It was just my daughter Liz and me in the living room, a quiet moment in the evening when I said to her, ‘I went to Tim Bosma’s funeral.’
Of course, one never knows if there is a right way to talk about this sort of thing with children, about death, about murder, about the darker side of this world.
‘I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,’ is what Tim had said before he left his house to never return again. That’s what any of us say. And the children hear us.
‘I’m getting some milk now.’ ‘I’m walking the dog.’ ‘I’m going next door.’ This is what they understand. Not ‘I’m going off to die now.’ So what do we tell the children?
What does Sharlene Bosma, one day, tell her daughter? ‘Your father. Well, you see …. Your Dad …. Uhm, Daddy was … Oh, Sweetie, something terrible happened.’ And so it will go. Sharlene won’t know what to say or how to say it. Not until the time comes. I know. My mother killed herself.
One blue day in her apartment on the other side of the ocean, when life had beaten her too many times, when mental illness and the brokenness of her marriage and the loss of her children overwhelmed her that so she couldn’t take another breath, my mother — a nurse who spent much of her life caring for others — gave herself an injection to take her own life. And so what do I say?
Not long ago, Liz and I were talking all around it. It was a few days before that quiet moment in the living room. We were on a school trip, on a bus full of other nine-year-olds, but in our own time and space.
‘But how did Hannelore die?’ Liz asked, looking up to me. She knows my mother as Daddy’s Mom, or Hannelore. She doesn’t know her as Oma. My mother died frozen in time before she reached that sort of status, captured like, say, Princess Diana, in an image that is or isn’t entirely real.
I was so young, in fact, that I never knew my mother well. I have old photos. And, rather remarkably for that time, old family film. There’s my mother and me. She’s swinging me in the air and I’m laughing in a way that’s more than happy. It’s a way that says, ‘Here, look, this is my mom and she is mine and I am hers.’ I have old letters. Old stories that she – my mother always wanted to be a writer – kept.
I spent much of my early adult years cobbling these sorts of things together, getting documents translated, trying to separate family myth from reality. The entire affair had been splashed in the Toronto press. ‘One’s man fight for his two children,’ is how it was put on the front page because it involved Canadian – German diplomacy in the midst of the cold war: the cold war of a broken family and the cold war of the era’s international politics.
One summer day many years later I travelled over the ocean to see my mother’s gravesite in Berlin for the first time. The plot, as is custom there, has since been removed to make way for some other soul. And so it is with the vividness of who my mother was, or even who I’ve created her to be – it’s changing and fading as I pour energy into my own children and our season together.
I didn’t tell Liz any of this on that school bus trip. But one day I will. And Jon. And Hannah. I’ll tell each of them. I’ll find the words. And they’ll have questions. And I’ll do my best to answer them. And it will be a moment that will be both holy and ordinary. And they’ll walk away somehow changed but somehow not.
‘But Mom, where did Daddy go that day? But Mom, how did Daddy die?’ And there will be newspaper articles. And Sharlene Bosma will pull them out at the coffee table. And her daughter will see that her father was loved by many people not because they knew him but because this is what we do in our broken world. We keep each other’s back. We cry together. We look for each other.
So it was just Liz and myself in the living room in this quiet moment in the evening and I told her that I had gone to Tim Bosma’s funeral and she asked if I had seen Sharlene. I said, yes, from a distance, and then Liz said that she wished that I would have told her.
‘Why?’ I said.
‘I wanted you to get her autograph,’ she said.
And so it goes. There’s a certain celebrity-creation in it all. The dead get frozen in time. The living are seen as walking on water. Those in the midst of it, though, choose their words carefully. And then they speak with plainness. My mother killed herself. Your father was murdered. But you are more than any of it. So just walk on now. Walk on.