Yes, this system is imperfect. It took years—and the privilege of professional help—before I’d learn to articulate my grief in words.
The hours I’d spent making noise on this thing were incalculable. The amount of flesh peeled from my body after years of falling on the searing steel in peak summer heat is measurable by the splotches on my elbow and lower back. It was here, sending echoes across the park, that I first gave in to skateboarding, letting it become not so much a pastime but a loving, vindictive, all-consuming jinn. This new spirit demanded my constant attention, whether I was riding my board or not.
Beyond possession, skateboarding also introduced me to an entirely new culture and community. In every subsequent town I’d move to with my father after leaving Lac La Biche, this toy was an automatic icebreaker with other skateboarders. The skate videos I’d collect were gateways to whole new realms of art and music—my off-brand MP3 player full of the J Mascis and Cat Power songs that served as their soundtracks.
These are all well-worn clichés in the life of anyone who skates, patterns of growth and discovery as predetermined as puberty. Even the magical can become platitudinous. The way the simple act of riding a skateboard reshapes how one interacts with the physical world. When the angles of urban architecture curve hospitable, allowing benches and curbs and stairs and embankments to become playthings, testing grounds.
The reverie and determination required to become a committed skateboarder often reveal a new emotional world to the rider too. Grit, courage, creativity—all gemstones unearthed if you do it for long enough. It’d also teach me how to grieve.
I pilot the rental two blocks from the skate park to William J. Cadzow hospital. Named after the father of my older half brother’s father, it’s also home to a loading dock that I used to take my skateboard off of with the hope that it’d join me.
Seventeen or so years ago, I nollie kickflipped from its top onto the asphalt below. With no one there to witness, my memory is the only proof of the make. Trust me. The following February, my stepfather died in hospice on the other side of the building.
When my mother phoned from a province away to tell me that the cancer that softened his bones and hollowed his cheeks had finally won, the first thing I did was grab my skateboard. My living father drove me to the skate park, and I pushed myself as hard as I could for hours until my body ached and could no longer meet the demands of my mind, which lay open and empty.
The following summer, my mother would suffer a severe mental health crisis after the loss of her husband and the creeping collapse of her sign-making shop. In this hospital, she refused to see my brother or me until we “reined ourselves in” and gave ourselves to her god. She thought our souls were dirtied, caked in sin we couldn’t understand. It was a distressing, disorienting time for a fifteen-year-old, to be sure. In the aftermath, I would watch Ryan Gallant’s section in Transworld Skateboarding’s video First Love on repeat, just so I could hear the Five Stairsteps crooning, “Ooh child, things are gonna get easier. Ooh child, things’ll get brighter.”
This became the way I learned to handle personal trauma, by skating into and away from it. Even if it was just a few hours’ distance. A skate video played on repeat. This coping method is another cliché in this world. Skateboarding, in its youth, was known for attracting misfits, outsiders, kids from broken homes and troubled backgrounds—those who needed an escape.
Follow skate media for any amount of time and that storyline will still show up. It’s hard coded into our collective lore. “Skateboarding saved my life” is a mantra you’ll hear any bro at the skate park spew if they’ve Bogarted the joint for long enough. And to be honest, as corny as that is, I don’t know where I’d be without skateboarding either.
Across the street from the loading dock, at Portage College, sits the succinctly titled “College Seven.” On several occasions as a preteen, I tried and failed to ollie down these seven stair steps. The ground is rough. Always has been. Decades worth of snow and salt and rain will do that. Its dimpled, pebbled surface is primed for removing large chunks of your clothes and skin.
I tell myself I could do it now. My body bigger, stronger, holding the experience of every stair set I’ve ollied down since the last time I stood at its peak. This body now containing a life that’s taken worse than what these stairs could deal out. Past me hadn’t even worked a nine-to-five yet. Never had to sit through a company-wide all-hands meeting. Listen to a CEO burst into flames during the Q and A, visceral contempt in their voice as they scoffed at the notion of increased mental health benefits for their employees.
A “moral injury” is what my therapist calls that ensuing ache in the body. The desperate clenching of what might be a soul as it’s crushed under the weight of late-stage capitalism and depression and who knows what other psychic ailments. Past me broke his arm skateboarding once—a wound you can contain in plaster, how quaint.
