by Nathan Rudyk
It was to be a trip down the 401 like any other. My wife Glenna and I were heading first to Toronto, then to Niagara-on-the-Lake to visit friends and family.
Given the gorgeous fall Friday afternoon, we wound through Westport on the way to the 401. We spoke awhile, then tried the radio. The antenna didn’t deliver anything much, so we switched to CDs we’d collected over the summer. Music washed over us with the sunshine and scenes of a classic Canadian October.
We wheeled on to the 401, and it took awhile for us to notice that groups of people – from entire families to lone individuals – were stopped along the road, some with Canadian flags draped across their parked cars and trucks. It wasn’t until we came to the first overpass bridge when it dawned on us that The Highway of Heroes would be given special meaning this day.
Tuning into CBC Kingston, we learned that the body of 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, shot dead at point blank range as he guarded a National War Memorial, was riding in a motorcade somewhere behind us. Accompanied by his mother Kathy on the way to his funeral in Hamilton, he was making the same final journey that 158 fallen Canadian soldiers made before him.
The bridges built a narrative about Canada we’d never witnessed in our lifetimes. Around Brockville, each overpass was lined with a row of people standing stoically or draping flags over the railings as we flashed our lights back in solidarity. Fire trucks, ambulances and police cars parked above as we drove beneath, their crews in front, or in some cases, on top of their safety and rescue vehicles.
As we proceeded towards Kingston and the proud military community of Trenton, the crowds on the bridges grew – hundreds of people stood two, three and four deep. Along the road, in fields along the highway and at the “Welcome to” entrances to communities like Brighton, Colborne, Grafton, Cobourg and Port Hope, our fellow Canadians, many dressed in red and white, many in army greens, waited for Cpl. Cirillo.
We listened to the radio, wondering where we might stop to join what we estimated were now thousands of people paying their respects, and pulled over at a service station near the Highway 115 turn-off. We got a coffee, stretched. And then, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s motorcade pulled in, just yards away from our vehicle. Burly security officers got out of marked and unmarked cars, protecting the motorcade and its honoured occupant.
It was a very awkward moment. We drove slowly out of the service station parking lot, not knowing whether to avert our eyes, and then Glenna said, “I just saw his mother get out of a car.” As I navigated around the security detail, I wondered aloud how she knew. The answer, “I know. She looks so sad. It’s her.”
As the bridges came closer together in Oshawa and Pickering the scenes became surreal.
Entire highway work crews sat or stood beside their earthmovers and pavers, construction helmets beneath their arms. Off-duty police SWAT teams, ambulance paramedics and more firefighters on both sides of the road, assembled in deliberate, orderly lines. Scout and Brownie troops. Office workers. And rows of veterans from past wars, in full ceremonial uniform. All prepared to pay their respects to a very special fallen son.
As we approached Toronto, disregarding their own safety, many people simply stopped their cars on the shoulders of the multi-lane highway and got out to join the vigil. Long-distance truckers saluted the people on the bridges with mighty, mournful bellows of their horns.
As the sun lowered in the sky, the radio relayed the now oft-repeated words of Ottawa lawyer Barbara Winters, who also served 17 years as a medic in the Naval Reserve: “You are so loved. Your family loves you. Your parents are so proud of you. Your military family loves you. We are all trying to help you.”
With those words enveloping him, he died in their arms.