Monday, December 11, 2017

The snowy road to Virginia

I never thought that the next time I'd travel to see Christian would be to attend his funeral. I thought maybe I'd head down to Wellington someday to see what all the fuss was about, or catch him on a trip through Tryon for dinner and maybe play some cards. Sometimes things just don't work out that way though and it seems like the universe falls back into chaos.

The service was lovely and touching. The pastors found a way to capture the unfathomable loss, the palpable depth of love, the unfairness, the support we all felt being together, and maybe just a glimmer of hope.

"I found myself admiring Christian, which is odd for an adult to admire a teenager... When I grow up, I want to be like Christian," reflected his uncle.

"Find the feeling you had @ full gallop every now and then," quoted his friend Maggie from a note he left for her.

"I love you till my head pops off... and my arms, and my legs," said Anne, his mother. A saying they ended most conversations with since he was a small child.

I spent some time with Anne afterwards. Ever since hearing the news, I was gripped by a need to wrap my arms around her as tight as they could go and it felt good to do that. It's hard to find the words to say; we want to make it better, to say something to help heal the wound, but what words are there? I told her I could only imagine the pain she felt, only knowing my own feeling of loss. She responded no, grief affects all of us. There is no scale or measurement to gauge or compare.

To me, it seems that grief is a broken heart and for each of us it shatters into a different number of pieces. That initial punch in the gut, finding out what's happened, is the most profound. From that point on, we start gathering up the pieces one by one. The more we put together we start to move from that initial stage of loss, to remembering the person, remembering the good and the bad. Eventually we may even put that heart back together again. It might take weeks, months, years, decades, lifetimes, but every little piece we gather up makes us feel a little more whole again. It might be a memory, hearing their voice, seeing a rainbow, thinking of a joke, singing with a favorite song, but each moment and small smile adds up over time.

There was quite a bit of karaoke and dancing, revelry, snowman building, and s'mores making after the service. I think Christian would have approved. Joy amidst grief. Strength with the pain. Smiles between tears. I don't think we could ever forget that force of positivity, no matter how many years go by.

Thanks for the smiles, thanks for the joy, thanks for being you and inspiring us to work harder. You may be lost, but will never be forgotten.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Legacy of Christian Kennedy


It's been over a week now that we heard the horrible news of your accident. People talk about the stages of grief, but they seem to all happen simultaneously. Immediately I felt shock and disbelief, like it was some sort of sick joke and after a couple days you'd call or text or post online, "haha just kidding." It's not a joke though, you're really gone. From shock came oppressive grief, the feeling like you'd either been punched in the gut or just had some sort of empty hole inside of you. I constantly felt hungry, with no appetite, no desire to enjoy food or anything I was doing. My face hurt from crying into my ever-present windburn, and every time I thought I was out of tears for you more would follow. Now I'm finally getting to the point where I can say your name without crying, remembering the good times, remembering the amazing person you were, and what a light you were in all of our lives.

Because crying feels disingenuous to your memory. You were such a positive, happy guy, I know you'd be upset to know how many people you made sad. You were always quick with a joke, quick with a smile, quick to lend a hand, always ready to go the extra mile. Your passion for horses is what made me love you first. Lots of guys are afraid to show affection, especially to animals. You had no shame and I can't count the number of times I would walk past a stall to see you taking an extra moment to give a horse a scratch or cuddle.

That passion was leading you to great places. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that we would have seen you riding in the Olympics some future year. Not only were you so passionate about your horses, but your pure talent and drive always blew me away. The gangly 15 year old forgetful kid was really blossoming into a bright young man. I can only imagine what your mother felt, but I know it was hard for me to watch you growing up, when in my mind you felt more like a kid brother. Now the knowledge of all the things you won't experience sits in our guts like a hard stone.

As an outgoing, happy person, surrounded but other outgoing, happy people in Wellington, you started to enjoy the area and going out with friends pretty quickly. It worried me on occasion that you might get drawn into less than savory groups but I chalked it up to youth and happiness and didn't want to rain on your parade. I wonder know if I should have said something, but it's really hard to give 21 year olds meaningful advice especially when we all feel like we have life worked out at that point.

I really felt mad with you for awhile. How could you be so stupid to not wear a seat belt*, to be in a car driving so fast? Why didn't you make better decisions that night? All I had to do is think back on mistakes I made in my life.We can all look back and find at least a few moments where we made a snap judgement that could have ended very badly, but somehow skipped out with little to no damage. When I was in college, I tried to lead a 3 year old OTTB from his stall a couple feet to our indoor arena for turnout when he blasted out of the stall like a start gate on the track. I was dragged about 20 feet hanging onto the halter before my brain clicked on to let go, and went face down into the dirt. He ran past me and luckily didn't kick out, because I ended up being alone in that barn for the next 6 hours. If I had been injured I very well could have died that day, all because I wanted to save 2 seconds of attaching a lead rope. 

I mean to say that none of us are blameless, usually we have a moment like that and look back years later thinking "man, that was dumb. I could have really gotten hurt." You don't get that second chance, and I think that's what seems the most unfair. I know that if  you had any inkling of what would transpire that night, you would have done things very differently.

In the days after the accident, I was so grief stricken it was impossible to see any kind of silver lining over such a senseless, preventable death. What struck me though was the outpouring of love, of donations, of stories online from all the people who's lives you touched. It seemed everybody who met you, even if just for a day, remembered you and remembered your unique and shining personality. We always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but I think the better question is what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? Do you want to change the world for the better, raise a family, make lots of money, travel the world?

The legacy you leave behind is your memory and how you've touched the lives of so many even though you died so young. The legacy you leave is the Christian Kennedy Future Stars program that Robert Dover was so kind to name in your honor. The legacy you leave is in the smiles of your family, who despite suffering such a horrific loss seem to be able to remember that shining positivity we so loved you for.

It's still a long road ahead of sadness, and we will always and forever miss your presence. I'm trying to not get lost in grief like I did the first few days. I'm not religious, so it's hard not knowing what's happened to you now. To me, you're just gone. However, I do find myself talking to you in my head, repeating the same three statements over and over.

I love you.

I miss you.

I wish you were here.


It has come to my attention that the news  stories mis-reported that Christian wasn't wearing a seat belt. He was, so he did try to make a decision to stay safer but the speed of the vehicle was too great for it to protect him. It doesn't make the outcome any better, but it just drives home the point that he was a good kid and struck by an unfortunate accident.