There was a girl
THERE WAS a girl. Twenty-four years old. By all accounts, a luminous human being from the very beginning – the sort of girl whose sparks of brilliance and warmth of personality ignited everyone she met.
On family car trips, she and her younger sister would sing show tunes from Phantom of the Opera. Last year, while sleeping at the Occupy Toronto encampment, she still managed to complete her university homework on time, scoring in the 90s for her papers. Her parents reveled in her promise as she planned for the future.
She wrote lucidly, connecting such diverse ideas as poetry and anarchism – not the stereotype of black shirts, anger and acts of violence, but rather the anarchism that represents personal liberty and the solidarity of people working together, without need for supervision or authority.
Above all, the girl was an artistic free spirit – attractive, loved and loving. A young woman on the cusp of … anything.
But Courtney died very suddenly in late September when a driver ploughed into her and two friends as the trio cycled north from Toronto on a weekend trip to Lindsay. They weren’t wearing helmets, but it likely made no difference. The wreckage was horrible – an inexplicable, violent death for a gentle soul, involving paramedics, a helicopter, and stories in the Toronto newspapers. Her two friends survived the crash; Courtney was lost instantly.
Our close friend Anne was Courtney’s aunt, so my wife and I attend the funeral on a chilly fall day last Thanksgiving weekend. Scores of shocked-looking young people fill the funeral home chapel, overflowing into the hallways. Her family sits quietly at the front. Courtney’s sister Chelsea bravely sings “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” from Phantom. A Buddhist monk recites prayers; a chorus chants a mantra.
An informal memorial follows, in an old community hall in downtown Port Credit. Daylight streams in through overhead windows. The acoustics are warm as Courtney’s friends pick up guitars, a ukulele and an accordion to play in her honour. Family and friends remember her as they relax together at round tables, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee. There are tears and there is also laughter. A steady procession greets her parents and sister; a line flows past three tables of photos and flowers. Because of the fellowship that develops when people eat and sing together, the mood gradually lightens, despite the tragedy of the occasion.
Still, two lost souls wander the room, a young man on crutches, and a young woman with thick, curly hair spilling over her shoulders. He constantly looks down at the floor, or out into the distance. She wears no make up and is dressed in a simple shawl and skirt, greys and blacks. They do not laugh. They both linger at the photos and stand close to each other, touching, but not holding hands. They talk very little. They’re not crying, but they look inconsolable.
Friends come in ones and twos to comfort them, but the pair doesn’t join the large group singing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” at the other end of the room. It’s not a celebration for them. They survived, and Courtney didn’t, winning an unwelcome lottery that offers a contradictory prize, and a regret they’ll carry forever, like an asterisk permanently attached to their name. If only … why … unfair … if only …
Their obvious grief moves me. I have an urge to speak to them, offer a word of comfort. There’s a brief opportunity, but I hesitate. What is my fear? Mixed emotions and memories. Then my chance is gone. As we leave the memorial, friends are circling the couple with hugs and condolences. We exit the hall and drive quietly away, passing clutches of kids still talking intently on the chilly sidewalk of Lakeshore Boulevard.
• • • • •
There was another girl, also brilliant and luminous, a promising, eldest daughter as well. She too had long dark hair and an artistic temperament. She was 20, on a months-long exploration of Canada from her native Holland, a floppy hat on her head, backpack always beside her, a pennywhistle in the pocket of her slim, denim overalls. She had come to follow a Canadian she’d fallen in love with while visiting Ireland. When he spurned her sudden appearance, she set off to explore the continent on her own.
I met her twice when I was 19, completely by chance, at opposite ends of the country – Nova Scotia and the Yukon. Everyone loved Carla, because of her easy laugh, her droopy, attractive eyes and ever-optimistic smile. On a sunny August morning we were hitching a ride together inside a flatbed semi-trailer loaded with asbestos bales, just south of the Yukon-B.C. border.
One minute, Carla is dozing peacefully in the wooden sleeper behind the driver’s cab. The next, she’s buried in a tangled heap of dusty metal, glass, loose asbestos and diesel fuel, where I find her body after clambering out of the wrecked, inverted cab. She dies, from the violence of an out-of-control vehicle on a wilderness highway, its wooden sleeper, and Carla’s body, shattering to pieces when the truck rolls off the roadside and into a culvert.
