By Casey Gauntt
December 21, 2010
This day, forty years ago, my father took his life in his office at Case Foundation Company in a suburb of Chicago. In addition to the ones that spooled out and are described in this story, there is a whole bunch of other bizarre syncronicities that specifically revolve around the anniversary—I hate that word—we don’t celebrate death—of my father’s passing. Those will be in the story Impeccable Timing.
My Rabbit Hole file was open on my desk. This is where I keep the correspondence with David Lindsay-Abaire, the author of the play and screenplay of the same name, and the young man who was driving the first car that struck and killed our son Jimmy on San Diego’s Del Dios Highway in August of 2008. The four letters—we call them The Rabbit Hole Letters— were exchanged over the period of May to August of 2009. I had sent the correspondence the night before to my friend, Theresa. She wanted to know if we had any contact with the drivers. No one had asked me that before. In Lindsay-Abaire’s letter to me he said, “I believe it is through connection we heal.” I strongly believe this. I will share more of those letters in another story.
In the file was a print-out of my email exchange with Richard Page in October of 2009. I keep it in this folder but not because I’ve sent Richard The Rabbit Hole Letters —I can’t, not yet anyway. In June, of 2001 Richard’s only son, Alex, was in a car heading home from a party. Alex graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2000 and had just finished his first year at UC Santa Cruz. Our daughter, Brittany, and Jimmy graduated from Torrey Pines in 1998 and 2002. Alex was eighteen years old, a rising star and the passenger. His friend lost control driving down a steep road in Solana Beach, the car struck a pole and flipped. The driver survived.
Richard called me the day after Jimmy died. The call was pretty much out of the blue. Brittany played soccer with his daughter, Jessica, as young girls and we had dinner once with Richard and his wife years earlier. He too is a lawyer in San Diego and we had run into each other a few times. We of course knew about the loss of their son, but I never spoke to him about it. I didn’t say anything to my dentist after his four year old son suffocated to death while digging a cave that collapsed on him in their backyard. I found another dentist. Until nine months ago, I had never told my physician of over twenty five years how sorry I was that his teenage son had taken his life—or that my father had taken his.
I was crippled by the same misconceptions and bad assumptions that befell most of our friends and colleagues after Jimmy died: ‘I don’t know what to say. It will be too painful to Casey if I bring it up. I can’t bring myself to go there—it’s too dark—too frightening. It will be better for Casey if we don’t talk about it-like it didn’t happen- so he can move on and get on with his life.’ At the time I didn’t understand that the elephant is always in the room—and not talking about it makes it only harder and more painful for everyone.
There were a lot of phone calls and conversations with family and close friends who came over those first few days after Jimmy’s accident. I don’t remember very much what was said, but I remember Richard’s words. After he expressed his condolences he said “You are now a member of the fraternity-the shittiest fraternity there is my friend-the fraternity nobody wants to join, and God forbid they ever have to. I feel so sorry for you right now. You have no idea how hard it’s going to be. But I do, and that’s why I’ll be calling you every so often to check in and see how you are doing.”
And he did.
Hilary and I traveled to Coalwood, West Virginia in October 2009 to reconnect with Emily Sue Buckberry and attend the October Sky Festival where we met Homer Hickam and Steve Date. That’s another story. While we were away there was another horrible car accident that struck close to home. Five kids from Torrey Pines High School had left a party in neighboring Rancho Santa Fe. Their car didn’t make a tight corner on the winding road and struck a tree. One of the passengers, a seventeen year old young man, also named Alex, was ejected from the SUV and died at the scene.
Alex Capozza – Alex’s memorial website
I thought immediately of Richard and sent him an email: “This must have hit way too close to home for you guys and our hearts ache for you, again. Yet another tragedy that need not have happened, but did; and what will never be reported in the papers or on the television is the many lives that are now changed forever—as we know only too well.”
Richard wrote me back the next day. “The losses of angelic beings like Alex and Jimmy leave me with a profound sense of despair. Every time another needless death strikes our community, I go back down that rabbit hole.”
His words. I printed it and put it in the Rabbit Hole Letters file.
As I reread this morning that email exchange with Richard, I was reminded of some of our previous conversations about “the drivers.” He asked me early on if we intended to bring any legal action against the driver of the car that struck Jimmy. I told him “No. It was nobody’s fault. They were unfortunately at the same place at the wrong time.”
Richard’s situation is different, and I respect that. As I put the emails back in the folder I thought ‘It’s been over a year since I’ve had any contact with Richard—I should give him a call—but I probably won’t.’
