When asked the question, “Who is your most memorable person?” most people struggle to find an answer. But for me, It’s easy. Irene Loraine Girard is the most memorable person in my life.
I first met Irene when I was sixteen years old and my social worker brought me to The Inn of Windsor. Bishop Carter of Windsor provided the seed money for Irene to fulfill her dream of opening a group home that would assist in equipping young girls with the skills needed to survive on their own. After much searching, Irene found and purchased the perfect house, which she was able to turn into a home for girls aged 16 to 25 and called it “The Inn”. At the time, I had family problems and was unable to remain at home, so my social worker, Carol, thought The Inn would be a possible solution. It being a new group home for disadvantaged girls, Carol made an appointment for us.
Irene was a gregarious woman of large stature with short, dark hair. She was cordial and welcoming to Carol and me and gave us a complete tour of this majestic, old home. She also went over some of the rules and guidelines for living at The Inn. I was anxious to move in; I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be now. I was the first girl to take up residence, although others quickly followed. The Inn quickly filled up and Irene’s dream was on its way to becoming a reality for hundreds of disadvantaged girls in the Windsor area.
The Inn became my home for the next year. I immediately loved Irene. Even though she was a bit stern, I found her caring and loving. Initially, Irene was spending almost twenty-four hours a day at the Inn and sleeping in her office. Occasionally she would have a volunteer come in and she’d be able to go home for the night. In time, she was able to secure funding to hire a full time housemother. This meant she was able to go home every night and even have the occasional weekend off, but she remained totally devoted to “her girls,” and we all felt it. Not to say there wasn’t conflict. When you have ten teenage girls there is undoubtedly going to be conflict. But she handled this conflict with her calm and firm disposition. She had been raised herself in a loving, but strict, Catholic family, which ultimately provided her with many skills that she was able to apply with “her girls” at The Inn.
During my year at The Inn, Irene helped me to learn ways to overcome many childhood issues. She also supported me in obtaining employment, as I did not want to return to school. Eventually, I was able to move into my own apartment and support myself. The Inn supplied me with many of the household items I needed to set up my apartment. Even after moving out, Irene frequently invited me for a home cooked meal. Through the years I got married, moved away from Windsor, had a family, and, through it all, Irene continued to be a part of my life.
She never married. She felt The Inn was her calling in life?that there was no room for anything or anyone else. When she retired, after twenty-five years at The Inn, I was invited to her retirement celebration as a special guest, and given a bursary to help pay for expenses, as I was completing my degree.
Irene often introduced me as her daughter and would introduce my daughter as her granddaughter. She was always there for me and I never felt it was a job for her, but rather that she genuinely cared about me and how I was doing in life. After her retirement, Irene continued to keep in touch with the girls at The Inn. Our visits often included Irene bringing me up to date on some of the latest situations there. A story she often repeated was when she was bitten on the arm by a girl in a fit of rage that she was trying to restrain. Often she would go into extensive detail about a particular girl, never revealing her name, of course, and I enjoyed hearing these stories as I shared her interest in psychology and social work.
But as time went on, I became more involved in my own life and we seemed to drift apart. I hadn’t spoken to Irene for quite a while when I received a very disturbing letter from her. She had cancer. The letter assured me she was okay and not in any pain, however, I called her right away.
“Irene, I just got your letter. Are you okay?”
“Oh, yes, I shouldn’t have told you in a letter, I should have called you, sorry Barb.”
“What type of cancer do you have?”
“Multiple Myeloma. It is in my bones. I had a lot of pain but just thought it was my arthritis.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“I’m starting treatment next week.”
“I’d like to come down and see you.”
“Why don’t you wait for a bit until we see how the treatment goes? I will let you know.”
I waited for a couple of weeks, then called again. Irene was home, and yes, I should come and visit. I was shocked when I saw her, she was no longer the strong, vibrant woman I knew. She was weak, frail, and had lost a ton of weight. I told her she looked good, as we often do when there is nothing else to say. We hugged, although she was apprehensive, as she explained her bones were very weak and painful. In fact, she told me she broke her shoulder while holding on to the counter to help get up from the toilet. I was unable to say anything; the words became lodged in my throat. As usual, Irene was able to read my face.
“That was a while ago, I’m better now, you are such a worry wart, Barb.”
We said our goodbyes after a brief visit, and I promised to call her the next week. But, before I could, I received a call from Irene’s niece. Irene was in the hospital, in a coma, with only days left. I told Paula I would be there soon. “No, Barb, she wouldn’t know you were here, It’s a long way to come. Irene knows how you feel about her. I will keep you updated.” I reluctantly agreed to stay put. Two days later Irene was gone. I was heartbroken. The person who was always there for me and showed me how to overcome so much was now gone from this world.
I took time to grieve this special woman, but ultimately I knew Irene expected me to carry on and live the life that was given to me.
The Inn of Windsor continues to fulfill Irene’s dream and assist many young women to reach their potential and be all they can be.
Barbara Godin is a graduate of AU and writes the “Dear Barb” column. She lives in London, Ontario with her husband, two dogs, and one cat.