I walked through the valley of the shadow of death every day to get to the playground at my grade school.
The playground leading to the school was jammed in between two halves of a cemetery. If you liked the sound of kids playing, then this was prime real estate to be buried. If your death pissed you off and you weren't getting over it, then perhaps you'd be better off a few rows down.
One literally had to walk on a path between the tombstones. You were like the joyful prisoner walking the prison corridor between the cells of lifers on your way to freedom. I always felt like death and life were too close for comfort.
I felt that way again in Saskatoon recently.
Several weeks ago I travelled there to host a fundraiser for Mike Babcock's charity for mental health. I had no idea that I was travelling to a place that would, in a frighteningly perfect way, summarize the daily battle inside my head. Pride and disappointment constantly fought in my head like opposing members of a hung jury.
So, about 3,000 kilometers away from my grade school, the cemetery and playground stood side by side again.
Shortly after arriving, I made plans to meet some friends for lunch. These were friends I never saw, but often felt. You know what I mean, right?
We agreed to meet at 1:45pm at the Broadway Cafe. I had asked a buddy from Saskatoon where the best diner in town was. I love diners - everywhere I go I ask where the best diner is. Here's a rule I've learned - the more expensive the hotel, the poorer their advice. Rich people have no clue how to choose a breakfast spot.
The Broadway was a great suggestion - serving the kind of meals that a big strong Prairie boy would love. We all know those diners - where both the coffee and the kindness are bottomless, where your name is 'luv' or 'honey,' and asking for dry toast is like asking for wet wine at a fancy restaurant.
I arrived at the Broadway first. Waiting for my friends, I was nervous and excited, eager and hesitant. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave by the back door or wait at the front door. This wasn't first date trepidation. For me, this was "the jury is back" anxiety.
While waiting, I received an e-mail from another friend. I'd never met him, but we were bonded for life the way a pilot is forever bonded with an air traffic controller after a crisis. He asked me when we could meet. I wasn't sure, but I knew for sure we would meet - just as I knew my lunch date was something I would never forget.
My friends Barry and Lorraine arrived. I looked at them as they walked towards me. I figured I would be able to judge their eagerness to see me by the speed they walked in my direction. Was I at a hockey game or a doctor's appointment? Lorraine walked quickly - a good sign. She extended her arms to hug me. We squeezed each other in a way that somehow took my breath away and breathed life into me at the same time. I have no idea what I would have said at that point. I had no words, but fortunately, a hug is a way to communicate something that you couldn't put into words.
The hug said a lot. But what it didn't say was whether seeing me, touching me brought her more joy or more pain. I was foolish to wonder - this was one of those times when a hug's ambiguity perfectly summed up the ambiguity of the circumstances. I thought of what it must be like seeing a friend who you went to war with. Good times and bad flood back all at one time. They are inseparable.
As we sat down, I felt my phone vibrate. I didn't check it, because checking it would have been insensitive - even for me. I am a person that has been known to check an e-mail during a TV show. Not one I was watching, but one I was hosting.
The vibration immediately reminded me of a time almost four years earlier that I waited for a response for agonizing minutes, without breathing. On that day, I held my breath knowing no response wasn't a rejection but an unimaginable tragedy. It never vibrated back then. It remained motionless, which at that moment was the furthest thing from emotionless.
As we sat down I was immediately struck by the ease of conversation. It flowed smoothly, as if lubricated by tears. Usually tears disrupt a conversation. But this time they had the opposite effect. Tears belonged in this setting - the kind of tears that are neither happy nor sad, but rather something combining both. I thought of the hot and warm water in a shower - inexorably intertwined to become something that was neither hot nor cold.
I've always thought the saying "time heals all wounds" is foolish. But time, in some cases, can allow us to remember a life lost with the memories of a life lived. This was one of those times. As you likely know by now, the Lorraine and Barry were Lorraine and Barry Belak - Wade's parents. That's why I was torn. I knew how tough beyond words the years had been for them because we had spoken on the phone every few months. But I hadn't seen them. I wondered terribly whether seeing me would bring them joy from reminiscing or pain from remembering. We reminisce about the blessings. We remember the pain.
Wade had ended his life sometime in the morning of Aug. 31, 2011. The shock of his death will never wear off. The pain may become less acute for me, but the shock will be eternal even for me. I say that because Wade had shared his depression with me, as recently as a few days before.
