I am grateful for Richard Wagamese. I like to think Richard and I are friends. I can’t bear to put that in the past tense, because I never got to meet him and the opportunity won’t come now. I won’t bump into him on the street and introduce myself as his fan and fellow writer, though I will be quick to add that my writing isn’t at his level. He won’t assure me we are all family, all of us who share this county. He won’t smile at me with his beautiful smile and gather me in and advise me to write from my heart, the way he did, letting down all the barriers, being open and vulnerable on the page. We won’t chat about the land and how the rugged beauty of the northwestern Ontario wilderness defined him and pulled him back when he had been taken from it, taken from the land, from his community, from his culture, all those relationships extinguished, but he found his way back. Thankfully. Richard Wagamese has left us and his passing has dimmed our light.
Richard and I are the same age and we are both from Northwestern Ontario. Surely that qualifies us as friends, surely that connects us, gives me permission to speak of him as though I knew him. I didn’t know him, but I believe I found him on the pages of his many books, in the fiction and the poetry and the memoir. Richard’s writing was inspiring, was honoured by many and valuable to all, and while difficult to read because of the painful truth of it, his writing was a privilege to read, an apology on my lips at every page. I believe it was Richard’s writing that helped him find his way back to his starting place, back to when he was perfect, when we are all perfect, before life changes us.
Richard had a smile that was infectious, a wonderful smile because it was real. He had searched for it and found it. His smile was comforting to me, seemed filled with hope. Richard’s childhood was filled with loss and heartbreak and loneliness, a childhood that would have destroyed most of us. Perhaps I have no right to presume I understand the purpose behind Richard’s smile, but I have given myself permission to speculate, because his writing gives me license to do so. He wrote about suffering and loss in a way that ushered the reader through to a clearer understanding and he led us to truth, not merely for the painful details, but to find ourselves at higher ground, with a deeper understanding.
I am so very sad that Richard has gone ahead, sad that he isn’t still helping to shape the change this country so desperately needs and helping us to see where we went so horribly wrong. All Canadians are fortunate to count him as one of us, to share his gift of writing, to be witness to the magic that was Richard Wagamese.
In honouring him, the responsibility falls to each of us to do our part. I can’t sit back. I must push on, obligated to accept the personal challenge of finding truth and from that truth learning to build bridges and extending my hand in apology.
Read his work if you haven’t. You will be changed.