Personal Story #2 – “Nick”

As I went up the dirt and tree lined driveway,  I became aware of people following on foot in the wake of the slow moving police car. It was forty-five minutes after midnight on a relatively warm August 15th, 1979, when I arrived at 282 Brown Road.

The call was to some vaguely described “fight” which had happened according to dispatch, at this rather broken down residence, and that someone had been “hurt badly” As I pulled up, with only my headlights leading the way, an eerie sense came over me, a sense of something not being right, of sides closing in, of my mind involuntarily narrowing its focus. A survival sense in some ways. A sense of being acutely alone even though there were clearly people gathering now,  watching my every move, which in itself was rather unexpected.

Parking in front of the small dwelling, I walked up the couple of steps to the front door.

I found out later that this was the well worn, dilapidated residence, of a male named Nick Dugay, but there were many other transients who often sought shelter here for all the usual homeless reasons.  As I walked the two steps up to the porch, the battered screen door was slightly ajar, and the inner, once white door, was open slightly, angling and pointing inside. I called out, but there was no answer coming from the darkened rooms. There was no electricity, no lights to turn on.

My shiny yellow plastic RCMP issued flashlight, provided a dim beam, but it was enough to show the first five feet inside.  On the floor in front of me, my beam caught what appeared to be a human form, in the middle of the room. Two open imploring eyes stared at me. It took a couple of seconds, as my brain tried to absorb what I was seeing. Focus and process. But the eyes didn’t seem human.

As my eyes  slowly adjusted to the darkness, and the dank room smell alerted my other senses, the form became more distinct.  In fact what I was staring at was not a pair of eyes, but two nostril holes, part of a mostly disappeared nose. I assumed the nostrils were still attached to a head but I could not even be certain of that because of the state of what was before me.  I forced myself to look away a bit, and take in the rest of the rummaged room. As my light struggled to light up the rest of the residence, the single bedroom residence had obvious red splatter everywhere. It was as if a child had got out of control finger painting. On the walls, with no design, in some haphazard, helter-skelter styled message. In every corner, and on all the dirty white wall space, literally every square foot, including the ceiling, had what I now realized was blood, in various stages of drying. Coagulated, blackened blood was pooled around and pointed to the ravaged body.

My eyes continually returned to the body as some sort of reflex. It looked like a scarecrow with its stuffing mostly removed, and weirdly disjointed, as if the legs and arms were trying to get away from the torso. There were marks on the floor like incisions. The head was virtually gone except for some brownish curly hair, and one arm looked like it had been dissected from the body.

As my breathing slowed, at least to a more manageable  pace, my eyes began to tell my head what to process. I spotted an axe near the door, somewhat propped up against the wall, quite distinguishable from the sparse furniture.

I made an effort to check the rest of the very bare residence, although the house was very small and it was unlikely that anyone else could have been in there. There was no sound other than my now bloodied footsteps as I walked through the spartanly furnished house.

Just as I finished checking the single bedroom, Constable Renaud Bourdages came through the only door, and the one that I had entered, making me jump slightly. He looked at me with an apprehensive and nervous smirk; taking in the scene which I stood in the middle of, and then in his heavy French accent, and resorting to the usual black humour of policing declared, to me, his captive audience, that “this ain’t no suicide!”

His presence and statement was reassuring, and now made me realize that I was there for a reason, everything was indeed real, and not some grotesque dream. I stepped over the body, and I passed the axe, and went outside to my police vehicle to radio for assistance.

So how did I get to this place, looking over this horrific scene?

I arrived in the area in February 1978 fresh from the RCMP Training Center in Regina. Leon Spinks had just gone 15 rounds and defeated Mohammed Ali; Ted Bundy had just been re-captured in Pensacola Florida; and Roman Polanski had just skipped bail and headed for France after pleading to having sex with a 13 year old girl.

I was freshly scrubbed and had been now schooled in the finer points of the RCMP.  Of course that wasn’t true, I wasn’t really prepared for anything other than maybe an ability to follow orders and maybe some cursory knowledge of theoretical law.

