AWAKENING 1978, THE FIRST BODY
I was 5 years old when I found my first body.
I loved the time we spent up at (the aptly named) ‘RIP’s Campground‘ in Northern Ontario. It was a welcome respite from the difficult reality I faced in our unhappy, unstable home. Sadly, tradition would be permanently quashed this fateful Saturday, as we never went back after this unfortunate incident.
On this particular sunny summer morning, my older cousin and I wandered to the shallow lake. It was about 6:30 am (by police reports), when we arrived to the sandy beach. We were not alone.
Standing only a few feet from us was a man who, to my 5 year old eyes, looked to be in his late 20’s. I remember he was wearing red swimming trunks and had his head shaved.
He inched toward the gently lapping shore of the calm lake. I sat in the sand head down, pretending to fiddle, watching him through my hair. I am not sure what *James was doing, though physically he was behind me, off exploring the beach brush for something that might have been interesting to his 9 year old mind.
It seemed like a very long time that the man inched around the shallow edge of the water, before I watched him take his swan dive into the sand. I still have not forgotten the grotesque sound of his neck snapping.
I called to James as I slowly walked toward the contorted body. I remember it took a moment to get James out of the bush, and by the time he arrived at my side I was atop the man looking down at his horrible head.
I recall having a very calm ‘Stand By Me‘ reminiscent conversation;
“Is he dead, James?’
“Prolly, ya. We should tell an adult. You should stop looking. I bet he was on drugs…”
“What does that mean James?”
“I will tell you about that later, you are still too little.”
We decided that we shouldn’t tell my Mother who was pregnant, and I didn’t have much faith or trust in her boyfriend, who would soon be my step-father, so we decided to find ‘Old RIP’ and tell him ourselves.
We ran up the path, hand in hand to the shack that ‘RIP’ spent his summers in. Again, it was around 6:30 am, a summer weekend day, and RIP was not looking to be woken up. We banged and banged on his door, I remember a neighbouring camper coming to see about the ruckus at about the same time as RIP crankily appeared.
Now RIP himself deserves some description. Remember ZZTop in the late 70’s/early 80’s? Add a little weight to one of those guys, take away some talent and you are left with ‘Old RIP’. He scared me a bit.
He didn’t believe our story at first and wanted to take us back to our parents – we begged him not to because of my Mothers ‘condition’, and took him (and the other adult camper who had shown up at the same time) down to the water.
From that point, ‘all hell broke loose’. It is hard to remember the details through all of the chaos, but yes, the man was dead. My favourite towel was taken to cover his buckled head, which to me (at 5) was very distressing.
Later that day they tried to give it back to me. I remember refusing to touch it, feeling like it was covered in death. How could I want my pretty pink flower towel now that it had been on top of that gory mangled, bloody head?
We were questioned at the beach by the police, and asked to stay at the campground for the day, just in case more questioning was required. I remember it being a good (surreal) day, from that point. Adults from all around camp came to bring my cousin and I treats to the playground. They organized games that all of us children played together, and all day I had someone to push me on the swing.
It was only as an adult that I realized that they were collectively trying to protect James and I from the aftermath of the horror we had just experienced.
On a rare visit in 2011 (33 years after said incident), my Mother dropped in. We don’t see each other often, as we live about 4,800 km apart. She brought with her a few family heirlooms wrapped in what she calls her ‘junk towels’. By unbelievable coincidence, one of those towels was THE towel that was once my favourite more than 3 decades earlier – the towel I hadn’t touched in as many years – the very one that covered the head of the man who died that day on the beach.
It is probably this singular incident that sent me on the unusual path I took. It was the first in a series of profound, unbelievable situations the Universe (and I) would put me in. It is also the event that kept me from experimenting with drugs though they were around, and life was hard.
Although the manner in which he lost his life was instant, tragic and without honour or meaning (as most drug related deaths are), it impacted my life profoundly. I wish I knew what he had been doing the night before, and where his friends were that fateful morning.
I wish I could speak to his family and ask what he was like, offer them condolences, tell them of his last moments (if they want to know). Having lost my own sister – the one in my Mothers womb at the time of this story in 1978 – I know that they still feel the loss.
I used to hope, but I now know his spirit is aware that his last moments were not lost on 5 year old me.
*James is not my cousins name, of course.