The boy from Dillon

2008
Nicholls, Vaughan A.

It was February 1986 - I arrived in Ile a La Crosse in North Western Saskatchewan. I was one of a group of five doctors contracted to Northern Medical Services out of Saskatoon University to provide medical services to this Métis Community and surrounding communities.

I had brought a rugby team of doctors from London, England, the previous year and an advertisement from N.M.S. had caught my eye. A couple of years in the under-serviced North seemed a reasonable way to "work my ticket" into Canada before heading West to "civilization".

I was 38 years old, single, gregarious, and quite well traveled after a short career in the Royal Navy (submarine) and numerous anesthetic locums in the Middle East as well as many rugby tours. A man of short attention span, I had never shone academically and needed constant stimulation to function at my best.

The job in Ile a La Crosse involved travel to local and outlying clinics. I found the work fairly unstimulating and was happy to volunteer for the regular Wednesday clinic in Dillon about 75 km away. Dillon was a Chipewyan reserve and the first language of the children was still Dene at this time.

A local Community Health Worker would help at the clinics. One day she said the Chief was concerned about the behavior of an eleven year old boy who was becoming increasingly out of control.

After the clinic, we found the boy at his home in the center of the Community. It was a one room shack with only basic furniture. A moose bone lay on the table. The boy had been given to his blind grandma, Sarazine, when he was six years old. His parents had separated and his mom was in another relationship and had two other children - they lived in a nearby village.

The boy and the old lady were very attached. She had taught him his language, culture; how to set snares and catch fish. He would help her take care of the house and lead her around. He had poor social skills, could not read or write and spoke little English. He was teased by the kids in town who nicknamed him 'EGOR'. The boy was the man in this house.

Jason was openly hostile to me. I was a real threat, a white person in authority who might take him away from his grandma. As a doctor, my initial thought was that this boy did not have a particular psychiatric disorder, but had behavior problems related to his environment.

Communication was difficult, he spoke little English and I spoke no Dene. I made the fateful decision to see him again. After all, I had the time, the energy, and he challenged my competitive spirits.

I would look for him after every Wednesday clinic. He would behave really badly, living up to his reputation. I began to visit him on my off days several times a week. He tried to make me reject him as he felt rejected. Those early visits were tough and disheartening.

We went fishing. He taught me to fish with a line wrapped around a beer can; how to set snares and how to "see in the bush". He began to teach me some Dene words but, they were usually rude words. Later, I took him camping, and we walked the famous Methis Portage from La Loche to the Clearwater River and back. He had a few sulks but was happy to be in his element. He set snares and on the way back he found he had snared a lynx. I carried that animal for twenty miles on my back; Jason laughed when it crapped all over me.

On one occasion I returned to the hospital to be told that Jason had been admitted because a spray can had blown up in his face. I rushed to the ward to find him with no eyebrows, a burnt blistered face and horror, he wasn't breathing! A moment of panic and then his eyes popped open "you think I dead Dr. ______?" I had the last laugh, though, as his brown skin peeled off to reveal a pinky, white face - I teased him for days.

Sometimes, Sarazine would be admitted to the local hospital and Jason would camp over at my place.

One day we skidooed north on the lake towards Patuanak. He loved skidoos and liked to show off his skills. He was driving and made a sudden swerve to surprise me. I stuck out my leg to stabilize the skidoo and tore my anterior cruciate ligament. Twenty five years of contact sports and no serious injuries - I was mad as hell! I lay on the snow feeling the blood pumping into the joint and the tightness of the swelling. Jason kept his distance, scared of me as I ranted in pain. But, it was really cold, -30 degrees Celsius, we were ten miles from home. Jason drove home slowly and carefully - it took an hour. His hands were frozen and tears were stuck to his face.

Later, as we sat on the couch feeling sorry for ourselves, he slipped his hand into mine. The tough little man a boy again.

That night, I was ripped from sleep by a noise from hell "money for nothing, sex for free", pounded my ears. Jason on the porch with my "ghetto blaster" at full throttle as the lights in the neighborhood were turning on. Proudly, he showed me the ragged hole he had hacked through the back of the fancy sideboard in the livingroom so that the ghetto wires could pass neatly through to the wall socket. "Thank you, Jason, you're a good boy, now go to bed".

We had been working on his home situation. The Old Lady and Jason gradually moved in with his mother's family. It was a difficult process but slowly, slowly, it began to work out. Jason was fiercely independent and had been the man of his house. It was hard to adjust to being a boy in his parent's house. But, Jason began to settle into his new life.

A few years later his Grandma died. A devastating blow to Jason, but, at least he now had the support of a family.

During this time I had backed off from Jason as he settled in with his family, but, I would still visit occasionally and our unlikely bond of friendship continued.

The last time I saw Jason was in the summer of 1994, he showed up at my home with a pretty girl and a beaten up old Mustang car with no tread on the tires. As always, I was overjoyed to see him, and did not ask about licenses and registration.

He had had a couple of brushes with the law, the latest problem was really serious. I would show up in court, and speak up for him. I felt that Jason could thrive as long as he created a traditional lifestyle on the Reserve.

Jason was killed on the 14th of December 1994 - he was eighteen years old. A head on collision between his ski-doo and a truck on an ice road near Dillon.

I received the news at my home in Ile a La Crosse. Later, his mom phoned but was too grief stricken to speak. I kept the news to myself. Old memories of little Jason came flooding back. I wish I had seen him more recently - there was no good-bye.

Three days later I went to Jason's wake in the little village of St. George's Hill. I entered the small, wooden community hall in a daze. Packed with people - a murmur of voices as people saw the doctor's arrival. I felt uncomfortable. I found some coffee and sat next to an elder at the back of the hall. He talked to me gently for an hour or so as I fought to keep my English composure. He offered to accompany me to the coffin - but, I would not go. I could see my little Jason's face - pale yellow in the subdued light. Hymns were sung in that mournful Native style. His sister - beautiful Trudine - almost a woman - braver than I - stood by the coffin and wept.

Miserable and pathetic - I sneaked away - no fine words from me, no leadership, no control. The tears came as I drove home.

Two days later, the funeral was at Dillon. A sunny day about -10 Celsius. Took my time, I wanted to arrive late to avoid social contact.

Drove around the reserve. Visited the site of the accident. A good place, one of our fishing spots. Jason's best friend Ricky rode up on his skidoo. "Jason knew his time was coming, told me not to go to the funeral". Happy-go-lucky Ricky was broken.

I was psyched and detached, preparing myself for the Church. I stayed outside and disengaged. Afterwards, to the burial ground. I stayed in the background. People seemed to understand. Later, I didn't show up for the reception at Jason's home.

Instead - I drove home in a daze.

Just outside Dillon two bears lumbered across the road, disturbed somehow from winter's sleep. I switched off the car and watched. As they entered the tree line one of them stopped and turned around. It held my gaze for more than a minute.

I drove on, knowing how it feels to lose a son.

Theme: Death and Dying | Décès et le mourir
Theme: Relationships | Relations

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.

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