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To the River: Losing My Brother

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By Don Gillmor

Random House, 272 pages, $29.95

“When people die from suicide, one of the things they leave behind is suicide itself,” writes novelist, journalist and children’s author Don Gillmor in his most recent book, To the River: Losing My Brother.

Those familiar with the Toronto-based writer’s work over the past decade, particularly his award-winning series on suicide for the Toronto Star, won’t be surprised that his focus remains male baby boomers – his generation. Gillmor has been exploring their disaffection – currently killing themselves in higher numbers than youth or seniors – since his brother’s cold, quiet death in December, 2005. A gifted musician who struggled with addictions and love, Gillmor’s younger brother parked his truck beside the Yukon River some 30 kilometres south of Whitehorse, swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, dropped his cowboy hat in the snow and walked across the ice into a swirling black torrent of open water.

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David Gillmor, late brother of Don Gillmor, pictured at Abbot’s pass, above Lake O’Hara.Don Gillmor/Penguin Random House

Mourning suicide is more complicated than mourning other death, Gillmor writes, an admission sustained by the recurring guilt-tinged memories and “what ifs” that make up much of his book. Part cathartic memoirs, part travelogue peppered with suicide research, To the River floats between a sleepless wake, a lengthy eulogy and a much-needed but ultimately unsatisfying search for answers.

Steeped in nostalgia for that early 1960s golden age of North America’s middle class, a good chunk of Gillmor’s book is dedicated to remembering when, “allied in mischief,” he built forts with his little brother in the woods surrounding their suburban Winnipeg neighbourhood, whapped him with croquette balls, and dangled him from the roof by knotted sheets, in an attempt to mimic a B-rate prison flick. It’s a breezy reflection of a generation untouched by adversity that refuses to let go of its youth, something Gillmor now cites as a cause of rising boomer suicide.

“We wanted so much,” he writes. “So much change, so much sex, so much love. And now money.” But at some point, it isn’t enough. Growing old, Gillmor writes, is an education in loss – loss of friends, of family, and perhaps hardest of all, loss of unfulfilled parts of ourselves.

The North, for Gillmor, is a place people come to reinvent themselves. A place “filled with missing persons – people who have fled marriages, jobs, eastern complacency, the law … themselves.” During a brief stint in Whitehorse – where he travelled in 2006 to better understand the loss of his sibling – Gillmor visits local watering holes where his brother once played, talks with band mates and friends, even solos a canoe down the stretch of river his brother’s body travelled. Sleep-deprived and grieving, this superficial pass misses the nuanced pull of a place where the world is both small and sweeping. A place his brother called home.

An unkindness of ravens on the riverbank remind Gillmor of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, while the midnight sun glowing around the edges of his hotel black-out curtains becomes a menacing presence. It’s a landscape, he concludes, that his brother “couldn’t bear.” Although it would seem Gillmor is talking more about himself.

A poet friend of mine once described the afterlife as “the life people maintain in ours.” And in Gillmor, his brother lives on as “a lean young man who was often laughing, always smoking.”

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Don Gillmor.Ryan Szulc/Penguin Random House Canada

Like discovering a new word, which then becomes ubiquitous, suicide circles Gillmor. Before his brother sank into the Yukon River, Gillmor knew two acquaintances who took their lives. Today, his list is long. Scratch the surface and Gillmor finds even the most unexpected candidates admit to carrying “the idea of suicide around like a wallet.” A reassuring out that allows them to function through the mundane drudgery of the day-to-day. “Occasionally I find myself looking at people and wondering if they are carrying the idea of their own death around like a concealed weapon,” he writes. “Many of us struggle with dark thoughts. And it’s not always possible to tell who, and how dark.”

Gillmor took on the thankless, though compelling, existential task of understanding another man’s life, happiness and grief. And what makes it worth leaving. Suicide isn’t logical, although Gillmor tries his best to make sense of it, meeting with everyone from prolific suicidologist David Lester, known as Mr. Suicidology, to acclaimed children’s author Robert Munsch, who recently opened up about his own dark thoughts. “I’ve tried to inhabit the moment that my brother stepped into the river,” he writes. But it proves far easier to reminisce about childhood.

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