6. Hard Song
words & music © 1999 Veronica Start. All rights reserved.
produced by John Shepp and Veronica Start
recorded at Utopia Parkway Studios, Vancouver, Canada
mixed by John Shepp
vocals & programming by Veronica Start
programming, guitars, bass, drums by John Shepp
“We really shouldn’t talk about her now, cuz she went wrong.”
Hard Song is a tale about a teenage girl from my hometown that developed a very public mental illness. I’ll have to change names to protect the dignity of the person so I’ll call her Shawna.
Shawna was two years older than me and the leader of the popular rich kid crowd, a world I could barely glimpse into. She wasn’t a person I knew but just knew of. This girl had it all, even a matching older brother who was just as beautiful and blonde as she was. On the peripheral, we junior high girls would hear stories of their cocaine parties at their south-side mansion which caused no end of glamourous excitement for us. We all knew the name of her family who had built half the town. Shawna and her world seemed untouchable and just when I was beginning to understand the natural order of “Us” and “Them”, it all changed.
When I was around 13 years old, I started doing work experience at the local shopping mall in a menswear shop. One day, I saw Shawna alone, skipping erratically down the mall, talking to herself, talking to a planter, making no sense whatsoever. Eventually, she came into the store, snuck up behind me to tap me on the shoulder and yell “hi”!
The store managers knew her and gently chided her, giving me an apologetic look as they ushered her out. “Come on, Shawna, you know you’re not supposed to do that…”
The managers explained briefly that “she’s not feeling well”, then went back to spill the tea amongst themselves.
A few weeks later, on a bright autumn afternoon, I was out for a drive with my mother. Suddenly we saw Shawna on the front lawn of a house in a nearby subdivision. It looked like she was dancing one moment, then abruptly hiding from imaginary people. It was such a small lawn.
My mother explained to me that that house was a foster home and that Shawna had schizophrenia. I didn't quite know how she knew this but it was a small town and maybe the foster homes knew 'who had who'. I asked my mom to go around the block again so we could have another look and she obliged.
For the first 11 years of my life, before I could live with my mother and new father, I was raised in my grandmother’s foster home. There, I was sharing space with a myriad of different folks: students from nearby Indian reserves, small children, and mentally challenged people of all ages. Some came temporarily, some were long term residents, living along with us grandchildren. With at least 15 people in the house, I was reminded very often that life is not simple for many of us.
And yet, Shawna’s story hit me strangely. It fascinated me that her beauty and wealthy background couldn’t make things better for her.
I had a bad habit of feeling sorry for myself on a daily basis as a kid. I may have had a low-grade depression, likely inherited. I knew my circumstances, being born to a Native teenage mom in northern Alberta. In fact, it was all I could hear the adults talk about. That, and the fact that I had no birth father named on my birth certificate. None of us four kids did. I grew up being called a ‘dirty bastard’ and inciting the wrath of my grandmother if I made the wrong sound or movement. Yet, I felt that had no right to feel sorry for myself with all the hardship presented before me with the other foster kids. Life was introduced to me as being very hard for our people and we had it better than others. We may not have been well tolerated emotionally but we were clothed and fed. And I reasoned that for someone who didn’t know a hard life, it would be very, VERY hard for someone like Shawna and her family to fall from grace.
When my mother turned the car around the block and passed by again, I covered my face and watched Shawna through my fingers. She was jerking so strangely on that lawn, her soft long blond hair flowing and whipping in the setting sun. She looked so beautiful, her figure, so thin, wearing the best designer jeans, Nike sneakers and a graphic Cosby-show-style-sweater.
I thought of where she came from. I thought of her friends who were no longer there. I thought of her reputation and who created it. I thought of many questions. Did I truly know anything about this girl? Is this story only mine or were some of the rumours true? How did she get sick all of a sudden and was it the cocaine, like they said? Will I catch what she has if I get too close? Maybe I’m the crazy one.
When God makes mistakes in a small town, all things become a question.