On a basketball court last week, I made some remarkable discoveries about the human spirit, or better, about humans and the Spirit.
Over one hundred high school basketball players from several international schools from across Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean had just watched the final basketball game of the ISST (International Schools Sports Tournament). It had been a day of fierce, rapid-fire competition ricocheting steadily from one hoop to the other. The Hague had just beaten Vienna. The Bonn, Germany gymnasium (where these finals were being held), was full of cheering and sweating, celebration music and congratulatory back-slapping and hand-shaking. I was playing photojournalist. I’d been doing the same that morning in the Cologne cathedral. If you read my last post, you know I’d been somewhat wrapped up in some thoughts about things spiritual, making my hours there maybe not outright holy, but touched lightly with reverence. Then I slung my camera bag over my shoulder, drove with my family the thirty minutes southwards to Bonn, where I hid myself in the stands overhead to take pictures of all the players. We’d not been told who it would be, but we knew that one player from among the hundred-plus, had been voted by the coaches and athletic directors to receive a special award in the name of a deceased player formerly from the tournament. It was this award that has brought our family to these finals for six years running, because it is the namesake of the award that brought us to any of these tournaments, when he’d played in these games himself.
The Parker Bradford ISST Sportsmanship award for basketball was established shortly after our son lost his life, and by the unanimous consent of the coaches in the ISST. All those coaches knew our son. He’d played two years on the American School of Paris varsity basketball team, and had been co-captain when that team had won the ISST championship.
While we sat in the upper deck watching the final game, Randall and I recalled the previous finals over the years and the other recipients of this award. In March 2008, our family was on hand in Frankfurt to present the first award to a player from the British School of the Netherlands. In 2009, we drove from Munich to The Hague, where a player from Brussels received the award. At that ceremony, the hosting coach spontaneously asked all the players to gather in a circle and put their arms around each other’s shoulders as he read a statement about Parker. In 2010, we drove to Zürich where a boy from that home team was selected for the distinction. Again, all the players stood in a linked circle.
In 2011, when the finals were held in Israel, (and we were living in Singapore), Randall, who was on business in Tel Aviv, arranged to attend the championships in Even Yehuda, a thirty-minute drive northward. Randall stood in the middle of the circle of young players as the statement was read. The recipient that year, a Brit named Logan McKee who was playing for Frankfurt, had noted in the statement about our family, that our daughter was attending Brigham Young University. This detail piqued his interest, and when he and Randall were standing for photos afterwards, Logan whispered to Randall, “Are you Mormon?” to which Randal, still smiling for the cameras, said, “Yes, I am. We are LDS.” “So am I,” said Logan, “And I’m leaving soon to serve a full-time mission.” (A few months later, we learned that Logan McKee had been assigned to serve in the very region where both Randall and I had been missionaries in our twenties, in Bavaria and in Austria. He is is completing his service there now).
In 2012, Randall and I made a 76-hour turnaround trip from Singapore, and pulled into Vienna just in time for the final ISST game. There, the players ringed around us again, their arms draped on one another’s shoulders, as Nicola Bordignon from Milan was announced as the recipient of the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award.
And now here we are. Nearly six years out. Already 2013. We are sitting in the stands again, eyeing the players, wondering who of all these kids might receive the award that bears the name of Parker Bradford. The Hague wins, the team huddles, and in the flurry, I take three or four shots for no particular reason of one player. I’ve learned over the years of doing this – of watching young men play this game my son lived for – I’ve learned that in order to make it through the moment without sinking into the quicksand of sadness, I need to quickly adjust my focus. I’ve learned to train my sights on the brilliance (and I can only call it that – brilliance) of others’ happiness. This kid, this #7, he seems to be a good model of that brilliance. So I shoot away.