Depression for Wade was not debilitating as it has been for me. It was more chronic, smoldering and gnawing. He told me shortly before his death that his illness was eased by medication. He wasn't suicidal. He wasn't sad. He didn't want to die. In fact, he seemed like he was in a great spot. He was excited to move onto the next phase of his life as a broadcaster and he would have been great at it. The reason Wade - everyone's favorite guy - ended his life will always be a mystery. But what we know with absolute certainty is that his death wasn't accidental. It wasn't an escapade gone wrong as some have irresponsibly suggested. It was intentional. Wade was alone in that room when he extinguished the brightest flame I had ever seen or felt.
Having lunch with Lorraine and Barry was truly one of the most memorable times of my life. We sat and talked in sentences that began with Wade's name, were followed by a memory of Wade and ended with a smile that Harry Chapin perfectly put, "a sad smile just the same."
I thought to myself how lucky I had been to have known Wade. He wasn't a guy whose memory you needed to enhance for a eulogy. He was a genuine, real, amazing human being who made everyone's life better until the moment he didn't.
We ate our lunch and shared. Not the food, but rather the gift of their son and my friend. I noticed that Loraine looks like Wade and even more like his daughter Andi. That made me happy. I felt like a part of him had lived on in not just the hearts of those that loved him, but their faces as well.
Barry is quiet and stoic, but I felt his pain and his pride in Wade in a way that words would have diminished. I saw on his face all at once the look of the father who buried the son who he taught to play hockey. And more importantly, the son he helped mold into a wonderful, caring man.
As we left we paused for a picture in front of Broadway Cafe. Funny, I didn't feel my usual geekiness as I looked into the camera. I am brutally insecure looking into the lens of a still camera. But this actually felt nice. The Belaks and me - from different worlds brought together by their son who at that second I knew gave far more in his life than he took by his death. I look at that picture now and I feel like in that moment we were able to feel the warmth of Wade's memory more than the chill of his absence.
As their pickup truck pulled away I caught a glimpse of a sticker in their back window. It was a small circle with 'Together #3 W.B.' inside.
Wade was a country boy - the poster child for everything that small towns boast - good people, good stock, and a good soul. It was fitting that one of the ways his memory would live on was on the back of a pickup, proving perhaps you couldn't always "take the boy out of the country."
Their departure allowed me to check my e-mail.
Tyson: "When can we meet?
Me: "At the event tomorrow night. I will bring your tickets."
Meeting Tyson would help me. I needed help because I have felt that somehow I failed Wade. I have felt that since Aug. 31, 2011 at 6:39pm - the time when I realized that Wade wasn't going to return my messages.
He told me he was fine. He wasn't. Wade's suicide represents a failure of some kind to me. I'm not sure what. I just know that we were friends - not best friends, but special friends. Special, because we were bonded by the knowledge of each other's illness. Bonded the way undercover cops might be. Why didn't he reach out to me? Had I not instilled in him enough confidence that I "got it?"
I wrote about my guilt shortly after his death. In an article for TSN.ca I referred to my guilt as "blood on my hands." I wrote at the time, "I'm looking at my hands. I don't see any blood, but it's there. Luminal won't show it, but my conscience does." And I finished with this: "out damned spot, out I say. Not yet I fear. Maybe not ever."
Four years later the blood remains on my hands. It's not guilt. I know I wasn't in any way responsible for Wade's death. Perhaps if I had to describe it I would call it a nagging, "what if?" I'm not sure why I feel it.
Tyson Williams saw me before I saw him. I knew that this was likely an intimidating evening for him. He was a humble guy who had never searched for nor felt the spotlight. But I knew he would feel the spotlight that night.
In this case it was up to me to set the tone for the hug. I grabbed him and squeezed, trying to communicate without words how much he had done for me.
Twice in two days I had realized that the value of human touch was at times far greater than the words we use. Words can be faked, exaggerated, made up. But a hug can't really lie. The authenticity is in the details. Not details you even notice, but it's the accumulation that tells the story. The whole of the hug is greater than the sum of its parts.
I knew why Tyson hugged me the way he did. But I doubt he knew why I was hugging him back the way I was. I doubt he had any clue what he had done for me. Sometimes in life, you give a gift without knowing it by taking a gift.
What had Tyson done for me? He had literally changed the direction of my life. He had shown me that there could be a purpose for my mental illness. He showed me how to use the knife in my head to cut the belt around his neck.
