Story by Mark Stevens
OTTAWA, ONTARIO — November 11. The Parliament buildings huddle beneath bruised and weary clouds. Two men make their way west along Wellington. Both are laden with medals; one wears so many he seems to lean to the left. The other, a red beret on his head, slouches in a wheelchair that clatters like a gun carriage as it trundles over cracks in the sidewalk.
Their objective is the veterans’ parade that will lead, with a vanguard of pipes and kilts and a flurry of flags, to the National War Memorial. Some veterans will trudge under the weight of the memories of lost comrades, while some, veterans of more recent wars, are burdened by the weight of the memories best forgotten.
The trees on the slopes east of Parliament Hill are naked, skeletal, devoid of both foliage and colour. A Canadian flag writhes in a biting wind. It dangles at half-mast.
Might be coincidence that the first war ended in November or it might be fate. This morning it seems that November, the last gasp of a dying season, is purpose-built for thinking of death, for reflecting and remembering.
Even now the wind lashes you. You shiver: whether assaulted by one of winter’s first snows or in contemplation of a woman who bends over just beyond a marble sepulchre to lay a wreath on behalf of every mother who has ever lost a child in war.
Her name is Niki Psiharis, but her title is Silver Cross Mother. Her youngest son, Sergeant Chris Karigiannis, died but six months before his projected return to Canada. Today she remembers, as she has done on every other single day since June 2007.
Ottawa is a place for remembering. In addition to these sombre rituals, reflection happens at the Canadian War Museum — ground zero is Memorial Hall. At Beechwood Cemetery — Canada’s answer to Arlington — they remember. Here in the capital is a place to remember the Canadians who fell in Korea, First Nations fallen, the Peacekeepers, those who lost their lives in the Boer War, Air Force casualties whose resting places even now remain unknown. There is even a monument to memorialize the role of animals — mules, horses, dogs.
Emotions Spill Forth on Remembrance Day in Ottawa
I remember at a place to which I swore I would one day make my pilgrimage.
I knew certain things would choke me up — as a musician I expected to be attacked by emotion from the first strains of the pipes — swirling melodies distorted and echoing through concrete canyons, the bass drum cadences like distant carronades, the lone bugle call — the last note before two silent minutes like a staircase without a landing.
But other things ambush your emotions, grab your soul by the throat.
When the Silver Cross mother exits the limo, applause ripples like a wave through the crowd pushing against the barricades.
I am affected by the vision of a Russian diplomat laying his wreath accompanied by an officer in that distinctive peaked hat. When I was a child this was the enemy. Today they pay respects.
The sudden fly-past, jets roaring almost directly overhead. I don’t know why that evokes a sudden tightness in the throat but it does.
A soldier in full uniform passes among the veterans seated nearby; he carries a blue blanket and drapes it over the shoulder of one vet shivering in a wheelchair.
The veterans march past, saluting Governor-General David Johnston. Spontaneous applause emanates from the crowd. A sneak attack of tears when a woman calls out again and again. “Thank you.”
And then, later, much later, on a blustery afternoon, snow retreating to rain. The dignitaries are long gone, the attention of TV cameras turned back to scandals. A hundred people or more stand sentinel before the cenotaph.
Its base is lush with the green of wreaths, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, laden with a thousand poppies, is awash with scarlet bright and stark as the blood that flowed on countless battlefields.
A woman walks up and places her poppy on the tomb, steps back and salutes. She wears an armed forces uniform.
Now I study the statue — a larger-than-life depiction of soldiers labouring in mud and scum, travailing through their pain and fear. I survey the wreaths: “the mothers of Canada,” “the people of Canada.” I think of my cousin whose son served in Afghanistan, of an uncle I never knew who died when his bomber collided with a mountain in Italy.
Then I place my own poppy on the tomb. Today I, too, am remembering.