There’s someone I’d like you to know

Jen Dyck-Sprout
12 min readSep 8, 2022

Dear Teo,

A few days after you were born, I realized I had forgotten to share the big news with a friend who I’d been close to for the last 15 years. Though this friend, Matthew, was now only 21 years old, he too was a new parent, so I knew he would be extra excited to hear you’d finally arrived. I opened Facebook messenger (the only way to get in touch with him), and it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard from him in about 4 months.

It wasn’t *that* unusual for us to go months at a time without communicating. Matthew was notoriously difficult to reach. He’d change aliases on Facebook without warning, when he wasn’t locked out of his account altogether. To make matters worse, he didn’t have a cell phone. Between his regular stints in custody and living in Tadoule Lake, the isolated reserve near the Arctic Circle that he called home, he had no use for one.

Tadoule Lake, Canada

Usually no news was good news. It meant he was likely in jail, safe and sound, and that eventually I’d get a call from an unknown number. I’d hear the familiar “An inmate at Headingley Correctional…” recording and drop everything I was doing to try to get somewhere quiet to hit 1 so I could accept the call.

Hey! What happened? Are you ok?”

He was, he reassured me each time. “I’ll probably get out soon.”

Then he’d fill me in on whatever his newest charges were (usually aggravated assault, most often someone he knew, always while intoxicated), and he’d tell me what really happened, with more details than he probably should have shared on a recorded call, as much as could be squeezed into a call with a 10 minute limit anyway.

Matthew, age 17, and me (November, 2018)

Fifteen years ago when we met, when I was 21, he was my new (now ex-) boyfriend Mike’s newest foster brother. Though he was shy, I could tell immediately that he was an old soul. For a five year old, he really struck me as bright, honest, sensitive, kind, generous, and thoughtful.

I soon learned that he was in foster care because his dad, who became a parent at 16, was abusive when he was drunk (which he often was). I learned that he’d never known his mom, that he’d already smoked weed, and that he loved hunting caribou.

The other three foster brothers Matthew shared a room with didn’t take any interest in me, but Matthew hung around when I came over. He’d tell me about Tadoule, and I’d tell him about my recent exchange in Germany, my travels around Europe, the range of classes I had to choose from at McGill, and the impressive friends I’d made, hoping my stories might inspire him to go to university one day.

For a long time I wanted to save Matthew, even believed I could. As if I even knew what “saving” looked like. He inspired me to work in education, thinking, if I could just reach kids like Matthew sooner…

Matthew, age 6 (April 15, 2008)

“I wanna be a dentist.” he messaged me after his first release from Agassiz, a juvenile detention centre outside Winnipeg.

“Oh no way, that’s awesome! You can help a lot of people as a dentist. And obviously make a lot of money :)” I assumed this is what would best motivate a teenager.

Lol I’m really not in it for money..I really like that kinda stuff”

“What do you like about it?”

“I just wanna help the people that need it…like people that don’t have nice teeth. Plus I think that if I help other people and their teeth, another dentist can help me..”

I assume by the time you read this, that Matthew’s story is going to sound cliche: abusive alcoholic father; no steady home; no high school diploma….the biography of someone we’re used to reading negative headlines about, so often we don’t give this person’s history a second thought. We maybe don’t even give this *person* a second thought. I suppose this is my attempt to try to convince you to see the person behind the headlines.

Matthew, age 9, drinking a smoothie we made together (August 22, 2011)

Mike and I continued to date, and Matthew and I continued to build our relationship. When he was 9, Mike’s mom asked if I wanted to work for the agency as his mentor for the summer. My mom had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and I had recently quit my job to spend as much time with her as possible. But with her limited energy, I had a lot of spare time on my hands, and figured I could use the distraction. Plus, I hated to watch a kid with so much potential waste his summer inside watching tv. So I agreed.

We had a great summer together. We swam, made lots smoothies, and went on many bike rides. I took him to museums, to the zoo, and on hikes. He seemed to enjoy it, but I always figured it was a bit of a chore for him and he’d rather be watching tv or playing with kids his age.

“Remember the time we biked to the Zoo?” he asked on one of our ten minute calls.

I didn’t, but I was amazed, and touched, that he did. “Oh ya, I forgot about that,” I said, “why?