In the awards assembly that follows, all of the participating team members receive their medals. Team rankings. MVP. The all-tournament team. The Hague, who’s won the tournament, gets a wagonload of medals.Under all the cheering and applause, I watch closely: the testosertoney swaggers, the sagging sports shorts in blue, silver, red or gray nylon, the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the cloddy ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head bands, the shaggy hair, the shaved heads, the coolness of their brotherhood, the looseness of their pop humor. This self-evident, laid-back regard for life as theirs, the future as a given. High school boys high-fiving, bouncing on their tip-toes, heading with squared shoulders or the guttural whoop of triumph or an ironic grin into the Big Life awaiting them. The hosting coach steps to the mic to announce a closing award, “the most prestigious award”, he says, and asks all the players to pay close attention to the film that will be shown.
I haven’t seen my son on the court for six years to this month. I haven’t even seen him in film on the court for nearly that long because I haven’t been able to stomach it. It’s one thing to see him in still shots: frozen, immobile, caught mid-three-pointer. Or trapped at age eleven, playing in the kitchen or at school with friends or on the beach with his younger siblings. Or framed at sixteen on Christmas morning, face exploding with joy while he helps his baby brother tear open the Buzz Lightyear box. I’ve learned to manage the frozen shots and even the warmth of his movement in other family DVD’s, which we now watch nearly every weekend, at Luc’s insistence. But to watch him running the court. I can’t move. I cradle my camera in my lap, knowing there’s nowhere to hide. No one should see these tears from where I am, seated in a dark corner, high school players to my right, my left, guys sniffling behind me, all of us gone silent as we stare from this darkened gymnasium at grainy images of some kid named Parker, playing ball. <a This is hard. This is beautiful. And this invites something that changes the air around me, around us. I can feel things changing, the dust particles settling and so many hearts slowing and limbs and hands growing motionless, eyes widening, a rustle going across the big room, it seems, in an inaudible “shhhhhhh.”
After we watch the dead boy play – the boy with the long sculpted legs, the too-large feet, the ankle-high shoes, the mitts for hands, the wristbands and head band, the one who wore #8 when he played once on this very court in Bonn – after we watch him kiss that big championship trophy, we sit in the half-lit silence. “All players,” the coach says quietly, “will you please come up here and form a line? We want you to be together, and we parents and coaches want to look at all of you.” One long line of life in its splendid prime. Every last player has his head bowed. These kids – joking, raucous, gobbling burgers, guzzling sports drinks, limbs all akimbo just a minute earlier – are standing there is if awaiting their rites for the monastery. If you’d come in the gym right then, you’d think we were having a prayer. The sight has got me smiling behind my camera, and my eyes are watering with some kind of pained happiness. I’m struggling to see through my lens.
The Father, Randall, with the Brothers, Dalton and Luc at either side, have taken their place center court. My men will present the plaque. I will hide behind my camera, still smiling and teary, sad and giddy. A statement will be read aloud over the sound system by the coach:
Today the Boys Basketball ISST Division II is proud to present the sixth annual “Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award”. Parker Fairbourne Bradford attended the American School of Paris for 8 years. Shortly after his graduation in June 2007, he began his university studies in the United States. Late one afternoon in mid-July, while attending a swimming activity, he and several classmates were standing in a calm section of an irrigation canal, when a deadly but invisible undertow unexpectedly pulled Parker and a fellow student under water. Twice Parker freed himself from the powerful current, even pulling himself onto dry land, yet both times without hesitation he dove back in to try to save his trapped and drowning classmate. His effort was not in vain, as his friend was freed and with the help of another student survived, but it cost Parker his own life. He passed away on July 21, 2007. In memory of this remarkable young man, the ISST Athletic Directors unanimously agreed to establish a sportsmanship award in Parker’s name. Parker loved and enjoyed sports and music throughout his life. He was a gifted drummer and performed in several jazz bands. He was also a leading member of the American School of Paris’s 2006 ISST Division I championship basketball team and 2007 ISST Division I championship volleyball team. Yet as talented as he was as a player, Parker was an even greater sportsman and person. Following his untimely passing in July 2007, six memorial services were held in his honor (3 in the United States and 3 in Paris, France). A percussion scholarship was established in his name at the university he had begun attending; and two monuments were erected in his memory, one at the accident site in the United States, and the other in Norway, where he lived 5 years early in his life. He was and remains a powerful influence and role model for countless friends, teachers, coaches and relatives. Parker is represented here today by his father, Randall; his mother, Melissa; and his brothers, Dalton and Luc, all of whom currently reside in Geneva, Switzerland. Their daughter and Parker’s sister, Claire, is currently a full-time voluntary representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy. The Bradford Family has asked me to convey to all of you athletes, coaches and teachers their deep and abiding love for Parker and their solemn gratitude to see him both remembered and honored today in Bonn.
