NOTL Local – October 31
It’s a balmy evening only a few weeks ago in September and I’m walking with my dog towards a brilliantly hued sunset on Wall Rd. In the distance I can see the headlights of a little silver pickup truck pulling into the driveway of a farm bunkhouse. A young boy hops into the back, sorting out items as the men gather round.
Ferd Klassen and his ten year old grandson, Nate, are a familiar sight at many of the farms and bunk houses in Niagara on the Lake. For the past eleven years Ferd has been showing up every week in the summer and fall months selling tools and farm supplies to the men. He is also generous with his support, offering an attentive ear, asking about their families back home and sharing news from one farm to another.
HIs close knit friendship with the men is a unique story that began years ago.
It started in July, 2007 when I ( Jane ) was called to the St. Catharines General Hospital by a nurse concerned about the welfare of a patient who was to be sent back to Jamaica. Upon arrival I recognized Roger as one of the men employed by Epp farms. Two months earlier he had received a certificate of recognition at a welcome concert for 27 years of working and contributing to our community.
That night however his face was gaunt. He was despairing, afraid he would die if he was sent home. He told me about how he first began to experience excruciating pain in his side in early April. He visited the doctor multiple times only to be sent back with Tylenol. Finally in late May he crumpled under the peach trees and his coworkers called the ambulance.
Frightened and alone in the hospital, eight weeks passed in a blur of pain and anxiety.
He was informed he had multiple myeloma and the resulting kidney failure required dialysis three times a week. Phone calls were made to physicians in Jamaica who confirmed that there was a 6 month wait for dialysis. The news was overwhelming, knowing he would suffer a slow death within two weeks of his return.
We were given a slim thread of hope when the doctors informed the Jamaican Liaison Service that they reversed their decision to support his return home.
Accessing medical care however was just the beginning of the process as there were new legal and practical matters that needed to be addressed. The complexity of these challenges were daunting but then amazing things began to happen.
Within a week someone approached me in the lobby after church. Muggs Klassen offered to have Roger come and stay in their home as long as was needed. She was a nurse in the oncology unit and was familiar with the care required for someone dealing with the aftermath of cancer treatment. It seemed too good to be true!
Tim Wichert, a local immigration lawyer, offered his services pro bono, ensuring that Roger could remain legally to receive the necessary treatment. Neighbours showed up, offering a place for him to stay or transportation to appointments.
When he was discharged in August he moved in with our family and neighbours for a few weeks until Ferd and Muggs Klassen had his room ready. His strength slowly began to return as he responded to treatment and the dedicated care of the Klassen family.
He was eager to reciprocate and became actively involved with Southridge Community Church where the Klassens attended.
It was a joyous occasion when the community once again made it possible for Troy and Asheda, two of his adult children to come to Canada to celebrate his baptism and Christmas together. Jason and Mark, his older sons, also worked at Epp farms. Although he had only been expected to have about six months to live after treatment he continued to thrive, included in weddings, holidays and other Klassen family milestones.
His interviews on television and in the media touched the lives of many as he shared his story.
Dr. Giesbrecht, the head of oncology, offered Roger a large piece of her rural property which was transformed into a lush garden the following year. The bounty that he produced was shared generously at the hospital with the many staff members who appreciated his sense of humour and down home Jamaican wisdom.
My father, Rube Friesen, picked him up from dialysis every Friday and they would spend the afternoon together, enjoying each others company, puttering around our garden or helping local seniors.
Neighbours and Southridge members continued to show up to assist with appointments or include him in their family activities.
Roger and Ferd regularly visited coworkers on the farm where he had been employed for 27 years. Ferd worked for a farm equipment supply business. Together they began selling Stihl weedwackers, chainsaws and supplies to men on the surrounding farms who were eager to purchase quality equipment to take home to Jamaica.
For three years Roger lead an active, fulfilling life until his health began to decline in September, 2010. When it was clear that he had little time left his son Troy arranged a flight home to Jamaica where he passed away peacefully in his hometown days later. His resting place is on the scenic hilltop where he had hoped to build his retirement home some day.
Nine years have passed since Roger left us but his legacy lives on in the lives of the people who were part of his beloved community.
In 2012 Southridge Church began an outreach to the Caribbean workers at their Vineland location. The program includes monthly special events, bi-weekly clinics, BBQ’s and cricket games from April to October. Best of all, the men on the farms are made to feel part of the family and included in regular church life. Southridge also partners with other churches to ensure that men as far as Grimsby can take part in the activities.
There are so many simple ways we can invite life affirming values into our work and day to day routine:
By conversations around our dinner tables.
By grandparents passing their values on to the next generations in their everyday attitudes and actions.
By being a living example of caring for those who have traditionally been marginalized.
By showing up. And continuing to show up.
We didn’t always recognize our own transformation in the journey with Roger as it was often incremental, in the intentional choices we made daily. A friend once remarked – “Showing up is often enough, and that in itself brings all kinds of healing I didn’t even know I needed.”
The sun is beginning to set and the last of the orders are filled. Nate perches on the edge of the bed of the pickup next to his grandpa, little knees up to his chin. The pride he feels for his grandpa is very evident, bright eyed and attentive to the light-hearted conversations with the men as they wrap up.
“ We go to Jamaica three times a week” he declares proudly to me. “My grandpa is teaching me how to fill orders so when he gets too old I can take over for him!”
“ He really wants to go to the real Jamaica so we hope to make it happen someday,” adds Ferd as he gives his grandson a squeeze around the shoulders. Ferd and his wife Muggs have made a number of trips there with friends and family and know their way around.
“Ja mon, we’ll be looking for you Nate. Soon come!”
There is laughter as they gather around, silhouettes illuminated by the headlights, sharing in the warmth of the little gathering.