On Saturday November 14 Michel Trudeau, the 23-year-old son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, was swept into Kokanee Lake by a small avalanche. “He was shouting for help,” recalled eye witness Paul Williamson, “we could see him. But we couldn’t reach him. He was in the middle of the lake.”
My sister read about Michel and cried. She has been this route. A couple of years ago she lost one of her sons. She held the baby all night until he was cold. Then the nurse took a picture of them. Mother and son. From the photo it’s hard to say which one is dead.
I visited my sister the next morning. She was sitting at their kitchen table drinking tea. Her breasts were bound with a tensor bandage to stop the milk from coming. She looked up at me and smiled. It was the world’s tiniest smile.
The room was filled with the harsh whine of a circular saw. Just outside the kitchen window my brother-in-law was building a coffin. I brought him a cup of tea. He put down his tools and said, “I had wanted to build many things for my son. But it’s come to this. This is all I can do”.
Just before the funeral, I held my dead nephew in my arms. He had thick black hair. Dark skin. He appeared to be sleeping. I prayed that he would wake up . I prayed as hard as I could. But his eyes stayed shut. I handed him back to my sister. She cuddled him, and then my brother-in-law cuddled him, and then she cuddled him again. Then she placed her baby in the coffin made of pine and copper.
On November 20, the Trudeau family gathered at a memorial service for Michel. Pierre Trudeau is almost 80 years old. He looked vacant and beaten. He clutched onto his sons and onto the hand of his ex-wife Margaret Kemper. Kokanee Lake is now covered in ice. The family will have to wait until Spring to claim Michel’s body.
I suppose it’s ridiculous to empathise with the troubles of a celebrity politician. An 18-year-old girl died in another B.C. avalanche on November 15th. A week earlier Hurricane Mitch claimed 10,000 lives. But for some reason this dead Trudeau kid has reminded me how lucky I am. I have two sons. Miles and Beau. Little buggers. They keep me laughing. I’d give up every dream I have, every ambition, if I could be spared the agony of burying them.
SAD NOT MAD
A couple of weeks ago the editor of the Westender invited me, as part of “The Urine Review”, to find something that makes me mad – and rant about it. That’s like asking a big man to eat. Or a puppy to chew the furniture. That’s what I do. It’s my little trick.
Strangely, this formal request has made me self-conscious. What am I mad about? Not much. I live in a Co-op which operates more like an episode of “Survivor” – than a Kibbutz. My ten-year-old son reads novels only under protest – but he’ll spend happy hours perusing the Future Shop flier. I’m annoyed that the police are planning to train civilians to operate photo radar. And I’m even more annoyed that there has been no public outcry (what are we – a city of rats?).
But truthfully, my predominant emotion at the end of 2000 in not anger, but sadness. I have lost contact with somebody I was in love with. With no animosity to catalyze the breakup, I have to accept the fact that my best was not good enough – or not the right thing.
This sadness has become a filter, colouring everything around me. Do I know of a marriage that isn’t crumbling? Probably. But I can’t think of one off hand. Last week on Homer Street, I saw a teenage girl kicking another girl repeatedly in the head. Yesterday, I witnessed an elderly woman weeping in a mall. Is this just my filter? Or am I now seeing things unfiltered for the first time?
Last weekend, I visited friends on the Sunshine Coast. I slept in a little room lined with books. In the morning, when I opened the bedroom door, a small card fluttered from a high bookshelf to the ground. I picked it up. On the top it said, “Virginia Woolf; from her letters, 1922”. And at the bottom it said, “Printed at Fireweed Press, Sooke, B.C.” This is what is said:
“You said you were wretched, and tore up all you wrote and felt you could never, never write – and compared this state of yours with mine, which you imagine to be secure, rooted, benevolent, industrious.
But you must reflect that I am 40; further, every ten years, at 20, again at 30, such agony of different sorts possessed me that, not content with rambling and reading, I did most emphatically attempt to end it all.
Life has to be faced, to be rejected, and then accepted on new terms with rapture. And so on, and so on; till you are 40, when the only problem is how to grasp it tighter and tighter to you, so quick it seems to slip, and so infinitely desirable is it”.
Virginia Woolf committed suicide in her 50’s. But this is not a fair option for someone who has children. Nor should it be an option for anyone who has living parents, siblings, lovers, cousins or friends.
We live in boxes. It’s not hard to feel friendless. I you feel crushed by sadness this Christmas season, and would like somebody to talk to, I would be honoured if you would contact me – either through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at my home: 733-7666. I don’t know if I have a talent for cheering people up. But I am a good listener. And I do know, even in the midst of my own tiny furious crisis, you are all sweet and precious and irreplaceable.
TRIBE OF WEAKLINGS VICTIMIZES WEAKEST
Last week, police divers removed the body of a 14-year-old girl from Portage Inlet, in Saanich, B.C. Her name was Reena Virk. She had been stomped to death by a group of her peers.
I wish I could say: I don’t know how they could do such a thing.
But I do know.
My family moved to Vancouver in the spring of 1968. I was nine years old. I spent the entire summer dreading the first day of school. I felt vulnerable about being a stranger.
On the first day, my classmates formed two lines in the hallway. One for girls. One for boys. I stood for a moment paralyzed.
Then a boy pulled me in close to the front of the line. I don’t remember his name or anything about him, but I do remember how firmly he pulled me, and how relieved I felt to be there. I didn’t want to be the first person in line (I might have to make a decision) and I certainly didn’t want to be at the back (too easy to get left behind).
What happened next I remember even more clearly.
A small, plain, frizzy-haired girl was pushed out from the girls’ line. Somebody said “Flea bag.” The girl stood there, stunned. Then somebody else said “Flea bags at the back of the line.” Then a chant began, “Flea bag! Flea bag!”
I joined the chant, not knowing why, but sensing that the world was ordering itself around me, and I was going to be all right.
The girl walked stoically to the back of the line. I learned later that her name was Helen. But I never called her that. Nobody did. We called her “Flea Bag”. All year, we kept kicking her to the back of the line.
Why do children scapegoat their peers?
A tribe of weaklings defines its border by victimizing those who are even weaker. Reena Virk’s attackers are troubled, angry, fragile youth, like her. They killed her to prove they belonged.
I wish that on that first day of school I had rejected the warmth of the tribe, and joined Helen at the back of the line. I think if I had introduced myself to her at that moment – or said anything to her – it would have made a difference. Maybe a big difference. But I didn’t have enough courage. Not nearly enough.
So I chanted “Flea bag!” with the rest of the weaklings. And it breaks my heart, because I knew it was wrong.