One Last Thing
An old man, somewhere in his late seventies or early eighties gets off the bus, and starts walking. He is carrying a bag that holds a change of clothes, and little else. These are all his worldly possessions He moves slowly, but with what looks like a sense of purpose. If you walked past him, you might hear him mutter about doing “one last thing.’
He is aware that no one probably knows him in this small town. And likewise he feels quite sure he will not see anyone that he knew way back when. It has been decades since he was here. He is definitely a stranger in town, a place where he was born and raised.
He heads north to a place he once knew well. It was there where he intends, how he isn’t exactly sure, to do his one last thing.
It is on his way there, walking on the sidewalk beside main street (it is actually called that) where he meets a creature who will change his life, a little dog running scared. The old man put his bag down, then bends over, knowing that it will be hard to get back up again. His hands dance in an effort to get the attention of the dog long enough to grab him by the collar. His hands are still fast enough to be able to do that. The next thing he does is rather acrobatic for him. He takes his belt off with one hand, while still holding onto the dog’s collar. The belt is to act as a temporary leash. He isn’t sure what he should do next, but that problem is solved shortly. A man and a girl that is obviously his daughter, come running down the sidewalk. Their anxious looks turn into smiles when they see their dog held by a belt running through it collar by an old man whose pants he has to keep hiking up.
The girl says “Thank you sir. You rescued our dog.” Her father attaches the leash in his hands to the dog, allowing the old man to return his belt to its customary location and occupation. He thanks the old man as well, and asks him his name. “I’m called Carl. Few still around here know that.”
“My daughter and I would like to reward you for what you just did.” Looking across the street to a burger truck, the younger man says. “My name’s George, have you had lunch yet? We would like to buy you a burger and anything that goes with it.”
“Sure”, was Carl’s short reply. Later, when all three are sitting on a bench, many questions are asked by father and daughter, but few words are uttered in reply. And every so often Carl would say, more to himself than to the others “I must do this one last thing.”, without an explanation of what he means by that.
An Invitation Given and Accepted
But George and his daughter Shirley do learn that Carl has no concrete plans as to where he will be staying while in town. So George asks him, “Why don’t you stay with us for a few days? We have a big house, with a spare room that you can use. Carl nods his head, muttering another “Sure”, following it with yet another reference to “one last thing.”
So they all walk in the direction of the family house on the outskirts of town. George and Shirley and dog Sam are all startled somewhat when Carl stops suddenly a short distance away from their home, raises his hand to point, and says “school,” followed by the now inevitable phrase, “one last thing.”
George replied by saying, “Yes, there used to be an old school there, a residential school for Indians…Indigenous children. It was torn down a few years ago. How did you know about that?”
There is no answer to that question, just a shaking of Carl’s head, followed by a downward look at the ground. They would find out days later.
A Long Term Guest
Carl becomes a resident, not just a short term guest. He has been there for several weeks now. It is like he is an eccentric member of the family whom father, mother Carol, daughter, son Paul and dog have always known. At first he just stays inside the house, but within a few days he starts to wander.
He does not inform the family of his past in the town, or what his intentions are. What make them truly wonder is that one day he asks for the use of a shovel. Of course the answer is ‘yes.’ Of course, no questions were asked by anyone. That would be rude.
But that does not mean that Paul is not sent out to follow him, when, with the shovel, Carl goes a-wandering. He follows him at a discrete distance until the old man makes his way to the property where what was called the Indian Residential School had been located. He goes to the back of the property and starts digging right beside a large jutting rock. He doesn’t do this long before he collapses. It is too much hard labour for his frail body to handle well.
Paul runs to him, helps him up, and assists his walking back to the house. The old man leans on him the whole way back to the house. Carl is put into the bed now known as his.
When Paul tells the family what Carl had been doing. Carol, a teacher of social studies in the local middle school, remembers reading a story recently about another Indian Residential School concerning an issue that might relate to what Carl might have been doing. She checks on the internet to read up on the story, and then does a search concerning the school that had been in town. There she finds a number of pictures of the students and staff of the school. The Indigenous kids look like they have been bathed and groomed right before the pictures were taken. There are no smiles, just a neat and shiny presentation.
Then something else catches her eye. She calls her husband over to maybe confirm what she thinks that she has discovered . There is in one of the pictures a young boy there who works for the school. He looks to be in his early teens. He is neat and shiny as well. His name is Carl Davidson. It is hard to tell from just one picture, but it could very well have been the Carl that they had come to know.
The couple walk briskly over to Carl’s room. He is awake, his eyes open, but not focused on anything in particular. George asks him whether his last name is Davidson. He merely nods, and looks up at them with questions in his eyes.
“We jut saw a picture of you when you worked for the school. Does your ‘one last thing’ relate to what you had to do there then, and what you want to do now? Again there is a nodding, more vigorous this time.
A colleague of Carol’s is Loretta, an Indigenous woman who belongs to the local band. She calls Loretta and tells her the story of what she knows about Carl, and about the Residential School that she had read about. Loretta replies, “I read the same article that you did. The band council is thinking about doing what that other band did. Maybe Carl knows where to look. We have no idea where the children might be buried, although we long wondered what happened to them.”
It wasn’t long before the band hires a local archaeologist who has access to ground-penetrating radar. Carl shows him where to search. The archaeologist eventually finds the bones of over 100 children who had been buried anonymously by the school officials. Carl had to do that dirty work. He told those who wanted to hear that he had been shocked at the time that the families were not told of the deaths, which were the results of a lethal combination of poor nutrition, working hard on the school-run farm, and waves of various deadly diseases. It had been bad enough that the children had been forcibly taken from the families by the police and visiting them by family members was strongly discouraged, and closely supervised when they did occur. Carl was sympathetic to the plight of the children, as he had been given to the church by a very religious uncle and aunt when his parents died in a car accident when he was 12.
The band decides that rather than dig up the bones, they would prefer to consecrate the land with traditional ceremony. The town now owns the land. At first. town officials are reluctant to transfer ownership of the small parcel of land where the children are buried. But with Carl there is an eye-witness to the morally and legally questionable burials, so they eventually grant this small part of the former church property to the band. A formal ceremony marks the occasion. Carl stands proud as it takes place. He stands next to the family. When the ceremony is over, he turn to them and says, “This is my one last thing. My conscience is now clear.”
Carl stays with the family for a little over a year, and then quietly dies. The band agrees that he should be laid in the ground beside those he had been forced to bury, those who had haunted him for decades.