Joy Inside My Tears
On Showing Up
This picture. Always. Something like it. Before the fall. Before the Crash. Before the crashes. This is the double inner parens that encapsulates the story I need to tell, while living the life I need to lead. I knew them. This moment. Tuesday June 4, 10:49 in the morning. I took Charlie and his best friend Kwentyn out for breakfast with my mom before their Junior graduation ceremony. It’s the scene before the scene before the scene of the crime. But there were no crimes here, nobody that had really hurt anybody, just people deeply hurt. Ironic to think that now, 6 months later, Kwentyn’s athletic grace would be immaterial, while Faye’s broken 71-year old body would be my strongest source of strength.
In late September, I was coming to terms with the first stage of impossible grieving for Charlie and for Kwentyn’s family and friends; classes had started up and the Football team was beginning to play again. I woke up Friday morning to a message on WhatsApp from one of my mom’s friends in Dominica:
And so began this chapter of the story: the one about Faye and her accident, and those first days when Jonas went to see her in Dominica and realized that the one X-ray machine, in the one hospital on the island, was not expressing the full extent of her injuries; and then the panicked medevac to Florida, and her ruptured diaphragm and translocated T4 vertebrae, and the hours upon hours of surgery at Broward Trauma.
Now, New Year’s Eve, I am furiously trying to post some version of this story before the end of the year, believing that the utterance of these words alone will relegate their traumatic energy to the past, and clear out some space for lightness in the new year.
Friday after Thanksgiving 2019, the night before the NCS Football Championship, tomorrow against Cornerstone Christian. This is the sharp edge of Charlie’s long season, carrying Kwentyn’s heavy weeping number #1 on his back, running, running, running past defenders on offense into the end zone to kneel on one knee, and point up to the sky at his friend.
As soon as I got the news that Kwentyn had died in a car accident on June 10, time stood still and I stopped looking forward. Something much bigger than me had taken over and called for a kind of presence that I had never before needed to provide.
In 48 years I was lucky to have never experienced the anguish you feel when you lose somebody close so suddenly. That Kwentyn was my son’s best friend added an echoing, derivative impact that made the grief even harder to own, even as it tore deeper than my own would have. Maybe tragedy and loss are the punctuation marks that make us feel alive and connected to the world, and everything else leading up to these moments are just suspended animations.
It’s still so hard, more than three months later, to put this experience in the rear-view mirror. But here I am, trying to peel these reflections from “draft” into “published.”
June 24, 2019: Mill Valley
It was after 4pm that Charlie and I finally walked out of the gym at Mt Tam High School. The memorial service had started at 11a at Mt Carmel Church, about a mile away. There had to be a thousand people there. All the rows were filled with teens and adults, from tony Ross and gritty Marin City, white Branson girls wearing black dresses and black Marin City boys wearing white custom Kwentyn t-shirts.
The Marin Catholic Basketball team stood at attention in the back. It was like a funeral scene in Game of Thrones when the adversaries from battles past lay down their swords and show respect for a fallen opponent.
The service was three hours of remembrance from pastors and coaches, from friends and family, a celebration of his life which the more we heard the more we realized what we had just lost.
There was story after story of his raw talent, his raw energy, his boundless enthusiasm, his smile that melted and forgave and excited all at once, his preternatural deep comfort with whatever situation emerged such that he could not help but see the best in it.
Charlie got up in front of all those people and shared his memory of Kwentyn:
I remember it like it was yesterday, it was you me and Avery at one of our favorite restaurants sitting down to eat. As we ordered identical sandwiches and laughed as the food rolled in, conversation began about school drama and people we dislike. The question was if there was anyone we had grudges with. I struggle with this frequently, I find myself holding onto anger or discontent with certain individuals. When it was your turn, you sat your head peaking over your right shoulder until a smile broke out across your face and you simply said “nah there isn’t anyone I really don’t like”. You truly cared about each and every person you met and treated them like they meant the world to you.
Another time it was you me and Blaze going to see a concert in San Rafael. As we stood in the cold waiting for almost two hours to hopefully be admitted into a show which we technically weren’t old enough to see you made friends with what must of been over 15 people. As we sat muttering under our breathes about how the night had turned into a waste you seemed to have been having the time of your life. You laughed as people argued, smiled as everyone complained about the lack of organization. We ended up getting to the front of the line and just as we expected were turned away. I had just wasted $60, 4 hours and an entire week of hyping up the night, but you sat there grinning stating how much fun we had just had.
Kwentyn could find joy life’s most tedious and boring tasks, he could take any situation and turn it into one worth remembering and enjoying. Last Monday when I learned about the tragedy which had occurred I was heart broken. I had just lost my everything, that kid meant the world to me.
