Tonight, my 18-year-old son is performing for a paying crowd in his first Broadway show as an adult. About 50 miles north of Syracuse, the family of one of my high school classmates is mourning the loss of their 18-year-old son, an aspiring musical theatre performer who was killed last week in a head-on collision that was not his fault.
Life is just not fair.
Like many of you, through Facebook I’ve become reacquainted with many people I grew up with but haven’t seen in years. Chuck Leikham and I went to the same high school; he is best friends with David Watson and his wife, Mary, who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Chuck and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Adams, N.Y. He has been in the military for much of his adult life, and now is assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like many families in the military, they have endured long separations from each other.
Their son, Parker, was deciding between colleges in Michigan, where he planned to pursue a career in musical theatre, when the van he was driving was struck head-on about a quarter-mile from his home. Parker had performed in local, youth, and school theatre since he was in second grade and had just finished a starring role in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the weekend before the accident.
By all accounts, he was a terrific talent and beloved by the community and his classmates. A lineman on his high school football team, he was on the school’s “Whiz Quiz” team that won an international championship in 2014. He also was known for wearing bow ties.
Two days after Parker’s death, a community candlelight vigil drew more than 800 people to the South Jefferson High School stadium, where his parents and siblings released 18 balloons in honor of his life. A local video company showed up to record the event, and after letting the family know they had a drone to capture the proceedings from overhead, his mother asked the crowd to make a bow tie for her son. The result shows the incredible outpouring of love and support for Parker and his family.
Tonight, as we celebrate Ben’s opening preview of Tuck Everlasting, a show with beautiful music and the theme of eternal life, we’ll also say a prayer for a family that has lost its own shining star.
Note: The family is trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bowtie in honor of their son and is asking for support from their friends on Facebook. Chuck wrote today that his son “loved her show and has much in common with her. Parker was all about love and tolerance.” To write in, go tohttp://www.ellentv.com/be-on-the-show/1058/
I love collecting bits of memories, the isolated stories about people, places and times past that inform and enlighten us in ways big and small.
Everyone has these stories. Some are better than others at telling them, and the world lost two of those people this past week: my mom’s brother, Randy, and Ed Tunstall, a career journalist I happened to meet while waiting for a morning train.
The news of their deaths during Thanksgiving week was a surprise, if not totally unexpected. Randy, who died at his home in Portland, Texas, last Tuesday, was 82 and had myriad health issues. Ed, almost a decade older at 91, also died at home on Friday, having moved back to his beloved New Orleans after his overall health began to decline.
Randy, an intensely private person, allowed only a three-sentence obituary to be published. Ed, whose journalism, communications and marketing career spanned six decades, was honored with a glowing, staff-written 685-word story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he served as editor for six years.
Befitting the changing times, the story was published online first. New Orleans, which once had morning and afternoon dailies, has published its print edition only three days a week since Hurricane Katrina.
In many respects, relaying the basic facts about Randy’s life makes it sound like it was spent stranded in a turbulent storm. The child of high school sweethearts who married just after graduation, he spent his formative years in Baird, a small West Texas town about 20 miles southeast of Abilene.
Randy was 8 when my mom was born several weeks premature. My grandmother died a week later of complications from the birth, and several months later, my grandfather joined the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Until he was 14, Randy and my mother lived with family members in West Texas while my grandfather served as Navy Seabee. When Pawpaw, as I called him, returned with a new wife in tow, they picked up the kids and moved to Longview on the other side of the state.
Randy’s relationship with his father, and especially his stepmother, quickly became strained and he left as soon as he could. At 18, against their wishes, he married his 16-year-old high school sweetheart and joined the Navy, serving as on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic during the Korean conflict.
Like father, like son.
When Jill and I first moved to Virginia, I rode into work on the Virginia Rail Express, the commuter train located near our house. In 2003, I started noticing this couple waiting for the same morning train. Watching them walk in together, the gentleman appeared to be much older than the woman, but they were obviously smitten with each other.
After several weeks, curious about their story, I decided to introduce myself and met Ed and his wife, Renee. They had just moved to the area from New Orleans so — in Renee’s words — “he can follow me around for once.” I soon learned that Ed was then approaching 80, an amazing sight because his hair had never turned gray.
“All mine. Not dyed. Good genes,” he said in three sentences Hemingway would have been proud to write.
Over the next several months, Ed, Renee and I talked almost during the 20-minute ride from Lorton to Alexandria. As it turned out, Ed and I had several things in common — journalism, twins, and second marriages. Ed had “retired” from his third career due to failing eyesight and moved to Alexandria with Renee, who was working for a high-end cruise line, but he was still helping in the mailroom to stay busy.
Given that none of us had been in the area long, we became good friends. I peppered Ed with questions about his storied career — two decades at the Associated Press, including covering four NBA championships and John F. Kennedy while working in the Boston bureau; more than two decades at the Times-Picayune, a newspaper in one of the nation’s most colorful cities; and time as a journalism professor at the University of New Orleans. But mostly, we talked about sports, especially his beloved Boston Red Sox. I’ll never forget the look he had after they broke “The Curse of the Bambino.”
