Grief & Loss

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To the River
Excerpt

In late November, my brother didn’t show up for his first day as manager of the bookstore in Whitehorse. He’d done his training, had physically set the store up. The staff was hired, the systems debugged. All that was left to do was to open the doors. But he didn’t get there.

The next day, December 1, his truck was spotted at a rest stop on the Alaska Highway thirty kilometres south of town, beside the Marsh Lake Bridge that spans the Yukon River. A woman who used to work with him saw it and assumed it had broken down. But she noticed it was still there eight days later and reported it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who drove out there and found the truck under a light dust­ing of snow, almost out of gas, unlocked, with the window rolled down. More ominously, they found David’s cowboy hat sitting on the ground near the river. They got in touch with his wife Katherine, who phoned my parents.

That’s when my mother called me in Toronto to say David was missing.

“Missing?

“He didn’t show up for work, and he hasn’t been home.”

“How long has he been missing?”

“Ten days.”

My first thought was that he’d fled his marriage and was off somewhere with a woman. The most likely spot was Vancouver. He’d just been there and perhaps he’d been seduced by its beauty. I was concerned, but I assumed he’d lit out, like in a country and western song. My mother and I tried to reassure one another that this was in character, that he’d be back. Though the timing was troubling. Why would he forfeit his new job at the bookstore? By the time I talked to my sister, later that day, I was worried. Wouldn’t he have taken his truck if he was going to Vancouver?

The RCMP searched with dogs and an airplane, and might have searched the river but it was already half covered in ice. Dragging a river is both expensive and environmentally intrusive, and it isn’t done much anymore. The North is filled with missing persons—people who have fled marriages, jobs, eastern complacency, the law, alimony payments and themselves. My brother was now officially one of them.

A week went by and no one in the family heard from him. In that grim lacuna between rumour and information, we waited. I phoned the Whitehorse RCMP, who had listed him as a missing person but hadn’t ruled out suicide or “foul play,” the quaint euphemism still used to cushion the blow.

I called Katherine and asked for the names and num­bers of friends. She only gave me one, but with that I was able to find others. I didn’t know any of them. I called a dozen people and assembled a daisy chain of anecdote and disbelief. A few thought he had staged his death and was living in Vancouver, or possibly Mexico. I called his doc­tor several times, but she didn’t return my calls, probably because of privacy issues. David’s health had never been brilliant—he had a tubercular cough from his lifetime of cigarette and pot smoking, a dreadful diet, and he never exercised. Maybe there was a dire health issue he hadn’t told anyone about.

I tracked down the man who’d run the manager training session in Vancouver, who told me that David had done well, had enjoyed it. He was perplexed and said he hadn’t seen any signs of a problem.

I constructed a timeline for David’s last days. He checked into the River View Hotel on November 29 and was (allegedly) seen buying drugs that night. One friend noted he had a lot of cash on him; it turned out he had cashed his last two paycheques. Katherine told me she’d driven around town looking for him and saw his truck parked by the River View. She stopped and went in and found he was registered there and had prepaid with cash. She phoned his room from the lobby and a woman answered, then immediately hung up. Katherine didn’t go to his room. Instead, she wrote a note and left it on the windshield of David’s truck. She thought he’d be home in a day or so, contrite, seeking forgiveness.

I found a former bandmate named Ray who told me David didn’t start drinking until the mid-nineties. David had taken the counterculture to heart and thought pot was hip, while drinking was something that Dean Martin did. But he jumped on the alcohol bandwagon in middle age.

A few years later, it was cocaine as well. “We were in the Bitter Creek Band at first, then just a duo,” Ray said. “Played weddings. When his girlfriend left him, he was in a bad state and getting worse. His liver, I think. Went to the hospital in an ambulance. Doctor told him he had two to four years if he kept drinking. He was drinking on his lunch break at the radio station where he worked, beer and a shot. He also had a problem with girls. He cheated on Anna Mae, cheated on his wife, Katherine. It was the same as his drinking. Never enough.”

Ray said there was a nasty faction in Whitehorse that hadn’t always been there. “Seven, eight years ago, you knew everyone. There wasn’t any violence.” Ray didn’t know what had happened to David, but like the RCMP, he hadn’t ruled out foul play.

“He was very good at hiding his problem,” he said. “A very good actor. He kind of had another life. He wasn’t the guy I knew. He could sure play.”

The portrait that emerged of my brother was filled with contradictions: he had habits that had grown over the last decade; he had been clean for two years; he was finally happy; he was desperately unhappy and feeling trapped. He was faithful, he had affairs, he was in debt.

As the days went by with no word from David, my family contemplated three scenarios. The most optimistic was that he had decided to start a new life. This, alas, was already the least likely, though some of his friends held to it; he was variously reported to have gone to Alaska, Vancouver and Mexico, where he was living the good life. The second was foul play, something that came up repeatedly in my conversations with his friends. The third was that he had taken his own life.

