canal



From Chapter 6: How the Story Ends


We had a room in a modest place called the Hotel des Bastions, in the old city, looking eastward down the St. Lawrence as it flowed toward the ile d’Orleans. This old quarter is still surrounded by the high defensive walls that went up when France and England were competing for domination of North America. Although the French lost, the Quebecois have kept up their defensiveness, and as long as the stakes aren’t too high there’s a distinct truculent charm to it. Here they make their stand, safe behind these walls. It was great for the kids. We could noodle around the streets in tranquility. On our last night as a threesome we were doing just that—wandering, resting on a stoop or bench when we got tired—when we heard singing. Because the vieille ville was such an open place once you were inside, we let nothing more than curiosity push us through the dark streets and the music got louder and louder until finally we turned into a courtyard where there were rows of folding chairs and a little stage.
A few dollars bought us entrance. There were perhaps 200 people there, with room for many more. The band was local, and after a few pop numbers the emcee announced he wanted to play some songs he thought everyone would recognize—songs of their childhood and youth. Songs that maybe some in the audience had forgotten. Was there anyone here tonight from France? (A number of hands went up.) Well, he didn’t want to suggest that life over there had gotten maybe too “modern,” or that people had lost track of what really matters, but here in Quebec they still knew the old songs, like this one for example… And they played what sounded like songs your mother would have sung to you in the 1920s. The crowd, including the slightly insulted French visitors, sang along with great pleasure, even when a light rain fell. I couldn’t keep from grinning. Hannah (the six-year-old) asked me to explain what was happening. It should have been easy. But the background—the fight for territory, the building of city walls, the battles to defend them, the decisive confrontations, the receding into whatever remains, the assessment of what it means, the sometimes desperate assertion of its significance—was hard even to sketch. Yet, on the face of it, it should have been easy. Grownups sing lullabies for themselves, too.
Once Becky joined us I felt I could leave the cell phone off and relax. She fell easily into our slow pace of carriage rides and long dinners. All along the wall outside our hotel there were black cannons, plugged, huge iron things pointing at the river far below. The kids couldn’t believe their luck. They would climb all over one, begin getting bored, then see the next one, ten or twenty feet away, and dash for it, and start clambering again. It was a miracle of distraction.
On the morning of Wednesday, August 20, I saw that everyone was still sleeping away and slipped out to go downstairs for some coffee. The banner headline on the cover of the Globe and Mail read, “Iraqi bomb rips into UN: Canadian aid worker, top UN envoy among 17 dead in massive explosion.” The National Post had little else on its cover: “Baghdad Bomb Shakes UN,” with a huge picture of the rubble. “Chief envoy likely target of deadly truck bombing,” read one headline; another, “UN ’star’ cried out from rubble.” That second headline was above a piece by Isabel Vincent that went:
Moments after a powerful blast ripped through his third-floor office in Baghdad yesterday afternoon, UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello managed to call for help on his cellphone.
In a shaky voice, Mr. Vieira de Mello, who was seen by many as a possible secretary-general of the United Nations, told his top aide he was buried in rubble and an iron bar had fallen across his legs. He could not move.
“I climbed up to the second floor and I saw him below,” said Ghassan Salame, who received the call. “I shouted to him, ‘Sergio, Sergio.’ He answered back ‘Ghassan’ and I went over a second time and I told him: ‘Sergio, do not do anything. We are going to find you. We are going to get you out of there.’”
But as several hours passed with rescue workers frantically digging by hand to reach the victims of the bomb blast, the badly injured Mr. Vieira de Mello, who was bleeding profusely from his legs, grew increasingly weak. He no longer answered his cellphone, which rang under the rubble where he was trapped.
A witness, who refused to give his name, told journalists in Baghdad Mr. Vieira de Mello’s final words were “water, water” uttered in a barely audible whisper. By the time rescue workers reached him, his body was cold.

I gathered the papers, went upstairs to our room, sat on the edge of the bed by the window, told Becky, “Sergio’s dead,” showed her the papers, and cried and cried. “All he was doing was trying to help,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say as my body clenched and shook. The tears flowed.
After a while I began a frantic search for my cell phone. I found it and went outside—I didn’t want the kids to hear all this—and sat on a bench among the black cannons. I finally reached Carole Ray, then Jonathan. So they were alive. Mona I could not reach; she was badly wounded. Rick Hooper was dead, Nadia Younes was dead. I got the list.


*


It would not be even remotely true to say I don’t remember what happened after that. I remember everything: the long drive south through Maine, the place we stopped at for lobsters, the aquarium where you could pet little sharks, the fenced-in pool at another motel, and phoning in quotes to an obit writer in London. Reading Kofi Annan’s abject line, “I only had one Sergio,” and mumbling to myself, “me too,” while I sobbed. The SwissAir flight back to Geneva, crowded with UN people. My first sight of Mona, her face gray and askew from her wounds. The funeral service, which Sergio’s doughty sons had put together—the two handsome young men whom I had only seen before in the photo on Sergio’s desk of them posed on the Brooklyn Bridge. They had his and their mother’s self-possession; for the service they’d selected a Coldplay song, “The Scientist,” with the laconic refrain, “Nobody said it was easy/ It’s such a shame for us to part/ Nobody said it was easy/ No one ever said it would be this hard.”
I remember it all too well. How some rose to the occasion of grief and others didn’t. How quick people were to blame the dead for all that went wrong. How shrines went up; there were flowers and notes and pictures all politely piled by a drinking fountain in the Place de Bourg-de-Four. Of course this reminded me of September 11, which I had taken this job partly to forget.