The tomb of the unknown soldier, at the foot of the cenotaph, was a peaceful resting place for the remains of a man of whom we know nothing, save that he served his country and, in the end, gave his life for it. I’ve walked or driven past it many times. I’ve stopped there a few times, too. The last time I stopped there was during the summer of 2013, when my brother, André, and his wife, Janelle, were visiting. I walked their legs off all over downtown Ottawa, and the tomb was one of the things I chose to show them. People were chatting, snapping pictures, eating lunch, enjoying a fresh-air escape from the office. Two guards played a game with my daughters, handing them cards with clues describing certain parts of the beautiful monument. They, along with a few other children, scurried around the memorial, eagerly finding each piece of the puzzle. I can’t ever think of it as peaceful again.
Just two days ago, Wednesday, October 22, the peace of the tomb was shattered by a young man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A lifelong loser trailing a long history of petty crime and addiction, an angry, unstable wanna-be mujahid whose goal was to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS. Somehow, he got his hands on a gun he wasn’t allowed to possess and murdered the soldier guarding the tomb. Nathan Cirillo, father, animal-lover, soldier, was shot at point-blank range, from behind – the favourite angle of the cowardly. Brave bystanders tried frantically to save his life, but he died in their arms. Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block on Parliament Hill, where he was confronted – and later shot – by the sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers. Even though Zehaf-Bibeau was dead, it was unknown whether he was operating alone. Were there other gunmen? Had bombs been planted? Was the killing a standalone act, or was it the harbinger of mayhem? Nobody knew, so the surrounding area was swiftly shut down and closed off. All government offices were put in lockdown, as were several schools. Civil servants were told to stay in their building, including (of course) Ryan and I. Phone lines were tied up, and the internet was creeping at a snail’s pace (or, at times, completely stalled) as people all over the city frantically tried to find out what was going on and reach loved ones to reassure each other.
I was in a meeting when the news broke. I can’t tell you anything that was said in the meeting after hearing about the attack. My mind shut down. I was able to hold back the tears that sprang immediately to my eyes until it was over, then I took refuge in the washroom – of course, it is a fact that, if you are trying to cry quietly in the washroom, people will bang in and out and force you to converse with them. But I couldn’t stop. I cried in a washroom stall, then – when I thought I was ok – I made it back to my desk in time to start sniffling again. I texted my mother and her husband, then André and Janelle, to let them know that we were safe. Mom called, and I talked to her for a few minutes around the lump in my throat, trying not to let her hear my fear. I’ve been leaking tears at odd moments ever since. It is, I suppose, some sort of breakdown – a response to the tension that you can almost touch, floating in the air, thick enough to choke on. An overwhelming sorrow at the thought of two young men wasted, a peaceful place stained with blood, a city transformed by terror. The dissolution of the thin mental membrane between my usual state of calm and the sickening, screaming state of panic.
My emotions were even more difficult to control when I realised that we were nearing school dismissal time. Fiona’s and Bridget’s school, which had been secured at first, was now operating as usual, even though it is only a few blocks from where I was locked down. Somewhere between my office tower and their school, somebody had drawn an invisible line – apparently, I was not safe and they were. Who decided that? How did they decide that? I wasn’t supposed to stand near a window or on a rooftop for fear of potential snipers, but my children were about to leave their school and walk down the street to the Y Kids Club. I must have called their group leader’s number twenty times or more. Ryan took over the task of calling their school – maybe the school staff could tell us if things were ok. I couldn’t do anything about school dismissal or them walking to their after-school program, I couldn’t even leave my damn building – so I needed to know that they had reached the church basement where the Y Kids Club is held. I couldn’t stay still, couldn’t put down my phone – could barely breathe – until I learned that they were safely inside. After that, it was easier to wait out the lockdown. Sometimes, in fact, I managed to forget for a few seconds – then I’d look out the window at the empty grass and paths and picnic tables, and remember that a nightmare was happening even though we were all awake.
The lockdown was lifted just before four (for us, anyway – the downtown would remain shuttered and surrounded by police until well into the night). As we left the building, I drew in a grateful breath of fresh air, my first since walking in that morning. My shoulders were tight and my eyes were roaming – every sound was magnified in my mind, and I couldn’t help but look behind me every few paces. Cars were backed up all the way to the parking lot, because every car going across the bridges to Quebec was being monitered – and, because this is a border city, there were alot of cars heading across those bridges. After picking Fiona and Bridget up from daycare, tears were threatening again – this time, tears of gratitude at the simple blessing of the four of us reunited in our filthy car. I was exhausted, and my head pounded, and my eyes felt raw – but we were together, and unhurt, and going home.
There’s been a great deal of poetic waxing – journalists are reaching the dizzy heights of sports writers as they scramble for words that are deep and wide enough to encompass this event and the fallout. “Loss of innocence” is used often. It’s not really that, though – most of us have known for years that this was coming. We’ve watched the United States and Europe suffer through much worse, and really we’ve just been lucky until now. We all know that things will change, but these things are mainly of a procedural nature, and won’t stop everything we want them to. What has happened to us lives in some dark, airless corner of our mind with the other spiders – it’s always been there. The only difference now is that this corner has been disturbed, some of its denizens have come howling into the light. The word I keep coming back to is breakdown. The shooting of Nathan Cirillo was a breakdown of security, of trust, of humanity. It is a breakdown of the line between our bad dreams and reality. It is a breakdown of our illusions of peace and easy living. It is a breakdown of my feeling that all’s right with my world. My calm façade – that’s all it was, I know that now – cracked in the face of our collective tragedy and grief. This is just a description of my experience – I can only imagine what it was like for the people downtown, in the eye of the storm, for the families of Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, for Kevin Vickers, for our soldiers who know they have become moving targets merely because of their uniform. I’m praying for them all, because that’s all I can do. In the meantime, we’re all back to work and school and life, because that’s what we must do. We won’t let this breakdown break us.