I’m whisked from the scene by ambulance and then airplane, though barely injured. I never say goodbye to Carla, who travels in a separate ambulance and is flown home to a funeral and burial in a small village near Rotterdam. By evening I’m at my parent’s home in Vancouver. Two days later I celebrate my 20th birthday with friends, but I feel lost, hollow and confused about my arbitrary survival. So unfair … why … if only I had …
In the days that follow, I write a letter to Carla’s mother Gertrude and have it translated into Dutch. To my surprise, she responds in fluent English. A series of letters follow, in which I explain the details of the accident and our brief time together. In reply, she describes Carla’s happy childhood as the eldest of three kids, despite the premature death of their father. She sends me the card from Carla’s memorial, decorated with her artwork on the cover, and a quote from a letter she’d written home the week before she died: “A good thing about traveling is that you don’t know in the morning where you lay your head in the evening.”
Criminal charges are entered against the driver, for reckless operation of his vehicle and failure to maintain its brakes. Then, the Crown abruptly drops the allegations a few months later; I never learn why. My life quickly picks up where it left off as I move east and start university in Ontario. I try not to dwell on the accident, but the memory of that morning has a life of its own and returns when it wants to, filling me with regret.
Gertrude eventually visits Canada, a year after her daughter’s death. She embraces the memory of Carla’s last six months in a foreign land, retracing her steps, meeting all her Canadian friends, visiting her destinations, sometimes sleeping in the same bed her daughter rested in or meditating in the same, wilderness retreat.
I feel uncomfortable when I first meet Gertrude, because of my lingering sense of guilt over Carla’s death. Why? It’s a complicated story, involving our decision to hitchhike from Whitehorse to Vancouver together, the last 20 hours Carla and I spent riding in the asbestos truck, and our failure to flee a situation that hinted at peril.
But Gertrude puts me at ease almost immediately. She demands no explanations and declines my apologies. She asks the simple questions a mother would contemplate, and for which only I have the answers: What was Carla’s last day like? How did she look when I found her? Did I touch her? Do I think she suffered a painful death as her lower body was torn to pieces? (No, she was sleeping, and it was nearly instant – a small mercy.)
I describe watching the northern lights in awe just hours before the accident. On my mandolin, I play the tunes Carla and I taught each other in Whitehorse and as we waited by the side of the road for rides. I tell her about the chewing tobacco Carla offered me, and how it made me immediately nauseous, which prompted a great laugh from Carla.
And I give Gertrude the contact information for a Fort Nelson, B.C. coroner, whom I met when I testified at the inquest into Carla’s death. Amazingly, she travels all the way to northeastern B.C. and tracks him down. In an act of generosity and empathy that Gertrude seems to inspire in every Canadian she meets, he offers to drive her an hour out to the scene of the accident, at the foot of Steamboat Hill, mile 363 on the Alaska Highway.
There, she finds the solace she is looking for. Imagining a wild and forlorn place for her daughter’s death, or an impersonal stretch of ugly blacktop pavement, instead she discovers a quiet valley, a creek, and a vast expanse of trees stretching out from the gravel-topped road, like nothing she could ever experience in Holland. She explores Carla’s resting place, and approves, because she knows it’s the kind of place Carla would also have loved.
On a somber, rainy morning 16 years later, I finally visit Carla’s grave near Rotterdam, meet her sister and brother, and even the young girls who would have been her nieces. Gertrude has treated me with care and generosity ever since, writing to me every Christmas, and, when we visit, sharing the small apartment where she raised her family. Now in her 80s, she still instructs classical music appreciation classes and gazes out her picture window at the ships that pass the suburb of Schiedam on their way to the city’s harbour.
• • • • •
So, to my lonely pair of young adults at the Port Credit funeral, chance survivors of a weekend adventure gone horribly wrong, here’s what I would have liked to say to you. I know you will mourn Courtney and honour her memory forever. But also stay in touch with her family, because you have something no one else can give them, a direct connection to their daughter’s final moments. Comfort her sister if you can, because she no longer has a wise older sibling. Especially, try not to ask why, because there is no answer, not an easy one, nor a complicated one. There’s no sense to it – it just is, as unjust or meaningless as that feels. Be thankful for every new day, and ever cautious in your travels. Obey your heart, not your head, especially if it senses danger.
And to the fellow cyclists I see everywhere, without helmets, without lights in the dark, sometimes wearing headphones, even operating mobile phones on the fly (or all of these things in combination): the exhilaration of biking in the clear air is a gift, just like sailing a boat or flying down a ski hill. But it is not given unconditionally, and its apparent freedom can flip upside down in a tiny moment you can never reverse – an elderly driver sliding through a country intersection, a truck that loses its brakes on a remote gravel hill, or a car that can’t detect your shadowy figure on that dark patch of road between the streetlights.