie thrived. When Debbie’s mother Martha died tragically in a house fire three years later, Debbie’s significant family ties to Shoal Lake were broken. Except for an estranged brother, the McDonald’s were Debbie’s only family.

Debbie defied physician opinions and doom sayers, but it was a long and painful journey. She endured over thirty plastic surgery operations. Skin from her back was removed to rebuild her ears. She was also hearing impaired and did not speak. Imagine how isolating and frightening it was for her, unable to hear or talk, challenged by an intellectual disability - requiring one painful surgery after another.

To this day, Debbie is captivated by hospitals and illness. When asked about these experiences, she passionately motions a sign for ‘child’; covering her nose and mouth with one hand, to indicate an anesthesia mask.

Debbie was born with mild scoliosis, and her legs are slightly twisted.  However, these challenges never slowed her down as a child - and even today, she constantly gives people the slip. Grace laughs, recalling a story about young Debbie, and her fondness for mischievous flight. Grace shared that her mother Lillian relied on a harness to keep young Debbie from running off, and insisted Debbie wear it when travelling outside the home. Grace wanted to take Debbie shopping in Winnipeg, and as usual, Lillian was adamant Debbie should wear the harness.

A younger more rebellious Grace thought the harness was awful, and in defiance of her mother’s wishes, refused to make Debbie wear such an archaic restraint. In spite of her mother’s cautionary advice, Grace entered Eaton’s, with Debbie unharnessed and free. Grace was feeling quite smug about her decision, until she realized Debbie was gone. In a flash, little Debbie had run out of Eaton’s, and jumped onto a Winnipeg transit bus, riding it happily to the end of the line. Even as a child, Debbie was independent and determined to get what she wanted.

There comes a point where childhood is replaced by the turmoil of adolescence. Debbie’s teen years were a time of confusion and anger, no doubt exaggerated by her disabilities, and a desire for belonging. During this tumultuous period, she became aggressive to her foster mother, and many unsuccessful community placements followed. These were hard times for everyone - stolen cars, assaults and fire setting - the rebellious acts of a troubled teen. Debbie was a young woman disconnected from her foster family, removed from her culture, and trying to fit into a hearing world.

For most of us, our journey into adulthood is chaos. For Debbie, this rough patch unfortunately led to a breakdown of her foster placement, and an eventual move into the Manitoba Developmental Center (MDC). It was not an easy choice for the McDonald family, who loved Debbie. To this day, sister Grace anchors Debbie to a family they once shared as children, and still remains an immeasurable part of Debbie’s life.

Grace talks with appreciation for the care and support Debbie received at MDC. Debbie had exhausted her community placements, and it was the only option at that time. However, institutions by necessity are burdened by systems that cannot hope to replace family or community life. The policies and structure of institutional life restrict the natural unfolding of real friendships in community.

Debbie remained with MDC for 25 years. She learned to keep her personal belongings close, and she became resourceful. She was once caught trading kisses for cigarettes, a story which is both touching and humorous. Barter for intimacy may appear bittersweet, yet those who know Debbie can attest she is craftier than an old fashioned huckster. How long Debbie had been swindling folks out of kisses and cigarettes we will never know. It certainly wasn’t the last time she’d swing a deal in her favour. Forever the charismatic trickster, I’ve witnessed her trading old makeup for loonies, working the sympathy card with uninitiated staff.

At MDC, Debbie had a housekeeping job during the week and participated in many activities offered at the center. It was a good life, full of comfort and familiar faces. She enjoyed music and going for coffee, smoking and spending time with her sister. Nonetheless, Debbie was reluctant to return to MDC after overnight visits with Grace. It was apparent she enjoyed staying in a real home, and its associated freedoms.

Years passed uneventfully, and then one day, Debbie was given an opportunity to live with roommates in her own home. Not surprisingly, she said no. After all, she was being asked to make choices about her future - a strange and uncertain prospect after years of institutionalized care. Without many experiences to guide her, she was likely apprehensive and fearful. Choice is a gift, one that is practiced daily throughout our lives. When your world has been governed by others, considerations outside the realm of what is known can be terrifying.

She was introduced to this concept gradually, with Grace for support. She visited her new home and touched everything, signing the word ‘mine’ over and over, with a combination of joy and surprise.

Eventually she agreed to move out of the Manitoba Developmental Center. A liberating world filled with choices was revealed. Debbie began to experience things we generally take for granted. She could stand undecided, with her fridge door open, and contemplate a snack. She could pull food out from her own kitchen cupboards. She could invite friends over for coffee, have a smoke on the deck, and make plans for herself. She began to participate in all the mundane, yet beautiful rhythms of unstructured living.

Moving forward to 2015, Debbie has good friends, a large social group and a busy schedule. Crank some music and you will find Debbie flashing a peace symbol; arms raised and head bobbing. She can feel the beating of loud music, and her air guitar skills are legendary. When she flashes her mischievous smile, it’s obvious how she easily she swindled kisses for cigarettes.

Debbie still has overnight visits with Grace, but Debbie is satisfied to leave when her visit comes to an end. Sometimes Debbie is packed and ready to go, before Grace is ready say good-bye. This is a good thing, Grace assures me, Debbie finally has a home she can call her own.

Written by Laurie McLean