“So, you’re in The Free now?” an old friend asked.
I haven’t heard that phrase, “The Free,” in such a long time I almost forgot about it. It was used for those who lived on the streets or a life of addictions. In prison, it had a different meaning.
“You’re joining The Free,” the guys would say when an inmate was getting released. The Free is more than just a saying to those who are caught in the cycle of drug or alcohol dependency. It’s also more than just a phrase for those who are incarcerated or shut in a hospital.
The Free is something tangible; something a person can feel or even smell. I suppose I almost forgot what The Free meant because of all the time I spent in a hospital or waiting at a clinic. Going back a few years, The Free meant walking out of an institution and not looking back.
Ever since I was a boy, I dreamed of The Free. Maybe that was partly because I started my education in a residential school – although I was one of the lucky ones, because that whole concept was being phased out by the time I started school.
I was in one of those schools for a few weeks when the rules changed, and First Nations students were allowed to attend a day school. The day school on my reserve was right next door to the residential school.
There were white families who lived on the reserve and their children attended the day school. I remember looking at the students and thinking how nice it would be to wear shorts, a T-shirt and proper runners.
The students at the residential school had to wear uniforms that felt like horse blanket material. The Free, at the time, meant I could wear anything I wanted.
A day school was where a student could attend school during the day and go home for the evening, much like what we have today. After day school, the students on the reserve were bused into the closest town.
I’ll never forget my first ride on a school bus. The school bus we had was a horse team with a covered wagon. The wagon was like one of those gypsy wagons made of wood with windows. It also had a small stove inside.
The best part was waiting for the jingle of the bells the horses wore around their necks. Then, I knew I would soon get inside to the comfort of a warm fire.
For some reason, the students aboard were shy and hardly spoke a word. Of course, you couldn’t shut me up because I spoke Cree and there’s not a shy bone in me.
That, I’m sure, was because I grew up on a northern trap line and the only company I had was my dogs.
For the past eight years, I’ve been battling an intestinal illness. There have been several times when the doctors said I would never make it past six months – and yet here I am. It’s been less than a year where I haven’t felt pain or lived in a land of confusion. It’s only been a while that I can truly say I am enjoying The Free.
It’s only when freedom has been previously taken that one truly understands how to live the life of The Free. Today, I enjoy my walks, which are a big part of my medical recovery. Today, I can thank the Creator for standing with me during the darkest days of my life. I can feel it and even smell it.
I look forward to the new year. I look forward to the challenges and good times. Today, my street is going in a direction where I see so much potential. Today, my street is leading toward a little place called The Free.