As I grieved and reflected I kept looking for the hidden meaning of silver lining hiding in the midst of all of this. The reality is that not only does this not make sense but in my eyes goes against any sort of purpose and meaning.
Kwentyn could find joy sitting in a line wasting the night away, could laugh after losing a game, could battle through any adversity knowing that things will get better. Kwentyn appreciated every moment and situation no matter how big or small it may have been. If there is anything we need to take from all of this, it is that we need to live out our lives. appreciating all of the things we are blessed with and the relationships we hold so deep.
Cause that’s what Kwentyn would have done. Kwentyn left his mark on each and everyone of us. Now it is our job to keep his memory and purpose strong and live a life with empathy and full of love.
I love you man.
And so at the end, after the repost gathering in the gym featuring tables with laminated tributes under a giant screen showing Kwentyn’s final YouTube interview, after all that, exhausted from all the crying on his face, Charlie said it was ok to leave and we walked out the gym’s exit doors.
There was a girl and her mom standing on the deck as we were walking out. Charlie seemed to know the girl, she was around his age, but I did not recognize her from his school. She had dirty blonde hair and wore a black dress, like her mom, and she seemed to have gone through a lot of suffering herself. He said something to her as he walked by. After we walked ahead, Charlie told me that she was the one Kwentyn had gone to see that Sunday night up in Sonoma. Charlie had been Kwentyn’s cover for this young woman, who was holding in all of that pain and guilt for being the last one to have seen him, even among these best friends and family that could not stop one-upping each other with stories of how they had been touched by him. Charlie reminded me that she wasn’t the most popular person among his friends at the moment, but that she had shown up. And that was worth something. She showed up.
July 8, 2019: New Haven
This summer football camp trip for Charlie was planned in April, as soon as we met with each of the coaching staffs. First Dartmouth, then Harvard, then Yale. He interviewed well, and they had seen and liked his highlight reel before meeting him in person. Such a complex weave of recruiting roles and signals that he had managed to attract after three years playing football at Branson High School. His coaches — Max, short sinewy fast aggressive, who got recruited from high school in Sonoma to play DB at Oregon — and Ian, laid back scratch golfing stud WR at Cal — vouched for Charlie as Co-Captain and leader of the Defense in letters of recommendation.
Charlie is dialed-in and driven to the place where he feels most free: on the football field, between the whistles. He roams up and down the hashmarks noticing defensive schemes and barking his observations to teammates in front of him. He anchors them, lets the line know the formation he sees, lines up across a receiver, starts rotating his hands like a parallax, like yin and yang gyro-scoping around each other so that his breathing slows down and he relaxes right before the Quarterback screams for the ball, and the receiver across from Charlie makes his move and so in that instant he pushes off hard with his hands to jolt the receiver off of his route, and then he decides whether to stay with the receiver in front of him stride for stride, hips lined up, hands ready to bat down the ball, or else turn and go after whomever is carrying the ball.
That place. That’s where we are. I can hear him snoring lightly next to me on the other bed. It’s just as it was supposed to be, the night before the Yale camp. In April, when we first visited, they had his number waiting for him at the Yale Bowl. We were like kids looking down on a massive construction effort to prepare the new field for 60,000 seats. They talked about their “Viper” position, that hybrid Safety/LB role that attacks whenever possible. That role. That responsibility. He was hooked on that vision, as was I, and so here we were ready to make it happen. But it came wrapped in this unexpected sadness that was underneath everything now even if we weren’t talking about it. Kwentyn wasn’t there anymore. Not just not here in New Haven, but not there in California, or on Snapchat. The presence of Kwentyn being offline bathed us in a certain quiet that night. I kept my screen as dim as possible so that Charlie could get to sleep and rest his body for tomorrow.
August 1, 2019: Maui
“I know that you are inspired by the wings he got tattooed on his chest — Latanya over one pec, Orlando over the other — just weeks before he passed. Just know that whatever you get on your body to remember him, that it will be infinitely more than what you have now.”
This is what I want to tell Charlie now, just minutes before his appointment at the Paia Tattoo parlor. I am proud of him, that he has chosen to burn the memory of his best friend onto his body forever. He wants to man up to that fear, to that pain, and be the hero in his own story, the warrior who passes down the symbol of friendship to the rest of his tribe.
He keeps coming closer to the fire of the crash that night almost two months ago, when Kwentyn’s car burst into flames. The fire that took Latanya’s son, when she told me Kwentyn wouldn’t be coming to practice. He had a bad car accident, and he didn’t make it. And me, stuck in that heavy hot morning sunshine, as I slowly started slowing down on Miller Ave in my Jeep, looking at Kristi in the passenger seat, understanding that Kwentyn was no more, feeling without knowing that Latanya was calling to see if Charlie was in that car with Kwentyn and had they both been burned beyond identification. That flame. That fire. That ignition of a feeling that I could not unlearn.