In some ways, Ed’s life story bridged a generational gap between my uncle and my grandfather. Born in the decade between the two, he also served in the military (although it was the Army, not the Navy). Like Randy, he used the G.I. Bill to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
Also, like Randy, life in his later years was not easy, especially as his body began to betray him. But they both soldiered on.
After the Navy, Randy earned a business degree from Baylor University. The Vestals and their two children moved a number of times during his career, first as a pharmaceutical salesman, then as a manager for a company that made cosmetic prostheses, then as head of the South Texas Lighthouse for the Blind until his retirement.
Randy and his wife, Merry, were together 61½ years until her death in 2013. He remained devoted to her and to her care throughout her lengthy battle with mental illness and then dementia, stubbornly refusing to put Merry in a nursing facility even as his own health became more fragile.
I wish he and my grandfather had been able to navigate their relationship better. The two didn’t speak for more than a decade and things were distant when they did. As my mom has said, “If either had married someone else, our family’s story would be much different.”
Even though our families did not see each other much, the love my mother and her brother had for each other was evident, never more so than in the years following my dad’s death and my aunt’s illness/passing. Watching them together this past May, when Randy and my cousin, Melissa, came to see “Newsies” in San Antonio, it was good to hear often-told stories one last time.
As a writer and photographer, I’ve always been fascinated what you can see behind a person’s eyes. What you could tell by looking at Ed and my uncle was they both knew the beginning, middle and end of the stories they were about to tell. Their eyes seemed to twinkle when an anecdote or story was in the cue.
For those with whom they held court, their stories had the feel of watching original back-to-back Thursday night episodes of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” on NBC. Ed, like many journalists I’ve known, would have been very comfortable in the Boston bar with Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla and Woody. And his stories would have given the writers plenty of plotline fodder.
As Renee said of her husband, “Life was an adventure and he was on it.”
Randy’s anecdotes felt like a pungent episode of “Seinfeld,” Mostly about “nothing” in life’s grand scheme, they always left you thinking even as you laughed. His comedic timing and sense of humor were priceless; I always held on for the punchline.
Last week, Jill and I watched the classic Thanksgiving scene from “WKRP in Cincinnati” and laughed until tears came to our eyes. Jill noted the scene’s pace and how it unfolded in a much slower manner than most of today’s sitcoms, all in the interest of the big payoff at the end. It made me think of my uncle and his stories.
That night I called my mom on the way home and she told me about Randy’s failing health. She said they had talked for an hour and a half and he seemed at peace with where he was.
The next evening, my mom called again to tell me the news. It wasn’t much more than the three lines that appeared on the funeral home’s website.
The rest of the stories, now hers to tell, will have to wait for another day.
In my 20s, a car pulled out in front of me on Christmas Eve, totaling the first new vehicle I ever had. Then my second car, a used battleship that would not/could not be destroyed, was stolen the next holiday season.
A few months later, I got married, picking a safe, middle-of-the-year month — May — to avoid any potential mishaps. Within two years, my first child — Nicholas — was born (of course) in December, tying the fate of my parenting skill (or lack thereof) to the emotion-laden holiday season.
Two years later, during my parents’ Christmas visit to North Carolina, my dad and I went to see two movies on the same day. Movies were one way my father and I bonded, and it didn’t hurt that I managed to escape what was an increasingly untenable situation at home.
On the way back to Reidsville from Greensboro, I asked him: “Why, given everything you’ve been through, are you and mom still together? How have you made it work?”
He paused for a long time, then said, “When I look at your mother, I see the same person I fell in love with. Of course, she has changed, physically, and so have I, but I still see the same person.”
For me, there was — and is — no simpler definition of love.
I could not say the same, and within a month, I had left the marriage. I wanted the chance to be like my dad.
Within two years, I had divorced, remarried, changed jobs, and bought a house. As Christmas 1996 approached, Jill and I were ready to mark the birth of our first child, Katharine. She was born two days after Christmas.
Little did we know that before the next Christmas we would have two more children. Ben and Emma were born Dec. 11, 1997, giving us three kids who are the same age for 16 days each year and four children born in a single month.
Christmas had moved from a season of endings to a season of beginnings — albeit one that has us running around constantly and trying to hold on to our remaining shreds of sanity.
But the spectre of loss has continued to loom.
Last weekend, I looked around the table at a birthday celebration for Ben and Emma in New York. Earlier, Ben had performed for the second time in “Ragtime,” and we went to a restaurant with family and friends to share some cake and have a late dinner.
My mom was there, as was Nicholas (thanks to my mother’s generosity in paying for his plane ticket). Emma and Kate watched Ben perform for the first time, and we had dear friends and family also in the audience.
As we lit the cake, I looked around and thought briefly of the people who weren’t there — my dad, Jill’s mom, Fran and Bill — and would have given anything to join us. Just as I had done at Thanksgiving (also a dinner in New York), I thought of the holidays we shared as a family, how the chaos of growing up amid illness had given way to the chaos of raising our own children.
And, despite my need (and ability at times) to cling to the holiday humbug that looms over my past, I realized how truly lucky I am.