Graham's death in 1992 when he is only in his late thirties happens just three months before I go to the Banff Centre of the Arts to work on a novel. Later it feels like the harbinger of all the deaths that follow that year, although unlike most of them it’s sudden and unexpected. Yet when I awaken to news of a plane crash on the island that morning in January, I wait to hear his name. On the ferry the previous afternoon on a rare winter trip to the island, I'd watched the small planes take off and land. And I'd thought of him then. Was he in one of those planes? I'd had shivers sensing that indeed he was.
A fellow volunteer at the Distress Centre a few years earlier, Graham and I went through training together. He was the 992nd volunteer at the centre in downtown Toronto; my number was 994. I’m not sure I ever knew his surname. To me he will always be Graham 992. He had piercing blue eyes, red hair and a luminous wit. Much younger than I, we were nonetheless compatible and he once invited me to his apartment for coffee and showed me his aquarium full of colourful tropical fish. The previous summer, he took another volunteer and me up in his small Piper aircraft. Liz’s number was somewhere in the early thousands.
We flew out over Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls, wing tipped so we could see the drama below. Liz sat in the front and threw up in a brown paper bag as the plane righted itself. Graham was a careful pilot. How he could crash on a clear day is beyond me. Did he want to?
In the month or so after his death, I write a poem - Flying - and take it to Banff where I show it to Don Coles, the resident poet, and later to another participant who is also a poet, Patricia Young, both of whom make helpful comments.
Flying (for Graham)
The day your plane crashes
I am walking along the boardwalk
beside the lake. It's the first time
I've been on the island since you
took Liz and me out over
Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls.
Liz sat in the front and threw up
in a bag as you tipped the wings
over the falls. Today I don't know
you're careening above me
in the sky. Even so, my thoughts
keep turning to you--how often we run into
each other despite
the size of this city--at the corner
of Yonge and College, on the subway,
on my way to yoga. I think of
your red hair that recedes slightly,
your piercing blue eyes, luminous wit.
I won't know till tomorrow morning
when I awaken to my clock radio
about the crash, that you're
the pilot. On the ferry
back to the city I
stand by the rail, watch
land and take off, land