“I dunno. That was fun.”

A corrections officer tracked me down to put us back in touch and arrange a visit. She turned around the paperwork faster than usual. Everyone who met Matthew was rooting for him.

That first visit to Agassiz, he served me banana bread. I assumed it was a snack provided to all guests until he told me it was “like the banana bread we used to make.”

Apparently he had convinced the staff to bake it just for my visit. Another memory of our summer together that I had completely forgotten about.

He then suggested we play chess. Apparently I had taught him how to do that too.

That was the first time I’d seen him since the day our working relationship ended 8 years prior. A day I’ll never forget.

Mike’s mom sent him back, got rid of him with a single phone call saying they’d had enough. I’d arrived to Mike’s just after one of his violent outbursts (I’d never seen this side of him, and to do this day, I am sure I never, ever would).

Not worth the extra few hundred dollars” Mike’s mom told me.

She said it as if I totally understood and was on her side. I can’t say I didn’t pretend to be. Like a good Mennonite, I liked to keep the peace. We’re all products of our histories after all.

I found Matthew in his room crying on his top bunk. He refused to look or talk to me. I took a picture of him lying there with his eyes closed and left his room. It was still a couple years before my mom died and I learned how stupid it was to be shy about telling someone you love them.

He wasn’t the first kid Mike’s mom had sent back. Where they went next, I’ll never know, but I know that Timmy died crossing the street, Maurice ended up in a federal penitentiary, and Landis was last seen by Matthew years later carrying a sawed-off shotgun in downtown Winnipeg. I forget the names of the others.

But Matthew was always my favourite.

Where was he now though? I looked at our message history.

Jan 26, 2022

M: Hi How’s the pregnancy going?

J: Hey! How are you?? Still going ok! Over half way there, really starting to feel the kicks these days

Mar 3, 2022

J: In winnipeg

Mar 17, 2022

Happy birthday!

It was now June 10th. How did I not notice he didn’t reply to my hastily sent messages? I read back earlier in our history to our most recent conversation.

January 3rd:

J: How’s Mckenzie doing?? Send more pics!!

Matthew and his daughter Mckenzie

M: She’s doing good. How about you? Im tired..long sleepless nights

J: I bet. Remember, it’ll get better in a few months!!

M: I hope so..she barely cry’s..she just wants to be close to me n her mom. And I have this sleep thing that I wake up really fast like jumping up or throwing punches so it’s kinda hard

J: Haha awwwww. It’s ok, she’s probably not as breakable as she seems. That being said, you know to never ever shake her right!!!

M: yeah…I read that shaking baby yhingy

J: Good. what else have you been learning??

M: Changing pampers..learning her little routine…always wakes up at 3:15–3:30 in the morning. I took off at 7 oclock this morning went hunting went to the barren lands looking for caribou

J: Find any?”

M: No I don’t think I’m gunna hunt caribou anymore. They put up something at the nursing station…about the caribou are radio active from the uranium mines

J: Oh damn really??? So eating them is bad for you??

M: Yah that’s what they are saying

J: Have you looked more into it?

M: A lot of us r. There is lots of uranium mines just north of us too. And every time a helicopter or planes flys over a certain place in tadoule their gages go all wacky

Matthew inspired me to become a parent. I figured, if I could feel this much love for a 21 year old I had almost nothing in common with, then maybe I would be able to connect with my own child.

That may sound obvious — I always had a lot of love to give — but when my mom died, I had a visceral feeling that I never wanted to be close to anyone ever again. I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to him for helping me believe in my capacity to love again.

From the day I told your dad about Matthew, he wanted to help him too.

Let’s bring him to New York!”

“And then what? I don’t think you understand…”

“Ok then let’s send him money!”

“If only it were that simple…”

On one call from jail, I caught wind of how much money Matthew had amassed. He was mad that Shirlena had recently blown through many, many, thousands of dollars partying.

He didn’t need my money. He needed the dignity that was stolen long before he was born, by the settlers who made it possible for my grandparents to immigrate to a land they called Canada.

The last I spoke to Matthew, he was hanging out with his dad again. At one point, Matthew was charged with stabbing him, but by the time they sobered up, neither of them had any recollection of the event so all charges were dropped and they went back to being drinking buddies.

