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.