The news out of the United States this week about the latest massacre in a small town called Newport, Connecticut brought back a flood of memories for me.
Just after the killings in an American high school in 1999, (Columbine) I wrote this piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper. Since then, gun violence in the States has reached unacceptable levels. I care becasue they are our neighbours. I care because each time someone is gunned down, a family is destroyed. I care because I know that it doesn’t have to be this way.
May 10 1999, Globe and Mail
What Happens After the Media Leaves Town?
Violent death draws the media to the crime scene like vultures to a carcass, but what happens when the story dies and the media move on to the next big tragedy? There are two dates that haunt my family, now and forever: June 17 and December 3. The former is the day that in 1954 my brother Eddie was born. The latter is the day in 1974 when he was gunned down in cold blood, aged 20 by a 13-year-old boy, just because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That date burns in our family’s collective memory, even though 38 years have gone by since Eddie was left to die on the floor in the Christmas tree-trimming department at a downtown Vancouver store.
Eddie was working nights as a maintenance man at Woodward’s department store. The boy had broken into the store, and it’s believed Eddie surprise him stealing ammunition. My brother was shot seven times with a 22-calibre rifle. His body wasn’t discovered until the morning. The boy was caught the next day and charged with what was then called juvenile delinquency.
In 2013, my brother would have turned 58. I struggle to imagine what he would be like now. Would he have children of his own? He was so young when he died. Young enough to dream big dreams about his future, but a young teen took away those dreams before he could realize them.
The local media were there on that terrible day only weeks before Christmas in 1974. A picture of his half-exposed body was splashed over the front page of the Vancouver Sun. Reporters talked about his education at St. George’s private school for boys, about his heart-broken parents and two loving sisters, 14 and 16 at the time.
My parents hid the newspapers from us in a futile attempt to protect us from seeing what no human being should ever have to see, especially two teenage girls whose family had just been violently reduced by one.
I think the story ran for a week or two in the papers across Canada. For us the story is still being written. My mother walks with the memory of my brother hovering beside her. Framed photos of a hopeful young man just into his twenties decorate her living space. A mother does not forget. Ever. Not even for a second. My children, his niece and nephew do not have an uncle. I wish they did. I wish I had more than a memory to offer them. Memories don’t help to celebrate birthdays, graduations, sports days, new babies or go for long walks on the beach.
So 38 years have passed since Eddie died – since the story died. The gore, the shock, the police cars, the detectives, the crank phone calls, the memorial service, the court case – all faded into the past. I used to be the middle child. Am I the oldest now? I don’t really know. My parents had three children. Do they still? Rebuilding a family identity after such a wrenching tragedy takes a lifetime or more.
Things happened because of Eddie’s death. Gun laws in Canada were changed so that a child could not walk into a store, pull a gun down from an unlocked rack, load it and shoot to kill. My mother fought for that. After she identified Eddie’s bullet-torn body, she decided that no parent should ever have to live with such horror. For our family everything changed.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
I have learned about loss and love and forgiveness. I know nothing is guaranteed and life is precious. I know not to read the headlines or look at the front page pictures, or watch American news for hours, because there is no truth or integrity in this kind of reporting. It is voyeurism pure and simple.
In the end, it does not matter whether it took one bullet or seven to extinguish my brother’s life. Do not be fooled by colour photos and live reporting. Remember, long after the terrible crime has been committed, after the cameras and reporters have rushed off to the next massacre, that is when the real story begins.
Ask anyone who has been blessed enough or cursed enough to know.