My father went to Whitehorse to look for him, staying at his house with Katherine. At that time of year there were less than six hours of daylight and the temperatures were frigid. He talked to the RCMP, talked to a few of David’s friends and, after several dispiriting days, he returned.My family held an unstated, faint hope that Christmas would bring some news. If he had simply taken off, surely he’d get in touch at Christmas. He would call our mother. But Christmas passed.

By then, the Yukon River had frozen solid; if my brother was in the water, we wouldn’t know until spring. So we waited in our separate cities, my parents in Calgary, my sister in Winnipeg and I in Toronto.I now believed that he had taken his own life. It was the most logical option, given the evidence. If he’d taken off, he would have gone in his truck, and he would have taken some of his instruments with him. If he had been murdered over a drug deal, as several people suggested, why leave the truck out there? It seemed too elaborate a misdirection, and there was no sign of a struggle at the scene. My parents and sister had quietly come to the same conclusion.I went online, looking at suicide sites, reading the literature. I decided to go up to Whitehorse and search for him myself, but it made sense to wait until the ice came off the river.

In the meantime, I kept calling his friends, trying to piece his life together. I tracked down David’s last girlfriend, Anna Mae. They’d been together eight years. She was the girlfriend my mother thought was good for David, an enormously capable woman who could fix things, cook and was good with money. Anna Mae told me she had stood beside him for as long as she could, but she couldn’t bear his infidelities and addictions. She finally left him, then left Whitehorse, moving to a semi-abandoned mining town in northern British Columbia. She told me that while David was engaged to Katherine, he had phoned her, asking her to take him back. Anna Mae sent him a letter, holding her ground; she said she loved him but couldn’t go through all that again.

She sent me a copy of the letter, which was long and heartbreaking. “I know you don’t want to be the way you are and do the things you do,” she wrote to David. “But you have problems. They are your problems. I didn’t cause them and I can’t cure them. Only you can do that, if and when you are ready. It’s like you’re living two different lives. I hope one day you’ll get the help you need. I believe you are a wonderful, caring, loving person, with problems. But those problems are too much for me to handle.”

Anna Mae also told me that David had tried to commit suicide, a surprise. After she left him, he took sleeping pills and lay down on the couch in the basement. He left a note, saying he was leaving everything to his daughter, Ivy. He woke up, though, and crumpled up the note. When Anna Mae found out she called his doctor. He ended up in the hospital briefly.

I decided not to tell my parents this. I thought it would be better to wait until we had more definitive news about what had happened. My plan was to fly to Whitehorse in the spring, when the ice was off the river. I phoned the RCMP in April to find that the river was still frozen. May was no better. I finally flew to Whitehorse in the first week of June.

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Dreaming Sally

Dreaming Sally

A True Story of First Love, Sudden Death and Long Shadows
edition:Hardcover
More Info
Excerpt

On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 2, 1968, I was lingering in the mezzanine of Toronto’s Malton Airport with a clus­ter of Odyssey kids, awaiting our flight to New York City. Coolly assessing two girls who were crying from homesickness even before we boarded the plane, I was struck how sick I was of home. Glancing toward the escalator, I caught sight of the familiar brown head rising into view. As Sally moved closer, I smiled hello, but she seemed distant. I was disappointed when luck failed to place us side by side on the Air Canada jet.

An hour later, we descended into the swelter of the Big Apple. As I rolled down the window of our dirty yellow cab, the clatter and heat combined with the festering stink of a garbage strike, and Real Life, terrible and beautiful, broke through.

The Italian, Naples-bound ocean liner SS Raffaello was parked in the harbour like a gargantuan private limousine. On the jetty, we merged with the kids from Vancouver and Halifax and were funnelled through a canopied gangplank. Coloured stream­ers unspooled like a scene in an old movie, and I found myself walking beside Sally, out of twenty-seven chances. Occasionally, wishing works.
 
Our tourist-class cabins were below the waterline. I unpacked my bag in a porthole-less space I would be sharing with three others— Sean, a co-survivor of a decade of UCC; Peter, a cheerful Vancouverite in horn-rimmed glasses; and Will, a handsome, friendly boy from UTS. I grabbed a top berth, only to find my nose a foot from the ceil­ing, inducing a wave of claustrophobia.

The nine-hundred-foot-long ship was only three years old and carried 2,500 passengers and crew—forty-five thousand tons of fun. The very sight of watertight doors unlocked my mental holdings of Titanic lore—the myth of unsinkability, the Irish rabble below and the Gilded Age plutocrats above, the iceberg. In anticipation of any­thing untoward happening on the trip, my mother had sewn a $20 bill into the lining of my madras jacket, as if a scrap of paper could divert any crisis. As the Statue of Liberty glided past, I was driven to tell anyone who would listen that the monument was rumoured to be modelled on the face of the sculptor’s mother and the body of his mistress. Boom, boom, I was an icebreaker.