This is where for me, police theory as it existed back then, and the law would meet reality for the first time.

It was an impoverished area with layers of religion mixing with unemployment,  and lives revolving around the expansive Miramichi river and the bridges that went over it. A small society enveloped in poverty, and as is often the case, it had become a petrie dish for violence and crime.

Unemployment rates were broaching 20% throughout the Province of New Brunswick, but this Miramichi region was the poorest of the poor. The religious overtones created a perversive warp, which cannot be easily identified, but was palatable to those policing it.

David Adams Richards, a celebrated novelist and a former resident of the area, writes about an “underlying anger” which infuses the area.

Just outside Newcastle, sits the small village of Chatham Head, where I found myself this particular night.  A bailey bridge spanned the Miramichi river and connected Newcastle to Chatham Head. If Newcastle and the nearby town of Chatham seemed to be a simmering melange of the criminal elements, then the small community of Chatham Head which lay in between the two major town sites, would be one of the boiling points. It was termed at the time by the locals as “little Chicago”.

The use of fire to cover ones criminal tracks was common, and knives, and axes were often a weapon of choice. Of course, hunting rifles were prevalent whether in a corner of the house or in a rack at the back of a truck.

Liquor and drugs, the usual fallback panacea for the poor, were often acting as the motivation, or providing the courage to fight, or steal. It was a time when driving while impaired was not a stigma.

Fighting was a rite of passage both for the public and the police. Physical policing, unlike now, was a prerequisite, considered by some to be a necessary characteristic of any self-respecting officer. “Community Policing” had not been heard of or imagined. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not yet been passed.

So this was my environment, with its underlying community futility, and a distrust of the police that I faced in emerging from the house.

There was little I could do now with just the two of us, other than protecting the crime scene, stringing the usual yellow “Police” tape, and await for reinforcements. By now quite a few people had surrounded my police car, but they were not wanting to get any closer; almost as if they knew something further was going to happen. No one was saying anything, they just watched in silence. They seemed to be anticipating something, but what that was, certainly wasn’t obvious to me.

While standing there, I did find and spoke briefly with a man named Art Leblanc, who was part of the crowd, and as it turned out was the one who had directed me up the lane to the house.  Also there was Jean-Guy Savoie, who I later learned was the person who had called the police.

As I approached Jean-Guy and began speaking, he answered, but in hushed subdued tones, clearly not wanting to have the others hear what he was saying. This was not abnormal, and to be seen to be talking to the police, especially in Chatham Head could bring about some problems for you. So I had to bend down to hear him.

He said that a woman had called him asking for a flashlight.

More significantly, he went on to say that a teenager named “Robbie Cunningham” had told him that “someone” had “attacked him” and that he “hit back” and the guy was bleeding and ‘hurt”.

Now I happened to know Robbie Cunningham, even though I had only been policing the area for about a year. About a week before, Cpl Ben Walsh and I had picked him up for firing off a rifle in a Provincial Park, and we had transported him to the local jail.

Robbie Cunningham, was a petty thief, always in trouble, and had grown up hard as they used to say. He was only 18 years old.

As I scanned the crowd there stood Robbie Cunningham; trying to blend in it seemed, standing by his father Vince. Vince was a well known local character in his own right. Allegedly,  Vince would often employ his sons in the passed down tradition of thievery. One of the “godfathers” of Chatham Head so to speak.

“Come her Robbie” I said as I walked over to where he stood, on the other side of the yellow tape.

He stared at me and didn’t respond.

The crowd of people present seemed to fall silent. A group imposed hush, no doubt wanting to also hear what was being said by this young police officer. I could feel all eyes watching and following me as I approached Robbie.

Now,  Vince, normally is a very vocal supporter of his kids, and would have no problem under any circumstance telling the the local police to fuck off, and then would quickly transition into a lecture as to his rights. But Vince didn’t say anything.

“Robbie come here” I said a little more emphatically.

