My sister was handed a tragic ending to a once promising future. She lived a secret life as a victim of conjugal violence suffered at the hands of the man she called her greatest love. He was one of many who subjected her to abuse. After her departure, the crushing weight of all the questions I carried was unbearable and they squeezed out every ounce of joy from my fading spirit. I didn't shine as brightly as I used to, and so I closed the curtains tight around my heart, letting few enter.
I remember my sister having a real talent to make others laugh. Then one night without warning, she disappeared with only a bottle of rum in her hands. For 27 years, her tragic ending guided me through a painful journey that has just recently brought me to a destination of healing. Finally, I have became part of a national circle with other MMIW survivors and family members searching for peace, support, and shelter from a seemingly cold and uncaring world.
Together, we have stood side by side and built relationships with leaders, justice advocates, and Canadian citizens. Healing circles, candlelight vigils, and marches (rain or shine) have become the means to the end of this dark time in our living history. For me, I had to hold fast to the medicines, self-care practices, and trained healers and health professionals. I know that I cannot directly heal anyone but myself and I do this by surrendering to past thoughts, behaviours, and emotions that once crippled me.
As a participant in two pre-inquires held across the country, two family gatherings, and the second National Roundtable in Winnipeg, I witnessed countless testimonies; many of which will be etched in my mind forever. I also witnessed more than three decades of sorrow, fear, and shame peeled away from wounded hearts in some of the most sacred and peaceful environments I've ever known. My light, once covered by years of numbing debris, now shines brighter than ever. I understand how much violent pain can come from never getting answers. It leaves a deep hole filled with anger, mistrust, and helplessness. Losing a loved one to violence leaves a pain only family members and survivors fully understand. It’s a hardship and agony which has become our collective legacy and sense of connection. For many, it is a burden to too heavy carry alone for too long.
To hear another wounded soul recount their personal experience left me in utter shock and shook my false stability and composure. The experience crushed my protective walls until I lay motionless, resting firmly on my heart’s foundation until the dust settled.
I was speechless, but as the person continued their testimony I watched anger move through their body giving way to a sorrow that eventually became strength and wisdom. They showed me what I had failed to show myself. I was grieving, my covered wounds bleeding through their invisible bandages, and my heart was frozen, hidden and guarded. Being with healers and gifted support workers who were so kind and attentive gave me the warmth of love and caring. This melted my heart and the tears flowed once more. My testimony bubbled to the surface, and as the tears streamed down my neck towards my heart I heard the deepest moan leave my body. My sorrow was bigger than me and I could no longer hold on to it.
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Losing a sister had a trickling effect. Eventually, I lost parts of my parents and other siblings, along with my own peace of mind and security. For the longest time, no one who knew me after 1988 knew I had lost a sister. Those who did rarely mentioned her name or asked me how I felt about it. Her picture stared back at me, never giving a clue or answer when I spoke to her smiling face. I searched for truth behind her frozen smile. Our family tree was hit by lightning and left some family members hanging like branches eventually falling to the ground. Gradually they faded away from the dinner tables and family gatherings. They set sail on their own grieving journey or silent resolve while I was lead towards a healing path calling me out of the darkness where I felt the safest, yet alone.
Seasons came and went, but the destruction in my heart remained evident; the storm never seeming to leave my collective consciousness. As I grew older, my environments constantly stirred. The changing clouds and wind forced me to seek shelter among others who stood on the red path of healing. I kept going back accepting any invitation to join gatherings, marches and vigils. Being with others who understood and accepted me as I was gave me a sense of connectivity. They validated my words and honoured the strength in my walk. They noticed my smile, appreciated my presence and saw my light growing brighter.
Only now do I understand that I was serving a life sentence for a crime I never committed. I punished myself for surviving while my sister did not. This punishment was also enforced on an already vulnerable population, a sacred family unit. I know that I do possess the natural ability to heal and recover, and so too can my family tree. My sister was a fallen branch and she returned to mother earth. Nature is strong and forever renewing itself to provide a space and time for all living things.
Healing comes in stages and layers, just like a reptile shedding its scales. Each time I shed a protective layer that has held my spirit in bondage, my spirit feels bigger and brighter. Time is all survivors are given; and together we are becoming new creatures - beautiful, colourful butterflies that gently sail through the wind. Our purpose is to search for and touch as many flowers as possible as the sun shines above us.
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With fragile wings we will continue to soar, surrendering our sorrow to the winds that blow beyond our control. We rest in the warm sunshine and when the rains come hold tight and safe as the breeze dries our wings. When the sun shines bright once more, we will instinctively take flight in search of the pretty flowers. We are beginning to rely less on our thoughts and move more gracefully - more freely - as we are truly meant to. We each know without knowing when we are ready. Survival is always going to be a struggle butterflies must endure. Existence is a mere moment in time, and we butterflies exist only to radiate beauty in a range of colours without uttering a sound. We teach humanity that fragility, grace, and strength in motion possesses a great unspeakable gentleness that touches everyone and everything we encounter.
So I end my article with this offer to you: be like a butterfly and soar to the highest of places and allow the winds to hold and guide you on your journey.
Cheryl McDonald is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Kanesatake Mohawk Nation of the Iroquis Confederacy and of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. She grew up in the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, New York. Now a wife, mother, and grandmother, Cheryl spends much of her time close to home with her family. After many successful years working in Human Resource Development for the AFN, she is glad to be guiding herself in the direction of another passion: writing.