Darcy Sheppard's life wasn't only tragic

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Last fall, after the catastrophic Toronto encounter between Michael Bryant and bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard, I wrote a column lamenting the swift intervention by the PR firm Navigator on Mr. Bryant's behalf. I also said we'd started to learn about Mr. Sheppard, and that he was the product of a "failed adoption," plus much foster care.

Soon afterward, I got a letter from an Edmonton man describing himself as "an enthusiastic reader," and the adoptive father of Darcy Allan Sheppard. His name was Allan Sheppard. He said he found my piece "insightful" but "there is one reference you might want to reconsider." It was "failed adoption." More than 25 years ago, he and his wife, who had children by an earlier marriage, adopted Darcy and his younger brother, David. They were 4 and 2 and had already been in many foster homes. The stresses led to the breakup of his marriage, although he remained close to his stepchildren. After the boys, who stayed with him, became troubled teenagers, he felt he couldn't handle single-parenting them and gave them up to Alberta social services but, by "a unique arrangement," held joint custody and partook in all decisions about them. When they "came of age," they returned to live with him, then went off on their own but always stayed in touch. He saw Darcy a week before his death and urged him (again) to deal with his addictions. He spoke at memorial services in Toronto and Edmonton. He said Darcy told him, and others, that without his dad, he'd have been dead by 14.

What I found remarkable was the mix of a calm, pensive, fair-minded tone with a deep love and commitment to his son, mere days after his death. I wrote and apologized for getting it wrong. We began corresponding. He asked me to respect his privacy. Last Christmas Eve, we had dim sum at a Toronto restaurant where he and Darcy often went. He got a call on his cellphone, from his other son, David, in prison in Manitoba. His voice had that same, calm, paternal, accepting tone as the letter he sent me.

On Victoria Day, he was here again. He'd just learned that all charges against Michael Bryant would be dropped. He said he understood the special prosecutor's reasons. That doesn't mean he felt "the system worked," as many people have since said. Issues are still in doubt (Why did the Bryant car lurch forward, throwing Darcy onto the hood? Then, later, why didn't Mr. Bryant stop, even after Darcy fell off?) which might have been best dealt with in testimony and cross-examination. Sitting in court Tuesday, it was clear this was far more Michael Bryant turf, than Darcy Sheppard turf.

Defence lawyer Marie Henein said, "Darcy Sheppard lived a tragic life that was years in the making." But this is wrong if it implies the life was only tragic. It also included his brother, his kids, his cycling comrades (or my godchild, Molly, who took a bad fall on her bike last summer but was rescued by a guy whose photo she later recognized) and his dad. If there are redemptive elements in this, they exist far outside that courtroom.

Allan says some in his family can't understand why he gave up so much for his boys. But his sister told him she gets it: "It was your one chance to give unconditional love."

Unconditional love is an astounding blessing and it doesn't seem to matter whether you receive it or provide it. But to give it, you need to be offered an opportunity, then seize it hard. Nor, as he seems to know, does unconditional love mean unconditional approval. The real human skill comes in the gentle blend of contraries, as in that first letter.

I asked this week if he'd mind my writing about him now. He said no, he wouldn't mind. But he quickly added a condition: that I include his other son, David, and the unconditional love he feels for him.

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