But even that stifling angst can be aired out by pushing my skateboard down the street. It’s a simple strategy I’ve used after arguments, breakups, layoffs, and deaths. The result isn’t always complete. Sometimes anger or despair seeps through the action, making my legs wobble, what control I have over my board feeling untethered. But the weight is usually lessened, because it’s hard for anything to stick to you if you’re moving fast enough.
A few blocks away at the Provincial Building, where the Alberta Parks department resides along with an array of Alberta Health Services programs, I pull up to a long, sloping concrete ledge. Before I could ably ride a skateboard or understand the significance of its potential, my older half brother took me here. He placed his skateboard at the top of the ledge, had me sit on it, then proceeded to guide me as I slid on it and down to its end. The goal? To scratch the graphic from his board, giving the illusion he’d put it to serious use so he could later boast to his friends about all the slides and grinds he’d done.
I was a willing accomplice in this grift. Giddy, even. I tried to do the same with my board, but my brother told me no one would believe me because I wasn’t good enough yet, so we left. Which, in retrospect, was true. If you’re going to lie, you need to make sure the lie is not too much bigger than you are. That you can fit inside of it and still look casual.
In essence, that’s how skateboarding works. Same with grieving. It’s the only way you move forward, stretching your physical and mental limits inches at a time by playing fast and loose with the facts. Can you kickflip down those four stairs? Bring yourself to socialize after a terrible heartbreak? No. But can you kickflip off of a curb? Order an Americano from a barista? Pretty much. Just exaggerate what you already know. If you think about it, a curb isn’t much lower than four stairs. Talking to five people is essentially a diffused conversation with one. Maybe think less. Push. Leap. Into a new place of being.
The four steps that lead up to the front entrance of St. Catherine’s Parish are ones I’ve begrudgingly climbed to Sunday mass and later tossed myself and skateboard down countless times before. This church is where much of my family has been baptized, confirmed, married. A house of god, the home of the first four set I ever kickflipped—an accomplishment that kept my spirit fed for weeks. It’s where a limited-capacity funeral service was held for my grandfather last year. From my apartment in Vancouver, I watched my uncles give eulogies via Facebook Live.
Standing in front of the church now, sizing up its stairs, I imagine I might look like a wary sheep hesitating to return to its flock—or just a creep lurking. The duality of the skateboarder. Always existing between reverence and wrongdoing.
Such a mess of memories I have of this place. Ones of family and beginnings and endings and skateboarding and screaming godfuckingdamnit underneath its big white cross while struggling to land my trick down its stairs. The nondescript concrete slabs of this town gave definition to my childhood and context to my present. They’re where I went when I needed escape, and they showed me what I’d need to look for when I needed space to work through what ailed me in the future.
Yes, this system is imperfect. It took years (and the privilege of professional help) before I’d learn to articulate my grief in words. Emotions were abstractions that rode with me. Their temperatures rose and fell. Feelings became contained, familiar, necessary, and I could call back on them to help orient my moods with near precision. Like the memory of riding away from that kicklip at St. Catherine’s, how it returns to me clearer than nearly any face.
Except for my grandfather’s. I can see him in detail as I close my eyes. His large droopy ears, slicked-back hair, and gruff grumbles were at once commanding and comforting. At the cemetery, the sun is heavy and air sticky as we all stand around the columbarium. The priest officiating the interment ceremony arrives late and begins his speech by immediately forgetting my grandfather’s name.
“Ed. It’s Edward,” my grandmother snaps. My siblings and cousins and uncles and I exchange smirks. The ashes are placed into the smooth black marble structure and glued shut. I let tears fall down my face, listen to them hit my shoe. We’d been waiting for this moment since December. The family comforts one another. The sun stays hot. A thought wriggles into my brain and I can’t remove it. I know it’s just trying to help, this ever-consuming way I’ve grown to see the world, so I entertain it:
Cole Nowicki is a writer and generally well-mannered person based in Vancouver, BC. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, McSweeney’s, Peach Mag, and more. He also produces the interdisciplinary event 'fine.' and publishes its print extension 'fine. press'.