For several days I was perpetually choked up, felt as though there was a lump in the middle of my throat after learning that a young boy – who was friends with my oldest son – had suddenly passed away.
But as I forged on, pushing through the heavy sadness and unmooring shock of the news, I realized that there’s power in something about which we don’t place nearly enough emphasis these days: The power of being a physically present in a community, not just being a part of an amorphous, sometimes antiseptic community online.
The horrific news about the 12-year-old boy’s passing circulated throughout my town in dribs and drabs. Initially, cryptic, mass, automated phone calls were made from the schools to students’ homes telling parents to check their e-mail for an "important" message. After reading the stunning e-mail, some parents went old school and called one another on the telephone, then quickly turned to local web sites and Facebook to share their collective grief as they prepared for their crestfallen children to come home from school and melt into their arms. No one could quite believe that a young, seemingly healthy seventh grader could really be gone. He just couldn’t be. It made no sense.
He had just been playing basketball the night before, some said. He’d been online with friends the day before too, added another. He seemed fine at school yesterday . . . this didn’t compute for anyone, not for the students or their parents who fearfully eyed their own children wondering, “What if?”, not for the educators who cared for these children or for the church community which spiritually embraced the boy’s devastated family.
I read and re-read the note from the middle school not quite believing its contents. There was no way that a child – a polite, smart, talented shining light about whom no one had a bad word – as young as he was could’ve gone to bed and then passed away because of complications due to a seizure. There was no way that this was happening to his nice family, particularly to his mother, about whom the most frequently invoked adjective when her name came up in conversation around town was “sweet."
Parents literally clung to their children, holed up in their homes as after-school activities and practices had been cancelled. At first, we all marinated in our grief from behind our computer screens or on our phones, in an electronic isolation of sorts, sharing despondence, warm memories and effusive compliments about the boy and his bereaved family online. People, particularly the children, texted one another, exchanging sentiments as simple as, “I am so sad” that conveyed an ocean of heartbreak.
The next day, however, the community began to stir, to rise from the ashes. In school hallways throughout town and at the regional high school, students donned a commemorative color – green – in honor of the child who was universally well liked and respected. One of the boy’s classmates labored to make hundreds of green ribbons and distributed them to willing takers. It was a sea of green, people said, a sea that coalesced around that vacant space where the lost soul used to be because that’s all that the people wearing green could do, because they couldn’t bring him back.
Then, as the children and their parent-coaches eventually resumed their sports activities, this boy’s name became a clarion call from indoor soccer arenas to youth basketball courts, a rallying cry, a cause: He will not be forgotten. His easy smile, his talents, his kindness would guide them through, no matter what it said on the scoreboard. He will help us go forward.
Parents bought green socks and handed them out to players in his memory. Kids texted their teammates suggesting that they don green T-shirts under their uniforms. Green duct tape was adhered to the fronts of basketball jerseys, and, band-like, around the upper arms of coaches and the parents in the stands who teared up every, single, time a parent from an opposing team asked what was up with all the green. Girls took makeup pencils and decorated their cheeks and their hands with their classmate’s initials and shouted, “Go Green!” at the beginning and the end of their games. This is for him, they said. And, for the first time since I could remember in my very athletically competitive town, it didn’t matter who won, who scored, who fouled. All that mattered was that we were all together. We were one. And our hearts were broken.
People came out of their homes, out from behind computers and cell phones and spent time with one another in person. Children hung out and played video games together or watched the Patriots’ game in groups, drawing comfort from merely being in one another’s presence while their parents embraced and tried to console one another, remarking about how rare it is these days for them to just ditch their packed schedules and hang out together. Parent after parent said that this grab-you-by-the-lapels moment which shakes you to your core has taught them that, no matter how insanely busy they are, time with friends, with one another, in the flesh, is important. Checking in on Facebook, while comforting and a useful source of information, was not enough. Not by a long shot.
“I’m really glad we live here,” my daughter said to me the other day. “People really care about one another.”
Out of this tragedy, my children, as well as almost every person with whom I’ve spoken, seemed to have stumbled upon something basic, something that we all too often take for granted in this era of instant digital communications and over-scheduled lives filled with the busy-ness of child-rearing: Being together matters. Community matters. Everything cannot be done via electronic or cellular forms of communication.
This sudden, grief-stricken coming together, this recognition of the importance of just being together as a community was one final gift from a boy whose short life was a gift to all of us who were lucky enough to meet him.