Day 280 - Graham

Day 280 - Graham (1st person I approached)
October 07, 2014 - I saw Graham from across the street. He was sitting outside a coffee shop, alone and reading. I approached him, told him what I was doing and asked if he would be willing to chat with me.

“Well, I’m a very private person, but as long as it only takes a few minutes,” he said. There were fewer questions for me to ask than other conversations I’ve had. Graham is a good storyteller, and for the most part, the story flowed. I asked the occasional question to either reinforce the story in my memory, or to clarify the sequence of events. We chatted for over an hour. 


“I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. My mother died when I was twelve days old. I was raised by my loving, wonderful grandmother, my father's mother,” he said. His father remarried, and Graham has a younger brother and sister from the second marriage.

“When I was three years old, I went to live with my father and stepmother. I went from holy love to holy hell,” said Graham. He told me about the last memories he has of his grandmother.


“I was maybe just four years old, and was at home. There was a knock at the door and my stepmother hurriedly made me get into the wardrobe (closet) and locked the door. I remember it was very dark, and full of clothing. I didn’t understand what was happening. I heard my grandmother’s voice and then I heard my stepmother slap my grandmother. It must have been very hard because it was loud. My grandmother left, sobbing,” he told me. His stepmother then let him out of the wardrobe, without any explanation.

“She wasn’t a nice woman. The next time I saw my grandmother was when I was probably in Grade one. I had just started school. I was out playing in the front yard, and I heard my grandmother’s voice. She had a nickname for me, and I heard her call me. I knew it was her before I saw her, just from the name and the voice. I ran and leapt into her arms, wrapping myself around her and pleaded with her to never leave me again,” he said.

“I don’t remember what happened after that, but I do know that’s the last time I ever saw her. No one ever talked about her again. Not my stepmother, nor my father or my uncle, my father’s brother,” Graham said.


He shared a few other memories of his childhood.

“I was sick one time, at the age of about five and I remember my stepmother saying she wished I would die. My father never said anything to her about that. And then when I was six, she (his stepmother) took me with her while she visited her mother. My sister was with us as well. My stepmother and her mother spoke Afrikaans, and I knew a few words. I heard her make reference to my little sister as her daughter. Then she used an Afrikaans word that I didn't know, but I knew it was used to describe me, or about me. I asked a friend of mine the next day what this word meant, and she told me it meant ‘he’s not mine’ and it shocked me, but made sense some how. Strange for a six year old to figure that out,” he said. That’s how Graham found out that she wasn’t his mother.

Some time later, he came home from school and exclaimed he had gotten an ‘A’ in a test at school.

“My stepmother slapped me across the face and called me a liar. I don’t know where it came from but I didn't cry. I told her ‘you’re not my mother,’ and I could tell she was shocked. I remember feeling glad that she wasn’t my mother,” said Graham. They didn’t know how Graham had found this out. HIs father accused his Uncle of telling him, and they got in a heated argument. Then his father accused a neighbour of telling Graham about his stepmother, and another argument ensued. Finally, his father asked him where he had heard that, and Graham told his father.

“Things were never the same after that. My family didn’t visit each other any longer. My father didn’t see his brother, and my Uncle never came to visit us, even thought he lived nearby,” he said.


His father would beat him regularly for no apparent reason.

“In my final year at (elementary) school, I had a teacher named Bula, who became like a surrogate mother to me. I’m sure she had figured out what was happening at home. On my last day at school she pulled me aside and told me ‘Graham, you’re a young man now. You’re smart and you have to work hard and be a good student.’ I never forgot her words,” he said. 


In high-school, Graham was put in the lowest intelligence stream; a process determining a student's educational future.

“I was in a class to basically fill the time. It wasn't expected that anyone would do that well in this stream,” he said. However, Graham did exceptionally well in school.

“I was in class one day and a teacher came to see me, she wasn’t one of my teachers, but she told me she had taught my father. She had seen my name and wanted to come and meet me. She asked me why I was in that class, and said she couldn’t understand what was going on. I soon got moved to the advanced, university prep class, and continued to work hard and did very well,” said Graham.


Another  pivotal moment happened at age fourteen. Graham’s father was giving him another beating for no apparent reason and he said things changed that day.

“We were in the backyard. I didn’t react, I didn’t cry, or try to fight back, or even move much. My father stopped and just stood looking at me. My stepmother had been watching from the kitchen and shouted out the back door ‘I told you to give him a good licking.’ I realized my father was trapped and that she was the boss. She was the reason for the beatings,” he said.

“I focussed on my schoolwork and surprised everyone by becoming a math whizz. I even helped my math teacher to figure out a problem that he was stuck on. He told me that I should work with numbers, and said I’d make a great accountant.”


Graham worked hard, he went to university and became qualified as a Chartered Accountant. He left South Africa as soon as he could.

“I landed in London, England, and thought that part of my life was over. I wanted to just put it all behind me. I felt a sense of relief. The naivety of youth,” he said. Graham got a job, made good friends and started living his own life.

“I had a roommate who was American. We had worked together and shared a flat as well. I had been in London for about three years when he suggested we go to New York, and take a road trip for three months across the United States. We quit our jobs and left for America,” he said. They bought a rusted out car in New York and drove as far as Phoenix, Arizona, where the car died.

