In Chicago, we are pummeled in the news daily with yet another tragic death of a young person, often by gunfire. Then there are the equally numerous, painful losses due to car accidents and drownings. It seemed there were a lot of deaths of young people in Lake Michigan this summer. These daily and wrenching accounts of young lives cut short become numbing. We read these stories and perhaps send up silent prayers for the families. Most of us then move on to the next news story and on with our lives. The toll of these daily losses forces us to become almost immune to the sadness of so many young deaths.
I did not know Austin. I do not know his family. Yet the news of his heartbreaking death saddened me deeply.
Austin’s story struck a personal chord with me. The picture of his beaming face at White Sox Park alongside his dad reminded me so much of a family member who similarly is always completely immersed in the joy of the moment no matter what he is doing, with a radiant smile to match. Austin’s boyish face and smile could easily have belonged to someone I knew and loved.
I also could relate to the stories of Austin’s fascination with weather. I have a son who also preferred watching the Weather Channel when he was a little boy over any other program—and which was often on at our house seemingly nonstop. My then preschool son would keep us abreast of upcoming—usually dire--weather conditions, in painstakingly and endless detail. Only other true Weather Channel aficionados can understand why Jim Cantore was a god in our house and why we were shushed into silence if Jim was expounding on some potential weather disaster.
I knew well the experience of having a son with a passion and enormous knowledge for all things weather. And I distinctly recalled my son speaking excitedly about the weather on June 12, 2013, as I drove him to the train that morning, stating there was a forecast of a possible derecho—an unusual and threatening large storm formation. When I subsequently heard on the news that Austin, a University of Chicago student, was missing while likely seeking out the weather that evening, I thought of my own son who would also have determinedly sought out that type of extreme weather experience regardless of personal safety concerns.
So I anxiously followed Austin’s story and of the heartbreaking discovery of his death. I grieved inwardly for this young man whom I did not know, and for his family, whose sorrow and anguish I could not begin to imagine.
But I do know what it’s like to love a child fiercely with every fiber of my being. I know what it’s like to love my children more than my own life. And I absolutely know that the loss of any child leaves an aching and unfillable hole in a parent’s heart that has to be cruelly recalled each and every day thereafter. A terrible loss and an unfathomable pain that every parent prays never to experience.
But I have also seen the enduring love for a child, for Austin, that is so much stronger than death. When Austin’s family almost immediately started sharing the many pictures, stories of friends and families, and even some personal family videos of Austin with his family, his family’s unwavering love for Austin pulled some of the essence of who Austin was into other people’s lives and hearts, including those of strangers like myself. It was astonishing to me that Austin’s family were able to share so many wonderful and intimate memories of Austin for anyone who wanted to know who he was, during what could only be the darkest moments of their lives. And it is this abiding family love for Austin that steadfastly survives his death, continuing to bring Austin into other’s lives, even those who never met him.
What I now have learned about Austin from those stories and memories is that he was a brilliant, loving and kind college student. He loved weather, numbers and classical music. He was not a fashion plate with his too-short pants and white socks. He was a deeply loved son, brother and friend. And like any son, brother and friend, he had wonderful talents and his own unique quirks.
Most importantly, as Austin’s parents and family so tenderly and lovingly depict, he was just a great kid. Everyone really needs to know that about him most of all, because he was their son and brother who they loved, and will always love, with all of their hearts and fibers of their beings. That never-ending love radiates in and through every picture, story and recollection shared. That they miss Austin more than words can ever adequately convey is achingly palpable. And to intimately know that kind of intense and boundless love in our own lives for our own children means that we strangers, too, can and should also grieve his loss.
I am driving my son to the train on what is probably one of the last of the truly spectacularly warm days of this early Chicago autumn. My son points to the numerous “cumulonimbus” clouds approaching over the horizon. He is explaining, in exacting detail, why they are often called anvil clouds. I look at the majestic white clouds slowly winding their way to Chicago and towards Lake Michigan. And I think of Austin and how he would most likely also have taken time to admire and appreciate the beauty and magnitude of the colossal clouds.
However, I think not just of Austin but also of the indomitable and forever love of his family and how that also continues to resonate with me on this beautiful fall day. Truly, a love that is far greater and stronger than death.
- Anonymous post to RememberingAustin.com
To whoever wrote this post, you have our deepest thanks and love. Austin's Memorial is Oct 21st at 6:30pm at the Rockefeller Chapel at UChicago. We hope you and your family can join us.