Death is weird, in all regards.
Losing someone is weird, dying is probably weird, and looking at a dead person is the strangest thing ever. My choice of word here, weird, is not meant to belittle the phenomena or act like death is not worthy of being sad or scared of. It is instead meant to highlight the messed up concoction of emotions it makes you feel.
It is not as simple as it seems. You can’t predict death, even though it is the most certain thing in the universe. It is not a simple formula, there is no death equals pain, death equals sorrow, death equals extreme depression and utter loss of all ability to keep living.
We think it is those things; we expect and maybe even want it to be those things. We want to remember that our souls are alive, that we are not the hard, cruddy wilted flowers we secretly believe we are. But try as we might, the huge majority of us have not mastered the ability to manipulate all emotions, or at least not when it comes to death.
Thus is the scene set for this past Monday night. After a hard, long day of school and stress, two friends and I decided to venture to Hamilton to pay our respects to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Why did we go? I would like to believe my intentions were as honorable as the act. And certainly within that lay the desire to show my appreciation for an unfair sacrifice, the hope to band together with fellow Canadians and relive true patriotism, and my hope to, in some way, add to the comfort of his family.
But I also wanted to go to say that I went. I wanted to be a part of something—something huge. I wanted to feel something; pain, sadness, anything that would make me feel like I accomplished something. Something that would make me say, “Good for you Dillon, you are such a mature and delicate soul.”
I wanted to go for the experience! Is that horrible? It might be, and you can certainly say so. But I’d say the majority of people could admit the same to some degree, and do not for one second believe that my appreciation of Cirillo’s life was not genuine, or that I didn’t become indebted to him in that moment.
Furthermore, I am entirely aware that I am a person that has never really felt the sting of death. Very few people that I held as more than acquaintances have died, and so I recognize my extreme naivety and bias in this regard. But I think my thoughts on this should still be welcomed and considered.
So let’s resume. We stood in line, we signed the book. I said sincere things like, “God Bless You” and “I’m praying for you” and other cliche but nonetheless true things. I entered the funeral home; I pinned my poppy to my shirt in pride. I walked down the hall, soaked in the pictures of Cirillo’s youth, and ingested the music.
As I made my way into the room, time stopped. It was oddly warm, and my senses were on overload. The light was dim like a living room on a winter’s evening, yet vibrant colours were present. The flowers valiantly competing against the black of guests and dark green of the soldiers. And there, in the furthest corner of my peripherals, was Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Open-casket, his handsome face was just there, a body having the warmest of sleeps.
I wouldn’t look; I acted like I didn’t see it.
I stared straight ahead, wanting to stay in the moment and appreciate all the other pictures and videos. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t walk over to the casket until I was prepared. Prepared for what? I have no idea. But I knew something would happen in the next thirty minutes that would surprise me, that would pull emotions out of their dusty closets and threaten to unhinge me.
I will pause here to say that the act of honouring of a dead person who you never knew is even weirder than just normal death. No emotion seems appropriate. Am I sad enough, or should I be feeling more? Am I justified in feeling remorse, is my grief real, or is it an offense to the family that lost everything? I think both answers are right for each question. It is just natural human reaction, we have souls and we really are sad and affected, but we don’t know how the family feels and we certainly don’t feel the same way. Of course, absolutely no disrespect is shown by expressing our sympathies, and to not do so would be unacceptable. Like I said, death is weird.
As ready as I’d ever be, I walked to the left side of the room. I stood there, feeling sadness, remorse, feeling that I wanted to do something, but had no idea what that something was. I wanted to stay there for ten minutes. I wanted to get on my knees and pray. I wanted to cry. I didn’t do any of those things. I stayed there for thirty seconds, quickly bowed my head and closed my eyes out of respect, and mumbled something to God. Then, I looked around, glanced at the guards stationed at each side of his casket, and left the room.
And that was it. I walked out, back to the car. People everywhere were crying. I did not, although I wanted to.
But my heart pounded so fast. I’ve obviously experienced that before, but never in a time of sadness. It’s as if my body was alerting me of some other reaction or emotion I was soon to feel. As if there was a step I needed to take to resolve this strange emotion. I took no step.
I sang sad songs. I looked at the street lights as if it was one of those classic sad, dark winter days. I thought about everything. I thought about nothing. All if this while dancing around the topic of what actually happened back there. What did seeing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s body make me feel?
OK, here it is. I was crushed. I was devastated. I lost something, someone, that I had never met. I think that’s a good thing. But since we hardly ever feel that way about someone we don’t know, it is so hard to justify or understand. I was going to go back to my home, I was going to watch sports, and I was going to force a smile until I was happy again. I was going to look forward to the next day. And I definitely did do those things. But they didn’t wipe away those feelings. They didn’t wipe away that experience and didn’t make me forget a truth I learned that day.
That truth is that 21st century humanity, in its most broken of forms, in its horrible inability to exist for more than ten minutes without finding something to argue about (Stephen Harper is lying! Terrorists are a false enemy! Stephen Harper is doing Canadians justice! Jian Ghomeshi is a victim! Jian Ghomeshi is a monster!), is still capable of breaking past those differences when it is needed. There is still a hope, a light, a love that can bind us together. The ropes used to bind are not three-stranded, they are not industrial strength, but they exist. They have a job to do, and they are trying their hardest.
Say what you will about the flaws of patriotism, the errors in being devoted and coming together for an idea, a nation, which may not have your best interests at stake. But don’t you dare criticize the human ability to feel empathy, to recognize our neighbor’s need and try and fill it, however selfishly or misguided. Every effort counts.
If hundreds of people can come together for a day of mourning for a person that nobody ever met, if thousands of people can sing a foreign anthem at a hockey game for a threat to an ideal, if millions can stand together and pray for a family and a people, then surely there is still a hope for humanity. Darkness and negativity will always exist, and at times seem that they hold all the cards. But light will always hold the edge, because the smallest piece of light can pierce darkness, can break the chains and can reach the most broken of souls.
So don’t complain that the soldier in Quebec was not mourned the same way, don’t express frustration that the government didn’t use the three murdered Mounties from this summer as a strategic initiative, don’t get down because the rare times of unity can become unglued at the very next scandal. Instead, rejoice! Recognize the love in your heart, and the power we have to pick up our brothers, friends, sisters, countrymen. The memory of love can haunt us, can turn grainy and out of focus, but it always exists. It always returns in time of need, always there to give itself up for our fickle needs. As long as we are alive, love can fill the hole, mend the crack, heal the wounds.
Death is weird. But life is beautiful.