I’d been expecting the phone call from home.
“Are you sitting down?” said my dad.
“Just tell me,” I said.
“I think you should sit down.”
“Dad, I can’t sit. I’ve got a stand-up desk. Just tell me.”
My sister-in-law Joyce had been battling cancer for years, and I knew she was getting weaker. I thought I was prepared for that phone call.
“No,” said my dad. “It’s Jessi.”
“Jess? What happened?” I distinctly remember squashing the desire to ask my dad if he was sure. He must have meant Joyce–because she was sick, whereas Jessi had introduced me to his daughter just three months before.
It was July 20, 2010. A Tuesday. That’s the day we became one of the many families left behind to wonder, “Why? Why would he do that?”
It’s been nearly four years, and I wonder the same thing nearly every day. Without question, he was in a great deal of pain–more than any of us realized.
And quite frankly, the kid who penned the words “suicide is painless” for a tv show theme song had no idea what he was talking about.
But today, I don’t want to write about why or how he died. It’s his birthday, and I want to tell you of the boy I knew.
Jessi was my youngest nephew, and always the smallest of the bunch. When he was little, he had a mop of hair that he peeked through. He was often on the bottom of a brother/sister pile-up, and he learned the value of brains over brawn. When he was ten or so, he traded the mop for shorn sides and hair gel. He’d discovered he was handsome and he enjoyed the attention tremendously. He was ring-bearer at my brother’s wedding and every time I tried to capture a candid photo, he went into model-mode, running through all the poses he’d no doubt spent hours practicing. And if there was a food fight, there was a good chance he was in the middle of it–in fact, he likely started it–especially if it involved his much younger cousin.
As a kid, he skateboarded with abandon. He could go up, over and around anything–railings, park benches, and curbs were his playground. He was fast! His small size finally helped him with something. He was fearless.
I moved across the country when he was not quite a teenager, so I only have snippets of memories as he got older. Most often, I think of his concentration as he initially practiced his balance on the board. I remember his giggle. I remember his surprise when I stood in line as his customer to order a fast-food hamburger. I remember waiting for him to finish closing so we could take the bus together because he didn’t know how to get where we needed to go. I remember the pride in his voice as he told me first about the birth of his son, and then his daughter.
And always, I think of his last goodbye, when he rocked his daughter in her car seat in one hand, and draped his other arm around my neck. “Gotta get her home now,” he’d said. “Love you, Auntie.”
Backatcha, kiddo. Backatcha.