As we drove back from Quebec along the 401 yesterday afternoon, we passed under a crowded bridge. There were a few dozen people and five ambulances.
“Whoa,” said my husband, Dave. “What happened there?”
I thought about it a moment. “Could be they‘re there to show support to the families of solders who have been killed. We saw that piece on the news about them. I forget where that is though? Are we anywhere near there?”
“Yeah, I guess we are,” he said, “but why the ambulances?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe they are part of it,” he suggested.
As we drove, we saw cars parked on the side of the highway and some people standing beside their cars. Then we passed under another bridge. Half a dozen people waited on it, holding flags.
“That must be it,” I said softly. I choked on my emotions. “Do you think they’re bringing home those three men killed the day after Greg came home?” Greg was Dave’s high school friend who severed in Afghanistan over the autumn and winter. “Do you remember? Or do you think more have died since then?”
“I’ve been out of touch all weekend,” Dave said. “So, I’ve no idea.”
We drove a little further. The day was bright and the sun was hot on us in the car, but outside the car, the air was bitterly cold. Every bridge we passed under was lined with people. Sometimes there were too many to count, sometimes only a handful. There were children waving. Some people stood in uniform; soldiers at attention; veterans holing flags; firemen and their trucks; police officers. Each of them waited patiently in the cold.
Dave and I drove mostly in silence. He waved from time to time and they would wave back, but to me, it was like applauding a soloist at a funeral. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. He told me to take a picture and the moment I did it I felt strange, like I had demeaned what they were doing somehow.
Kilometre after kilometre, bridge after bridge, we passed under them. I fought tears and guilty thoughts. I was shamed by how much these people cared about strangers fighting a war that most people were against. I felt connected to them but unworthy of it. How much did I care? Would I stand out in the cold and wait for a car to pass under me? I knew I wouldn’t. These soldiers had given their lives in service to their country – my country – and I couldn’t even give a few hours. The tears burned as I tried to hold them back.
“While Greg was gone, Ashleigh came out each time they brought someone home,” I whispered to Dave.
“Yeah,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he had known or not by the way he said it.
It would have been even colder when Ashleigh had come, I thought, and I was glad again that Greg was home safe. I immediately felt guilty. The body coming home belonged to someone. He had been someone’s Greg – someone’s Dave.
As the drive wore on, I remembered a Remembrance Day when I was fifteen. I was asked to take part in my high school’s assembly. Before the moment of silence I read some of the names of boys from my high school that died in the world wars. I read the names but I didn’t think about them. It didn’t occur to me that they were people, not much older than me, who had seen horrors I never would see outside of a movie theatre. That they had never had a future: they had never gotten a chance to become something. Their legacy was my freedom and I couldn’t even acknowledge their names as I read them aloud.
I remembered the moment of silence. We were instructed by a teacher to think about these boys and their sacrifice. I was busy thinking about my next part in the assembly. They gave up everything, and I couldn’t even settle my thoughts for them; not even for a minute. The guilt as I passed under another crowded bridge was overwhelming and the tears forced their way out.
Dave touched my hand. “I love you,” he said. He probably thought I was unable to contain my emotion because of the beauty of the gesture. I couldn’t tell him the real reason I was crying and jotting notes in my notebook.
“Look,” he pointed with my hand still in his at the side of the road. “They’ve put up a sign.”
I squinted at it. It had the picture of a poppy and read Highway of Heroes. I scribbled that in my notebook as well. It wasn’t so I would remember and be able to honour their gesture with a cameo in one of my stories. I made the note so I could write a confession.
I knew basically nothing about the war. It was a passing thought at most a few times a month. It certainly didn’t affect my everyday life. I had no opinion. I threw out statements like “if you aren’t behind our troops try standing in front of them,” and I had a yellow ribbon magnet on my fridge. These were just small things that made me feel like I cared. I never thought about it for any length of time, and if something came on about it on TV I would more than likely change the channel.
The shame burned in my chest and swelled until I thought it might burst through my ribcage. What if the body coming home were not a strange man but my husband; my brother or what if it had been Greg? As if Dave could read my mind, he said:
“This next bridge would be where Greg and Ashleigh would stand if they came out.”
I smiled and squinted though my tears to try and see if I could spot them. Somehow if they had sacrificed their comfort and time I thought I would feel better: as if they hadn’t already done enough.
Dave gasped. “Wow.”
The bridge was the most crowded on the highway. The people spilled over onto the hill on the side. There was no way to spot any one person. Almost every person had a flag and most of them wore ski jackets. These were just everyday people. Then a shudder shook loose my smile. Did that mean the body coming home was from Greg’s hometown? Had Greg known him?
It took us two hours to drive from the first bridge to the center of Toronto and every bridge along the way had been laden with people waiting. When the empty bridges started to flash over us, I felt relieved but also a little sad.
“I guess that’s the end of it,” Dave said, and he turned up the radio.
The guilt didn’t last far beyond the bridges. A song I knew came on the radio and I sang along. We hit some traffic and I hopped it wasn’t worse further ahead. I watched the time, hoping we would be home soon. I popped my gum and thought about what I would eat for dinner. I comment to Dave about what the DJ was saying on the radio.
Looking back today, I’d like to think I gave the soldiers and their families the two hours along the highway but if I’m honest, I have to admit that I was thinking mostly about me and my own guilt. My guilt was not enough to push me into change. I will go on just the way I have, completely oblivious to the sacrifices being made. Still, for a moment today I stop and I consider that sacrifice. I regret every moment of silence I wasn’t thinking about those that gave their lives for this country. I am sorry for never reading a single name on a monument. Although I will probably never stand on a bridge over that highway, I am grateful to those that do, and most of all to those that give their lives so that I have the right to be even more selfish than I am.
This story appeared on Remembrance Day in 2011 on my blog and it was originally published in Canadian Stories Magazine in November 2010, under my old pen name Joanne Prescott.