F or several years, I would see Sonia’s welcoming smile behind a local library’s reference desk. A young woman who loved reading and assisting people, Sonia would talk about literature and music with me when checking out my loans.
She asked me one day last spring, “Do you know anything about working as a counselor?”
Wanting more clarity, I probed, “What type of counselor?”
She asked tentatively, “How about, church counselor?”
Knowing her Lutheran roots, I asked, “What kind of church? Like yours?”
With more conviction this time, Sonia explained, “Yeah, like helping people who need someone to talk with.”
Sonia’s thoughts reminded me of chaplains offering solace to people in distress, including one I had seen praying with a tearful traveller at Pearson Airport.
I suggested, “Some people study theology.”
A year before that, Sonia had cared for her sick mother. Instead of exhaustion from palliative demands toward the end of Joan’s life, Sonia actually felt grateful for her apprenticeship in life and death. From nursing Joan, she had learned a lot about the human experience.
That insight had given Sonia the resilience to care for others through her own grief: “I helped Mom go peacefully, and I comforted everyone when she went.”
Sonia also told me about her unusual upbringing. “Since my father left when I was ten, there was just Mom, me, and two gals who were like mothers.”
About the two women, Sonia explained, “When we lived together, Nat and Julie had already done the ‘marriage thing’ – in their own words. They never remarried, and I got two additional smart moms who really loved me.”
That day, I learned more about her three doting mothers with good careers, and who had always let her make her own decisions as long as she could live with the consequences. Having always been drawn to the arts, Sonia chose English literature at Victoria University after high school.
Then came Sonia’s very first mention of a husband. “But I didn’t graduate. Two months into my last year, I got married.”
Sonia laughed at her own ‘marriage thing’. “I married Josh against everyone’s advice. We probably needed just a month to skinny-dip in the Caribbean, but no, we thought we were in love, and then love went poof after the trip.”
After annulling her marriage, Sonia settled down to be an adult. “I was too embarrassed to move back home. Mom didn’t push me either way. So, at twenty-two, with no degree, I found this library job and an apartment.”
Sonia’s uneventful life went on until a phone call from Joan. “I was twenty-seven when Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, ten years before her retirement”.
As Joan’s aggressive tumors received radical surgeries and rounds of invasive drugs, Nat, Julie, and Sonia cared for her around the clock.
Sonia was proud of her mother’s courage until the end. “She was so washed out after the operations and chemo. She never really got better, but she fought for five years.”
After Joan’s burial, Sonia started visiting the pastor who had baptized her. “He didn’t push religion. We just talked. But I started to feel a power somewhere bigger than myself.”
One afternoon, Sonia found herself reaching out to a stranger sobbing quietly in church. “I got close enough to ask if I could help in any way. I asked if he wanted me to pray with him, and we ended up singing hymns together.”
Being able to console an aggrieved soul too distraught to speak taught Sonia that perhaps she could assist others in their anguish.“If I am here for sixty, seventy, or eighty years, there is a purpose somewhere. Maybe I can help people in their suffering. I’m thinking of training to be a church counselor.”
That was Sonia’s career decision during one of our last conversations.
After returning to Victoria University for theology, Sonia has been leading inter-faith addiction support groups for young people. From her e-mail last winter, she was a serene apprentice, grateful to accept an unusual calling: “I learn the importance of service as I serve to learn the mysteries of life and death. I have been given the gift to make a difference: to respectfully listen even to strangers, to support those in need, and to humbly serve this higher power that I don’t yet completely understand.”
This is the story of Sonia Neumann whom I will always remember as an unassuming, compassionate, and helpful young woman. I am pleased she has found a meaningful career in spiritual guidance that examines life, death, and the human journey.
Mina Wong is a teacher of adult education, Mina enjoys celebrating learners’ achievements using their own stories.