Into Bright Relief

An inconceivable accident. For Marcelle Gilkerson and her community, compassionate togetherness would be the key to going forward.

Marcelle Gilkerson26 July 2012
A heart made of painted hands.
Photo by Tim Marshall.

On July 4, my son Tucker and I were driving up High Street in Columbus, Ohio. At a corner we saw a familiar sight: Noah McGuire, on his bike, waiting to cross the intersection. Even during a heat wave, Noah was still wearing his black winter hat, snugly pulled down over his head, as he almost always did. I smiled at him. He beamed and waved. On the other side of the road, their friend Levi hurtled past on his bike as my son called out to him.

Noah slept over at Levi’s the night after we’d seen them on their bikes. The next day, just after noon, the boys found Levi’s grandfather’s loaded gun in the house and picked it up. In a tragic accident, Noah was shot in the chest and killed.

On Friday night a vigil was held at Dominion Middle School for Noah and his loved ones. Drummers beat to the rhythm of our hearts as we held candles and stood in a circle. Noah’s mother, Jodi, was sitting on the ground holding two of her youngest children: Loki (5) and Bee (3). Collectively reluctant, we stood awkwardly, silent, watching our candles burn as the hundred-degree day continued to bear down upon us. But then Loki spoke “Noah loves to swim and go to the pool. He is my best friend. He helps me clean my room and I help him clean his…”

Others followed suit and a hundred more stories were told about Noah – the funny boy, the mischief-maker, the good swimmer, the bad diver, the challenger of bullies, the friend to everyone, the devoted boyfriend and kisser of the girl who would unwittingly turn out to be both his first and last love.

Eventually Levi’s grandfather, the one who’d had the loaded gun in his house, stood up. and said. “I am the reason you lost your friend. (Your son. Your brother. Your nephew. Your student.) And I am so sorry.” Levi’s aunt then spoke of the overwhelming compassion of Noah’s family; they’d instantly forgiven her nephew. Shaking, she spoke of the value of love and the futility of hatred.

Finally, Noah’s stepfather Sebastian stood up and spoke to Levi, who I hadn’t realized was sitting among us. “It is not your fault. In your life, you will never be free of this again. But remember this. It was not your fault. It could have just as easily been you who were killed and Noah could be here among us grieving you. It takes an extraordinary person to show up and be here tonight. I admire you.” Sebastian sat down next to Levi and held him until the end of the vigil. And Levi clung to him.

I stood there for three hours listening. My hands ended up covered with wax, my finger burned by the last flame of the candle. It was important to be there, to witness how people with a thousand questions – full of shock, doubt, fear and grief – could put aside their small selves and be present to something that would eventually move us all forward.

It would take time, of course, for each of us. Immediately after Noah’s death, Jodi had written on his Facebook page: “I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone for their offers of support and kind words. Our Noah is gone. Our hearts are shattered. LEVI, if you can read this, I FORGIVE YOU. Please, Noah would not want you to do what you are doing to yourself. You are his friend and he loves you. Please, talk to me.” Because of her compassion, Tucker found himself sleeping over Levi’s house for the first time on Friday night along with a few of Noah’s close friends, to also be there for Levi.

On Monday, July 9, Jodi, Noah’s stepfather Sebastian and Jodi’s brother Lonnie accompanied Noah’s body to the crematorium and proceeded to the Egan-Ryan funeral home. At the service, there was no casket. Instead there were piles and piles of photos and Noah’s snowboard. The home was half full of teens, kids I hadn’t seen in years.

Afterward Tucker asked to stay with his friends. It was the right sort of healing needed, to talk things through and just simply be together. A group of about eight of them ended up at our house that night, swimming and eating watermelon.

On Tuesday morning I went to wake Tucker for his pottery lesson and found him still asleep and burning with fever. All through the week I’d been asking Tucker about his feelings. Did he want to speak to someone? How could I help him? Was he physically or emotionally sick? He said he didn’t know.

We canceled the lesson and he remained in bed most of the day as I worked on a painting of Noah for his family. At 7pm, we headed over to the Unitarian Universalist church for a “Celebration of Life.” The ceremony was intimate and meaningful, Reverend Kathleen Fowler sketching the arc of Noah’s life and honoring many of his contributions to the world. Then she talked directly to the parents and families who loved Noah. She addressed the countless teenagers who loved Noah. She talked directly to his girlfriend. She was giving us what we needed — a path forward, a way to understand and work through almost impossible reality.

Quoting Kate DiCamillo, from one of Noah’s favorite children’s books, she said: “If you have no intention of loving or being loved, then the whole journey is pointless.” And Noah did love, brightly and perfectly — and was loved in return. The adults stood and spoke, one by one, of his wisdom, his incomparable friendship. He’d opened hearts in his bright and beautiful life.

Reverend Fowler concluded the service with verses from a poem by Mary Oliver:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Throughout the service we sobbed, applauded, laughed and sighed as the sun descended, its long light casting us into bright relief.

EPILOGUE:

On July 26 Noah’s mother, Jodi Sandovai, was informed that Levi will be prosecuted for reckless homicide through the criminal justice system in Ohio. Jodi emphatically voiced her opposition and plans to protest. She was told that while her opinion will be taken into consideration, justice must be upheld and that Levi’s prosecution will be taken as far as possible. Reckless homicide is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine. Levi is currently fourteen years-old.

Contributions to the Noah McGuire Memorial Fund can be offered through the Honda Federal Credit Union. If you wish to make a donation, call 1-800-63-Honda and state that you wish to donate to this entity. Proceeds will then be directed to the Children’s Defense Fund Ohio and other similar organizations working to educate and protect our children.