Three years ago, to this day, I got a call that changed my life forever.
On Friday, September 25th, 2020, I was playing with my kids outside in front of our rental home in Yuma, Arizona. Friday night, at our house, is “Family Night,” which is where we all spend the evening together as a family, talking, playing games, watching a movie, socializing, and spending time with just us as a family. No friends, no meetings, no obligations: just family spending time together.
This night, the kids were riding their bikes in the street with their other kids in the neighborhood, and I was playing catch with my oldest son, Kendrick. The sun had already set a few hours ago and it was dark, but our house had a streetlamp out front which gave us plenty of light to keep playing into the night. The stars were out, and I could smell the earth in the air. It was a wonderful evening.
Yuma is one of the hottest cities in America, and this night was no different. It had been over 100 degrees that day, and even into the evening, was still nearly 90 degrees even after sunset. I’ll admit, I was feeling a bit loopy from running around, throwing baseballs with my son, breathing heavily, and getting winded, while also sipping on a beer to stay hydrated. I had a nice cold IPA in one hand and a baseball glove in the other. We were all having fun, laughing, and running around, when I felt my iPhone ring in my back pocket.
That’s weird, I thought. Who would call me at this hour?
I set down my beer and baseball glove and fished the phone out of my pocket, annoyed. I looked at the screen.
“Missed Call,” it said. From: Dad Stauffer.
That’s strange, I thought. I glanced at the clock, which said 9:13 p.m.
Why was my dad calling me after 9:00 p.m.? Dad lives in Florida, and I live in Arizona. That means he’s three hours ahead. I did some quick mental math.
Let’s see… 9:13 pm my time is 12:13 am his time. Uh oh. This is going to be bad. Whatever he’s calling me about, it’s probably very bad news.
My dad is an early bird: he gets up around 5:00 a.m. seven days a week, and I can’t imagine him being up as late as midnight under normal circumstances. So, my mind quickly raced to try to think of what should happen next.
Did he leave me a voicemail? No. Weird. Should I call him back? Probably.
As I was looking down at my phone screen, deciding what to do next, it rang again. It was him.
For context: I do not like being surprised in life, especially with bad news. So, my mind was rapidly calculating every scenario I could possibly think of, trying to guess what he would say before he even said it.
If I beat him to the punch, and I’m already prepared for what he’s going to say, it will make it easier to accept, I thought.
As I pressed the phone to my ear, I thought: “He’s going to tell me that Grammy or Grandpa Stauffer died. That’s it. That has to be it. They’re both in their 80s, and Grammy’s already had multiple bouts with cancer. So that wouldn’t be surprising: it’s sad, but it happens. I need to be prepared when he finally says it out loud now.”
The last time I got an unexpected call from my dad was in 2011, nine years earlier. He called me to tell me that Grandma Siechert (my mother’s mother) was in the hospital and had experienced multiple strokes, and it wasn’t looking good. (Spoiler alert: she spent a while in the hospital then ended up dying a few days later.)
Obviously, I wasn’t excited or prepared for the news that now my second grandmother or grandfather had died, but, obviously, it was going to happen someday. We all die someday. Maybe today was that day.
“Hi Dad,” I said, shaking with nervousness. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that whatever he said next would change my life forever.
“Hi Ron, this is your father. I have some very bad news,” he said. He spoke in a shockingly cold, mechanical, almost alien tone of voice, like a robot. He sounded like we had never spoken before; like he was only a messenger about to tell me something awful, but wanted to make sure he had the right person first. It was like we didn’t have a relationship at all; like we didn’t even know each other or weren’t even related.
I swallowed hard. My heart was beating furiously in my chest. I tightened my resolve and prepared for the worst.
“Okay? I’m ready,” I said, lying.
“Today, your brother Riley was visiting Colorado Springs. He was hiking around in the Garden of the Gods…”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on… I thought. I was completely confused: this had totally taken a left turn. Why was he talking about Riley? I could feel my blood pulsing through my eardrums as I tried hard to contemplate all of this in a split second.
He just said he had bad news… why is he getting distracted and talking about my youngest brother? What does that have to do with Grammy or Grandpa dying?
By now, my heart was thumping and pounding like a live squirrel stuck in my ribcage, trying to get out.
“Well, Riley was taking pictures of the flowers and the mountains with his camera… when he fell over and had a heart attack… and died. And now he’s dead.”
Of all the things I’d ever been told in my life that took the breath out of my lungs, this was one of the most powerful. I heard the words coming out of his mouth, but I couldn’t comprehend what he was even saying.