"The engine caught fire,” said Graham with a wide smile. They bought another car and drove on, ending up Seattle. My friend had been to Vancouver (British Columbia - BC) and he suggested we drive here. So that’s what we did,” he said. Graham remembers sitting on Cornwall Avenue at Kitsilano Beach.

“I was mesmerized by the beauty, the colour of the sky, and the mountains. The rhododendrons, I loved the flowers. We only stayed here a few days at the end of our trip, but the city left an impression,” he said. 


Back in London, Graham’s visa had expired. He had to leave the country, and re-enter again to keep getting his passport stamped.

“I went to Zurich and came back and got my passport stamped for one month. I was counting on it being a six month stamp. If I couldn’t stay in London and didn’t get things sorted out, I could be deported back to South Africa. I did not want that to happen. I went to Zurich again and when I got back to London, it was the same customs official that had stamped my passport the last time. He made it clear that this would be the final time. I went to the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square, to see if there was anything that they could help me with. As I was leaving, I looked across the Square, and there was the Canadian Embassy. There was a large banner hanging from the Embassy that said ‘Canada. Land of Opportunity.’ That’s when I decided I’d come to Vancouver,” he said, smiling.


Graham tried buying a Vancouver Sun newspaper and looking for a job while in London, but with no success. He found a work agency for jobs in Canada. They had nothing in Vancouver, but there was an accounting job in Toronto. All of the paperwork was going to take much longer than the month that Graham had left.

“I thought I could either try to leave and come back one more time, or face deportation. I took a ferry to France and spent a week in Paris. On the ferry coming back, I had met some people travelling from South Africa and a gentleman from Scotland. He was rather boisterous and extremely funny. In no time we had others on the ferry join us for drinks. Turns out one of the fellows who joined was the Immigration Officer for the ferry we were on. Long story short, he stamped my passport for six months! I was able to wait for the paperwork to came through, got the job and moved to Toronto,” said Graham.

“Synchronicity worked in my favour!”


Graham arrived in Toronto just in time for winter, and didn’t like the cold.

“That’s when I came to Vancouver to live. One of my friends from London had moved here and he had found me an apartment, I got a job and everything was falling into place. Then the recession hit and I got laid off. I couldn’t find any work. No one was looking for an accountant. I exhausted my (un)employment insurance, and was close to needing to apply for Social Assistance. A friend told someone he knew back in New York that I was having a tough time. He asked for my resume and five days later I had a ticket to fly to Bermuda to work for (a large accounting) firm. I stayed there for two years working on this project. Then I was offered another project and went to New York and worked there for nine months,” he said. While in New York, Graham was offered another opportunity, but it was back in Toronto again.

“I probably should have taken that, looking back, but I said no. I wanted to go back to Vancouver, not Toronto.”


With his three years of experience working internationally, Graham was able to get work with a government agency as a Business Analyst, here in Vancouver. He did that for ten years.

“At fifty-eight years old, my world started to spiral downward. I was going to my Doctor and he wasn’t finding anything. I was constantly exhausted, fatigued and disinterested in things. I had always been active with health and fitness, jogging and I did a lot of yoga. I lost all interest in that. And when I did feel I had the energy, I didn’t have the motivation. I went to Emergency at Vancouver General hospital twice and was sent home twice. I was starting to have thoughts of suicide. I went to a different hospital the third time. While I was at the UBC (University of British Columbia) Hospital, there were two Doctors asking me questions about my symptoms. One of them said, 'It sounds like clinical depression.' That was the first time I’d ever heard of that,” he said. 


Graham wasn’t responding to any treatments.

“We tried all kinds of medications. Some medications worked for a little while and then the effects wore off. I had three major relapses,” he told me. Over the course of a year, Graham was hospitalized a number of times at the Mood Disorder Clinic, sometimes for several weeks at a time.

“They recommended electro shock treatment because no medications were working. At one point I was getting treatment three times a week, for almost a year. I didn’t even know where I was at times,” he said. Eventually, they found a drug combination that seemed to have a positive effect on Graham’s major depression. 


“It’s been almost five years now. I’ve not had electro shock therapy for a few years. I strongly believe that saved my life though. I’m seeing a therapist, at first it was weekly, but only once a month now. I’m no longer able to work. I’ve read so many books on depression and on how the brain functions. Of course we know that the met important years in anyone’s life are the first years of development. When a child is denied a loving nurturing upbringing, it can really screw things up,” he said.

“I’m actually starting to have feelings again. Now I can feel things, the breeze on my face, the warmth from the sun. I noticed the trees on the street I live on. They’re beautiful, but I never noticed them before.”


Our time had come to an end. I took Graham’s picture and wanted him to know how grateful I was for him sharing such a personal story, and for his honesty. Graham thanked me for talking with him.

“I’m so glad you asked me to talk. We’re on the same page. I don’t ever share like this, but I have to say, you helped me to get some things off my chest. Thank you for the good work you’re doing.” And as I walked away he looked at me and said

“Have you thought about a book?” #notastranger