THREE LIVES IN KEENE NH

Today I’ll be writing one of the hardest letters I’ve ever written in my life. It is long overdue. And I have no idea how it will be received.

I’m writing a letter to the parents of a boy who died six years ago. We’ve never even met. I don’t know them, and I didn’t know their son. But I owe them a letter.

Let me back up to tell this story.

Six years ago, three children died in our area. They were all around sixteen. Their lives seemed very different. Our local newspaper treated their deaths very differently, too.

One was a young man, a talented athlete, who had recently transferred here from another school district. He had a few beers with friends one hot summer day, and went swimming afterward. An innocent act with fatal consequences. The swimming hole, infamous for a treacherous whirlpool, was a deadly one–it’s claimed 15 lives in just over thirty years. He drowned.

One was a young woman, a talented scholar and musician. Born with a congenital heart defect, she died suddenly while jogging.

The last was a young man who could euphemistically be called a “troubled youth”. He’d recently broken up with his girlfriend. He took her car one evening. Her family reported it stolen. Local police gave chase, tailing him down the street our local high school is on, at speeds approaching 100 mph. Though they abandoned their chase, he continued on, lost control of the car and smashed into a stone bridge. He died instantly.

The young woman was given a lovely tribute in our paper (page 3), with friends, teachers and family mourning her loss.

The young athlete was lauded and honored almost daily in the paper for days, with front page essays alluding to A.E. Housman’s poem,
“To an Athlete Dying Young”. Proposals were made to rename an athletic field in his name. Demands were made to dynamite the swimming hole. Many other memorials were suggested, until his grieving family finally said, “Enough. Please, enough.”

The third young man? I can hardly bear to say….

His death became the source of swirling controversy in our community, on whether police engaging in high-speed chases are justified, or if it results in needless accidents and death. Much was made of his “troubled past”.

Some even wrote letters to the editor, suggesting that anyone who commits a crime and runs from the police, deserves to die.

I asked my daughter if she knew him. Yes, she said, she had a crush on him in middle school. But she was too shy to let him know. She thought he was sweet and funny. One day he drew a picture of a dragon for her.

All I could think of was the grief that must have swamped his family. ALL the families, but especially his. I wanted to write to them.

But I didn’t know what to say.

Except that no sixteen-year-old deserves to be judged in such a way. That no one knows when or how someone will turn their life around. That the loss of a child is hard enough, without people debating whether they deserved to live at all.

In bereavement class last week, I shared this story. Everyone said, “Write the letter.”

But it’s been years, I said. Isn’t it too late?

“It’s never to late to write a letter like that,” the instructor said.

And so here I sit, a copy of the obituary in hand.

It’s unbearably short.

Not the 3-or-4-column listing of achievements and honors. His life was too short for that. And he wasn’t on that track anyway.

No editorial about the loss to our community. Just a mention that friends were invited to the services.

There’s the mention of his family. And a note that he enjoyed playing the guitar.

In lieu of flowers, donations to be made to day care centers in the area, presumably the ones he attended as a youngster.

I hope those were happy times for him.

No mention, of course, that years later, his “bad boy friends” have all succeeded in turning their lives around and are on their way to leading constructive and fulfilling lives. Who could foresee that?

No mention of an act of kindness to my daughter in middle school, where my daughter had a very, very hard time. Who would note such a tiny event?

In any case, I think I’ve found his parents, and I think I know what to say now.

I’m going to apologize for not writing sooner.

I’m going to apologize for not attending the funeral. That at times like that, even a stranger can be a friend.

I’m going to apologize for not letting the editors of the paper know MY opinion of the way these “news stories” were handled.

I’m going to tell them how sorry I am that they lost their son so young, before he even had a chance to find his place in the world. That I know they will miss him forever, because he was their child, and he was loved.

And I’m going to tell them that once he drew a picture of a dragon for a young girl, who thought he was sweet and funny.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “THREE LIVES IN KEENE NH

  1. meg

    How inspiring. I’ve wanted to do something like that before, but always let modern convention of not taking a risk, take over and I chicken out. I’m proud of you!

  2. Hospice is teaching me to be brave. :^) Thank you, Meg!

  3. Nice one Luann – well written too.

    If only more people did likewise – instead of accepting what the rabble dictate as being “the way we do things around here”.

  4. You just brought tears to my eyes, what a thoughtful truly kind gesture.

  5. Elise

    What a beautiful act of kindness toward this young man and his family Luann. You are a living example of a human’s ability to love unselfishly—an example of human potential at it’s very finest. I too, was the recipient of another act of your kindness. (We were total strangers then when you stopped to help me on the side of the road because my dog had collapsed due to some unknown health issue.)
    I hope that everyone who reads your beautiful blog post is inspired to “pay it forward” to someone who’s life would be positively impacted by such an act. Because you have brought this story to light, we can do right by others like this young man’s family. It truly is, never too late.

