Memoir: my son was a leader, in life and in death

Memoir: my son was a leader, in life and in death

On a warm night last August, some 2,000 teenagers gathered for an end-of-summer party at Woodbine Beach. My 17-year-old son, Alex, and his friends Madison and Justin were among them. They’d heard about the party through Facebook and had been looking forward to it for two weeks. DJs would be there playing hip hop and rap, the kind of music Alex was passionate about.

The party was harmless but loud, and at 10 p.m., the police moved in to break it up. Squad cars equipped with loudspeakers ordered the kids to leave the area. A team of about 30 officers on horseback, bicycles and ATVs appeared, sending hundreds of kids toward Lake Shore Boulevard. Alex and his friends decided to go back to Madison’s house just across the street, but most of the kids weren’t from the neighbourhood, so they headed en masse to the bus stop at Lake Shore and Northern Dancer. The first bus to arrive filled up immediately, and the driver pulled out onto Lake Shore, choosing to skip the next stop, where dozens more teenagers were waiting. According to Madison, the boys assumed the bus was going to stop; they thought there was time to run across the road. Madison made it. Alex was one stride away from the safety of the median when the bus hit him, propelling him up the street and running over him before coming to a stop.

At 10:28, there was a knock on my door. It was Madison’s parents. They told me Alex had been in a serious accident and had been taken to St. Michael’s Hospital. Moments later, the police arrived at his mom’s door with the same terrifying news. At the hospital, a chaplain took Kathryn and me to a softly lit “quiet room.” Minutes later, emergency doctors came in and told us Alex had died at the scene. It was incomprehensible. How? Why? Suddenly we were plunged into a parent’s darkest nightmare.

I had seen death before. From 2001 to 2004, I was CBC Radio’s Moscow correspondent. Using Russia as a base, I travelled to war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. My last assignment before leaving Russia was in Beslan, scene of the infamous hostage-taking in which 334 victims were killed in an elementary school gymnasium, 186 of them children. In the days following, I observed the power­ful mourning rituals of the ethnic Ossetians, a mountain people bound together by communal traditions. Scores of open coffins were laid out in the middle of the streets, where friends and neighbours gathered around, hugging and weeping. The first casket I saw contained the body of an 11-year-old boy. I remember thinking Alex was also 11 at the time. A nearby one contained the boy’s mother, a teacher at the school. Across the street in their family home, the mother’s clothes were laid on her bed so that her sisters and friends could each take a garment to wear as a remembrance. The boy’s cousins each took a toy. I left Beslan in awe of the community’s efforts to cope. Of course, I had no idea I’d one day be drawing on that experience myself.

By 1 a.m. on the night of the accident, Kathryn and I realized being at the hospital had become pointless. Alex’s friends had gathered outside St. Mike’s, and we invited them to join us at Kathryn’s house. Once there, our shock gave way to unbearable grief. Our friends and family arrived and joined in our grieving. As I wandered through the house listening to Alex’s friends talk about him, I realized that my beautiful son was the anchor for a big community that loved him dearly. As one boy told me, “If you were Alex Gillespie’s friend, you had a lot of friends.”

Alex went to Rosedale Heights School of the Arts for the drama program, but his real ambition was to become a music producer and a rapper. He spent hours on YouTube watching videos. I often thought he was wasting time, but he wasn’t. He was constantly writing his own music and making his own videos with his friends. That night I heard them say he was the best lyricist and performer of all of them, and it made me proud.

His mom and I intuitively sensed what the Ossetians and other cultures have known for centuries. Grief must be shared. The next day, Kathryn invited Alex’s friends to his room to take something that belonged to him—a favourite Jimi Hendrix or Joe Strummer T-shirt, a Clash or NOFX CD. We held the wake at my house, where he grew up. We bought an unvarnished coffin and set it up in the dining room, inviting his friends to write their goodbyes on it. For his memorial service, we decided to throw the kind of party he’d want to attend—something totally sick. We turned the arrangements over to his friends, who helped plan the proceedings and picked all the music. The agreement was you guys make the creative decisions, we’ll pay the bills.

The night before the memorial, four of Alex’s friends—Hendrix, Zephyr, Zack and Tyler—took a trip to the BombShelter, a graffiti supply shop on Spadina, to buy two dozen cans of spray paint. They then returned to Kathryn’s house, where four five-by-eight-foot canvases had been set up in the backyard. The adults watched from the back window over the next 10 hours while the boys made magic. By 2 a.m., they had four brilliant tableaux of colour bursting with creative energy and imagination. Alex would have loved them. Today, one is hanging in my dining room, one in his mom’s family room, one in his big sister Jennifer’s condo, and one will soon be hung in a hallway of his school.

A part of me still doesn’t believe my son is gone, but when reason forces me to accept the truth, I take some comfort in how we said goodbye. It wasn’t hard to figure out. We did what Alex himself would have done: invited everyone to join in.

Bill Gillespie is CBC’s security correspondent.

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