When I go to a hockey game, the only thing I’m ever sure of is that someone will win, and someone will lose. Everything else is unscripted. Breakaways. Saves.
Finding out an old friend has taken their own life.
It was Valentine’s Day, not that that matters. And I’m pretty sure it was during the second period, but that won’t change anything, either. The details aren’t important when, at some point between plays, the game kept going while time froze with a Facebook update that couldn’t be real, but was.
Ian was thirty-five. He was quiet. Friendly. Observant and sarcastic. He was a paramedic and, until the end, he was a soldier.
He and I met through mutual friends when we were eighteen, maybe nineteen, and we were friends in the way so many were in the early 2000s, before phones were smart. Meaning we talked on MSN more than we should have, and saw each other less than we could have.
In fact, I hadn’t seen him in years. The last time I ran into Ian, it was a run-by hugging. He was working security at a concert and I, well, wanted to see said concert.
But my memories of Ian from our university days are clear. Him finding our mutual friend, lost on campus in the days before cell phones, and getting him back to the group he’d been with. The New Year’s Eve party in my on-campus apartment when I woke way too early to find him still sleeping, sitting upright, tucked under his camo blanket and looking more comfortable than he had any right to in that position. I made a big deal about it when he woke up. I mean, that’s a skill! Being able to sleep butt on a hard floor, back against a wall. But he just shrugged it off, like he didn’t want any credit for doing something so many of us couldn’t do – not willingly, anyway.
That was 2004. Two years later, he left for Afghanistan.
I can’t remember seeing Ian in the years between those two events. I’m sure I did – or rather, I’d like to be. But I know we still talked, sitting in front of bulky desktop computers, typing our conversations with a speed the younger generation wouldn’t be able to fathom. It was in one of these conversations that he asked if I wanted to be included on group emails he sent while he was away, and there was no hesitation in my reply.
The emails weren’t frequent, but they were always a relief. If I’d been asked at twenty how I’d spend my mornings at twenty-two, I probably would have said sleeping too late. Drinking sickly sweet coffee. Maybe taking Skytrain to an important job downtown. But I would have been so wrong. At twenty-two, I spent my mornings reading the news. Every morning before joining rush hour, I’d fire up my computer and pull up CBC to see if any Canadian troops had been hurt, or worse, in Afghanistan. I breathed easy on days there was no news. I listened to the radio during my commute on days there was, hoping for updates that wouldn’t name Ian’s regiment.
That wouldn’t say his name.
So those emails, when they came, with his typical sarcasm and wry outlook on life? They were balm.
And, years later, when I became a teacher, they were lessons. I read one of his emails to my classes every year around Remembrance Day – partly because they were well-written and funny, and partly because they were the juxtaposition of war. His words were the soldier’s life versus the life of a soldier – the Iced Caps and volleyball games against the discomfort of body armour and sand in his teeth.
But mainly, I read his email to my classes because I wanted my students to know about him, and others like him. To know that there are men younger than their fathers walking around their very city, propelling themselves forward with legs that ran. That marched. That carried the weight of the maple leaf, and transported them to Afghanistan and back for the sake of the right we have to live as we do, and our freedom to do it.
I can’t say that war is, or will ever be my thing. But people like Ian are. He was selfless. Kind. Considerate.
And he was depressed.
So on February 13th, 2018, he wrote letters to his family. He changed his Facebook profile picture. And he shot himself in the chest.
I don’t know who won the hockey game the next night. I’m sure it was one of the teams, whoever they were.
But I’ll never forgot who we lost.