Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Boy in the Coffin

Published: June 9, 2007


Two years ago I drove to the town where I grew up to bury a boy I knew well enough to love but not enough to help. He was 17, my nephew, dead from a shotgun blast to the head fired by an acquaintance. They said it was an accident. My family had asked me to do a eulogy.

As we got closer to Spokane, I tried to imagine what I could say to my sister and her husband to ease the pain of losing their only son. Maybe something about the randomness of death, about remembering a young man and his charisma, a glow of life that would outlast this awful day.

The afternoon was warm and sunlit, which made it all the more incongruous filing into the church. There was an enormous crowd, mostly teenagers, including some of the reckless boys that my nephew had been hanging out with of late.

I strode to the front, my thoughts still a muddle, walking toward an open casket. When I looked inside and saw him — eyes closed, cheeks blushed, beautified in repose — I was overcome. The grief and incomprehension left me dizzy and wordless.

I had seen him last at a touch football game, Thanksgiving prior. He burned me on a long touchdown pass, striding just out of reach as he crossed the goal line. I couldn’t catch him then. Now I was too late.

All of us were.

At the start of the service, the priest, a Franciscan in simple robe and sandals in keeping with the poverty vows of his order, made us take one more look at the boy in the coffin.

“What are we doing here?” he asked.

You put a young man in the ground on a spring day and it changes you forever. I came home feeling like I would never let my own children out of the house again. I came home convinced there was something toxic about our age and theirs — a collision of trash culture and children in adult bodies.

In the American West, we like to think we have more freedom. But we also have more of the fatal consequences of that freedom. Binge drinking, easy gun access, traffic fatalities, the proliferation of meth — those are among our regional trademarks.

A teenager in Wyoming is four times more likely to die of a traffic accident than a teenager in Washington, D.C. Seven of the top 10 areas in the country for underage binge drinking are in the West.

Growing up in Spokane, the biggest little city in Idaho, Montana and Eastern Washington, I was immortal — especially when driving Saturday night on a dirt road at the edge of town. And then I lost my two best friends to the kind of careless hubris that was the mark of those Saturday nights — to two separate car accidents.

Much as I’d like to blame geography, it’s too easy. A child born today will live to be about 80 years old, on average. But the challenge is getting them through age 16, 17, 18, 19 — the most hazardous time of their lives. A kid with a car, a kid with a gun, a kid with a bottle — any one of those combinations is much more of a risk than a terror attack or a flu from China.

The law has been some help in this regard, and so has technology. Many states now restrict 16-year-olds from driving at night or with other teens. Other countries have raised the age at which a teenager can get a license to 18.

And Safeco Insurance Company has just unveiled a new device that allows parents to keep track of their teenagers at all hours while they’re driving — an electronic leash, of sorts, that transmits information about a car’s speed, location and other facts. By remote control, parents can even turn the ignition off.

It is the kind of device that seems, on its face, like a perfect safeguard. We are there, even when we aren’t.

These dangers are not new to our age, or theirs. But boomer parents have a dilemma unique to our generation. Do we lie about our own lives, to save a life now? Do as I say, not as I did.

Do we say: I got through it, by blind dumb luck, and so will you — have fun?

The minefield never scared me when I had to walk through it; it petrifies me now.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.