Robbie looked straight ahead, seeming to twitch a bit,  agitated, but still refusing to look toward me.

“Robbie come here” I said once again.

I got closer to him but this time, I reached out, grabbing his arm, and began to pull him towards me. I was expecting a possible full out fight as I steered him to the car but it never materialized. He feigned resistance as would a small child, but he came under the tape, and once back at the car got in the back seat. Vince maybe tellingly continued to remain quiet.

Once in the back of the car, Robbie seemed to feel free to talk. His speech was somewhat slurred, but not the common fuzziness brought about by alcohol.  He launched into a running monologue, of mostly indiscernible mutterings, incomprehensible statements not following any particular thought process. Our conversation, if one could call it that was not helped by the plexiglass shield which separated us. I opened the small window insert, and Robbie continued to go on, clearly only making sense to himself.  He was clearly distressed. But I furiously and dutifully wrote down what I could. But then, out of the ramblings, Robbie said something about an “axe”.  There was no mistake that he said it, it was clear and concise. And I had never mentioned an axe.

Staff Sargent Dale Swansburg, and Corporal Ben Walsh arrived, just as I was beginning to conclude that a coherent conversation with Robbie was out of the question, and I could no longer keep pace in any event with what he was saying.

Leaving Robbie in the car, I re-visited the scene (somewhat reluctantly I will admit) inside the house with Dale and Ben, pointing out what I could.

Dale was the head of my detachment, smoked a pipe, and reminded me of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. One time he had even set his paper money in his pocket on fire while walking around the office after sticking a too hot pipe into his pants. More importantly I looked up to him, and saw him as a mentor.

Years before, he was the primary investigator along with Greg Kalhoon who had solved the murder of two Moncton city police officers, a sensational and horrific case that had rattled the entire country. The two officers had been killed in front of each other and buried in shallow graves.

He was calm, unshakeable despite the carnage, and puffing on his ever present pipe as he surveyed the scene; like an architect or landscaper, quite unlike the rookie cop who was almost bouncing beside him.

He asked who I had in the back of the police car, and I told him Robbie Cunningham and that I thought he had something to do with it; describing the initial call, and Robbie’s blurting of the word “axe”. Dale asked that Ben Walsh and I take Robbie back to our office, and that we should try and get a statement from him, so at 1:20 in the morning we headed back to the office. This may not seem like much, but to have a senior officer with the reputation of Dale, allow me, a rookie cop, to continue to be involved in this way was a true signal of confidence, which I remember to this day.

Once back at the office, as I predicted, trying to take a statement from Robbie was an exercise in futility; Robbie at times falling out of his chair. The ramblings continued, and I continued my futile attempt to write down anything that I thought could prove significant. Clearly he was high, but he did not smell of alcohol or of marihuana. I booked him into the cells for the homicide of Nick Dugay, but I will admit the grounds to arrest and keep him were thin, based on a a single word, and his presence and mention by others at the house.

But the case continued to grow, as they sometimes do when the Gods are smiling down on you. Cst Bourdages who remembered that Robbie had a sister in the area, went to the house, and recovered Robbie’s bloody clothes which he had gotten rid of, inside their washing machine. The washing machine had not been turned on, and the clothes were in a pile on top of other dirty laundry.

The usual flow of statements obtained by other officers, placed Robbie at the scene, and one theory that had surfaced was that Robbie had stored stolen property at the residence which Dugay had pawned or sold, and an argument over the monies led to the one-sided “fight”. In the parlance of the day, Nick was a “wino” who would often let the various thieves in the area hide their property at his place, in exchange for the odd bottle of booze.

It was estimated that Nick probably lived for 60 seconds of this attack. That is hard to imagine.  This was my purest example of the inhumanity of man as he had in fact been struck by the axe a total of  87 times; as those were the number of axe marks that went through his flesh and into the floor boards of the residence. The cuts in the body made it appear that at some point the killer had tried to dissect the body, striking several times were the limbs joined, in an attempt to dismember it.  We also found burned out matches on parts of the body.

