Michael Redhill’s books include Bellevue Square, winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.
On Sunday night, while I read a book at 32,000 feet, a man in a black hat began shooting people in the neighbourhood where I live. When the plane landed and the attendant told us we could turn our phones back on, a collective groan went up. People immediately began calling their loved ones. I had both my sons on the phone within a minute, and they reassured me that they were both safely at home, in bed. The places my mind went in that minute I’d rather not commit to paper. I want to forget the amorphous fear that swam through me as I listened to their phones ring.
I walked with my fellow passengers into the terminal feeling bonded in shock with them. I’d been at a book festival in Saskatchewan and I drove with friends back into the city. Being writers all, we didn’t want to mouth the clichés, but we did. Clichés are shibboleths and they remind us that we’re in something together. Our talk was comforting, but the silences in the car were louder, and when we merged onto the parkway into town and saw the city before us, an unforced solemnity left us alone with our thoughts.
Mine were of a neighbourhood I’ve lived in since 2000, where my sons – now 17 and 19 – were raised, where the main artery, Danforth Avenue, has always been a joyful and protean hodgepodge of restaurants and shops where we’ve always felt safe. As a community, we’ve faced gun violence before, but nothing as random or ghastly as Sunday night’s killing rampage. Our last illusion – that it couldn’t happen here – is gone forever.
My eldest was awake when I got in at 2 a.m., and we held each other at the front door. He’d been at a bar at Coxwell and Danforth, four subway stops away, with friends until 10 p.m., and only one more round prevented them all from heading out to Demetres at Danforth and Chester for cheesecake. I walked up Logan Avenue an hour later in the rain, to a street I’ve walked end-to-end for 18 years and gathered with unknown neighbours near the yellow tape by Frankland Community School. We stood in silence, watching the red lights flash in the wet road and we read each other’s minds. A parallel line of police cars stretched down both sides of the street to the top of Withrow Park.
I remember the Just Desserts shooting in 1994, when Georgina Lemonis was gunned down while having a slice of cake with her boyfriend. I remember the city reeling from a blow, and the then-unfamiliar experience of sharing bad news with strangers. I was 27, living in the Annex, with my life ahead of me. Georgina was dead at 23. We’ve mourned many more innocents in our city since then: Jane Creba, 15; Jordan Manners, 15; Ephraim Brown, 11 – the list goes on. More names will be added to it today. Unlived lives haunt big cities such as ours and we can’t expect that the chaos and terror we saw on Sunday night can ever be completely reined in. Sometimes I think the best we can do is to live fearlessly in their names.
As I write, we still don’t know the identities of all the dead and injured. I don’t know if all my neighbours are okay, if all the people I see in the dog park, all the men and women I know who work on the Danforth, are okay. I’m thinking today of the terrorized staff and customers in 7Numbers, who had to face that unfathomable evil, that madness. I’ve eaten in 7Numbers since it opened in the early 2000s. My partner and I had our first date on the restaurant’s patio. I associate it with seeing her tea-brown eyes for the first time, but last night, blood flowed there.
By 10:30, the shooter lay dead in the road and the air was alive with the sounds of sirens. Who was he? Why did he do it? Could it have been prevented? The familiar unpacking will begin now. It will bring us no closer to the mystery of people like the man in the black hat. We have to hold each other through this, know for real in our hearts that it could happen to any of us, and be deeply grateful for those who rushed to the neighbourhood’s aid, first responders and strangers alike. Too soon, it will all return to normal, a disturbed surface settling. But today, I’m going to donate blood and lay a flower in Alexander the Great Parkette and feel grateful for my life and the lives of those I love. When we learn who the dead are, we will speak their names and remember them. That is all we can do for them now.