[Reprinted from November 28, 2007]
It’s not a long drive to my son’s high school, maybe 15 minutes.
Most mornings, we share sleepy wise cracks—which of us looks worse; whose day projects out the bigger pain; the lameness of a certain radio commercial.
Sometimes we talk daily routine—remembering to turn in an order form; calling if he needs to be picked up; the logistics of an upcoming outing with friends.
Sometimes we talk a little sports—Redskins, mostly.
Once in a while, as events dictate, we talk real life—there will be other girls; they just discovered an Earth-like planet 20 light-years away; it’s junior year partner, these grades count.
Tuesday morning, we rode in silence.
He’d had a strange look on his face as he came down the hall from the living room, where the morning news was playing, when we readied to leave the house. His voice had a flatness to it when he spoke.
I wasn’t fully awake—I didn’t understand. Then I saw the look in his eyes, the awful news story I had fallen asleep thinking about came flooding back and I understood only too well. I don’t remember now if it was raining as we headed out into the dark, but it always will be in my memory.
As we were pulling out into the road a minute later, a voice on the car radio confirmed the reality.
“Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor died this morning from a gunshot wound suffered in his home …”
We drove in silence, staring straight ahead.
I don’t really know if the time it took to get to the school took forever, or if it flashed by in an instant. Time has a strange quality to it in times of stress. What I do recall is the unsettling jumble of disjointed thoughts, feelings and impressions.
I remember thinking I should “say something.” My boy’s favorite athlete—in his eyes one of those larger-than-life figures we all hold up to the light that help form our young selves—had just been senselessly shot down in the prime of his life. I should be a rock. Paternal. Wise.
I thought I shouldn’t let him see me cry. A father teaches his son that men are steady in a storm. And then I thought I absolutely should let him see me cry. A father should teach his son there is not shame, but honor, in sharing his humanity.
I felt the onset of fury, the urge to say something—do something—about this insanity. About yet another needless violent death, about yet another fatherless child.
I felt the wearying, familiar heaviness in my chest, as just the latest in an endless parade of man’s-inhumanity-to-man headlines unfolded around me. They say one grows colder, harder inside as one gets older. That has not been my experience.
I thought about the burgundy “21” jersey hanging in my son’s closet … and how when we watch the games together, we always exchange—exchanged—knowing grins when a Redskin flashed into the screen to blow up an opposing runner, or an opposing receiver inexplicably short-armed a promising ball.
I tried to push away thoughts about the on-field impact this would have on my favorite football team, and wished I was the kind of man who didn’t have to remind himself there will be a time for that, and this was not it.
I sensed the displacement one gets when events transpire that shatter the perceived normalcy of modern daily life. How emotions ebb and flow of their own volition. How linear thinking gives way to something less structured, more organic. How one can feel utterly in the moment, yet oddly removed at the same time.
Perhaps that is what life is like for those who have lived, and still live, in circumstances not yet “civilized,” as we like to think ours are, spending their days scratching out sustenance, standing watch over loved ones through uncertain nights, wondering if the coming day might be the last.
Yes, people die tragically every day. And it’s true ours would be a better world if we did not largely grow numb to that reality in our daily lives. But the truth is, it’s often only when someone who has touched our own lives is lost, that the numbness disappears.
Tuesday was such a day. The reality of it was brought home through my own eyes and, more powerfully, reflected in the eyes of someone I love, someone to whom personal loss has not yet become a familiar aspect of life, someone whose shock and pain I could not shield.
My son’s experience that morning was both like and unlike mine. At his tender age, the tears were of shock, outrage, incomprehension—an unfamiliar and frightening ripping at his gut over the loss of a man he looked up to and admired.
At my not-quite-so-tender age, the tears were for all of those things, but also for the flood of unwelcome emotions the event had reached down into my soul and dragged to the surface, about the dark underbelly of the human condition.
My son never met Sean Taylor. The closest he ever got was standing outside the ropes, watching him practice with the team. Neither did I. The closest I ever got was watching Sean from across a crowded locker room after a game or having him walk past me after practice on his way to the showers.
But he was most certainly part of our lives.
We marveled at his once-in-a-generation athletic gift. We thrilled at the highlight-reel plays he made look routine. We took pride in the fearsome on-field reputation he earned as a member of our Redskins.
We watched hopefully, almost gleefully, as the birth of his first child brought a stability and maturity to his life that had sometimes seemed wanting before, which in turn brought with it the prospect of watching this unique and somewhat mysterious young man evolve into an all-time great wearing our colors.
Instead, in an instant, Sean Taylor was gone.
And so we found ourselves under the lights in the high school parking lot, my son and I, having not said a word. I think it was still raining.
It was all I could do to say what I finally managed, and I don’t believe I did well trying to steady my voice. “There are no magic words.”
He looked at me, nodded. “I know.”
We usually fist-bump before he gets out of the car. This time, we found ourselves clasping hands, soul-brother style, for a long moment. Then he was opening the door and starting to climb out.
I heard myself say, “Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “It’s going to be a depressing day.”
All the things I’ve ever wanted to tell him—and my wife, two daughters, parents, brother and sister, extended family, friends, colleagues and fellow human beings who have lived and died since our species began—all the things that are always there but tend to surface only when events dictate, were on the tip of my tongue. Love, loss, beauty, fear, joy, pain, perspective, regret, longing, empathy—hope—and so much more.
It becomes increasingly more difficult, as one gets older and the children grow from kids into young adults, to say the truly important things in a way that conveys meaning without preaching. But you do the best you can, while you can, in a way you hope doesn’t embarrass them, and hope they might carry with them when you are gone.
So as my own flesh and blood made to walk away into what cold reality had once again proven an uncertain, often dark world, I said the only thing I could. I told him I loved him, and didn’t try to hide the tears.
You will be remembered, Sean Taylor.