I lived beside Justin Stark for ten years.
You may not know him. You may have read about him in the newspaper recently. Either way, I want you to meet him as I did: the awkward boy who tried to stay outside as long as possible with his shoes worn from skateboarding, his tattered blue jeans contrasted against the yellow, summer sun, and his crooked smile that was there beaming for anyone who cared to look.
He was my sister’s age, and he made sure to remind me of this fact each day when we hung out. “How’s your sister doing,” he’d nudge. I’d ask him to show me how to do a kickflip instead. He’d laugh, skate into the middle of the street with the sun on his back, lift off the ground higher and then higher yet, and just as it seemed like it could not get any more impressive, he’d kick the board. It’d spin. He’d land. And he’d skate on, shrug, then say, “Just like that.”
He was the fastest kid on the street, though he didn’t brag about it. Instead he’d run ahead, wait until we caught up, and told us that he was sorry for being so fast. He’d stay with us next time. He promised as much.
He wasn’t allowed to play Pokémon. His parents didn’t let him at the time. So we planned an elaborate drop off. He let me in his backyard. I dropped my Pokémon Red in a sandbox. He pretended to fall just where I had dropped it. And then, I didn’t see him for two weeks. He came back and said he beat the game. I asked if he liked it. He said that he felt too guilty to do so. But he grinned, “Then I caught Lapras.”
When my brother broke his arm, Justin Stark looked at it with weary eyes. He lifted his long sleeve and showed his own scar. “Look,” he said, “It’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.”
And it was for a while. Childhood was steeped in sunlight and he was there with us throughout it all – the Hamiltonian boys exploring, skateboarding, and playing Pokémon.
But even the fastest kid has to grow up one day, and for Justin, this happened more rapidly than his feet could find footing. The same happened to me. We aged, we developed, and we became men fighting an army of pimples, braces, awkward first kisses, and high school.
But it was okay. Everything would be okay.
We went to different schools. He started skateboarding less. I didn’t see him outside. Only when winter came did I see him shoveling. I asked if he needed help. He didn’t.
But it was okay. Everything would be okay.
Then he moved, and I heard that everything wasn’t okay anymore – he had enlisted in the Canadian Army and was serving a seven-month tour in Afghanistan. When my mother told me, I thought back to all the times we played with guns, and prayed that it was practice enough.
But even if it wasn’t, and Justin was fighting a battle I’m sure he never asked to be in, and I was growing, and I was starting to shave, and my skateboard was collecting dust, and so was his somewhere else, it was okay. Everything would be okay.
He came back sometime in between. Things weren’t the same. Posttraumatic stress disorder had eroded him. And then, when I was probably entrenched in some stupid university assignment in my room covered with childhood pictures and trophies, he killed himself.
It happened October 2011. Months of tribunals followed. The army spent two years trying to determine if the suicide was work related.
And as of yesterday, a decision was reached in the form of a release pay: Justin Stark was awarded one cent for servicing his country.
I’m not going to argue it’s an insult. I’m not even going to point fingers. On either front, I don’t want a randomized computer system or a governmental employee’s mismanagement or an incredibly asinine veteran policy to be Justin’s legacy. He is not an apology by National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson either.
Instead I want you to remember Justin as I do. Though I cannot describe him fully – I have already failed in that attempt – I want you to imagine his lanky fingers mashing against a Gameboy, his spiked hair lightening in the summer rays, and his laughter – an awkward, hesitant hiccup that was too few and far in between – filling the airways.
That way, though it will never bring Justin back, you’ll think as I do and you’ll try to ensure that such an atrocity never happens again to a family.
And if such peace is found, and the bureaucracy is fixed, and mental health is taken seriously, maybe everything will be okay one day. Justin would tell me as much. I’m sure he would smile while saying the words.