And now the recipient will be announced. But before he is, reader, I’m going to hold you captive for a few short paragraphs, if you’ll let me. May I ask you something? Would you consider carefully what I’m now going to tell you? Will you please sit long and silently on the significance of what I am going to write? Will you pass this knowledge on in your interactions with others? Will you even pass on this post, so that those already touched by loss and grief and everyone who eventually will be, will have this to reference?
-The nature of one’s living relationship with the one who has passed away influences the nature of one’s grief.
Our two youngest boys and our daughter adored their big brother. He was a loving, funny, attentive leader. To say he was a “model brother” might be taking it too far, but people told us (both before and after his death) that they saw Parker as just that. Imperfect in totality, as every one of us surely is, he was still sweet and caring and uncomplicated in his human relationships. Sibling rivalry? Bad memories? Fights to regret? Flicking away of the obnoxious younger kid? None of those describes Parker. He was a peacemaker and protectorate. In fact, all my sweet surviving children suffered the lost of the one they all called their favorite sibling. They suffer still.
-The nature of the death itself influences the nature of a survivor’s grief. Was it a sudden or protracted departure? Was it inexplicable and untimely, or a peaceful relief at the end of a long life well lived? Was it accidental? Violent? Self-inflicted? Did the survivors witness it? Did it implicate family members or a larger community? Was it fraught with legal complications? Are details of the death as yet unresolved? All of these factors and countless more color and intensify the grief experience.
Parker was in the full bloom of perfect health. Dalton had laughed with him and hugged him goodbye while standing in a sunny parking lot outside a college apartment on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday night, Parker lay in a deep coma. On Saturday morning, Dalton stood next to the gurney as we turned off life support. Dalton, then eleven-years-old, watched his big brother’s body heave its last breath. His death came from nowhere. There was no preparatory time, no chance to absorb on either a practical or a subconscious level what death would mean, what life would be like, what the earth would feel like, who we would all become without him. When the blow of death comes from nowhere, and when it involves intentional violence or when it is a self-inflicted death, the complications and contours of the grief are markedly different, and research notes that the grief experience is, (these are the experts’ words, not mine), “more intense.” My son’s death is of one sort, and it carries, if I dare say this, a certain bitter beauty of meaning. He sacrificed his life for another. But what about the man I met whose daughter choked to death at a family reunion barbeque? Or the other woman, whose daughter was stabbed to death by an intruder with an already-lengthy police record? Or what about all of my friends – too many of them – whose children have taken their own lives, and sometimes in a violent manner and in their parents’ homes? What about the parents of all the little children lost at Sandy Hook Elementary School? And the nameless and innumerable, lost to acts of genocide?
-The nature of the continuity offered by a community – its ability to mourn and comfort, to offer practical assistance, to listen with compassion and to continue to speak the name of the departed – greatly influences the nature of a survivor’s ability to absorb and transcend and even transform grief into a regenerating power.
What can also make the burden of grief heavier is what I’ve tried hard but fear I’ve failed at conveying in my writings to this point. There needs to be an engaged, open, co-mourning community, whose history involves the deceased and whose continuing narrative includes the deceased. None of my children had this. They walked, dizzy in pain, out of a funeral, onto an airplane, and into a world full of strangers whose dominant language they did not speak. Even if they had spoken the same language, no one knew our children’s tragic story. They had no context in which to understand our children’s behavior. Nearly always, when people did find out about Parker, they chose to remain silent about him. There could be no discussion for the children, no continuing narrative about what was raw and throbbing in their bodies every day; and even now, they remember their brother only privately. There is no everyday community that acknowledges that their big brother ever existed. As Dalton told me recently, “It’s like my brother hangs in a museum. And who my age goes to museums?” They’ve found few – a small handful of exceptional people over these nearly six years – who are able to do something as simple as speak their brother’s name.
