Monday, June 02, 2008

A community grieves and asks "Why?"

I've lived in the Calgary neighbourhood of Dalhousie, since July 1997, shortly after I got married. It's a safe, pleasant neighborhood, with lots of walkways and green spaces and tidy, well-maintained homes. I've been taking my son CJ, now eight years old, to a school playground near our home since he was six months old. On these walks, I can't help but notice that the homes in the area don't suffer from a bland sameness imposed by strict architectural controls. So each home has a unique personality and character—each one different, and in its own way, charming.

5588 Dalhart Hill NW was one such home.

Until...

Sometime in the evening of Tuesday, May 28, 2008, a young husband and father by the name of Joshua Lall took a knife and fatally stabbed Amber Bowerman, the tenant who lived in the basement suite, then he went upstairs to the master bedroom, fatally stabbed his wife Alison and his daughters Kristen and Rochelle, aged five and three, and then he went to the nursery where he stabbed himself, leaving his youngest daughter Anna, aged one, the sole survivor. The murder-suicide was discovered the next morning, and the horrific news spread quickly, not just throughout Dalhousie, but to the entire city and beyond.

This happened not far away from my home. As soon as I learned the address where it all took place, I typed it into Google Earth, measured the distance, and scrutinised the aerial view. I knew the what, who, and where. But the most important question—why—remains unanswered as I write this.

This evening, June 2, I attended an information session organised by the Calgary Police Victim Assistance Unit, to help Dalhousie deal with the aftermath of the killings. Some families at the town hall meeting knew the Lall family directly. They were struggling to find a way to honour the memory of the family, and one woman who knew the Lall family well choked back tears as she spoke. I saw Cesar and Marichu, fellow neighbourhood residents whom I know from my university alumni association. I met Laurie, an old acquaintance, who often shared a bus ride with Joshua Lall on the way to work. I also met Claire, an old friend who, as it turns out, moved into the area a few years ago. We're not sure what to tell our children.

The news stories cite anonymous sources that claim Joshua reported hearing voices in his head, that he was having a mental breakdown, that he was stressed at work, and so on—the usual sorts of explanations for what can properly be called sheer madness. We're all trying to make sense of what has happened. By all accounts a loving, devoted husband and father, Joshua had committed acts of unspeakable evil. What made him do it?

The mere mention that Joshua may have feared he was possessed by the devil elicits a certain queasiness in many people. Surely in the 21st century we're beyond this kind of superstition! This was a case of undiagnosed, untreated mental illness, nothing more.

I so want to accept the mental illness explanation. It's so... rational.

However, I can't dismiss the possibility of a supernatural explanation so easily. Two days before the murders took place, I experienced possibly the strangest dream I can recall. I'll leave out the details, but suffice it to say that the events in my dream involved people going into a house from which they would never leave.

At the town hall meeting, someone suggested that the residents of Dalhousie should pool their money, buy 5588 Dalhart Hill NW, have the house demolished, and establish a small park, so that we as a community can achieve some sense of closure. This strategy is similar to what one Amish community did with their one-room schoolhouse after five girls were fatally shot in it.

I think it's the best suggestion I heard at the town hall meeting. It may be the necessary step towards healing for our community. Necessary, but not necessarily sufficient. In my 4 April 2008 blog entry, I had written:
Sin affects people around us as well, including our family and friends. Sin is corrosive, and it weakens our ability to discern and do what is good.
Little did I know that less than two months later, I would be forced to ponder the meaning of what I had written, in such stark terms.
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