In the oppressive late-afternoon heat of April 23rd at the sprawling air base outside Kandahar, Major Michelle Mendes made the dusty walk to her living quarters.
Inside a sparse room, the 30-year-old sat down on her bed with service pistol in hand, and shot herself in the head.
It was the last in a long line of firsts for the young woman who had landed in Kandahar just four days earlier with a hefty reputation as someone who might one day command Canada’s intelligence branch.
The pretty analyst with the prodigious intellect was the first Canadian female soldier to commit suicide in Afghanistan.
In preparation for an eight-kilometre afternoon patrol through the dusty Jowz Valley southwest of Kabul, Robert Short spent the morning of Oct. 2, 2003, inspecting the route.
The road was a dirt track woven between desolate hills populated mainly by nomads and goat farmers. It already bore the tire marks of a dozen vehicles used by Canadian engineers who had been checking for land mines for five days without incident.
When he was satisfied the course was safe enough, the 42-year-old sergeant and his troops turned back to Camp Julien, then the base anchoring the Royal Canadian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion in Afghanistan, to have his lunch.
Moments after Alexis Marie Chute delivered her second baby – a son, named Zachary – she watched from her Edmonton hospital bed, heart exploding, as her shirtless husband held their tiny boy up to the window.
“This is the world,” Aaron said gently, breaking the room’s heavy silence. As he spoke, he knew that Zachary would never actually get to see the city or anything that lies beyond it. A handful of breaths after coming into the world, the infant, splayed on his mother’s chest, passed away. His death wasn’t a surprise. Zachary had been diagnosed in the womb with a fatal genetic condition. But knowing their little boy wouldn’t live to assume his place in the world didn’t make the Chutes’ loss any less heartbreaking.
Throughout Christie Lockhart’s east Toronto house, there are subtle reminders of Calli. A framed picture of her name written in beach sand sits on the mantle. Upstairs, a cream-coloured keepsake box contains Calli’s first outfit, a girlie infant ensemble. (It was a gamble of a present, gifted to Christie and her then-husband before they actually found out they were having a girl.) There is a framed pink paper bearing the inked marks of Calli’s tiny hands and feet – smaller than a doll’s – taken by a doctor at Mount Sinai hospital after she was surgically removed from Christie’s womb at just after 20 weeks.
Also in the box is a handwritten card from Christie’s best friend, embossed with a butterfly. It’s not something Christie – a practising midwife who knows, all too well, that butterfly imagery is tinged with sadness in the maternity world – ever expected to receive herself.
“At the hospital, when there’s a stillbirth happening, we tape a butterfly to the door so that staff entering the room will know,” she explains. “It’s always a hard day when you go in and see a butterfly on the door.”
By her own description, Sandy Wynia Katz, now 48, comes from a “family of breeders.” One brother has eight kids; a sister has three. The tally of her grand-nieces and nephews is now past 30.
Sandy, a child advocate employed by the Province of Ontario, vacillated for most of her adult years about whether she wanted kids. At one point she considered co-parenting with a gay friend, but when he moved away from her home base of Toronto, the idea fizzled. “I never really thought about doing that with anyone else.”
A bad lump. The black spot. Little cells behaving badly.
There’s no shortage of euphemisms for describing cancer to children, regardless of age or stage. Before parents pick one, though, they need to make sure they have a good grasp of what they’re facing and what the treatment will entail.
“You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help your children,” says Morgan Livingstone, a Toronto-based child life specialist who counsels kids and families coping with cancer. “When Mom gets the news she has cancer, it’s always, ‘What do I do to help my kids with this?’ But first you have to get comfortable with the concepts and the words in your mouth.”
Liam Levesque’s first day of life was a tough one. Born by emergency Caesarian section at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, at 35 weeks, Liam weighed less than six pounds, was yellow with jaundice, had trouble breathing and needed blood transfusions every two hours to stay alive. He was five days old when doctors got the test results explaining what was wrong: He was suffering from cytomegalovirus, or CMV, a virus he caught in utero, unbeknownst to his mom, Katie.
Liam’s parents, who already had a toddler son, Benjamin, were devastated by their second baby’s health issues, and they felt blindsided by the diagnosis. Like most Canadians, they had never even heard of CMV.