A couple of hours later, my phone rang. It was Richard on his cell. He was upbeat. “Guess where I was? I just spent an hour having coffee with Greg Post. Do you know who he is?”
I didn’t know Greg, but I knew what happened. A little over four months earlier there had been another, even more horrific accident, this one involving some recent graduates from Cathedral Canyon, a nearby high school in Carmel Valley, who were returning home from a track clinic in Mammoth. Their SUV lost control coming south on 395, crossed the median, and collided head on with a van. Four died and the others were critically injured. Greg’s 18 year old daughter Amanda was one of those killed. Her boyfriend, Derek, was burned over 85% of his body and was somehow, miraculously, alive. [OC Register story here] The accident occurred on August 9, 2010—two years to the day of Jimmy’s death. Hilary and I talked about it a lot and we agreed that what made our hearts ache wasn’t just the incomprehensible loss of these young lives on this particular day—we can’t pin “anniversary” on that date, either. No, it was more than that—it was because it was their ‘day one’— the beginning of the nightmare for the parents, families and friends of those killed or barely hanging on to life— the day their lives were changed forever.
|Derek Thomas & Amanda Post||The crash on Highway 395 south of Bishop that claimed Amanda and spared Derek|
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
The Year of Magical Thinking (2006), —Joan Didion
Derek Thomas survived the crash.
Richard continued, “I don’t know Greg, either. But I called him up—as you know, it’s one of the things I do—and invited him for coffee. He’s only at the beginning and it is very rough for him. Like it was for you.”
I shared with Richard the uncanny timing of his call, but he didn’t seem too surprised by it. “Synchronicity,” he quickly interjected. “Karl Jung wrote a paper about it. Read it. You should also read Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking.” I reminded him that he mentioned her book in his email from last year that I re-read this morning. “Well, read the book. But the reason I called was to invite you to play golf with Greg Post and me in a couple of weeks. Are you up for that?”
“Yes, I think I am,” I replied. “Good” he said. “It will be the inaugural golf tournament of our fraternity.”
The golf game didn’t come together. I didn’t reach out to Greg Post. This story wasn’t over.
We pick it up two and a half years later
June 4, 2013
Hilary and I got stuck in some bad Tuesday rush hour traffic and we arrived at Torrey Pines High School only a few minutes before the program started. A covey of parents and students were anxiously waiting in front of the gym. We had asked the four recipients of this year’s Jimmy Scholarships to meet us outside so we could introduce ourselves: Charlie Yang, Blair Cannon, Judy Kim and Maya Pilevsky. We offered congratulations, took some pictures and then hustled inside. Bobbi Karlson who runs the high school’s foundation breathed a huge sigh of relief when she saw us come through the door. “You are the first presenters tonight! Where’s Ryan?” Our son in law Ryan Kirby had presented The James Tedrow Gauntt Memorial Scholarships—now known as The Jimmy—the past four years. The first year, 2009, Hilary and I could not do it. Jimmy’s death was too raw—we could not speak. Ryan stepped up to the plate, as he always has, and admirably represented the family—as he did the following three years—and as he would have done this night had he not been sick as a dog.
The day after Jimmy died, Brittany, Ryan, Hilary and I took a walk in the San Elijo Lagoon to get some fresh air- and steal a few moments away from the calls, the flower deliveries and the pathetically sad eyes of those who dropped by. We talked about Jimmy’s obituary that Ryan offered to write and what we should say about “instead of flowers, please make a donation to…” I suggested a charity I used to chair and for which Brittany and Jimmy had both interned. Brittany bluntly said, “No. We will set up a fund at Torrey Pines High School in Jimmy’s memory and award scholarships to seniors who pursue studies in the arts, music, literature, and theatre. That’s what Jimmy would want us to do.”
Within two weeks over $100,000 had been donated to Jimmy’s fund at Torrey Pines High School.
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|L to R: Casey, Hilary, Maya Pilevsky, Blair Cannon, Charlie Yang and Judy Kim||Casey & Hilary|
NOTE: The photo of me at the lectern, Hilary by my side–that photo was taken by Bill Harris who, unbeknownst to us, was sitting in the audience with his wife and daughter. “Synchronicity,” as Richard Page would say… (More about Bill Harris in a minute…)
As Hilary and I took our seats after handing out this year’s Jimmy Awards, the master of ceremonies announced the next award: “The Amanda Post Memorial Grant, presented by Greg Post.”