As the evidence rolled in, over the next few weeks, Dale continued to allow me to be the presenter of the case,  prepare the reports, while he discreetly looked over my shoulder. Typed reports with carbon copies, hammering away on the single Smith-Corona available to investigators. All the reports were eventually submitted to Crown Counsel Fred Ferguson.

There were two difficulties with the case. Identifying that the body which was found was in fact Nick Dugay; and putting Robbie at the scene of the homicide. The case was weak in terms of putting Robbie swinging the axe.

We were able to eventually prove it to be Nick Dugay because of an operating room staple that we could see on X-Rays, and then were able to compare it to an operation he had undergone years before.

As to the second more perplexing problem as to how we could put Mr Cunningham at the crime scene we learned of a “new” investigative technique, which was being explored by a Doctor Bastarache in the Toronto Metro Police Crime Lab.

He was experimenting with blood “spatter” and what it could tell you. He was doing this by scientifically measuring the results of throwing blood on walls, and on floors, walls and floors made of differing materials. Dr Bastarache, would become our final witness at our trial, and testified that Robbie Cunningham, judging from his bloody clothes, was either swinging the axe, or was leaning over the body while someone else was swinging the axe.

Robbie was convicted of 1st degree murder, but in 1981 had the case reduced to “manslaughter” due to his level of intoxication. His sentence was reduced to 12 years rather than the 25.

My first directly involved homicide was over with a successful conclusion. The thrill under these circumstances is hard to explain. It is a combination of relief, anxiety and exhilaration which I never have been able to match unless under these same circumstances. It is this adrenaline which is addictive. Although in after thoughts and the usual press scrum, investigators talk about the welfare of the family, and the ability to bring closure to the family, for me, and if others are honest, it was much more, it is visceral.

Like many homicides there are a lot of side-stories, but in the interest of brevity I will not go into a lot of them in great detail at this time.

The most significant one worthy of mention is that Robbie Cunningham, in his defence, and in a later book, blamed the murder on a fellow named Allan Legere. Legere was Cunningham’s criminal mentor, Legere’s runner or go to boy, for menial tasks and criminal assistance.

This was not an insignificant person to point the finger at.

Legere would become infamous. He was convicted of killing a store owner in Black River by beating him to death, along with a Scott Curtis in 1986. However, while serving time for murder, he escaped from Sheriffs during a transfer. He would go on a killing rampage while on the loose, starting 25 days after his escape, with killing Annie Flam of Chatham. Five months later, he would kill Donna and Linda Daughney, and then five weeks after that would kill Father James Smith of the Chatham Head church rectory.  He was re-captured after a 201 day manhunt and  became known as the  “Monster of the Miramichi”. He was one of the first persons convicted of murder through the use of DNA.

So Robbie, by having Legere as a criminal partner gained misplaced stature in the community.

Five years before the Dugay killing, Cunningham and Legere were two of the suspects in the still unsolved murder of Mary Beatrice Redmond,  murdered in 1974, after coming home from church.

The 56 year old woman was stabbed over 80 times on her porch, never making it inside. In the same neighbourhood as Dugay.

Could Legere  have had something to do with the planning or execution of Dugay? It is quite possible that he may have orchestrated the event, but there is no evidence that he was at the scene of the crime during the murder.

The defence counsel for Cunningham trial for the killing of Dugay, also well known for his tenacious and sometimes impolite cross-examination, was Frank McKenna. McKenna would go on to be the Premier of the Province, and is now head of a committee seeking to determine the best candidate for the job of RCMP Commissioner.

Dale Swansburg, retired, is alive and well in New Brunswick, and in the last few months I had a chance to speak with him once again, and remind him of his impression upon me. He is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, but maintains a good spirit and is still as humble as he was some 40 years ago.

Ben Walsh, also retired,  is still going strong in Regina, but sadly lost his son to friendly fire while with the Canadian Forces. He will never be the same as the man who helped me on this case, but he too remains strong.

