I haven't written much in a year. I've been struggling with this story. I've been thinking, do I really have the right to write about this? What are people in the village going to say if they read it? Should I include his real name? How will I synthesize the roller coaster of emotions that I went through a year ago? Am I ready? Indeed, even for me it still seems almost too raw to share.
About a year ago, I returned to Montreal and bid goodbye to the four students and my colleague with whom I had visited Italy and Greece. They went back to Kangiqsujuaq, and I prepared myself and family for a month-long cycling trip to Cuba. Sophie and I had purchased folding bicycles and a trailer for Noah, and we were on our way.
What a place to go cycling. The roads are in decent shape, and there is very little traffic. It was amazing. We spent the third week of our trip at an all-inclusive resort near Holguin for our friends Chris and Erin's wedding. All inclusives aren't really our thing, but we were able to hang out with friends we normally would not see outside of the country and it was fantastic. We were also able to do things that we weren't able to do in the rest of Cuba, like check our email. For those of you who received spam from my yahoo account about a year ago, this is when it happened. Alas, the spam was not the worst thing that happened as I sat at the internet kiosk in the hotel lobby.
I opened a two-week-old email from my then pregnant colleague Sayard which read:
We have some horrible news. It would not be appropriate to share it through email.
P.S. My baby and your dog are fine.
I immediately found Sophie and asked a friend to look after Noah for a few minutes. I said nothing, but he could read my face like a manual. "No problem James," he said, "Take your time."
What could be so horrible that it could not be written down? As we were walkind back to our room, we started to try and guess what could have happened. I thought that there had been an ATV accident, a disgruntled student came into the school armed, a murder in the village, all kinds of ridiculous things. Then Sophie stumbled across the magic word: "suicide". Even though there hadn't been any suicides in our community for over 20 years, our hearts started pounding as we realized that this had to be it.
We started naming names as we were cutting through the jungle to get to our room faster.
The most likely suspects immediately came to mind. They were all troubled teenagers who obviously had problems at school. We were terrified.
I rang up Sayard when we arrived at the room.
"Hello," she answered.
"Hi Sayard, it's James," I said.
"How are you?" she said with a shaky voice.
"We're having a wonderful time. But I was reading my email and..." I could tell she was already crying.
"Here, talk to Neil." she muttered.
"Hi James," he said. And then he immediately ripped off the band-aid, "Attasi killed himself."
Sophie could read the desperation on my face. "WHAT!?" she said.
"It's Attasi." I said. As she began to scream, I dropped the phone. I didn't hang it up, just dropped it, and let my friend and colleague hear us disintegrate.
This was unthinkable. He was the most polite and one of the strongest students in the school, a teachers' favourite. All kinds of disgusting thoughts raced through my head. I began by thinking "what happened to that poor boy?" as my mind raced through potential situations that he had gone through since we had left.
I turned to thoughts of what I could have done to prevent Attasi from doing what he had done. I searched and searched the inside of my mind and heart and came up empty-handed. This made me even more upset.
Then, more sinister thoughts began to bubble up from the depths of my subconscious. "Why couldn't it have been ...?" I became nauseous.
My nausea snapped me out of it. I realized that the phone was still off the hook. I picked it up, and Neil was still there, struggling himself. "Neil," I said, "let me call you back."
After we had gathered ourselves together, we called him back and got the details, which I cannot share here.
We wanted to do something. Call his mother, his brothers, his friends, and share our condolences, but we quickly realized that this would give them little solace. Their Attasi had been in the ground for over two weeks already.
We felt so far away, so helpless, so unable to do anything. There we were, in the lap of luxury, and there was a poor little northern town suffering without us. Not that we could have done anything to make it any easier for the people in the village. In fact, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had missed it. It was my own suffering and grief that was worsened by the fact that I couldn't mourn and get closure with the collective in Kangirsujuaq. When I realized that it was thoughts of myself and my suffering that were overwhelming me, a dark shroud of good old guilt settled in for the long haul.
When I again set eyes on the mountains of Kangirsujuaq, more than a month had passed since that tragic day. I didn't know what to do. The first time I saw each of his brothers, I hugged them and told them I was sorry for their loss. It was all I was capable of doing. I realize that it probably meant little to a family that was (and still is) hurting so deeply, but I couldn't just pretend that nothing had happened. I missed him, and I wanted them to know it.
The teachers themselves were still in the midst of the grieving process. Some were angry, some were brought to tears upon seeing us and realizing that they were about to revisit the pain that they had begun bottling up a couple of months before. I tried very hard to soothe my own grief, get some closure, and ease the guilt I felt. However, a few short weeks later, we would all revisit our frustration and desperation. But that's another story.