What?! Hilary and I exchanged a shocked glance and quickly opened our programs—maybe we didn’t hear that right. No—we heard it right – and Greg Post made his way to the microphone. Back to back. Two minutes—two years—nothing in the infinite scheme of things or separation. We were buckled by his openness and compassion, and stunned by his composure, as he described the amazing accomplishments of his daughter, Amanda—a track star on her way to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on scholarship—and the horror of the tragic accident that took her life and nearly that of her boyfriend, Derek.
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|Torrey Pines High School Foundation Awards 2013 Program||Check out the first two presenters!|
Amanda Post Foundation website
I sat there dumbfounded. Here was the guy Richard had coffee with over two years ago—the one I’d been thinking about contacting—but had not. His daughter didn’t even go to Torrey Pines—he was standing right in front of me—and I didn’t go up to him. We had to leave early—we had nowhere to go—we just couldn’t be there anymore. I could hear Richard yelling in my ears: “Greg just got up in front of all of these people he doesn’t know and who have no idea what he’s been going through, and you run out the door?! You are such a chicken shit!”
Back into the rabbit hole. Things rushing by.
We slinked back home and caught the sun setting in that particular pre-summer position into the smooth-like-glass Pacific. The humidity was such, the low clouds scattered so, the light refracted in a way we had not seen—or noticed—before. There’s a large painting hanging in our second story dining room Rod Knutson did for us in 2006—a family portrait of sorts. We had given Rod photos of our family, Hilary’s folks, my Mom and Ryan. Ryan and Brittany were not yet engaged but we felt odds were good we wouldn’t have to paint him out down the road. Rod said he tried to capture our traits and characteristics as opposed to doing portraits. The woman leading the sheep and the waiter on the far right are not family members—Rod just painted them in—or so he says. Each of the family is easily recognizable in the painting—everyone except Jimmy. Rod would share with Hilary a year after Jimmy’s death, “I couldn’t get him—he was changing so much.”
Photo (normal) of Rod’s painting in Hilary and Casey’s dining room. – From Left to Right, the woman leading the flock of sheep–unknown, waiter standing, Ryan Kirby, seated Virginia Tedrow and Jim Tedrow (Hilary’s parents), Brittany Kirby. Waiter seated with book- Casey, standing in the doorway, Hilary in front, Barbara Gauntt (Casey’s mom) in back, waiter standing–Jimmy, other waiter standing-unknown.
Jimmy was 22 when Rod did the painting and well on his quest as a playwright. We had noticed before that Jimmy—the waiter with his hands on his hips standing under the umbrella— is the only one with his face in the light, and the only sheep with its head up is looking at Jimmy. But tonight the orange sun was thrown upon the painting like a spotlight and Jimmy and the umbrella were on fire. They were shimmering—demanding our attention. That painting had been with us for seven years, and we have never-I mean never- seen it—him—lit up so. Hello! Of course he would be around this night! It took our breath away and a moment for the full effect to envelop us. I hastily snapped a few inadequate mementos. The tears patiently waited for me to finish.
We probably should have realized right then the portal had been thrown open once again. But it happens so fast and we were still reeling from the mountain of emotions pressing upon us from The Jimmy awards presentation- immersed in the bright light and sheer force that was and is him and the reason this award—and the one the USC Department of English has given out since 2010 in his honor to the top graduating seniors—is—ensconced with all of those other bright lights- and the overwhelming presence of Greg Post honoring his daughter Amanda—her bright light—in the same moment. It’s a lot—almost too much some times.
The day after the Torrey Pines awards I got a very unexpected email from Bill Harris. Bill started the San Diego office of the Allen Matkins law firm with me back in 1987. Jimmy as a wee lad got to know Bill and, like the rest of us, thought of him as one of the funniest guys there is, and moreover as one of those special people—one of the good guys. Bill started his own law practice several years ago and, although we run into each other on the rare occasion, I was surprised to get an email from him—and completely unprepared for what he had to say.
Hi Casey. I didn’t get a chance to say hello, but Susy and I (and Taryn, our senior at Torrey Pines) were at the TP awards ceremony last night. You spoke so eloquently of Jimmy and his award that my eyes were filled with tears. Jimmy accomplished so much in such a short time, including during his four years at Torrey Pines. Taryn is a go-getter like Jimmy was and, having seen how much time she has devoted to the school, I am amazed at all that Jimmy did in his days at TP. It occurred to me that he probably would have received or been considered for most of the awards they gave out last night. It is wonderful that you keep his spirit alive with The Jimmy. Hopefully the recipients are all inspired by it to do great things like Jimmy did. Your buddy, Bill.
And then he followed up with this oh-by the way.
