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For the week of July 9 - 15, 2003

Opinion Columns

Hole in the world

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

One day the world seems all right. The next it doesn’t seem all right at all. In that brief span of time this valley lost a young man named Whit Henry. There is no logic or explanation to dull the anguish of that fact, especially to Whit’s parents, Gail and Mark.

In one sense, I don’t really know Gail and Mark Henry all that well. I’ve talked to them a few times over the years. But I did know their son. And by that measure, I know a great deal about them. I know they are humble, kind, honest and hard working. For Whit was all those things.

But what was most apparent about that young man of 20 years is that he had a heart. He had a heart that was strong and pure and good. So, I know Whit’s parents do too. If we make no other mark in the world—and even if we do—the only one that amounts to anything is the one we make on others, the mark we make on our children. And perhaps we’re not even making a mark. Perhaps all we do is carry out our lives as honorably and true to ourselves as we can. Then we just hope that our actions and our manner in life provide some sort of fertile ether in which the hearts of our children can nestle in, find a way to blossom that no other child in the history of the world has found. Gail and Mark Henry did that for their son Whit, for he found that place early in his life.

I knew Whit in his teens; I used to help him with his math homework. During those awkward ages—14, 15, 16—most boys are angry or confused or full of bravado, and with no sense of the world outside of themselves. But not Whit. He had already found his heart. He had learned earlier than most that kindness is more than just good manners. I think Whit knew there was something more profound about being kind and considerate. It was a fundamental understanding that he was part of a complex current of lives that is a community—that the current is diminished or made greater by the actions and character of each one of us. That all elements, no matter how small or big, affect the course of the current on its way to points beyond.

What I cannot fathom, or perhaps am afraid to, is the pain of losing a child. There are many in this community who do know that awful pain. It is a pain, I suspect, that changes you forever in ways that are not only unpredictable but uncontrollable.

Several years ago my best friend lost his 5-year-old daughter Moira to an accident. When young Moira died, my son was 1 year old. And out of some sort or perverse sense of empathy, every now and then—when I felt strong enough—I imagined losing my son. It was like leaning out over a cliff to see how far I could go before recoiling in vertigo and nausea. I could only do it for a few moments before I would pull back from that imaginary hell. And every day my son got older—though still younger than Moira at the time of her death—the more he was a part of the world and aware that he was a voice in it, the more wrenching seemed the pain.

Now that my son is Moira’s age when she died, I can hardly torture myself this way anymore. But for some reason, still, I feel compelled to put myself in my friend’s shoes or the Henrys’ shoes. Perhaps this is just a superstitious mind game to ward off my greatest fear in life. Or perhaps it’s an attempt to understand the lives people lead, what they truly face and what could be before me at any instant in time.

It seems to me a community begins with empathy. And even a vague comprehension of what those around us experience makes compassion possible—the binding force of that community. Ultimately, a community dies without enough empathy and the compassion it breeds.

While we may recognize that we can never truly understand what parents feel when a child dies, it does not mean we shouldn’t try. My friend and his wife survived their child’s death, and I think it was in part due to their deep down belief in life, however long it took them to find that belief. But also it was due to the belief in life that their community imparted to them.

The same is true of the Henry family here. They may live like ghosts for a time—I know I would. But sometime, someway they will find their way back out of that dark place. And it will likely take not only all of their strength, but that of friends and strangers. There is no way to know what word or moment will open the crack to let the light in. And for that reason no act of kindness, no gesture of compassion is ever a wasted effort. It all sifts in, heals in sometimes-unseen ways, and may never be recognized as such. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is their community, the world that surrounds them is sentient and willing to make that known. That is what we owe Gail and Mark Henry, their other son, Luke, and Jo, Whit’s grandmother, and other family members I don’t know but are out there grieving

As for Whit—that kind boy. It’s hard to know how much a sense of himself a person has. But the optimistic thread in me believes Whit did have a sense of his life. That he knew he had found the place that many people his senior struggle to find. He knew what mattered in life, knew that his heart was good and that even in his short life had touched others.

Though Whit was 20, to his parents the heartbreaking truth is that he was just a boy when he died. He was, though, a boy beloved. May we all be so blessed.



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