“Wait, what?” I wondered. Riley? My baby brother? The one who had barely turned 18 years old just weeks ago? Dad was now telling me that Riley was dead? From a HEART ATTACK?!
None of that made any sense at all!
Here I was, having prepared myself to hear about the death of a family member I knew and loved who was very old, but now my dad was telling me about the death of a family member I knew and loved who was very young.
It was all so shocking, so bizarre, so sudden, and so… utterly pointless.
Really: my youngest brother is dead? Of all the nine kids in our family, how could it possibly be the youngest who died first?
I don’t even remember the rest of our conversation. I may have just said something cold and curt like “Okay, thank you for telling me,” then hung up. I literally don’t recall anything I said in response.
But I do recall hanging up the phone and looking down at Austin, my youngest son, who was visibly unsettled by my tone of voice on the phone and knew something was wrong.
I reached out and grabbed him, awkwardly, and squeezed him very tight. Tears flooded my eyes. My dad just told me his youngest son had died. I looked down at Austin, and thought, “This is my youngest son. This is my Riley.” If our roles had been reversed, I would be calling my dad to tell him that Austin had died. But Austin hadn’t died. He was alive; I knew it because I was holding him right now.
I cried as I squeezed him tight. He looked up at me and started crying too. I hadn’t even told him what happened, but he knew it was very bad.
It felt like my head was spinning, so I let go of him and started walking toward the house. Almost numb, and nearly unable to comprehend what I had just been told, I walked through the front door and found my wife and told her “I need to make an announcement to the family. Please tell them all to come inside.”
She sensed the urgency of the moment and called all the kids inside the house. I heard the inevitable chorus of “Awww, Mom! Why? It isn’t even bedtime yet!”
I sat down at the head of the dinner table and the kids slowly sauntered into the house, annoyed, and sat down for some obnoxious family “announcement” they could tell I was about to make. But then they saw my face, and they all got very quiet and very serious.
I told them what happened.
They all looked at me with shock on their faces: they knew I was going to tell them something very serious but couldn’t imagine what it was. At first, they thought I was making a joke, but it was immediately apparent that I wasn’t kidding.
“Kids,” I said, “Uncle Riley was out hiking today in the mountains in Colorado… and he fell over and died from a heart attack.”
We obviously discussed it further, in more detail, but, again, I really don’t remember what happened for the rest of the evening. Clearly, “family night” was now ruined.
I think some of the kids went outside to play again, trying to process the announcement that was, at that time, the most serious news they’d ever heard. But I just sat at the table in utter shock, trying to quickly regain my bearings about the new reality—my new reality, and our new reality.
After this awful night, my life began a long season filled with intense retrospection and confusion.
How on earth do you make sense of a life that ends before it really begins? Riley had just celebrated his 18th birthday in May. He was barely even a legal adult. I looked back on the 18 years my youngest sibling had on this earth, and I was stumped. I felt angry and cheated.
What was it all about? What did it all mean? WHAT WAS THE POINT?!!!
I was consumed with a big question: why would God bring someone into this world, and then take him away just when his life was getting interesting?
Over the next few weeks, I helped coordinate details for the funeral home, death certificates, airplane rides, and all the logistics for bringing family members from five different time zones to meet in Colorado and have a remembrance service.
The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about Riley’s life. I felt like his life had been leading to something that could have been great but was ended… so prematurely.
I played “what if?” games in my head over and over again.
What if he hadn’t died… what could he have done with his life?
All of this made me think even harder about my own life. What had I been doing when I was 18? How much living had I done by the time I reached his age? I had just turned 35 one month earlier. By now, I was nearly twice his age… what had I done in two of his lifetimes?
This self-critical line of inquiry sent me into a spiral of thoughts, emotions, and memories. I had a lot of questions and very few answers. I pondered it all, trying to make sense of his life, but even more, trying to make sense of our lives as siblings, and of my own life.
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Note: this is the first post of what might be many as I still try to grieve the loss of my youngest brother—which still doesn’t make any sense to me—and I also try to make sense of my own life at the same time.
There may be many more posts on this topic, or just a few, or none. I’m not sure. Thank you for reading so far. I’m not trying to make this “about me” — I’m just thinking out loud and processing a difficult life event, and doing so out loud, in public, because I think there are other people like me who stand to benefit from it and I’m tired to trying to keep all my thoughts at a respectful distance. I think it’s time to be honest and my brother’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back which is now spurring me on to finally say some things out loud that I’ve been too afraid to say in the past.
If that’s interesting to you, feel free to comment, and subscribe, or check back again for future posts. I don’t know where this will go, but I’m willing to see it through to the end. Thanks. -Ron