In a month or so, the red brick exterior of the house down the road will no longer peek between the naked walnut tree branches in my back yard. A froth of new buds will emerge, gradually masking it behind a fresh canopy of green leaves. But when I look through my kitchen window, I’ll still know it’s there. And looking out will remind me that for the people who live in that red brick house, some branches will remain forever bare.
A boy once lived there. A boy who was roughly the same age as my youngest son. Although they weren’t close friends, they knew each other. Took a class together. Would have graduated together from Grade 12 this June. But the boy in that house disappeared and met a tragic end.
In a stroke of bitter and frightening irony, he met that end at the hands of a young man who attended school with another son of mine just a few years earlier. (No; they were not friends, but they knew each other.)
The idea of missing people is terrifying. For that very reason, I take note of missing people bulletins and share them on social media, but try to distance myself from their agonizing reality. In this instance, I couldn’t do that. In addition to attending school with my son, I’m fairly certain I met the boy, Cooper Nemeth, and his mother at least once several years ago. He lived just down the road. I know the street where he was last seen at a house party and the place where police say his cellphone last “pinged.” I know the streets he would have walked, the areas he would have frequented, and I met at least one of his close friends.
As the highly publicized search ensued, empathy thrust me into the icy terror of wandering through the unknown – a cold and unrelenting wilderness that unfortunately ended in tragedy.
But out of that tragedy, an unexpected light emerged.
The determination of Cooper’s family rallied the Winnipeg community in a massive search effort that brought back haunting memories of the search for 15-year-old Tina Fontaine in 2014. When a dedicated patrol of volunteers calling themselves the Bear Clan learned that Cooper might be wandering around somewhere in the city’s core area, they joined the search.
"A child is a child. It doesn't matter where he is from. We are all connected," Bear Clan coordinator James Favel told Winnipeg Sun reporter Marianne Klowak.
James’s comment brings to mind a crucial symbol in the Indigenous worldview: the circle. Circles reflect the movement of the seasons and the cycle of life and death. They signify interconnectedness, equality, and continuity. They stand for inclusiveness. When a piece of the circle is missing or broken, the circle is no longer whole and cannot function as it was intended to.
In joining the search for Cooper, the Bear Clan demonstrated the reality of that circle. By bringing their sweetgrass and drums out of the inner city and into North Kildonan to pay tribute to Cooper and mourn with his family after his body was found, this group of mainly Indigenous people demonstrated the significance of the circle – a community united by the mere idea of being human. They reached beyond immense divides of our shared colonial past to comfort those who were grieving. Their actions said, “We know how you feel. We share your pain.”
Their actions are not insignificant in light of our shared history.
The devastating loss of son, nephew, brother, and friend will forever mark those who loved Cooper Nemeth – and those like me, who didn’t know him but somehow feel connected. Maybe, just maybe, the tragedy of Cooper’s death will inspire greater care and sharing between Winnipeg communities. Maybe it will encourage us to crawl out of our comfort zones to join the circle of humanity in search of healing.