The witless and the witnessWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Two men died recently while doing nothing more portentous than having fun. Both left children behind; one died stupidly but mercifully while his kids were away. One died in front of his child’s eyes, creating a hellish witness scenario. Both deaths have settled in my thoughts and refuse to fade.
There is a death in America about every 14 seconds. Many of those losses are senseless, many are tragic, many are a blend of the two descriptions. But the human mind cannot dwell on each loss and maintain any quality of life. That does not discard the grief and consequence for those affected, but it is a necessary survival function to — nine times out of 10 — ignore for whom the bell tolls. Life is for living and moving to the future, not for preparing to die by mourning the past.
Tragic death is the insistent knock upon the door that interrupts the bliss of everyday life. How loud does that knock have to be to get through to you? When the very young die? When someone famous you admire dies?
One of those loud knocks broke my reverie July 5, when it was reported that Jesse William Burley died in a Fargo, N.D., mobile home park. Burley, 41, was foolishly setting off commercial-grade fireworks — a neighbor reportedly said some of them were labeled, “If found, return to U.S. government.”
Burley was seen setting off one of the explosives, which sent “visible shock waves in the air,” the Grand Forks Herald reported.
He lit the next firework.
There was a cloud of smoke and a bang.
The neighbor who ran to help made a grisly discovery.
“When I walked up to his body, it was nothing but his shoulders down,” he said.
Burley literally blew his head off with the firework, a bizarre but at least lightning strike-quick death.
The next paragraph of the story made my breath freeze in my throat.
“His children, 2 and 3 … ” it began, and I had miserable, horrific visions of Burley’s kids sitting on the front steps of Burley’s mobile home, covering their ears and marveling at the fireworks, when their father shuffled off his mortal coil.
But God was looking down on the Burley family through the smoke of the fireworks.
“ … were not at home when the accident happened,” the sentence finished.
And while there are still two young children without a father, at least they were spared the scarring experience of seeing the tragedy.
Another knock that continues to echo through my thoughts was accompanied by a horrific video. On July 7, Cooper Stone’s dad, Shannon, took him to see a Texas Rangers game. Shannon bought the 6-year-old boy a new baseball glove and sat in the left field bleachers so Cooper could see his favorite player, Josh Hamilton.
During the second inning, when the game is young and feels like it could stretch on forever, Hamilton tossed a foul ball into the stands. Shannon, 39, a firefighter, did what any good dad would do; he reached for the ball to give to his son. But gravity, fate and momentum conspired to pull Shannon too far, and he fell 20 feet onto the concrete.
It happened in front of his 6-year-old son. It happened quickly, but it must play in a slow-motion loop in Cooper’s memory. In the video of the accident, Cooper can be seen holding his new glove out for the ball, and certainly the only thing on his mind in that split second was that even if he missed it, his dad was reaching out, his dad’s hands were closing on the ball, and his dad would soon turn around and put it in his glove, maybe after a quick triumphant pump to the crowd.
It could not have occurred to Cooper, or Shannon, or anyone, that within an hour a father who had taken his son to a baseball game would be dead.
As Washington Post blogger Rachel Manteuffel observed, “Shannon died being a daddy.”
She quoted relief pitcher Brad Ziegler, who said, “They had him on a stretcher. He said, ‘Please check on my son. My son was up there by himself.’ The people who carried him out reassured him. ‘Sir, we’ll get your son, we’ll make sure he’s OK.’”
Manteuffel concluded, “[Shannon] had two minutes left to be a dad, and he used ’em. Please check on my son. He’s up there by himself. God, he lived the heck out of those minutes.”
Fathers know that a baseball is the least of the objects we would reach for when asked to; we’d take a bullet to protect our children.
But I would never rest in peace if I knew such a sacrifice were witnessed by my sons.
I am disturbed by the death of Shannon Stone, as I suspect a lot of fathers are. And I cannot shake the image of a father’s dying hands clutching a baseball, a prize won at the expense of 40 years of life and memories. I pray for his son and his family.
I am haunted, wondering where that baseball, that white and red-stitched symbol of a father’s love, is now.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. He may be reached at (419) 241-1700 or email him at email@example.com.