By James Breckenridge. Dustin Mackenzie was 11 years old on May 31, 2014 when he suffered a traumatic head injury while skateboarding without his helmet on, passing away on June 2, 2014.
On Saturday June 14th several hundred members of the community gathered in Jubilee Park, under the grey skies that threatened to deliver the predicted rainfall at any moment, to remember Dustin and celebrate his life.
In remembering Dustin his mother spoke of not understanding why he made the fatal decision not to wear his helmet.
It called to mind a recent conversation about how the most surprising aspect for several of us in still being alive was that we survived our childhood and teenage years.
At that age, as kids, things like wearing a helmet while skateboarding or biking are not thought of as life and death decisions. Being a kid is about exploring, experiencing and learning about the world.
I cannot remember when I first met Dustin other that he was in diapers; which is the kind of fact that is handy to have in reserve in case you ever need to render a young person, especially a young man, speechless.
I remember a day in August 2011 when Dustin, myself and a new writer for the Tyee converged on a courtyard that had a basketball backboard.
Dustin wanted to stay outside while his mother went inside to take care of her business and since his mother knew most of those in the courtyard she allowed him to stay outside and shoot baskets.
The writer was in Abbotsford as the starting point for his excursion to learn all about the homeless and homelessness. He was going to acquire this knowledge, this understanding, by spending a week, in the fine dry weather of August, living homeless and making his way from Abbotsford to Vancouver.
I don’t know what darkness was in the writer’s mind nor do I know what this darkness had him seeing that hot August afternoon. All I know is that it had him feeling that Dustin needed a social worker to protect him from people like those of us in the courtyard.
When I read that he thought Dustin needed protection from the occupants of the courtyard, I found myself thinking that it was not only the homeless and homelessness he was ignorant about – knowledge, awareness and assumption wise – but that he was also obviously ignorant as to family and community.
What I remember most about that afternoon was that it was hot, the kind of heat only mad dogs and Englishmen venture out in the midday sun of, or that only a kid would consider shooting baskets in.
It turned out that Dustin didn’t want to stand there shooting baskets by himself but wanted somebody to shoot baskets and chat with him.
So there stood Dustin, with his trademark grin on his face, waiting for someone to get off their ass and shoot baskets with him as though it was his right to have someone shoot baskets with him.
Which it was. The homeless community is, perhaps more than any other community, aware of how important it is to gift children with an adult’s time and attention.
So, over the course of that blazing hot afternoon, individuals would get up and shoot baskets and talk with Dustin. Including myself, although I am a terrible shot and often have trouble managing to even hit the backboard. But then it wasn’t scoring baskets that was important, it was the opportunity that shooting baskets provided to talk [and laugh at myself] with Dustin.
Over the next few years, particularly during the Thursday evening barbecues, Dustin would come up to you with that grin on his face and you would stand there waiting to see whether he had a question or another really bad joke to share.
I took to having a real groaner or two in reserve to use in those instances where Dustin had a bad joke, a really bad joke, to tell.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that he was loved by his family and had a community that cared and had time for him that was the reason that, although Dustin did not have a lot of stuff, he was not selfish and understood about sharing and that others had a greater need.
Two months ago, while watching television with his family, an advertisement for organ donation came on and Dustin – after a little thought – told his mother that if anything happened to him he would want his organs shared with those who needed them.
Because his mother honoured Dustin’s wishes, six individuals are enjoying life and health.
Because his mother honoured Dustin’s wishes, the smile that Dustin shared with the world has not been lost to the world. Rather, through Dustin’s generosity of spirit, his smile has been passed along to those six individuals and their families.