Most of these contributed pieces have concerned friends or loved ones who have died after extended illnesses. And while all death feels tragic, these at least extend the grace of time to adjust to the new realities dictated by disease. Today’s guest author, Barbara E. Hunt, confronts a different kind of death: the accidental death of a young man; the death of promise, of the future life that may have been lived. This piece is a short extract from her memoir, The Worst of Lies.
by Barbara E. Hunt
They say death comes in threes, but Tim’s slammed into me as a single solitary storm that Thanksgiving weekend. Unprepared I was, after summer at the cottage, being used to him, the happy-as-a-puppy kid-brother who trolled up and down the lake for a glimpse of Michelle, who was visiting friends from Florida. You could hear him singing Mich-elle, my Belle in his flat New York accent over the drone of the outboard motor. This was love. That 17-year-old kind of love. Open and honest as the blue skies over Georgian Bay in August. I don’t think he got anywhere with her, but that didn’t stop him sitting night after night in our screened-in porch until midnight talking my ear off about her smile, her hair, her eyes.
Thanksgiving Monday, we came home from the cottage in the afternoon to a ringing phone. My friend Michael, his brother was on the line from his residence at Queen’s. He never called. It was either cottage–get-togethers Canada Day and Labour Day or radio-silence.
“Tim’s dead,” he told me in a thick voice.
“What? How? Where?” My brain scurried around the cluster of questions.
“Back home in Baldwinsville.” That was New York State, I knew.
“But…” I pictured Tim full of life. Young and vital. How could this happen?
“Squirrel hunting in the woods out back,” said Michael. “An accident…his best friend’s rifle…”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I mumbled, only noticing Michael was gone when the drone of the dial tone seeped into my consciousness. The receiver hung in my hand. This couldn’t be true.
“Who was that,” asked my mother, entering the kitchen. I sank onto the stool.
“Tim’s dead.” She made sad noises that I barely heard. The rest of my family came in. They buzzed with shock.
But I couldn’t let him go. His body in the forest, shot full in the chest. No. For me he would always be sitting in our porch, animated about his summer job as a produce-picker. His dark eyes full of life. His unfurrowed brow deeply tanned. His brown hair short as a soldier’s. His white teeth and his laughter. So real. I was numb for weeks. For months. Loathed guns with full-on hate. Was a robot in my first year’s university classes, his laughter often interrupting my train of thought. So I held him close.
Every summer when I went north, I imagined him there a little less, but still aged 17. Mich-elle ringing on the lake. We had love, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun rolling through my days, a strange refrain from his last summer on earth.
And what I couldn’t say, but hoped came through in my writing five years ago was how his death gutted me. I was nineteen and both families’ kids had spent sun-washed days cavorting with canoes and water-skiing, playing boardgames and 45s, making ice cream from scratch. And we still had our lives taking flight ahead of us. Until there was this mighty contradiction. Some promise taken back. The slap of irrefutable fact. Death was so final.
Then for a long time I felt guilty. About being alive. I think my whole family did when we saw them each summer, one child short while we were still four. It made me reclusive, hiding away in my room, albums on repeat or my nose in a book. Or it made me party my brains out. Drinking too much. Engaging in relationships that were sizzling-hot fireworks in the dark, but dull and meaningless as cold ashes by morning light.
Nothing helped, so I swam. Competitively. Five days a week. Two hours each afternoon. For a full year. Muscle-memory and the rhythm of my body suspended, thought-less consoled me somehow. Allowed the ache to scab and heal. It was water dripping from skin, fingers plunging deep and legs flutter-kicking themselves to jelly that slowly, stroke by stroke, salved my sorrow. Allowing his booming, off-key voice to reverberate memory-sweet across the Bay just for me at least once each summer as I stare out at the glint of sun on water where the blue on blue meet.
About the author:
Barbara E. Hunt writes poetry, Young-Adult novels and memoir. Her work has been featured in literary journals, anthologies and magazines [even two writing craft books] across North America as well as CBC Radio One, The Globe and Mail and Homemakers Magazine. She was selected for a Diaspora Dialogues poetry mentorship in the City of Toronto and released The Patternmaker’s Crumpled Plan (Piquant Press) in 2011.
As well as her writing work with Phanta Media in Markham, the many years with The Writers’ Community of Durham Region and the decade organizing the Ontario Writers’ Conference are her heart.