On Oct. 15, 2009, Stephane Richer was a guest on Off The Record. In some kind of weird, six degrees of separation he was delivered to us by the show "Battle of the Blades." I say that because Wade was taping that same show two seasons later when he ended his life.
I knew that Stephane had suffered serious depression during his NHL career. But I had never heard him speak of it. He agreed to allow me to mention his illness and I said I would mention mine as well. It was the first time I had spoken about my struggles on TV. We spoke only briefly about the topic. I wasn't trying to do a good deed. I was just trying to do an interesting show.
Shortly after the show was broadcast I received about 20 e-mails. I was used to letters starting with "You suck, Landsberg." But this was different. They all essentially said the same thing - that hearing Stephane and I speak about our depression without shame or embarrassment and without sounding weak had inspired them to reach out to me.
In virtually every case, I was the first person they had ever told. One of those letters was from a guy named Tyson Williams. He said he was glad to have heard us speak on the subject, but that for him it was likely too late.
I messaged him back and encouraged him to get help. We went back and forth a half dozen times. My message wasn't preachy or overly simplified - as if I had a magical cure or all the answers. It was understated and simple - it's never too late to get help. I hoped I'd left an impact.
Apparently, I did.
On the Saturday night, I was given the gift of being the master of ceremonies at this incredible event. And Tyson was in the crowd.
I told the story of Tyson from the stage. There was silence. A speaker on stage knows when an audience is engaged. I paused and heard exactly what I expected - silence. Silence is not nothing. Silence can have many meanings - in this case it meant being fully engaged. I looked at faces and saw that they were totally mesmerized by Tyson Williams' story.
Why were they so engaged? Because what you don't know is that two years after he first reached out to me he messaged again. He told me that after the Stephane Richer show he had a belt on a hook and was in the process of ending his life when I had messaged back at him. Each time he messaged me back he returned to - as he put it - "finish the job." And each time he was interrupted by as he put it, my quality of "never shutting up even on e-mail."
Obviously, Tyson didn't hang himself that day. He saw a glimmer of hope and went for help. He found his way back. He has married since then. He has a baby. He's able to smile at his kids and enjoy life. We e-mail regularly, but this was the first time I had seen him.
I asked him to stand and be recognized. Fear, excitement and embarrassment were all evident in the way he stood up. He stood frozen for a few seconds, but then waved to the crowd. Then something happened that none of us will forget. Every single person in the room rose from their chairs. They all stood and cheered. The celebrities, the everyday folks, the ones who'd lost a loved one, those who suffered, those who didn't. They all stood for Tyson.
Why did every one of the 600 people cheer him? There were likely 600 reasons, but all perhaps came back to the same thing: Tyson Williams represented hope in some way to every person in that room - hope for the sick that they could get better. Hope for those who loved the sick that they could get better. And hope for those who vowed on the death of a cherished loved one that they would work to make sure their death had meaning. Tyson was the meaning they were searching for.
I really have no idea how long it went on for. I was lost in my own thoughts. I thought of Tyson, I thought of Wade, I thought of my family, I thought of a hotel room in Montreal. Mostly though, I thought selfishly of being happy to be alive - to have found a way to live with the evil inside me and to use the poison as an antidote for others. I found myself crying, but really with no idea why.
Tyson and his far too beautiful wife Pam had made the 90 minute drive to Saskatoon from North Battleford. If they had known, they could have picked up a few others for the trip. All they had to do was cross the North Saskatchewan River, make a few left turns and they'd be at the home of Loraine and Barry Belak.
It was an "are you kidding me" moment when I learned that in a country of 10 million square kilometers, the home where Wade grew up and Tyson's home are about five kilometers apart.
The North Saskatchewan River starts high in the Columbia ice field in the Rockies and as if it had had a few too many beers in Edmonton, stumbles its way 1,300 kilometers to throw up in Lake Winnipeg. Where the Battlefords sit, it's about 280 meters wide. You could swim it, boat it, drive it or walk it. But in my head, the river doesn't exist.
Tyson turned 40 this summer. Wade would have turned 39. Tyson said he never met Wade, but of course he heard of him growing up. Well in my head, they have met many times. Like the cemetery bordering on the playground they sit side by side. Things changed for me in Saskatoon. The battle in my head is calm for now. In my head today, Wade is making Tyson laugh. In my head, life and death have found a way to co-exist.
I walked through the valley of the shadow of death that weekend in Saskatoon - and I came out smiling. A sad smile, but smiling.