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Reporter's Notebook: Marlene Bird Adjusts To Life Without Legs

12/27/2015 05:15 EST | Updated 12/27/2016 05:12 EST
Marlene Bird may finally be getting used to having no legs.

It happened a few weeks ago. She awoke, in the home she shares with partner Patrick Lavallee, then fell out of bed. Instead of lashing out, she joked with Lavallee about being legless. That's when she realized: she's growing accustomed to her disability.

"At first, I couldn't get used to it. I didn't like myself about that. But I'm slowly getting used to it," she tells me over the phone from Timber Bay.

It's been almost a year since Bird and Lavalle moved into a house, in the Métis community of Timber Bay, Sask., a 90-minute drive north of Prince Albert. The time has just flown by, says Lavalle, who jokes he may cook Bird a bannock to celebrate the one-year anniversary in their house.

I like to hear Lavallee and Bird laugh. It's infectious native humour. The kind of laughter that helps a person survive, in the face of overwhelming tragedy.

It's been about a year since I first met them, to do a news documentary for The National on the vicious assault that left her without legs.

marlene bird

Marlene Bird, the homeless woman who was discovered horribly injured in Prince Albert, Sask., on June 1, 2014. (CBC)

Bird was homeless when she was discovered in a downtown Prince Albert parking lot in June 2014. The Cree woman had been badly beaten and set on fire. She suffered severe burns to her body and both her legs were amputated.

Seeing the stumps where her legs used to be was disturbing, but what seared into my mind was how the assault had made a complete mess of Bird's life. Her struggle to find a home, as she turned to alcohol to cope with the severe trauma she'd experienced, was disturbing to witness. The kind of thing that makes you despair about the lack of social supports for the homeless and vulnerable in our cities.

Still, I was struck by Lavallee and Bird's love story. The pair have been a couple, on and off, for 15 years. Lavallee was also homeless in Prince Albert and an alcoholic, but soon after Bird's attack, he resolved to sober up and care for her.

An unconventional relationship, I wasn't sure it could last. So far, it has.

One resilient woman

They have good and bad patches. Bird gets frustrated when she can't reach the stove or sink. She's inexorably drawn back into the boozing life in Prince Albert, where she goes a couple times a month for doctors appointments.

"Sometimes I feel shaky, when I get depressed," says Bird. "I have my temptations." She says it helps to call her addictions counsellor, who has a 1-800 number and tells her to keep busy.

"I have my temptations."

Lavallee himself fell off the wagon for a while, when the raging summer forest fires in northern Saskatchewan forced the couple to evacuate to Prince Albert for two weeks. It was a stressful time.

"I get frustrated here and there. It's hard for me to calm her down sometimes - she's a strong woman," says Lavallee. "Me, I don't know if I'd be able to survive the way she survives."

But they're mostly happy with life in the "bush." Bird likes to do sudoku and watch murder mysteries on TV. She reads the Bible. She enjoys riding the dusty roads on her electric scooter with Lavallee and their dog, a little rez mutt with floppy ears named Schooner.

Lavallee and Bird collect social assistance, so money is tight. Her wheelchair is slowly falling apart. She wishes she had a bathtub chairlift, so she could take a proper bath. What she truly longs for is a pair of "stick legs," but doctors tell her she needs to be physically stronger to be a candidate for two 21-pound prosthetics.

"Me, I don't know if I'd be able to survive the way she survives."

So she exercises: sit-ups, as Lavallee holds on to her "little legs," pumping weights with her arms.

"Sometimes I skip a few days," she says with a laugh.

Criminal case and inquiry

What has dragged on all year, and continues still, are criminal proceedings in Bird's case. Leslie Black, 29, originally pleaded guilty to attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault. But last month, he reportedly recanted parts of an agreed statement of facts and applied to remove his guilty plea.

That court hearing won't happen until next March. Bird says the whole thing is frustrating.

"I don't want that sexual assault charge dropped. That's what I told the prosecutor," she says. "People tell me if I don't forgive, I'll keep getting sick. I'm doing my best."

When I first met Bird, calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women were not on the federal government's radar. A year later, different government, an inquiry is underway.

I tell Bird, I thought of her the day the inquiry was announced.

She hadn't heard anything about it.

"People tell me if I don't forgive, I'll keep getting sick. I'm doing my best."

After a long silence, she asks me: "What will they talk about?"

Good question. There is so much to talk about. Hundreds of cases of the missing and the murdered, tragedies that stretch back decades, need examining. But the underlying causes of so much violence suffered by indigenous women also need delving into.

Most importantly, what will the inquiry do to prevent more Birds?

Bird is one resilient woman, that's for sure. But I like to imagine a future where women like Bird can look forward to more than merely surviving.

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