Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The crushing weight of guilt

Mother of man slain in Salisbury House restaurant feels responsible for so many things

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At first, when she wrote to thank me for a column about her son, Jeff Lau -- the 23-year-old who was slain by a masked gunman at Salisbury House late last month -- Cathie said she wasn't ready to speak publicly.

She was afraid for her three younger children.

"My privacy helps me feel a bit safer," she wrote.

Two weeks went by.

And when Cathie began sending emails again on Tuesday -- 14 over three days -- I sensed what she was really trying to say.

She needed to be heard.

So I offered to listen -- and only listen -- if that's all she needed. As it turned out, though, Cathie wanted more than just one person to listen.

And to understand.

-- -- --

I was greeted at the door of the family's suburban home Thursday evening by a large, black dog that was quickly dragged into another room.

But that's hardly what gave me the most discomfort.

It was the feeling from that other black dog no one was going to drag out of the room.


In her initial email late last month, three days after Jeff's death, Cathie had written this:

"Our family is feeling enormous grief, of course. And I am feeling how I have failed him... "

Thursday night was a full three weeks after his killing.

And, even after reading more of Cathie's emails, I wasn't prepared for the crushing weight of guilt Cathie is carrying.

Guilt and shame.

Across the room, the dining room table was a shrine of framed family photos, but that's not where she really wanted them to be.

"Put your kids' pictures on the wall, so you can see them," Cathie said. "To tell the kids how much you love them."

She had other messages she wanted to share.

Cathie isn't convinced her son's death was related to drug-turf war, as police have suggested.

And then there was this surprise.

She suspects Jeff may have been targeted even before the Salisbury House shooting.

It happened around the Canada Day weekend, when he and another friend -- one who would also be with him the night he was killed -- were run down by a hit-and-run driver in the parking lot of an Osborne Village hotel.

Jeff suffered head and hand injuries and was in critical condition, she said.

When I asked police if they were looking into any possible links between the hit-and-run and the homicide, all they would say is the investigation is ongoing and no arrests have been made.

The lack of an arrest troubles Cathie -- even haunts her.

But, as I was suggesting, perhaps it doesn't haunt her as much as her feelings she could have done more for her oldest child.

Not that she didn't desperately try.

While he was in Health Sciences Centre recovering from the hit-and-run injuries, Cathie said she appealed to a nurse on the ward for a psychologist or social worker who might help her son.

"They told me that he has to ask himself."

She feels responsible and angry for not being able to get him help then.

But looking back, she also feels responsible for Jeff having to give up his passion for hockey as a youngster because a car accident had left her in such chronic pain she couldn't keep up with all her kids being in sports.

She believes this contributed to her popular young son "taking a ticket on a runaway train," as she described it.

Through it all, she felt paralyzed by shame -- an emotion she inherited from her childhood she feels dragged her down like quicksand and prevented her from doing more for Jeff.

If only she could have kept him close to home, and closer to her, is what I heard.

Which would explain why last summer she began renovating the house. To make it more inviting for Jeff.

"I wanted him to come home. And I think he would have."

But Cathie even feels guilty about that, because she spent so much time working on the house and tending to her dog's broken leg she feels she neglected to spend more time with Jeff.

"I lost sight of my priorities somehow," she said near the end of our conversation.

"But I can't live in shame. I can't lose any more time... I have to do what I can for my kids."

-- -- --

It was midnight, 31/2 hours after the big, black dog had to be dragged away from the door when I arrived.

But as I was leaving, the dog was nestled firmly against the door, as if to say 'you can't leave until you take me for a walk.'

Cathie needs someone to walk the dog. But even more than that, she needs someone with whom she can talk.

"I honestly wonder if I am going to stay glued," Cathie would write the next morning in an email. "We really need help... "

That help has since been arranged for Cathie and the kids if they want to go. There are trained counsellors who can help people in a crisis.

I know Cathie will be listened to by them.

And not judged.

Not even for judging herself.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 B1

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