Barbara Turnbull is a colleague of mine. She’s just written an eBook titled What I Know: Lessons from my 30 years of quadriplegia – here’s the link. What she doesn’t know is that our relationship actually goes back about 30 years.
In Sept., 1983, a high-school student named Barbara Turnbull was shot during a robbery at a Becker’s convenience store where she had a part-time job. Her story made headlines because it was so unusual – random shootings like this didn’t happen with frequency back then. It was a rare and tragic story.
Her plight threw me and my high school friends into shock – for what happened to her, what the incident stole from her. It’s a cliche, I suppose, but we were acutely aware that it could’ve happened to any of us. Middle class kids, working hard to get ahead, doing the right thing by getting a part-time job to earn a little money. But with her shooting, that expected path in life became suddenly unsafe and it shocked us.
We empathized, such as we could: she was 18 at the time; so was I. I’d worked at a Becker’s store a few years before – at Jane St. and Grandravine in Toronto. A bad area by anyone’s admission. Young punks probably shoplifted under my watch (how was I, a tiny girl, going to be able to stop them?), but nobody tried to rob it at gunpoint.
Later, we watched as the trial unfolded. After, Barbara Turnbull disappeared from the public spotlight.
Let me be clear: our interest wasn’t about pity. It was about understanding that there but for the grace of God went us. Which is why, years later, when I read somewhere – it must have been in the Star – that she was studying journalism at the University of Arizona, I was thrilled. Coincidentally I, too, was in university, studying English, intending to become a journalist.
Later, I saw a few of her bylines. She was writing feature stories for the Toronto Star. I silently cheered for her – was silently thrilled that she’d made the big time. She’s done so much more besides, earning honourary doctorates, starting her own charity the Barbara Turnbull Foundation.
When I started working at the Star, she was already an established presence. Her specially rigged desk and computer were there amongst all the other reporters’ desks. Her service dog, Bella, would make the rounds of the newsroom, coming for a visit or to ask for a rub. During this time, I’ve never mentioned to her how much her story touched me.
I don’t know if she realizes how many silent supporters she’s had over the years. She knows now.