Cst Bourdages is still living in New Brunswick, having just recently retired, and having been a long serving member of the RCMP dive team; and he still speaks with the heavy warm French accent that I grew to truly appreciate.

I, on the other hand, after this case, had been instilled with a desire to do homicide investigations. This was my first where I could point to playing a meaningful role, and now I had the bug.

They had instilled in me confidence, made me believe that I could do the job. To see beyond the obvious, to look beneath the surface of the human condition. They showed me that there was a need to speak for the victim, as sometimes there was no one else who put any value on their life. It was a job that would take you to dark places, places where most people will never go.

They had shown me a team of people who wordlessly without direction came together; often with humour, a pride in their job, and with unbridled loyalty to their fellow officers. It was an environment of overwork, with each pulling its share without a negative word or comment, and then often helping the others without a need for applause. You needed to win at trial, there was no other option.

So, I did pursue this goal and would eventually be involved directly in over a couple of hundred homicides during my career. But, there is nothing like the first, and I always tried to mimic that unheralded crew who showed me the way.

Photo courtesy of the Author on a recent return to the area….the “new” bridge to Chatham Head from Newcastle over the Miramichi river..






A Personal Story #1 – “Mom”

Like most everyone when we think of our mothers,  I have a certain specific image which comes to mind. Something we quickly go to, without thinking, that seems to reflect who they are or were. For me, it is her sitting in a brownish green, worn,  La-z-Boy chair, next to the picture window in the living room. The room is tidy, with couch and other chairs, a few knickknacks, but nothing which catches the eye more so than the windows. This particular window,  looks out onto a large bay, part of Lake Ontario. And as you look out, through a mid size birch tree and a maple or two, you also notice a somewhat imposing cement government wharf in the foreground. It is seldom used for its intended purpose, which is a customs stop for any Americans boating across the Lakes to the Canadian side. It is better known as a swimming platform for local teenagers, or for fishing for small pan-size perch and sunfish. It is the platform for many a small child’s first caught fish.

My mother’s chair is worn but comfortable. It is like her preferred clothes, some sort of stretched working style sweatpants, a popular  garment of the older crowd, and usually a sweatshirt from a big store brand like the Bay or Sears, so no logos, or sayings in bold letters. She is sitting with her over-sized 1990’s headphones, eyes partially closed, listening to either a French broadcast,  the news, a classical music station, or the latest business report out of Toronto.

Of course this is an image which comes about from the last twenty or thirty years; in easy memory range, as it is much more difficult for me to remember her when I was a small child, or even a teenager. In the overall time spent in life, I lived with my mother for 18 years, and have been away from her, unable to observe her on a regular basis, for more than 40 years.

It is much more difficult to know of those younger years, as Edan Lepucki wrote about in the NY Times recently, those years “before they were a mother”. Pictures from those times help and allow us to put some substance to our image, but for the most part we rely on a string of stories, heard at off times, always accepted to be true, and with little corroboration from others. My mother did not even have a lot of photos, none on display in the usual mantel or bedside table.

So I needed to rely on stories. And as best as I can tell, in those more formative younger times, she was not atypical of women of her generation; a stay at home housekeeper performing all the normal assignments of her generation.  Cleaning, laundry, making meals, and making beds were the regimen.

There was little that disrupted or interrupted this routine. We, even as a family, rarely went out for dinner, never went to church, never went to the movies or to sporting events. So I never saw her outside that achingly routine element.  I have no recollection of me being out with just my mother, none of the usual mother son interconnection, and I am not sure about this, but I don’t think that there were many kids of this generation who did. However, we did go on vacation in the summers to our cottage, but even for those two months, she would fall into that familiar role of meals and cleaning regardless of where we were.  We kids, running, swimming, and fishing, always on the move with friends, always banging in and out of the cottage doors on our latest mission. And she would always be there.

Everything seemed inevitable. Meals was fish on Fridays when we were going through the charade of being good Catholics, and on the other days, always meat and two vegetables.

