The Biggest Headstone

I have no grave to place flowers by.  I have no headstone to polish and sweep.  I do have a beautiful, smooth, wooden box, made by my husband Cam, that we keep on the same shelf as the vodka. We don’t reach for the vodka often, or the box for that matter. The box contains the burned bones of my son.

And now I also have a sixty-five foot cement wall in a parking lot in East Vancouver covered in glorious red paint, at the centre of which there is a huge and uncanny portrait of my son Holden in black and white, smiling out at the world.  He looks truly happy.  I hope it’s true. There is no good resting place for your child, but this wall makes sense.   If there has to be a symbolic location for Holden to be recognized, well, this is his kind of place.  

The background of the mural is covered in reproductions of Holden’s own graffiti lovingly re-created by some of his closest friends.  There are imprints of some of his tattoos, tributes and secret messages.  I hope you get the chance to see it up close.  Watching those kids work so hard was a very emotional and powerful experience.  It was a modern ritual of love and devotion.  An urban salute and a glorious tribute to a fallen comrade.  I am forever grateful for their beautiful work, their sincere efforts and their friendship of Holden. They honoured him in a way they couldn’t do in a church, or with a memorial service,  a way that was intrinsically him. It was a  precious gift to all of us. 

I was  moved over and over again on Saturday  by the comments people made to me about how much Holden had impacted their lives with his kindness, his understanding and his unique charms. His actions have sent ripples into many many hearts. We all miss Holden and I think he misses us too.  He would have thought the day was pretty cool. 

“How long will it stay?” Someone asked me that day.   

“I really can’t say.” 

Maybe a year, until it gets painted over.  Maybe longer.  Maybe the whole wall will be torn down for development by Christmas.  You know, retail on the bottom, condos up top.  Maybe that’s why they offered the wall in the first place.  Or maybe next week some little punk will scrawl a drunken tag over his gorgeous face. That would make me fume and it would also be quite fitting. The nature of street art is temporary.  And so is the nature of life.

How long will you live?   “I really can’t say.”

When Holden passed away two summers ago a friend suggested starting some kind of legacy fund.  In my sorrow I had no idea what that meant.  She placed papers in front of me and I signed them like a robot,  with no intention other than doing what I thought I was supposed to do at the time.


“At times like this people want do to something to help,” I think she said.

“And you don’t want all that lasagne,” said another.

“Just get it started and you can decide later what to do with it.”

People are generous and people are kind and people gave and the Holden Courage Memorial Fund for Artists grew. This spring, on a day I did not feel like crying, I contacted the Vancouver Mural Festival to see if they had any ideas about how to use the grant proceeds. The organizers offered to create a live graffiti jam in Holden’s honour which made me feel like crying in a completely different way.  The whole festival was incredible. There are more than 50 stunning murals around the city.  There are tours every Saturday or just grab a map and walk around to find them.  What a treasure on our streets.

Holden loved graffiti. He loved everything about it. The creativity, the smell, the camaraderie, the rebellion, the music, the danger, the colour, the risks and the thrill.  He may even have enjoyed getting arrested for it, as a badge of honour.  From the time he was about eleven he drew and drew and drew and drew those tags. His work evolved and changed and grew more intricate but it never ever stopped.  Until it did.

On Saturday, at the Holden Courage Memorial Graffiti Jam, I got the chance to use a little bit of spray paint.  As I stood there, in front of the wall, shaking that can and feeling the thump of the metal balls inside stirring the paint, I felt like a total badass.  A middle aged, motherly badass, but a badass none-the-less.  In that moment I think I understood a little bit of how Holden may have felt when he painted. 

Free and alive, brave and unlimited. 



With much love and deep gratitude,

~ tara

**  If you would like to see the memorial wall, it is at East 5th Avenue and Main, on the NW corner, in the parking lot.  All contributions to The Holden Courage Memorial Fund for Artists are gratefully accepted. We have a few photo books of Holden’s graffiti work left.  If you would like one, please let me know and I will get one to you.  We ask for a minimum $20 donation.  We are hoping that we can support other talented artists in creating more beauty on the walls of Vancouver.  Because what made Holden truly happy was putting paint on walls.  Thank you!**


  1. Sarah

    Dear Tara,
    I was a long time listener of yours. I still remember where I was when Bill announced on the radio that Holden had been born. I was desperately trying to get pregnant at the time and can remember how happy I was for you. I also remember several years later, after my own son had been born, that you told a story where you had taken Holden to the Children’s Festival. I can’t remember who you saw (it was definitely Raffi or Charlotte Diamond) they sang “favourite things” from The Sound of Music and they asked the audience to tell them what their favourite things were. You said that you held Holden up in the air in response… I LOVED that story. It spoke volumes about the type of mother you are… Your love for your son and your family has always shone through the airwaves and now, through your writing. Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens and a mural on a wall of your HAPPY and creative boy… I am so sorry for your loss. So glad for this tribute to Holden.

  2. Ange Frymire Fleming

    Tara, what a beautifully written tribute to your son. I’m so sorry for your loss and grief. Your willingness to share such vulnerabilities touches me. Know that you’re in my thoughts as a mother, daughter and friend of days long ago passed. Kindest of thoughts, sentiments and warmth to you…Ange

  3. Lee Robillard

    Truly the most beautiful article I have ever read.

  4. Joan Saunders

    Tara –
    I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you and your family were doing. It sounds like Holden’s community honored him very fittingly and with a lot of love. Take care of yourself, and I hope to see you again soon.

  5. Dodie Litowitz

    Thinking of you all. What a beautiful memorial to someone so loved. When Mark and I get out to N. Van soon, we will make sure we go and take it in. Love you Dodie/Mark

  6. Jackie Oldham

    I’m still wiping the warm tears from my face after listening to your beautiful tribute to your gone-too-soon son Holden on this morning’s Sunday Edition with Michael Enright on CBC Radio.
    As a mother of two young adult sons, I’m frightfully aware of our shared vulnerability when it comes to parenting. We spend countless hours, days, weeks, years, putting forth the best we can muster as parents, then at one point encourage them to fly as they leave the nest, and look toward the sun and pray for the best.
    There are so many close-calls throughout our lives that remind us of our vulnerabilities, and heighten our sense of gratitude and grace for being granted yet another chance to get it right.
    It sounds to me like Holden carved out and seized many opportunities in his short life to make people feel special. I hope you’re able to pat yourself on the back for raising and sharing such a beautiful boy with us during his unexpectedly short time here on earth. Peace xo

    • Tara McGuire

      Hi Jackie and thanks for your note. I really like it when people call Holden by his name, it makes me feel like he is making friends even though he’s not physically here with us any more.

      Thank you for listening to the essay and for saying such kind things.



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