Megaphone News: Remembering Mel Hennan, a gentle warrior, a bright spirit, and a friend
Mel Hennan: July 8, 1963 – December 2016
The first day I met Mel, he was crying.
Something scary had happened, with yelling and breaking glass and a person storming off in a hail of violence and anger. While others in the room tried to steel themselves and puff up their chests so they wouldn’t feel hurt, Mel just let the moment be. Then he gathered some tissues, and I brought him a glass of water, and we hugged.
It became clear in that moment that Mel was no stranger to the hard stuff.
But he was able to show up for it, to be bravely present in it, in a way that I think is instructive for us all. Even in cheerier moments, Mel was never afraid to be present in tenderness. To offer a kind word or small gesture that would tell you, in his warm, winking way: heaveno—how lovely it is that we’re together.
Instead of starting emails with “Hi” or “Hello,” Mel would say “Heaveno,” because it was nice to think of heaven.
Comforting, perhaps, to consider a world beyond this one that held such hardship from his earliest days.
A friend of Mel’s tells me that he was about six years old when he was taken from his family in Sachs Harbour, Inuvik, because the children were malnourished.
In his own words, Mel wrote, “the family I was born into was ‘the Raddi Clan.’ I was one of nine siblings—seven brothers and two sisters. The sisters are the book ends of the brothers, of which I was born right in the middle. Through lack of community intervention I was taken as a ward of the government of the Northwest Territories. I eventually was adopted by ‘the Hennan family,’ which consists of my parents and three older sisters.”
Mel wrote this around the year 2012, when he was part of a longitudinal study to better understand people living with HIV. The study, which also included a photography project called, “The Way I See It” had participants create a photo collection of their life through their eyes.
Mel’s photographs were exhibited at the now-defunct W2 Woodward’s and compiled on YouTube, searchable through the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS’ “LISA” project. Set to a cheery jazz piano soundtrack, Mel’s photographs display places that were important to him, like the Dr. Peter Centre and the Vancouver Native Health Society Clinic, which “allows me to network, be engaged with the community, build friendships, trust, and a sense of purpose. And a sanctuary. A home away from home.”
His photos are also places that remind him of darker times.
“I was the roommate of a very mean man,” he writes of a photo of a building where he once lived. An acquaintance tells me he overcame very difficult, complicated circumstances not only in childhood but throughout his life.
Another photo shows an alley adjacent to the Washington Hotel. “Where I first OD’d on heroin,” he writes. “My best friend massaged my heart and did CPR.”
A former president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users in 2004, Mel was strong as much as he was kind.
“Through trial and error interspersed with wisdom, knowledge and a meddle like no other city has, we have done our best to see that all people have a place in society,” he wrote in the Carnegie Newsletter in May 2004.
“We will be there for the ones that don't want us there, we'll be there when we're most needed and once in a while we'll be there when someone wants us…. Integrity, seeking the truth and maintaining a sense of humour sounds absurd and too far reaching; however we have it in us as long as we believe in our selves and remember where we have come from and that we ‘bow down’ to no one.”
In a 2012 photograph titled “Home,” Mel depicted his most recent residence of 12 years, the Jubilee Rooms in the Downtown Eastside. “Longest place of residence for me ever,” he wrote. “First place I’ve ever called home.”
Mel died in that Jubilee room over Christmas 2016, when the streets were covered in ice. He died of an opioid overdose, the preventable kind that has killed hundreds of people across B.C.
It is sad that he died alone because he loved people so much. We were always delighted to see him visiting the Megaphone office, and friends remember him popping into the St. Paul’s Hospital urban health ward, just to check in to see if anyone there needed company.
Mel loved his community because he loved people. The Downtown Eastside, he wrote, “has inspired my artistic talents and energy. All my relations.”
We miss you, Mel.
Editor's note: Mel was a longtime vendor and writer, who was published several times in Megaphone's Voices of the Street literary edition.