We were waiting in the lobby of the tattoo shop. We had done this a few weeks ago in SF, at Tattoo City. We walked in at noon on Saturday because that was when they told Charlie to show up for a walk-in. Mary Joy had done a tattoo of my Nana Kass’s Auschwitz number years earlier, “A-15333” in white ink on the inside of my left forearm.
Mary had a cancellation and was available, so she made a quick sketch for Charlie’s approval. He lit up with the sense that he was now going to remember his friend even deeper, permanently onto his body.
She casually asked to see his ID to confirm that he was 18. And just like that, his relieved laugh turned into triggered panic: his act of remembering was being taken away from him. While he fumed at the injustice of life, at the fuckedupedness of this summer, she calmly suggested that we consider getting it done in Maui where you can be under 18 as long as you are with a guardian.
Here in Maui, the tattoo artist finished the sketch, pressed it onto Charlie’s upper right forearm, and started engraving the wings and initials onto Charlie’s flesh. This is the kid who hated needles at the Doctor’s office, the one who hated pain, which had always made him angry at the world.
The buzzing grinding sound of the needle, articulating the wings and giving them shape. The design facing Charlie for when he looks down, not for the outer world who might enquire. It is backwards, like the accident. It doesn’t make any sense, that most personal and intimate of emotional wounds facing outward for all to see as an inversion of life. For me to feel now too, as his father, who could have lost him but didn’t. Who is losing him as a boy and gaining him as a man. There is no shame here. Yes, he might regret the location, the prominence, or the orientation, but this regret will never overwhelm the sanctity of his loss, or the strength of Kwentyn’s image in his mind.
And so the day is over. The trip has come to an end. He gets ready to sleep, having shared his experience socially but privately with his friends. For a moment, he is overcome with doubt and asks me how his tattoo looks. But that is all part of it, as we ebb and flow around the emotional reality of the physical contingencies that await us. Finding our steady-handed truths that are really just long burnished insecurities that we project with such certainty onto the world so that they might not reveal the shitty hands we hold.
I tossed and turned that night holding onto an emptiness of regret that I could not put out, no matter how hard I ground my face into the bed. I woke up at 1 am to an image of Charlie’s new scar, the wings of Kwentyn’s memory that had wrapped its tips almost all the way across Charlie’s forearm to touch the back of his elbow. The tattoo had depth where the needle had cut and raised his skin around the edges of its design.
It was white and shaded gray to make it seem real. As if there was some kind of minimum threshold required to represent the reality of the pain he had felt. As if emotional solidarity could be coded indelibly on that single perfect sheet of flesh that was his original skin. Mine was different than his. It was more of a gesture than a symbol. Her loss was not sudden, but gradual. She was in her 70’s when she passed, not 17. With Nana, I was remembering her experience of being on-boarded at Auschwitz. We bring the reservoir of unresolved feeling to the surface of our psyche by cauterizing the outside of our flesh. That was it, right? Identity. Identification.
At the end of the tattoo session — when the outline of the wings was inked into his arm and carefully shaded — Charlie started crying. It was so simple and cliche I almost didn’t notice the moment.
August 23, 2019: Mill Valley
The story doesn’t end. It keeps interrupting itself into the present. It’s still all about Kwentyn, and through him Charlie’s loss, and my trauma. I went to the Senior Parents Class Reception because I sensed that I needed to. I wasn’t sure why. But there was Orlando and Latanya, Kwentyn’s parents, mingling among the rest of the class parents. Examples of fortitude, of hope, of somehow being able to take my hug and tears and tell me that it is going to be ok.
September 5, 2019: Mill Valley
School is back in session. The first football game post-Kwentyn is next week. His parents asked Charlie to wear his jersey #1 in his memory, looking into Charlie’s eyes with such deep, wise love, telling him that it would be an honor for them if he did.
We fretted whether it was simply too much on his shoulders to wear his number. Would it hold back the development of his own identity (#21) or would it allow him to express himself more fully?
Last night around 3am I had a dream that I was showing Kwentyn Charlie’s “guys.” These were the action figures that Charlie used to love playing with as a toddler. He loved his guys. Different superheroes, big and small, which he would arrange into battles. In my dream, I was on the floor showing Kwentyn how he could use the big guys to hide the little ones, like the were offensive linemen blocking him as a running QB, and I could see his smile light up like he was a little boy. Maybe this was heaven.