Christmas Unwrapped: A grieving family faces Christmas without slain soldier

Joe O’Connor, National Post: Tuesday, December 21, 2010

BRADFORD, Ont — Carol Collier had no idea what she was looking for. In the past, she had always loved Christmas shopping, popping in and out of the stores, being Santa Claus to her four kids, and maybe even buying a little something for herself to stick under the tree.

On this December day, Carol felt different, hollowed out, like she was playing a part she was supposed to play at Christmastime. Doing what she had always done: Climbed in the car. Driven to the mall. Shopped for gifts.

She kept hoping no one would recognize her and make that face, the “sympathy face.” Every store employee who chimed in with a cheery “Happy Holidays” made her want to scream.

Happy? How? Her heart is broken. Her only son is dead.

“I wanted to get something for Brian, something we can take to the cemetery on Christmas Eve,” Carol says. “And you never think of that. Why would you?”

Sapper Brian Collier was killed in Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device on July 20, 2010. He was 24. Five months after his death, a family is shrouded in grief, surrounded by the signposts of their first Christmas without him. Everything is different now. Every family tradition a reminder of what has been lost.

Carol, her husband Jim, Brian, and his three younger sisters, Shannon, Jennine and Lauren, would attend mass at Holy Martyrs church on Christmas Eve. They would come home to the red brick house on Gardiner Drive for a quiet night, and sit around the kitchen table telling stories. Laughing.

Carol would put out some Christmas snacks, shortbreads, meat pies and other delights. Jim and Brian would have a beer. And Brian, a big charismatic kid who became a man, a soldier, and a combat engineer would start in with his annual Christmas Eve push.

“Brian loved Christmas,” Carol says. “It got to where he would tell you what he wanted, a camera, a new snowboard, a video game. And he would always come up with some kind of reason about how he needed it before Christmas. He was still just like a little kid. He couldn’t wait.”

On Christmas morning, Brian was first up, stomping around, making a big racket, making sure everyone knew exactly what day it was. Nothing he did was quiet. He was so full of life. And mischief.

Carol obsesses over her Christmas tree. It has to be perfect. And it is perfect, with its red tinsel, its ornaments arranged just so and, dangling from a branch at the centre of it all, an empty beer can.

Brian’s empty beer can.

“He put that up there last year to get me,” Carol says, smiling. “I saved it, and when he said he wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas this year I told him it would be okay, that we had his beer can.”

It makes Carol smile. It makes her cry, and helps her to remember things she never wants to forget. Like how last Christmas, Brian, on leave from CFB Edmonton, bounced through the door from the airport, dropped his snowboard, laptop and suitcase on the living room floor and bounded right back out to see his buddies.

For two days the snowboard and the suitcase didn’t move, until Carol cracked and put it on the front porch.

“I finally put everything on the front porch because I was mad at him,” she says. “I was mad about the mess. But I would love to have that mess here now.”

The doorbell rang at 5:30 am on July 20. Carol and Shannon were home. Jim and the other girls were camping. Carol felt sick. She knew what it was about. Two men in uniform were outside. Two men come to deliver the news that her son would not be coming home. That he had been killed in the village of Nakhonay, just southwest of Kandahar City.

Brian enlisted on Dec. 6, 2007. Drove up to a recruiting office in Barrie and drove back to surprise his folks.

“He was so proud that day,” his father says, “We were all so proud of him.”

He was home for a few weeks in April before deploying in May. He didn’t go out much. Not like he usually would. Instead, he would take his sisters out for breakfast and then sit with his father talking, preparing a will.

“You can’t imagine what it’s like to talk about something like that with your son,” Jim says. “It was like, you almost knew something was going to happen.”

In his phone calls home from Afghanistan, Brian spoke about the night sky.

Said how it was so full of stars, and that heaven looked so close you could reach out and touch it. He would end each call by telling his family how much he loved them.

On her trip to the mall, Carol kept seeing displays for Ferrero Rocher chocolates, the ones with hazelnut cream filling packaged in the shape of a Christmas tree.

“They were Brian’s favourites,” she says. “My mom bought him some last year, but he didn’t eat them. But if you didn’t buy them for him he’d say, ‘where are my chocolates?’”

Last year’s goodies sit, unopened, on a shelf in Brian’s basement bedroom.

He warned everybody not to touch them. He was saving them for when he got back.

A quilt covers his bed, a patchwork of squares stitched together by perfect strangers and sent to the Colliers after his death. Above it is a Canadian flag pillow, and all around it are reminders of the boy Brian once was.

His room is painted Toronto Maple Leafs blue. There is a Leafs flag, a Leafs sweater and several photographs of Wendel Clark, Brian’s hero, an affection he inherited from his Mom.

There is a high school graduation photo, a Mickey Mantle model baseball mitt and, hanging in the closet, Brian’s military dress uniform. Watching over everything from a perch on the windowsill is an angel figurine.

“I put that there,” Carol says. “I bought it at the dollar store.”

She takes comfort in her faith. Jim struggles with his. Doesn’t know where to find comfort, and so he looks to his dead son for help, for answers, for guidance.

Jim is a pacer. He can’t sit still. When he visits Brian’s grave at Martyrs Cemetery, just around the corner and up the hill from the house, he wears out the grass in front of it.

Back and forth he goes. Swearing up at the heavens, asking God: why? Asking his dead son what he should do.

He has a wife and three beautiful daughters to take care of and a great big hole in his heart.

“I go to the cemetery to talk to Brian,” Jim says. “I talk to him. And it’s a good thing. I like going to sleep at night because I hope he comes to me. I look for him in my dreams. He was my son. He was my best friend.”

Jim is not much of a talker, can’t always find the right words. But he wants people to know something. Brian hated bullies. Always did. He would stick up for a teammate, a friend, a complete stranger.

“He always did things for the right reasons,” Jim says, eyes welling with tears, voice catching. “My son, he left me, he left me with a message to get out and it’s why he was what he was: a soldier.

“He couldn’t stand seeing people getting bullied and that’s all the Taliban are: bullies. His calling was to go to Afghanistan. It makes sense to me. He was always sticking up for people who needed help.”

Carol tries to be strong, while sharing her stories about Brian. She wants to tell them. Talking about him hurts. And it helps. She is a grieving mother, and yet, she still has to be a Mom.

Lauren, the youngest, is only 12.

“Brian and Lauren were especially close,” Carol says. “He was the only one who could get her to stop crying when she was a baby.

“She has written a long poem to Brian. She doesn’t like to see me cry, and I try, I try not to cry in front of her, but sometimes she will see me when she gets home from school.”

Carol doesn’t want to forget. Doesn’t want to throw anything out. She has sorted through all the old photographs of Brian, put them in order, made copies for each of the girls. One day, it will be left to them to remember.

The Colliers will attend mass on Christmas Eve before visiting Brian’s grave. They will hug. They will cry. They will tell an only son, an older brother, how much they miss him and how he will never be alone.

Not this Christmas. Not ever.

“After Brian died they brought him home to Bradford,” Carol says. “And it was awful. We went in the backyard and there was a cardinal. It was Brian, telling us he was okay.

“The day he was buried up at the cemetery there was another cardinal, just singing away up at the top of a tree. And when I was at the mall the other day, I saw it there, on a shelf.

“An ornament, a fir branch with a cardinal in it. It was so strange that it would be there.”

It was the perfect gift.

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