Before the night of January 6th, 2002 I had only ever experienced death and loss through my parents’ television. But I have a hard time believing a TV show would attempt pull off this kind of tragedy. I can’t even imagine a writer pitching it... "Hey, in the next episode let's have Brandon get killed by a drunk driver. Think of it, seventeen years old, top athlete, he’s funny, nice large family, he’s got a lot of close friends and gets along with everyone. Him and his girlfriend Jessica are crazy about each other, she would be driving the car when a drunk driver hits them head on. She survives…”
“Stop right there,” someone would interrupt. “I’m sorry, but that is just too much. Killing Brandon Taylor? And in this way?? And I’m sorry - you said his girlfriend - who by the way, is also one of the kindest and nicest characters - is going to be driving when they’re hit and she survives??? No... it’s just too cruel. No one will ever watch this show again if we did that. Why Brandon? Why couldn’t we kill a more “fringe” character? You know, then they can just learn that life is fleeting life is and be relatively emotionally unscathed?"
The problem with Frederic is, there were no real fringe characters. True, we're not all best friends and some of us don’t really like each other, but there's no one who disappears in our community that you couldn't be affected by. We’re a town of one thousand people in the middle of the woods in Northwest Wisconsin: in many ways, we’re all we’ve got. When Brandon and Jessica’s car was hit, the first people on the scene - EMT’s and Fire Department - were their friends’ parents. They did what they could to bring Brandon back and when they eventually made the call that he was gone, one of them had to close his eyes. Then they had to break the news to his parents while others had to care for the drunk driver who had killed him.
When our class learned about Brandon we all gathered at one of the local churches. We huddled close together, baffled by this new shock and terror we were all feeling. A feeling that was momentarily relieved when my friend Tadd said, "I just realized, I have never known a better use of the word “fuck” [to describe this situation.] Fuck, was right. Why the fuck did this happen? What the fuck were we going to do?
That whole week was fuck; everything was upside down. Our high school became a kind of shiva house where instead of going to class and completing assignments we made a cross for the roadside, a memorial video for Brandon’s family and black bands to wrap around the straps of our basketball jerseys. It was the place where we would bring Brandon’s coffin and hold his funeral service. Everything was a reminder that he was no longer with us and for long time afterwards, every event carried the subtitle, “without Brandon.” Brandon was dead, and there was nothing we could do about it.
Last week, in what seems like another asshole script writer, with a terrible idea that’s too cruel even for a TV show, another tragic event occurred Frederic, Wisconsin. What’s even more unfortunate was that this accident was just the latest in a series of tragic events that have struck our community over the past year. Cancer and vehicular accidents have left the community where I grew up raw and worn down. There have been too many days of sickening, awful sadness and unfairness and wondering “what is the point of anything” when life for someone in a small town already seems insignificant.
But no one's life is insignificant, and in this time of grief I know none of us are taking for granted how amazing and special life is. And this grief, as terrible as it feels right now, will not break us. I know this because if that were true, our community would have given up thirteen years ago. But they didn't. Our teachers made us return to class and complete our assignments. Our coaches made us keep playing basketball games and pushed us to compete and get better. Our parents made us shower and eat and focus on our futures and getting into college.
For a small town Frederic has some of the strongest and bravest individuals that I will ever have the privilege of knowing. It is because of these people that things will eventually get better. Because for whatever reason, whether it's because they believe in a religion or whether they're just stubborn Midwesterners, they all know that there are things in this world and in this life that are so much bigger so much more powerful than death. They know that someday the impact of the lives of those we have lost will far outweigh the impact of their loss. And most importantly, they understand that someday is still a long way from where we are now. Right now we're here, and grief is just the first step of this new journey we're all about to embark on.