“The Parker Bradford Sportsmanship award,” says the coach into the microphone, while Dalton and Luc cast their tear-filled eyes up and down the line of players, “will go this year to #7, from The Hague.” And there it is: that name hanging in that familiar silence saturated in meaning. I’ve felt it all those times before. It’s not merely my perception, although I thought it was that at first. Maternal overlay. Parental preoccupation. But then so many others have commented to me about it afterwards. There is something happening when a court full of high school jocks goes silent, when they voluntarily bow their heads as if praying, a bit broken or lightly hurt, wiping their eyes over a boy they never knew, about a story that, except for basketball, bears little resemblance to their immediate lives.
What is it? I want to ask you. What is it that is happening in this moment? While it has something to do with Parker, the moment is only partially about him. It’s about us, I think. It is about who we really are. Our human nature is innately spiritual, and the spiritual within us resonates in ways we can sometimes hardly account for. It swells and warms to things that are true, beautiful, eternal and enlivening. To great music, to fine art, to generosity, to forgiveness, to small acts of kindness, to the Spirit. Part of living well with great loss, I believe, requires a conscious surrender to this truth: that the spiritual continues beyond this material existence and can, in given moments, visit, bless and strengthen us.
I’d even say it can drop in on a basketball court. With their heads bowed, what are these kids wondering? Some are maybe thinking, “When will this thing be over?” I’m a realist. I know teenagers. I know adults, too, and have seen how plenty of us are physically awkward in moments like these, moments with no distraction, moments of stark sincerity. But who can blame us? It’s a question of exposure, maybe, and our modern world gives us precious little exposure to sanctity, reverence, reflective silence, and the long-quiet-unfiltered stare into sweetness, simple goodness and The Way Things Are. If I could read their thought bubbles, though, what might I find? What does it mean to be part of a team? Why do I compete? What is the meaning of this game? What is winning? What is losing? What is my responsibility to my teammates? To my opponents? To people I’ve known for years? Known for a season? What’s my future? My character? What is my responsibility to my family? To strangers? To folks I’ve known, say, for a week? How much do I value the lives of others?
Do their lives matter?
Does my life matter?
Does life matter?
The optimist in me likes to think that one of these questions or others like them went through the mind of one of those kids that Saturday. I have hope that for #7, a Dutch/American student heading off to Brown University in the U.S., he’ll have a full, rich life during which those questions might inform his decisions. And that once or twice, he might think about Parker, whose award he received. From a letter of thanks Randall wrote to the hosting coach:
It is a remarkable moment in that setting, after all the ruckus and cheering and yelling and shouting (all of which is appropriate), to witness how that gymnasium goes absolutely quiet, and the whole ceremony ends on this singular note of remembrance. Somehow I feel our Parker’s spirit both in the cheering and in the silence. Your decision to call forward this year each of the eight nominees was new, and I thought it was wonderful that each of those young men knew that their coaches had nominated them and that they were considered “sportsmen”. Since the award was inaugurated, I have been struck each year by the reaction of the recipient. It is difficult for me to put my finger on it—I can best describe it as something I see in the boys’ eyes—but it’s also something I can feel: their integrity, the sincerity with which they receive the award, and the humility with which they conduct themselves, much of which must also come from their upbringing. I saw that again when we later met privately with Winston Kortenhorst , #7, and his father, Jules. It was touching for me to hear Winston tell us that of the 3 awards he received that day—the championship trophy for his team, his selection to the all-tournament team, and the Parker Bradford Sportsmanship Award—the one that he was proudest of was Parker’s award. You and the other athletic directors have created a marvelous way of leaving these young men each year with a gift—the gift of knowing that as healthy and wonderful as competition is (our Parker was fiercely competitive, too), it is outweighed by their sportsmanship, reflected in the way they play the game and how they carry themselves.
“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” One of Parker’s favorite quotes, from San Antonio Spurs basketball player, Tim Duncan.