I was at a loss for how else to help Matthew, so I introduced him to my dad. He knows the ins and outs of all the support systems in Manitoba, and has worked with many, many residential school survivors. Maybe he could file a claim for his dad to receive some reparations? Maybe he could connect Matthew to a job training program?

They met at the downtown mall where my dad bought him lunch. I think they hit it off, judging by the messages I received from both after the lunch. But their first meeting was their last. Matthew, for better or worse, wasn’t one to ask for or receive help.

Still, the next time I saw Matthew, he brought me a gift — a polar bear pipe, carved into stone by his uncle — to thank me for the introduction.

I was feeding you in the middle of the night a few days later, wondering how my mom managed all of this without a cell phone, when I thought to message his girlfriend Shirlena. Usually when I couldn’t get in touch with Matthew, she could at least pass on a message for me.

Then, half asleep, I went to her Facebook profile, to see if she’d posted any new pictures of him or their baby Mckenzie.

I scrolled down her timeline, all the way back to January 30th, just a couple days after he last messaged me, and saw a photo of two candles.

I can’t say it came as a surprise, I’d been bracing myself for this day for years. Still, my sobs woke your dad.

On my god, what’s wrong.”

“Matthew.” I didn’t have to say anything else.

Oh no. Fuck. Do you know what happened?”

“Not yet..”

On a call from jail, almost a year earlier, Matthew told me he’d been thinking about killing himself.

“I hope you know how much I love you, and would miss you.”

“I know.”

“You’ve had a really unfair life. You’re so special for getting this far.” What else could I say?

“Thanks.”

Could that have been it? Or maybe it was an unintentional overdose? I knew he’d been dealing hard drugs. I learned what “bars” were from him. And not to trust taxi drivers in Winnipeg. It wasn’t a stretch to think he was doing them too, as much as I’d begged him not to over the years.

I texted Mike. “Did you hear what happened to Matthew?”

“No, what?”

“He died. You don’t know what happened?”

“Oh I didn’t know, what happened?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking.”

Mike & Matthew (August 14, 2011)

Over four months had passed since he died and his own “family” didn’t even know he was dead.

I messaged his connections on Facebook. A Google search turned up an obituary but no news, which at least ruled out a homicide.

I hate, HATE, to think he was in so much pain that he chose to take his life. And yet, I hate equally to think that he was in so much pain that he would turn to a drug that could kill him. Either way, he was dead. Either way, I know that he knew that I loved him, in spite of everything.

I keep re-writing this ending as if it somehow will rewrite Matthew’s story, bring it to a neater conclusion.

I still wonder, nine months later, if there’s anything else I could have done to help Matthew. Should I have tried to send him money anyway? Tried harder to connect him to other supports? Messaged him more frequently?

Among so many lingering questions, there are a few things I know:

I know that, as grateful as I am that Matthew and I kept in touch over the years, it’s a tragedy that he even bothered to stay in contact with an ex-foster brother’s ex-girlfriend.

I know that I will never, no matter how hard I try, understand what it’s like to grow up with stable, loving guardians.

I know that the need to be loved is so strong that Matthew kept going back to his father, even as their relationship grew more and more toxic.

I know that at the end of the day, the only person who could really help Matthew was Matthew, but to do that, he had to believe in himself and the possibility of a better future.

I know that no amount of money could buy him the self worth that was methodically destroyed in Canada’s cultural genocide.

I know that the one thing (before he had Mckenzie) that brought him joy was hunting.

I know that, unlike me, he didn’t need to break from his past but to reconnect to it.

I know that your life will be immeasurably different from his and we can’t forget that there continue to be kids like Matthew out there. I want to believe they stand a chance. I know they deserve our love.

If you made it this far, I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to read about Matthew.

March 2023, Update

Matthew’s girlfriend added me on Facebook (I didn’t realize that for the last year, I had been messaging an account she was locked out of), and I learned the full story of how he passed away:

So that’s that. It’s not what I expected, but it doesn’t surprise me either. I don’t have much else to say on the matter right now, maybe I will after I’ve had more time to unpack it.

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Jen Dyck-Sprout

I help mission driven startups and leaders scale their impact. I write about the future of learning & work here: ourtruenature.substack.com