3 min

Unexpected hope

Something is clicking inside Ritchie Dowrey's brain

Something is clicking inside Ritchie Dowrey’s brain.

He’s watching TV when I walk into the Langley care home in which he’s lived since Shawn Woodward’s powerful punch shifted his skull at The Fountainhead Pub nearly two years ago.

He’s sitting in the same recliner, facing the same screen, but this time he looks up at me and points to the sportscast. “It’s the Chicago Blackhawks,” he says. “It’s my team.”

It’s been three months since Woodward was sentenced to six years in prison, his actions designated a hate crime fuelled by “virulent homophobia.”

The last time I saw Dowrey, in October, he was capable of following conversation threads for only a few sentences at a time, and he rarely engaged people without prompting. Now he’s showing me his team, unprompted, and initiating a conversation with me. I’m intrigued. I wonder if this is a random moment of recognition. It isn’t.

I ask him if he watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. He says yes and asks his brother Allan where Green Bay is located.

Near Lake Michigan, Allan replies.

“Where exactly?” Ritchie persists.

Allan looks surprised.

It’s a day of surprises. Of beautiful, remarkable, inspiring surprises.

It’s a day of unexpected hope.

Four months ago, Ritchie could barely remember his life. Except for the odd burst of memory, most of his past had receded into some unreachable part of his brain. He couldn’t remember The Fountainhead. He could only sporadically remember Davie St. He couldn’t remember events that occurred two days, two weeks, two years ago. He could only access fragments of himself.

Allan and I chat about cameras as our videographer sets up for the interview. Last time, Ritchie knew that he used to sell cameras and even expressed interest in selling them again but couldn’t really discuss them further. Now he’s suddenly recalling details.

“Do you remember the word ‘Leica’?” his brother asks him.

“Yes. L-E-I-C-A,” Ritchie spells without hesitation.

Something is changing, one of his caregivers tells me as we’re packing up an hour later. Ritchie suddenly began putting his dishes away on Jan 1, she says.

It’s amazing. I know nothing about brains, but I wasn’t expecting this. It’s as if a gear that has been spinning without catching for almost two years has suddenly begun to catch again. To reengage.

It continues to reengage, faster and faster, as the day goes on.

We take Ritchie to a boat show on False Creek since he used to love boats and still proudly shows us photos of the boats he once lived on. Though he can’t navigate the ramp down to the water with his walker, he seems content to sit in the restaurant nearby. He orders a martini. It seems to loosen him further and spur more connections in his brain, or maybe it relaxes him enough to allow those connections to occur.

As our lunch progresses, his response time quickens. Allan tells us that Richie used to live “stumbling distance” from the pub that once thrived downstairs from where we now sit. Ritchie listens but doesn’t contribute. Then the waitress returns with her second attempt at my lunch.

“What did they change?” Ritchie asks me.

“They forgot the cheese in my cheeseburger,” I reply.

He laughs out loud. “Dumb, dumb, dumb,” he says with a smile.

He suddenly tells us that he never used to come upstairs because this used to be a private club, back in the days when he was a regular downstairs.

When the waitress checks on us a few minutes later, Ritchie reminds her to bring his second martini. “I ordered it quite a while ago,” he says politely.

Then he asks Allan for news of their childhood neighbours in West Vancouver and tells us about the next-door neighbour’s tennis court. “We used to play hockey on it, but we never told him,” he reveals.

The waitress brings his second martini, apologizes for the delay and assures him it won’t be on his bill.

“In that case, I’ll have another,” he promptly quips.

I’m astonished. Speechless. Elated.

Ritchie reiterates his pressing need to get out of Langley and move back to Vancouver. “I can’t stand the place, I can’t stand the name and they don’t have martinis,” he says, later adding, “I just want my life back.”

We end the day at The Fountainhead where, as prearranged, his friend Lindsay is waiting to welcome him back. Watching them reconnect and have a somewhat normal conversation for the first time since the assault is a pleasure. Watching Ritchie reconnect with himself is a privilege beyond words. It’s like watching someone come back to life.

“We didn’t expect you to live,” Lindsay tells him.

“Wow, wow, wow,” Ritchie says, absorbing this news.

He shakes his friend’s hand several times, then later shakes mine. I pass him my card so he can remember my name.

He waves goodbye as he gets in the car to return to Langley.

He is nowhere near fully healed and likely never will be. But the fragments coalesced, however fleetingly, into a person today. A person who knows who he is, who just wants his life back.