There was no shepherding of children from one “activity” to another like today.  I played a lot of sports, but can not remember my mother or my father for that matter, at a game, or even having driven me to a rink or a playing field.  Even if she had been there, I can not imagine my mother jumping up and down on the sidelines as is required by the overly enthusiastic driven parents of today.

It was the day and age when families had one car, and that was taken to work in most households by the father or in the terminology of the day the “breadwinner”.  So in practical terms, by necessity the home maker was stranded on this island of domesticity, with a front and back yard. Stepford wife like, but without the pearl necklaces and dinner dresses, and they were real of course, not robots. This was the 1950’s and the 1960’s where the custom of the day seems now so bland and accepting of the routine that it is often difficult to imagine.

In my mind’s eye she was always serious, determined, but maybe confused about the ultimate goal. She grew up of course where custom dictated marriage, family, loyalty, and that your role in life was to move your family further along the economic ladder and to let your children have it better than yourself.

I do have slivers of memory, brighter, and pronounced surrounding certain moments of time.

For example, my mother crying sitting on the sofa, dishcloth in hand, not saying anything when I came in the door from school.  The assassination of John Kennedy had just occurred in Dallas, gunned down in the back of convertible while he waved at the crowds. It seemed to stop time, even for me as a 9 year old. Something was gravely wrong, my mother never cried, and here she was crying real tears as Walter Cronkite intoned the news of his death. I didn’t understand a lot, but it showed a side of my mother I didn’t know, a side which seemed foreign to me.

Her younger pre-motherhood personality is even more difficult for me, as I try to put pieces of the fragmented memories into an overall picture, like a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing.  To even envision her being single, and acting with the frenetic pace of someone in their early 20’s, nor can I conjure up her being frivolous, or lackadaisical, as only younger people are allowed to be.

She went off to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto after high school, where she studied piano and trumpet, but she spoke little about it in terms of enjoying or hating it. I have seen clippings of her public piano recitals, with small town newspaper write ups of a few column inches.  But, I do know that she cherished her graduation ring, and it was one of the very few things she kept in a 3″ x 6″  wooden jewelry box, one of maybe five or six items.

When she finished at the Conservatory, my mother went to work in a music store in downtown Montreal.  I never determined why she went to Montreal, there was no reason ever given but this would not have been a logical choice for someone from rural Ontario. But, this was my youthful mother, who at that time must have had the same stirrings of any person in their 20’s. She must have met friends, socialized, fallen in love, or woken up hung over. I can’t be sure, but there were hints. There was even shadowy talk amongst relatives, of having had a possible abortion.

In those days the music stores often contained musical instruments where patrons could come and try them out, or practise when they could not afford to buy.  One day, a large black male piano player, came into the store where my mother worked, and sat at the piano to practise. The free piano and place to practise in a quiet space, meant that he, and the single female employee, developed a friendship,  and as the story goes, it became an ongoing meeting. He would often ask my mother to play with him, affectionately calling her “Ruthie”.  This bear of a man, with a natural but dour smile was Oscar Petersen. He went on to a rather remarkable career throughout the 1950’s to the 1970’s, playing Carnegie Hall in New York, and becoming one of Canada’s iconic figures in music.

I have no idea whether he fully appreciated the long-lasting affect that he had on my mother, it is unlikely. This was a time in the 1940’s, that my mother spoke softly about, with a seeming tenderness. It was a remembrance, that she would recall and bring out at those sporadic family story times. They were the same age, and I have no idea whether this was anything more than a meeting, or a rehearsal, but I like to think at the very least, there was a fondness between the two. A shared laugh, or a shared sidelong glance, an implied romance and that my mother was happy.

Of course real life intervenes, and my mother went off on the well worn path to marriage, children, and saving for the eventual retirement. She married my father after the War Years, becoming a maternal head of an Air Force family,  living in squat and square private military residences.

We were an Air Force family and therefore moved every three or four years, and even had a stint living in France. Of course this meant new friends needed to be made, easier for us children, not so easy I suspect for my mother. She was somewhat aloof, or distant, and had only a passing interest in those people who would be in our Air Force dictated social collective. She never seemed interested in the “normal” wives circles.  I often speculate that my mother was born and lived a few decades too early. She would have fit into my generation easier I believe, maybe  even more at home with the Millennials of today.

