Part of me sighs inwardly — maybe even, I will admit, outwardly — as Rowan props himself up on one elbow and opens his eyes to ask yet one more pre-sleep question. I’m tired. He’s tired. There have been lots of questions already.
“Yes, sweetie?” But I’ll humour him. Because this is the time of day — cuddled up in bed — where he is sometimes most conversational, most able to engage in the back-and-forth of real dialogue as opposed to his usual running-roughshod monologue and random series of segues.
“What did you do after you were borned?”
My mind struggles to process the question. Does he mean the first-breath minutes after delivery? The shift from womb to air and from umbilicus to bottles? (Confession: I was not breast-fed, and still managed to grow to functional adulthood.) From infancy to toddlerhood and so forth?
And then I think I might understand what he means.
“Well, I lived in my house with my parents — your Bubbie Ruthi and Zaidie — and with Uncle Jeff, and I got bigger and bigger and I learned to talk and walk, and I went to school and I grew up.”
Rowan is silent, so I continue.
“And then,” I say brightly, “I got my own house” — actually, a tiny, attic apartment with sloping ceilings, just north of College Street near Dufferin in Toronto’s west end — “and then Rachel and I got our house together. And we moved to Thunder Bay, and had you! And Isaac!”
That’s the gist of it, more or less: my life after I was borned, give or take a few apartments and a couple of degrees and so forth. But it will do at 8:15 on a school night, I think.
“Did you miss them?”
Did I miss who? Again, it takes me a moment to figure out what he’s asking. Oh!
“Do you mean did I miss Bubbie Ruthi and Zaidie and Uncle Jeff when I got my own house?”
“Well,” I say, hedging a bit — not quite sure how to explain to him that my brother and I (Hi, Jeff!) developed a healthy regard for each other mostly after we both left home, or that leaving the suburbs of suburban Toronto for McGill University and Montréal’s plateau neighborhood was the best possible thing I could have done, not because home was a bad place, but because the plateau was just so good, so necessary for me as a sheltered, bored, somewhat morose 18-year-old — “well, sometimes. But whenever I missed them I could always phone them or go visit them. Or they came to visit me. I left when I was ready to.”
Rowan’s eyes are large, liquid. I’m talking and watching his jawline soften, melt, still racing to keep up with his thought process and wondering what he’s getting at when I finally figure it out.
“Are you worried about missing us when you leave home?”
He nods and gulps and the tears spill over. “I don’t want to miss you and Rachel and Isaac! I want to live with you forever!”
Let me be clear: there are no plans afoot for Rowan to move out, no plans for everyone to live anywhere but here. Rowan lets us know at regular intervals that he intends to live with us, in this house, for his entire life — even after he has the seven children he is planning to have. He would like to marry me, or Rachel, or, in a pinch, Isaac, and we explain that this is not possible, that marriage, should he choose to embrace that particular institution, is about making families bigger, adding to them, bringing in new people to the mix. We tell him that he may change his mind and choose to live with his spouse and their seven children in a different house, and he says, “But you’ll come live in that house with me.” And we say, maybe. And then he says, again, “I’m going to live here forever.” And we say, again, “Of course you are, for as long as you want.” And then he says, “But do I still have to follow the rules?” And I say, “Yes,” and he says, “Even when I’m 12?” And I say, “Yes,” and he says, “Even when I’m 50?” and I say, “Mister, if you’re living in my house with me when you’re 50, you especially have to follow the rules.”
“Sweetheart,” I say, pulling him to me, “nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s leaving for a long, long time.”
“I don’t want them ever to,” he wails, shuddering.
And we go on like this for a little while, him calming down slowly, until he is near sleep, until I can leave his bedroom, lights dimmed, and go downstairs to shrug my shoulders and shake my head, bewildered, at Rachel, as we try to process Rowan’s advance grieving.
Which is why I’m slightly ambivalent about reading Nicola I. Campbell’s Shin-chi’s Canoe with him. Because here’s a book about the unthinkable, a true story about boys and girls taken away — before they’re ready, before they’re old enough — from their homes, their siblings, their parents. The book tells the story of Shin-chi and his older sister, Shi-shi-etko, as they are taken from their families and communities; from their bedtime stories and language and food; from their names and their games and the arms of their parents to Indian residential school: a cold, foreign, hungry world designed to annihilate them under the guise of saving them.
Rachel has ordered the book and it has arrived and we have put it with all the other books. Waiting until the right moment, which means waiting until Rowan takes it out one day and asks to hear the story. I don’t want to tell it, not sure he’s ready for it or will be able to handle it, especially given his fears of leaving home. But I don’t want the story left untold. And I don’t imagine there’s ever going to be a convenient time to tell it.
I let Rachel do the reading, because she has read it already and imagines that she will be able to stay (fairly) calm, whereas I know I will begin to weep immediately, unstoppably, the moment the story begins. Which I do, as the siblings sit with their parents and grandmother and baby sister, waiting for the cattle truck to appear. Which I do through the cutting off of their braids (Shi-shi-etko asks her grandmother to cut their hair to avoid the indignity of having it hacked off by the nuns and priests at the school), through the end-of-summer journey through familiar landscape to, a hard, new, unfamiliar place of hunger and prayer to foreign gods. I weep through the spring and the return — temporary — home to their families and a dugout canoe of their own. The story is beautifully told and spares us the worst details, the outright violence and assault of the system. But it’s brutal enough, even geared towards children.
Rowan is confused. “Why did they do that?” he keeps asking. “The people who took the children away — why did they do that?” And, “what happened to them because they did that?” When he asks where, we tell him, here, right here. On this land. Not any more, but not so very long ago — as the book tells us, the last government-operated residential school in Canada did not close until 1996. And he says, “I don’t want them to do that here! I want them to do that somewhere else” — and he thinks of the place he imagines is furthest away from him — “in … in China! Not here!” And (as my mind flashes to the thousands — millions? — of baby girls given up in that country, other countries) we try to explain that we don’t want children to be taken from their parents, anywhere.
This is a child who has never known hunger, whose parents have spent all of three nights away from him his entire life, never more than a cell phone call or short flight away. And yet who is so spooked at the thought of leaving us that he can’t fathom that this happened all the time. And why should he? That kind of thing — it won’t happen to us, right? We’ll all get to live together in our house, until we’re good and ready not to?
Probably we will. But my son, my sons, need to understand that their own human rights — and sometimes, their lack thereof — have a long history in this country, and that the horrors perpetrated in Indian residential schools have an important, ongoing, chapter in that history. They need to know that their story is tangled up in those of the First Nations in this country; that important, horrific injustices were perpetrated; and that one way to prevent further injustice and possibly further some form of healing is to learn the history, tell the stories. Everyone’s stories. No matter how much they hurt. They need to know that no one is safe unless everyone is safe.
So, we can all — my two kids and their two moms — live here together, forever? That’s what I tell my kid as I tuck him into bed after the story. Mostly, I believe it’s true.