It was Friday. Our entire staff was called to the staffroom. I remember sitting on the couch, sandwiched between colleagues, laughing. When I scoped the room, I noticed the principal and vice principal were not joking with the rest of us. It was bad news. The awful words fell like the long drop of a stone down a deep well. Suicide. No, I thought. There’s been a mistake. It can’t be him. If he would just come back to school, he can get his mark up. He can still pass. It took a few minutes before the news registered. He was gone.
I went to my filing cabinet and pulled his portfolio. I had short assignments, mostly writing. Stories of him and his cousins, adventures of childhood, visits to the reserve. There was a sketch of a hand, an ear, and a fist. It was a response assignment to a poem called, “The Piano.” I knew I needed to give these to his mother, but it was Friday. I went home feeling nauseous. I phoned a friend; as I told him about this boy, this man, the sobs started. I hung up and a poem poured out.
On Monday I looked at his mother’s phone number. I had talked to her the week before because he’d been away for over two weeks. Now, I didn’t know if I should phone. It was all so raw. I would be intruding on an intense, personal family experience. Our school social worker told me to trust my instincts and phone if I wanted to.
The sadness on the end of the line was quiet like an empty room. Sure, I could go for a visit. I got the North Central address and asked the principal if I could go that afternoon. As I drove into the city from Fort Qu’Appelle, my principal called my cell. He had heard some rumours surrounding the death and decided that he didn’t want me going into Regina’s “hood”. He wondered if I could meet the mother at the nearby Tim Horton’s.
I said, “Trust me, I’m no hero, but I can’t ask a grieving mother to meet me for coffee.”
I stopped at Superstore and picked up muffins, coffee and fixings, fruit and meat trays. I pulled up to the small home and gathered the grocery bags, three deep on each arm. Each step forward was my prayer.
At the front door, a woman met me. “Right on,” she said.
“These are from the staff and students at the high school.”
“Right on,” she said again, unloading my packed arms.
A couple kids came running, excited to look in the bags. There were three women in the room, standing, but when I turned my head, sitting at the kitchen table, there was no mistaking a grieving mother. She had an open photo album.
“I’ve brought some writings.” I handed her the file folder. “And I wrote a poem.”
She read the poem, and nodded, laughed in a couple places, as she read. “I’m so glad that you knew him. Really knew him.” She handed the poem to one of the women. She opened the file folder and touched his writing, all in pencil. Her daughter, sister, niece all stood, as though on guard, around her. She started to read one of the childhood memories, but she stopped. “I can’t,” she said as she closed the file. “It’s too much.”
The women stood, watching, as teacher and mother looked at pictures and shared stories. He was so handsome, so strong, so athletic. He was a joker and competitive, but kind and sentimental. He was a good big brother. As I sat in this circle of protection and love, I became consciously aware that I was in a holy place. In the days that followed, I attended the wake and funeral, and watched a community mourn. I remember weeping, sitting upright, the tears my only offering.
It’s been five years, but I think of him often. I continue learning from this young man’s life. I have promised to look each student in the eye at least once a day. I have learned to speak directly about suicide, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” Perhaps one of the biggest lessons is to listen for the calling: a calling out of comfort zones and into moments of holiness.
An earlier draft of "Call Out of Comfort"was first published in Sister Triangle Magazine, June 2011.