An obvious side affect was that quite naturally she began to slowly withdraw, entering into a more insular world, a naturally fermenting process, maybe due to the boring sameness of her routine, or her square peg trying to fit into the round hole that had been dealt to her.

Although excluding herself from others, she often used the time to pursue her interests. She was a person who taught herself French by listening to cassette tapes and by listening to the Francophone news. She  had a broader interest in the world, in economics and politics, which as I got older often launched us into long political debates at the dinner table.

There was another significant factor in her life. You see, my father was prone to violence. I never saw him violent to my mother but he never held back on me though. It was a day when any kind of domestic abuse was hidden, kept from the neighbours, blinds pulled down. My mother of course was the silent witness to these beatings and I believe it drove a wedge between her and my father that could never be fully repaired. As for myself, I was saved when I physically got bigger than my father, and left the house at 18. I left with a sickly guilt of leaving the my mother and younger brother behind, like the wounded soldier leaving the battlefield to let the others continue the fight.

When I did return home for a visit, I was often updated about the continuing dysfunction between my parents. My mother and I would take long walks and have conversations, the recurring theme being her unhappiness,  and the need to escape. She told me she was going to leave “him”, that it was finally over, that she could not take it any longer. She never did leave him. It was rarely done in those days.

As time marched on, the family group evolved, and then there were just my two parents living together, children gone, and a seemingly more peaceful air, however stagnant, seemed to settle over the house. My mother continued to withdraw, not wanting to socialize or even remain in communication with the few friends she had made over the years.

While at the same time holding a mysterious sway and control over my father. Routine became the god they both worshipped, with my mother sitting next to God.  Maintaining that routine — with meals, breakfast, lunch at 12, dinner at 5:30  setting the parameters under which everything needed to fit. My parents seemed aware of each others existence, but just barely. Coming together to eat, and then once again retreating into their own apparently cloistered but contented spaces.

This almost hermit like existence, meant reading or watching tv, or listening to the radio, and sitting for long hours at a time. Her short afternoon naps became longer and like many older people,  her maladies began to exponentially increase with the years, spurred on of course by the latest reading of the medical encyclopedia.

She  never delved into or questioned what my actual work entailed over those many years. She seemed content to pictured me in some form of uniform, writing tickets. She did not believe that policing was a righteous living, it was a blue collar job and not the one she envisioned for me. She refused to come to the police graduation as she did not equate it with some sort of accomplishment.

Always at the end of the weekly Sunday long-distance conversation which went on for many years, she always expressed concern and that it would be good if I could get “off the street”  but I do not think the danger was really known to her. It was likely imagined from some television version of policing.

Her only brother, Royal, was a pilot during WWII, a dashing dark haired man, with the Errol Flynn moustache who as legend had it, cut a large swathe through both the enemy and the ladies on his return home. But he was an alcoholic. He lived in the skid rows of Canada for the vast majority of his life, but it seemed clear to me that my mother missed him dearly. Every few years, my mother would ask if I could confirm where he was, using my police contacts, or where he was living, or just whether in fact he was still alive.  He died in the streets of Calgary with the usual grotesquely distended liver, in a single room flop house, as alone in many respects as my mother, never their two worlds managing to come together after the War years.

During the 1980’s my mother was discovered to have a brain tumour, which turned out to be benign, but the operation itself, left her somewhat deaf in one ear, and suffering from partial paralysis on the right side of her face. She no longer needed to have a reason for cancelling any of the usual social interactions as this became the un- spoken and somewhat tenable reason to withdraw.  Even going to buy groceries became impossible she explained, due to her “infirmity.” She did not want people to see her, or have to talk to others, happily sending my father to “town” instead.

