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It is 1996, I am 9, and I do not know how to swim. In the rain, I struggle down a steep gravel hill toward the water, my towel wet across my shoulders. The air stinks of sea.
I am here to take my swim test so I can be awarded a pink wristband and allowed in the water for my week at camp. Beside me, a camp counsellor is explaining how easy the test will be, but I already know what is going to happen: I will paddle and flail until I am dragged down into the black, and then, before I have time to face it, some irritated lifeguard will haul me to the surface and I will sputter and cough in front of six dozen children with gawking eyes and pink wristbands.
I begin to cry uncontrollably. “What’s the matter?” the counsellor asks, rubbing a warm hand on my back.
“It’s just,” I spurt between sobs, “that I can’t tread water very well. And my sister died a week ago.”
I do not have to take my swim test. I climb heavily up the hill to my cabin and wait for the other girls to return, giggling, with their wristbands. Soon a happy group of blond strangers march in, already the best of friends.
Behind them trails a girl named Angela, who has almond-brown skin and gorgeous long black hair. The other girls are not chatting with her. She climbs onto a corner bunk by the window, gazing down the long hill to the sea, and begins to comb knots out of her wet hair.
That night, our counsellor invites us to crowd together on the lower bunks and get to know each other. “Let’s go around and all say who is in our family, including pets.”
When my turn comes, I start with the pets, because that is easier: a dog and two cats. “And there is also my mom, my dad, my brother Nathan and my sister Angie, who passed away (it is very important not to leave out Angie), but I don’t want to say how (it is very important not to say how).”
The word “drugs” I already know well, thanks to hundreds of “just say no” commercials, though the word “overdose” is a recent acquisition. It will be a year, still, before I learn the word “heroin.”
Other words we will never use, words like “junkie,” like “prostitute.”
As a young teen, I will finally build up the courage to ask my mom, while she’s driving me to school in the pickup, how Angie earned the money to pay for her drugs. “How do you think?” she answered briskly.
At 9, I already know my sister has somehow failed, has neglected to “just say no.”
Later that week, while our counsellor is away, Angela is perched by the open window brushing her hair.
“Why do you brush your hair so much?” asks a blond girl.
“I don’t know,” says Angela. She keeps brushing.
“You aren’t pretty, you know.”
“You should stop. It’s annoying,” another girl says. One of them lunges for Angela’s hairbrush and throws it out the window.
“Why not? Maybe we should push you out the window.”
“Yeah. No one here likes you.”
“Why don’t you talk more?”
There are tears in Angela’s eyes, but she doesn’t say a word. She crouches, as if trying to look inconspicuous. But the other girls are already on her bunk. I lie down in my bed, hoping no one remembers I am there – the other girl who doesn’t talk – but no one is concerned with me.
“If you tell on us about throwing your brush out the window, we’ll push you out the window, too.”
“While you’re asleep.”
“You’ll fall right down the hill into the ocean and drown.”
There are giggles. Angela is crying now, but still not making a sound.
The girls change the subject, and Angela crawls into her sleeping bag and turns to face the window, and outside, the terrifying slope to the sea.
The rest of the week is long gone from my memory. I found a group photo of my cabin mates recently, and was surprised to see the cluster of blond girls were not nearly as pretty as I thought. All of us were white except for one smiling brown face in the corner.
In the photo, Angela’s hair is shorter than I recall.
And Angela was almost certainly not her real name, though because of my sister that is how I will always remember her.
Only two events of that week remain clear in my mind: sobbing on the shore for a dead sibling, and hiding limply in my bed while a small first-nations child was casually threatened with death.
Just as I had not yet learned the word “heroin,” I had not learned the word “Chipewyan.” I hadn’t heard about the community ransacked by residential schools, leaving a mother incapable of caring for her child.
I didn’t know about my sister Angie’s eight years of neglectful foster care before my parents adopted her, or how during the first months they would find her sleeping on the floor because she couldn’t get used to a real bed.
I had not yet heard professors and politicians talk about race, and none of my white classmates had ever used the word racism. But that week, I began to understand how it was that my sister came to die.
Charis St. Pierre lives in Edmonton.