    • I just couldn’t leave you there on the tree lawn til I knew you were okay. And I was delighted to find out that two other people did the very same thing. You made my day! :^)

  6. Jeri

    Send the letter, the world, however big or small needs that pure act of kindness and love. It is very sad that we edit so much of our loving impulses.

  7. It’s never too late. The parents will appreciate that you’re still thinking about their son.

    It’s never to late to remember someone.

    In fact, it may mean more now, when everyone else has forgotten, feels it’s okay not to mention him anymore, since that was a long time ago and surely we don’t have to talk about it anymore do we? (that might be uncomfortable.)

    Send. Honor. Remember.

    • Interestingly, when I went back and read the obit, I realized I wrote to the boy’s parents very nearly on the anniversary of his death. And if your hunch is correct, maybe it IS a better time for them to have that letter. I hope so.

  8. (I’m logged in as my son right now, whoops. That last comment was from Elaine Luther.)

  9. Dear LuAnne,

    I have a son who had a troubled youth. He could easily have been the boy that you describe in your article. My son survived.

    Your article brought back to me the many people in our lives who showed kindness to us when we struggled with the demons that haunted our family and the ones that tortured each of us personally.

    There was the family down the street who took my son in, no questions asked, when he needed to be away from home. He knew he could go there and find a kind ear and a bed. I knew he was safe.

    There was his boss, an organic farmer who invited my son into his family, gave him enormous responsibility and trusted him when he needed to feel like he was worth something to the world.

    There was my dear friend whose family loved my son like he was part of them. Her husband lent my son his car and worked with him on a repayment plan when my son totaled the car one icy afternoon.

    There was the vice principal at the high school, who encouraged him, against all other advice, to drop out of school and get his GED. He had already spent a good deal of time in her office and she pushed him into an early college career.

    There was his English teacher at the local high school who wrote him a glowing recommendation for college after he dropped out of school.

    There were many others.

    What all of these people had in common was that they took the time to get to know my son for who he was beneath the troubled face that he showed the world. My son’s story is not over yet. He began his first year of college this fall. What he took with him was a stronger sense of self and of community because of the people here who touched his life while he struggled.

    I love that you are writing that letter. It will mean everything to that boy’s parents. I would encourage everyone to look around to see the humanity behind the struggle. One reason my son is still alive is because of the people who loved him and saw past his demons.

    Smile at these kids. Talk to them. Don’t assume that they are dangerous just because they look different. Get to know them. Give them a chance. Let them know that they have a place in the world. Maybe more of them will survive.

    • It sounds like your son had many heroes in his time of upheaval. And I do consider people who reach out, to be heroes. Just knowing we are loved can help so much, and those people were willing to love him, with guidance but without judgment.

  10. I commend your bravery and compassion in writing this letter. Bravery because it takes guts to right a wrong and to admit that our inattention or cowardice caused us to do nothing. We all have those events in our past and most of us just feel guilty about it when we even bother to remember them. My niece barely made it through her teens and early 20s but she finally figured it out and is a gift to her parents and friends. My advice is: don’t worry how your letter will be received– they are responsible for their own response, you are responsible for the impulse that caused you to write the letter. One is not tied to the other.

    • Thank you Christine! Just for the record, I’m not usually cowardly about things like this–in fact, a dear friend once said the reason she loved me is because I am willing to make the hard phone call. In this case, there was so much attached to this child’s death–the controversy, the public debate. It took me awhile to pull out what I wanted to say and to avoid saying what they didn’t need to hear. And being given “permission” to do the right thing was the final piece that got me there.
      It’s a reminder that our own journey never ends, either.

  11. Sometimes we travel many miles down the road to maturity before we stop, stand still, turn around, and realize what we should have done in the first place. How nice of you to have saved the clipping and made the contact. It will mean a great deal to the young man’s family.

  12. I am so, so very glad you’re writing that letter.

  13. Very moving post Luann.
    I will try and remember Gail’s words – “I would encourage everyone to look around to see the humanity behind the struggle.”

    • And I am reminded of Roseanne Cash’s beautiful quote from her book, “Composed”, which I quoted in this quote. But I’ll put it here, too, because it fits so well:

      You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…

      I think that this is the lesson in hospice. We are all in this together. Nobody gets through without loss or pain. But with the help of others, we can find comfort in that, and see the true joy and beauty and love that is offered, too.

  14. Reading this made me cry. How wonderful of you to sit down and write the letter! You really are an inspiring person.

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