So exactly how do we manage to make anything good come from the sudden death of a beautiful, vivacious and truly enjoyable young woman like Calista? Beyond the loss of a life filled with infinite potential, the wreckage left in the wake of this disaster includes her parents, family, and many friends all left with great emotional wounds raw and bleeding for a long time to come. There are the poor kids that were present when she died and who tried to save her. How do they find value in this travesty? How can there be anything good or just in the death of a young person, taken before they have even had a chance to live, love and contribute?
We can approach this question in several different ways.
I personally am not terribly religious, so I could counter that there is NO meaning to this at all. We should not try to create meaning to an early death because there is no "cosmic meaning" to life. We are born, we live and reproduce (or not in Calista's case), and then we die. If we die young, we have less chance of reproducing and passing on our genetics. If we die old we likely do pass on our genetics and therefor have some chance in the only true form of immortality: procreation. That is pretty much the sum total of the meaning of life. Sorry, that's the basic truth. My truth is that my particular set of genes is now at a dead end; my only offspring has passed without leaving me grandchildren and therefor my genes are done on this earth. I am basically the veritable definition of evolutionary dead-end. Pretty cold, but I need to stay clinical here since the other option is to have an emotional melt down.
If I was religious, I would have to hope that the spirit of my girl is merely elsewhere, not gone from this Earth forever. There would be a heaven and I would see her, hug her and spend the rest of time enjoying her big smile and loud laugh. And there would be lots of laughing. If I extend that thought, there would be a God and he could explain to me exactly the logic of taking Calista when she has had so little life while leaving me who has seen his share of this world and would go happily if given the choice between her and I. Or, being cold again, how about my elderly mother who has been spending more time in hospital lately than anywhere else and frequently begs to be allowed to rest. As far as I am concerned, God, if he exists, has one hell of a lot of explaining to this bitter, unforgiving ageing father. When my time comes I will go happily, but I will be asking questions and taking prisoners.
I have to tell you that the anger stage of mourning is very real. It's not a rage as much as it is a bitter, sarcastic questioning of the extreme injustice at the meaningless death of a loved one. Right now I see no justice in this world. None at all. People who believe in some sort of "cosmic balance" are just fooling themselves: bad people rarely pay for their sins. good people are rarely properly rewarded and innocent youth die uselessly.
The question is how does one get past this bitterness and find some way back into the light. It is difficult for me to see it now, but I do have a plan and I hope that my plan will somehow balance the world for the loss of my Calista.
The first thing I started immediately was to try to reassure and help the people that were closest to my daughter. There was nothing I could do for my wife and myself. As much as I have always been the grey little man who fixes bad things around my house and family, this time all the fixing in the world was not going to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. On the other hand, my daughter had four good friends who were hurt and crying. One of those girls, Kareen, had been present when Calista died; she had not been back to school since she died. The poor boy, Kevin, had not only watched a new friend die while he struggled to save her, he then had to survive hours of police interrogation. While I will never fault the police (they did their job superbly), Kevin still had to be injured: he needed to know that Calista's family did not fault him and that he should forgive himself for not saving her. He needed to know that it was alright to continue on enjoying life because that is what young people should do. That is what Calista would want him to do. I now see it as part of my life mission to make sure that all these young people battle on and perhaps live twice as well because they are now living for Calista.
I am living for Calista now. I have to work harder, play harder, love better and see more because now I have to cover all the ground that by rights was her ground to cover. I am living for two.
My second step in that direction is to create a fitting memorial for my girl. Something that makes sense and would please her if she is indeed looking at us from the spirit world. The first thing that came to mind (or was it placed there The Little Princess, a ghost whispering in my ear?) was to ditch any formal funeral or memorial service and have a proper celebration of a short life lived well. I immediately thought that we should have an art and photography show. One night only, during which we could all exchange Calista stories and laugh until the tears run dry. Calista had such a big personality and so many idiosyncrasies that there are just so many fun stories to exchange. Call her what you want, but boring is something my girl could never be. On the other hand, this memorial is not just about Calista; it is about helping those close to her heal, move on, and succeed because they loved Calista and owe it to her. The memorial is about everybody who made my girl's life great.
I always thought of the girls that made up Calista's close group as "The Musketeers". They seemed to do everything together: learn, work and play. More often than not we were "texted" or called that she was on her way over to somebodies house for a movie night or the girls were all coming down to her apartment to finish a project or just watch "Mad Men" on DVD. I was not the only one to see that group as tight: her teacher "Boomer" especially considered Jesse, Kareen and Calista as "The Three Caballeros". He could see that they worked together, inspired each other and fed off of each others energy. The first afternoon the girls met with my wife and I they told me of one field trip into the forest where my daughter had played some dance music and they had spontaneously started dancing in the middle of a serious photo shoot. They were an artistic symbiosis; a group that produces a better, more creative portfolio together than they could individually. When my daughter died, to me at least, it seemed like that the tight ring of friends had been robbed of a keystone and they may fold, losing that symbiotic energy. I see that as yet another tragedy; lesser but still tragic.
Somewhere in my mind the memorial has become more than just a memorial. It has become an effort to heal the symbiosis and let those girls move on, keeping that energy that made them so creative and happy in their future profession. The name that came to mind was "The Fallen Musketeer" Photo and Art Show. It sounded right and it sounded like something that could become bigger than a single night of memorial. Something that could move into the future, stimulating other young photographers and artists to explore and enjoy their art. Something that would keep the memory of my girl alive while giving back to the art world some of the talent that was lost when she died. It seems the least I can do for the love of my life. Allow her to live longer in spirit if not in body.
I have contacted an old karate student of mine that has become a graphic artist (cartoonist is what he calls himself, but indeed his work is art, nothing less). He is designing a "logo" which I will "brand" my art show with and thus hopefully establish permanence. The logo is showing three musketeers with swords held high and crossed while the fourth is bowed, obviously injured and fallen, sword held to ground. The message, I hope, is one of hope: "comrades I have fallen; take up the good fight for me". Optimism for the future despite tragic loss. I have seen the proofs; my artist Dakota has the feeling just right.
In the future I will establish a scholarship in memory of my daughter. The idea that her name and some of her energy may not outlive me is intolerable; I will be damned if I am the last person that remembers Calista. I am not sure where the money will come from and I might have bit off more than I can chew when I made the promise to myself and anyone that would listen to establish the scholarship fund and annual photography/ art show. Unfortunately this is all I have; fate has chosen to strip me of the one thing I really valued in life, so all I am left with is dreaming big for the future. This I can do.
The one thing I really need to pass onto the young people caught up in this mess is that they need to learn from my daughter's death. Learn mortality. Learn mortality now. You have to learn that life is like a thin piece of paper: on one side is written "life" while on the other side is written "death"; one slight breeze can turn that paper over and change everything. Youth always seems to live as if they are immortal: they waste precious time when time is the only true treasure any of us have. I would do anything, give everything for just a few more moments of time with my Calista. I say go out there, take risks, see the world, try new jobs, meet new people, get married and have children and love them well. Most of all love your family well.... and stop fussing about the little things in life.
Calista gave my wife a photograph series for Christmas. It shows an hourglass slowly draining its sands of time from full to empty in three pictures. The clear message to me when it was placed on our wall was "Time is running out". Sadly, we did not get the photos properly framed and hung until after she had died. I wonder now, if we had not procrastinated on the framing and hanging, would we have seen the same message? Would we understand we were wasting time? Learn from my horrible mistake: love your family like this is the only and last time you will ever have with them because sometimes that really is all you will have.