For me and the kids, living away, birthdays were always a card and a cheque for $100, with a “Love Mother” inscription. No notes or urgings to eat better, or get lots of rest. I was o.k with this, as this was the mother to whom,I had grown accustomed, and I gave it little thought. Clearly the 3000 miles that separated us had become a mental distance as well as physical. She never came to see her grand-children, only visiting Vancouver once from her now closeted life in Ontario.

The tenuous thread to which we clung was that often mandatory Sunday phone call. This call was often brief, punctuated by the  “wait until I get your father on the other line”, and ending with “we better let you go, it costs a lot of money for this call”.  Curiously though, she seemed to look forward to that call and would always remark on the odd time we could not keep the Sunday deadline.

From her chair, she contented herself by watching  the business reports, moving monies around her various accounts, now free to do it from home with the advent of telephone banking. She clearly longed to be a business woman, and she clearly enjoyed the thought of saving money, and listening and debating the latest moves by the Bank of Canada. Predicting the next depression was a favourite topic.

Curiously she also began to divest herself of many of the objects around the house which formed any memories. Objects which would normally be cherished in family circles. The garage was emptied, the storage room equally removed of items big and small; the chess table made by my brother in high school shop classes, old baseball gloves and child toys were without ceremony sent to the dump.  She was a hoarder in reverse. It was not talked about, and there did not seem to be an excuse given or felt to be needed.

And then it all ended.

Three years ago today, my mother got up in the middle of the night, walked out the front door, walked down to the dock she used to stare at for years, and at the age of 89, jumped in, drowning herself in the dark frigid water of Lake Ontario.  She was eventually located by a search and rescue helicopter, when a diver jumped in and pulled her into the dangled rotor blown basket.

She left a note saying “It was not what you think, it was everything else.”

To this day “everything else” remains inexplicable;  was it for an entire life, something that happened in that life, for being unfulfilled, for being unhappy, for not being loved, or all of it together? I don’t have an answer. As much as I cared for my mother, it was difficult for me to grieve. I have been too many suicides, always trying to get in the head of the victim, and to comprehend and put a logical framework around the mental thoughts at the time when they pulled the trigger, put the rope around their necks, or took the clearly fatal dose of pills. I felt guilty that It was just as hard for me to understand my very own mother.

On a recent trip to Ottawa I was strolling with no particular purpose  on the sidewalk which lines the Rideau Canal, and I came around a corner at the National Arts Centre.  As I rounded the corner, there stood  a life size black stone statute of Oscar Petersen. He was seated at the piano, captured with that same smile. Inexplicably, uncontrollably, tears began to run down my face as I stared at it, trying to focus and understand these emotions coming over me. I needed to sit on the cold marble bench to compose myself.  It seemed so real,  where for a few brief seconds, I had been transformed back to that music store in Montreal, and for a few seconds, I was sitting there with the two of them.  “Oscar” and “Ruthie” in the florescent lighted store, after hours, surrounded by vinyl records and instruments.

She was in the end no doubt  more courageous than I have ever been, but also burdened by some sort of undiagnosed depression. But, I think she was also scared, and I wish it could have been me who had pulled her from the water. Because of my working life, I am forever burdened by the fact that I am still able to graphically picture her in the water; bluish tinged skin, blank stare, matted clothing and hair.  A fragility having taken over, a pallor that comes with death. I wish I could have been able to hold her one last time, that I could have pulled her from the water, to give her back one last somewhat uncomfortable hug, to tell her that it was now o.k.  I really did not want her to be alone at the end. But as usual I was a distance away.

Later, my brother and I would put her grey ashes back in the lake, the very same lake she had been pulled unceremoniously from, in front of that very same window, about 100 feet from where she used to sit, physically comfortable, but I think somehow uncomfortable in the life she had been given. As we approach Mother’s day you will forgive me I hope, for having a mixed bag of thoughts, pieces of the cheap life puzzle still  unaccounted for, scraps of memory whirling like torn pieces of newspaper never to be re-assembled.  Some good some bad.  Eighty-nine years, and for sixty of those years she was my somewhat flawed mother, but she was my mother all the same, and I miss her.