In the dining room, we were assigned to tables of four, boy-girl, boy-girl, an inspired orchestration of instant double dates. The only down side: ties and jackets and dresses were mandatory at dinner. Drifting from table to table, Nick introduced his co-leader, Tammy, a twenty-year-old former head girl from the Vancouver private school Crofton House, a live wire of near-Twiggy thinness, as steeped in art history as Nick. Together they seemed almost too good to be true.

After dinner, Sally and I gravitated to the spacious bar at the stern of the ship where a panoramic window overlooked a swimming pool and the setting sun. We knew we fell three-plus-years short of legal age, but no one demanded our ID. As we settled on stools and ordered drinks absurdly priced at a quarter apiece, Sally and I offi­cially graduated from the childhood sandbar to the adult cocktail bar.

Sally was still Sally, only more so. I was now close enough to smell the smoke on her breath, restudy the contours of the unusual face and head. It was what she was not that I liked best: no pretentious egghead, no remote porcelain doll done up in eyeliner, nylons, high heels, lipstick, perfume, no idealized, prefab, painted-by-numbers head girl, no worship-me-forever film queen. She was as real and alive as they came.

Careful not to stake a claim on her, I wandered off to mingle with the rest. I made an awkward stab at dancing with Margi, a diffident Halifax girl, to a band playing antique Guy Lombardo tunes, then a sudden rush of self-consciousness drove me to bed before midnight.

First thing in the morning, I cracked my head against the ceiling of my cramped berth. Convening for the first of daily meetings in a children’s playroom, we perched on yellow plastic munchkin chairs as if regressing to nursery school. We took turns standing up to give our names and schools; it would take time to pin all the names to the faces. Nick solemnly lectured us on the formation of the European Common Market and delivered a primer on the first Italian leg of the trip—Sorrento, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan. When he forbade “fraterni­zation” between the sexes, the room swam with nervous giggles.

That afternoon, we sunbathed in deck chairs by the pool, lulled by the hot Atlantic wind; behind the mask of my sunglasses, my eyes ravished the sirens of bikini atoll, slathered in baby oil, slithering one by one down a pink slide into the cold salt water.

After a dip, I stood by the stern railing, mesmerized by the blue-and-white wake churning into a past I longed to forget. One of my father’s rare war stories, fuelled by drink, surged to mind: how he had stood on the conning tower of his frigate in the frigid North Sea, swinging one leg over the railing in anticipation of a U-boat torpedo—a confession of terror that had made me quietly proud of his honesty.

Nick appeared beside me, interrupting my daydream. “You can understand,” he offered, “why some people might want to leap in.”

I was so amazed that a mature male of the species had taken the time to attend to me that I was tongue-tied.

“I’ve noticed you tend to hang back from the group. You’re a bit reticent.” He made his observation in such a gentle way that I did not experience it as judgmental. But I merely nodded.

After dinner, once more we hit the bar. Moving from table to table, I deployed my categorizing mind to sort the group—thirteen girls, thirteen boys, aged seventeen to twenty. Most of us were the Protestant offspring of lawyers, physicians, businessmen, a senator, a judge, a mayor, a brigadier-general, a combat photographer, a former head of Canadian intelligence in World War II; our mothers were mainly stay-at-homers. Five of us were kids of doctors—me, Sally, Will, Liz and Annabel; only three went to public schools; only one was black, or half black. Some of us were scions of staunch Scots and Irish pioneers, founders and builders of meatpacking empires, the CBC, medical labs, exploiters of natural resources and commodities. I had trouble believing that we were in any way part of an immacu­lately conceived privileged class, subject to great expectations; yet that was the invisible air we had breathed since birth. The way I felt about myself, why would anyone envy me?

Most of the boys seemed like frogs among the princesses. Miniskirted Kat Joy, a perfect sixties name, was a gamine Vancouver free spirit who weakened my knees with a smile. Likewise her cousin Nikki—almond eyes, olive skin, jet black hair, a body off the cover of Vogue. A second set of cousins from Toronto, Havergal girls Annabel and Jane, turned my head. Margi, Chris, Marywinn, Barb, Robin, Liz, Kathy, Nan—redheads and blondes and brunettes, eyes of blue and brown and green, a melding mosaic of the shy and sheltered, worldly and bold, bony and fleshy, boozers and abstainers. I was learning at last that it was possible to have friends who were girls and not girlfriends.