PS I never told you but after Jimmy’s service I was home alone for a couple of days since the rest of the family was out of town. We were on vacation in Park City and I drove back to attend the service when I received the terrible news. I don’t do well with words (at least serious words) but I needed to do something beautiful in honor of Jimmy. There was an area on the side of our house that was in need of some tender loving care. That weekend after the service, from dawn until dusk, I created a little landscaped garden there in his honor. It is off our master bath so I see it every day. And I think of Jimmy and your family every day when I do. It has an angel’s trumpet tree—(intoxicating smell in the evening when it blooms) —lots of white roses and a little bird bath. It is between blooms now but in a few weeks when it looks great I will snap a picture of Jimmy’s Garden and send it to you. As long as we are in our house, I will make sure it lives on and thrives just as Jimmy and all his accomplishments (and great memories) will live on forever. There go the tears again.
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|Bill Harris: “I needed to do something beautiful in honor of Jimmy,” thus the Jimmy Garden||Unbeknownst, Bill Harris attended Awards & took this photo.|
My own tears cut loose immediately. I was absolutely stunned! I vaguely recall hugging Bill at Jimmy’s service— it was such a blur—and I definitely recall a few brief conversations Bill and I have had over the last several years about Jimmy—but he never told me about the Jimmy Garden! I was overwhelmed-and overcome- by this vision of Bill toiling in his garden, working out his pain and suffering and creating this beautiful and very tangible remembrance and tribute to our son. In a way that was doable for him. This also eerily reminded me of our recent re-connection with Dav Yendler and the Ginger Poet Adonis story he wrote and performed in Chicago at 2d Story in tribute to his friendship with Jimmy— and shared with us two years later—concerned that it might upset us—going through a mutual friend to find out if it would be “OK.” Oh yeah- it was more than OK!
The path lit up—no more thumps on the head required. I immediately sent an email to Bobbi Karlson and asked her if she had an email address for Greg Post. She got back to me within minutes and I sent this off a moment later:
Dear Greg- I wanted to commend you for standing up before everyone last night and honoring and remembering your daughter and her friends in such a moving and beautiful way. You displayed such courage and composure, and I know only too well how difficult that can be…Your daughter’s tragic death resonated very deeply with our family, and I think about you often, and always on one day in particular. Our son Jimmy also passed on August 9–2008. I’ve been meaning to reach out to you for a long time–but didn’t–and then there you are standing right in front of us last night–and I would have introduced myself, but we had to leave early for another engagement. [Author’s note-bull shit] So, I was wondering, do want to have coffee one of these days? We have some things we can talk about, I’m sure.
Hilary and I had breakfast with Greg and Missy Post a few weeks later at Claire’s restaurant in Solana Beach. We spent two hours honoring our two kids who somehow had touched and changed the lives of thousands of people in their very short time with us—here; the ways we and others celebrate and remember them; the respect and love for the survivors—Derek, us parents, and our other children, spouses and grandchildren. We had more in common than we knew—or ever wanted—but it was good—more than that. Before we hugged and said goodbye until the next time Greg said to me, “I guess we’re in the same club, aren’t we? The one no one wants to be a member of and God forbid you ever have to join.”
I could hardly wait to tell Richard.
A week after The Jimmy Awards at Torrey Pines High School, we received this email from Maya Pilevsky, one of The Jimmy recipients.
What?!!!!! Hilary and I practically passed out. My first thought was ‘Jimmy wrote this.’ This is precisely how Jimmy explained his calling to be an artist to his family and friends. Maya had also just beautifully and eloquently validated the very reason why the Jimmy Award was originally envisioned by Brittany.
But the tattoo!!! This was completely and utterly out of the blue!! Marinee has been a teacher at Torrey Pines for several years—she’s an institution at the school and runs the theatre department. Jimmy didn’t get involved in theater until his senior year—and we always thought he did so to get out of running track—he was the best high jumper in the school and very fast, but was burned out from football and his starting wide receiver role the past year. He was becoming an artist. He was changing. He had not fully discovered this—not like Maya—but the caterpillar was spinning his cocoon.
Doubt is a bad idea is a line from Suffering Is The Only Honest Work, a poem Jimmy wrote in the spring of 2007—one of his most powerful writings. How did Marinee get that poem? Why had we not heard anything about the tattoo? What is it that compels someone like Marinee—and Bill Harris and Dav Yendler—to do these things? We were humbled—inadequate word choice.
Things were moving faster.
We will pick this up in the next story Suffering Is The Only Honest Work.
The Fraternity: Casey Gauntt, Greg Post and Richard Page at Torrey Pines Golf Course August 2013