“This morning, police in the small village of X responded to an emergency call about the death of a 75-year-old man. The death appears to be a suicide.”
Is it possible to reconstruct the unique, personal story behind this cold newspaper report? These few sentences tell of only one moment in the life of a man afflicted by a painful, degenerative disease (the label given to it is not important), a man who had the courage to live alone in an apartment, near neighbours he saw little of in bad weather, but almost daily in good weather. Why did he suddenly choose to die?
The tragic death of someone close to us can be a kind of revelation: it can illuminate words and images that might explain what happened. When those close to him or her share their memories of these words and images, the daily fabric of events that made up the life of this person can start to make sense. This man spoke very little: It was only after his death that his neighbours were able to reconstruct his final days, at least to some degree, by piecing together their observations of him and their conversations with him.
We are telling this story not to fuel a public debate about the serious question of suicide, but because the story illustrates the unpredictable—but very real—consequences of the gradual breakdown of the ties of belonging to a small community, connections that might seem trivial or unimportant, but which are the very bedrock of life. The names given to the characters in this story are fictitious.
The setting: A small village in Quebec. A neighbourhood sheltered by trees. A charming log house, similar to those built at the beginning of the last century. The house includes both a principal residence and an apartment. The big backyard is shaded by a huge weeping willow. The owners, the Labonté family, live in the main part of the house; for several months, Mr. Raoul, an elderly man, has been their tenant. He lives alone, pays his rent on time, receives few visitors, and speaks—briefly and occasionally—with the Labontés.
They see him running errands in his car or walking, hesitantly, on the sidewalk. They observe that he sometimes brings a young woman into his apartment. And, as there are no secrets in a small village, they soon learn that their tenant and this young woman have the same incurable disease. Mr. Raoul often helps her out by driving her to the hospital or to the shopping centre. The Labontés are not inquisitive; they think that this relationship is none of their business. After a while, however, they realize that she seems to have disappeared from his life; he no longer brings her to his home. Later, they learn that the young woman’s family objected to the relationship.
As spring gives way to summer, Mr. Raoul becomes more sociable. He seems content to talk to the Labontés when he meets them outside. Bit by bit, he tells them about himself—or, more precisely, he gives them snippets of information. They learn that he suffers more and more pain every day, and that a nurse is giving him injections of sedatives. They learn that he has resigned himself to applying to a care facility. As his condition deteriorates, he finds himself less and less able to cope on his own. One important detail that strikes Mrs. Labonté is this: While paying his rent one day, Mr. Raoul tells her that the care facility is going to contact him by telephone. He tells her it is a call he does not want to receive. Several days later, he tells her he has had his phone service stopped.
The fire: Every Saturday night during the summer, the Labontés eat their meal in the garden, around a small outdoor hearth that crackles happily as it throws off warmth while brightening the approaching darkness. As the evenings wear on, the family group grows in size: the Labonte’s married children, who live nearby, join in. A celebratory meal, a warm fire; small children playing, laughing, arguing; adults chatting—it is an irresistible spark of life—and Mr. Raoul doesn’t try to resist it. He joins the group, and they welcome him. The weekly gathering becomes very important in his life—he doesn’t miss even one. As it becomes more and more difficult for him to walk, he installs a string of Christmas lights along the stair rail, so that he can make it safely back to his apartment at the end of the evening.
Time goes by. One Saturday, to the family’s surprise, and contrary to his usual habits, Mr. Raoul seems nervous. He talks a lot. He gets up, takes several cautious steps, then sits down again. At the end of the evening, Mr. Labonté walks him back to the stairway and notices that the lights have disappeared. He is surprised, but Mr. Raoul tells him that his vision has improved, and that he doesn’t need them anymore. The next day, the Labontés discover, to their horror, that Mr. Raoul has killed himself.
Did Mr. Raoul have a family? What was his occupation, his work? Why did he live alone? As it turns out, he had been married; he did have children; and his illness was likely the result of a serious accident at work. But these cold, bare facts, which might seem to sum up an entire life, cannot even begin to reveal the secret heart of this human being, nor the nature of his connection with life. What explanation is there for what happened? That the hearth was extinguished? The hearth is the floor of a stove or fireplace that is the source of light and warmth, but for centuries “hearth” has also been a metaphor for the heart of the home, and for family. Is the explanation that he had lost the hearth formed of his loved ones, and was losing the hearth created by his neighbours and shared with him, and was thus losing the connections that grounded his sense of belonging to a human community, and to life itself? Even his body, wracked with illness, would soon no longer belong to him …