The lack of marijuana and my aversion to beer propelled me to an intoxicant favoured by adults: Canadian Club rye, mixed with ginger ale, on the rocks. One strong, tingling sip of sweetness, then
two, then three, and then Sally pulled me onto the dance floor. I was the rust-bound Tin Man and she the can of oil. We did not touch—no slow dances yet. Avoiding eye contact, I fixed on her party dress, puffed at the shoulders, a swirl of yellow, turquoise and pink, a small, heart-shaped opening revealing a patch of slightly sunburnt skin above her breasts.

Gimme a ticket on an aeroplane,
Ain’t got time to take a fast train,
Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home,
My baby, she wrote me a letter.

Back at the bar, the Italian servers, Guido and Luigi, both card-carrying Commies, ruefully replenished drinks for the trainees of the WASP ruling class. Sally loved to talk, but she also listened to what I was saying, and the more she listened, the more my own words tumbled and rolled, and we fell into our old bantering ways.

“What sign are you?”

“A Stop sign!”

By the early morning hours, our group had merged into a sin­gle organism, drinking, laughing, losing our heads, even as the bow of the Raffaello sliced open a new time zone. The rigidly enforced, all-the-live-long-day timetables of family and school, with its unspoken program of erotic abuse, melted like the ice in my drink and we were back on the steps of Sally’s cottage, kicking the can. Were we getting older or younger?

Back in my berth, I pulled out my pocket travel diary and scrib­bled, “Unbelievably fabulous time with Sally!” Maybe someday I’ll find the words.

On previous trips, drunken yahoos had rolled grand pianos overboard. In contrast we were sweetness incarnate. One night, boosted into orbit by three rye and gingers, I was drawing a crowd
with my well-timed one-liners. By 3 a.m., the bar was nearly empty. Encouraged by Sally’s laugh, I flung myself horizontally across the room, scattering tables and chairs. An overnight convert from inhibi­tion to exhibitionism, I pounded the piano keys until the stool broke under my weight. Standing beside Sally on the open deck, I watched the rosy-fingered dawn poke through the fog.

Over a late lunch, Nick circled our tables to reprimand us. We had achieved a historic first: never in twenty years of tours had not one sin­gle person showed up for breakfast. Only in the afternoon sun did I notice the purple bruises decorating my flesh from my Superman flight. Meanwhile, word had leaked out that Nick was slinking into Tammy’s cabin where they were fraternizing as if there was no tomorrow.

After five straight nights of careening around our floating pleasure palace, I decided to cool my heels for a spell and retreated alone into the womb of the ship’s cinema. I was disappointed that the film, In Cold Blood, was dubbed into Italian—A sangue freddo—but I stuck it out because, by coincidence, I was reading the paperback of Truman Capote’s genre-busting masterwork.

Even though I knew how the story ended, I was transfixed by the haunting black-and-white imagery and the theme of capital punish­ment. The actor Robert Blake plays a condemned murderer on Death Row; minutes before his hanging, he murmurs a reflective soliloquy on his horrific childhood while staring out of a barred prison window; raindrops streaking down the pane reflect back on his face as the tears he could not cry. In the near-unwatchable final scene, his head hooded and torso harnessed like a toddler’s, he drops through the trap door in slow motion, the amplified sound of his heart fading, beat by beat, to a dead stop. Out of the darkness I stumbled, as if emerging from a familiar nightmare.

Back in the bar, I parked myself on a leather couch beside Sally
as she held court, gushing about a guy named George. Ultra-smart, athletic, witty, handsome, he was twenty-one and sported a beard. A beard? I was lucky if a few pathetic hairs sprouted out of my chin every full moon. She babbled on and on about George, the man she was going to marry, the kids they’d have, a boy and a girl named Jason and Kimberly, and a St. Bernard dog named Petunia. Careers, house, cottage, the works.

Jesus, I thought. All the names already picked out.

I wanted to shut her mouth with a kiss, even as an image of George branded my brain.

Thankfully, Sean asked the question for me: “Sally, are you actually engaged?”

“Well, not officially,” she replied, and I seized the slim opening as a sign of hope.

I was on deck, leaning on the railing, nestled between Sally and Nan, taking a breather from dancing. The ship was anchored, and in the dim moonlight we made out the famous profile of the Rock of Gibraltar. Ignited by Sally’s smile, I performed my killer imitation of Skull Bassett, my lugubrious ancient-history master: “Tomorrow we will pass through the Pillars of Hercules, the nine-mile-wide pelvic portal into the Mediterranean Sea and the Pagan World.” Then Peter burst through the bar door, a stray piece of shrapnel expelled by a blast of Rolling Stones. He grabbed the drink from Nan’s hand, flung it overboard and hauled her onto the dance floor.
Below deck in her cabin berth, Tammy rolled over and looked Nick square in the eyes: “You know, we’re never going to be this happy again.”

It was official: on our delirious crossing of an epic body of water, our group was falling in love with itself.

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