Monday, October 27, 2008


My friend Grace buried her 19-year-old son today. I haven’t seen Nick since he was maybe 16, obsessed with the Denver Broncos and ice hockey and Guitar Hero, clever and shy but charmingly obnoxious and lanky, and, because he was Grace’s son, good as gold. He was also a Type 1 juvenile diabetic, which is reportedly the major factor in his untimely passing. But while Nick was adored and surely will be desperately missed, especially by his family and fellow students at the University of Utah, it’s Grace I’m grieving for tonight.

I am not a parent, but I can imagine the loss of a child being the worst kind of grief there is. And Grace is one of those peculiarly devoted mothers, a dynamo who drove her two boys the three hours round-trip to hockey practice in Utah several times a week because Evanston doesn’t have a team. She encouraged Nick in sports even though diabetics often have difficulty with strenuous activity; he had a state-of-the-art insulin pump and she watched him like a hawk. Their father lives in Colorado, and Grace is a helicopter mom, fiercely protective, unfailingly enthusiastic and supportive, a little fanatic.

Grace is a very vivid person. Some women blur around the edges and fade into the scenery; Grace is clearly in focus, tailored and groomed, prepared, liberal, sensible, wildly determined and goal-oriented. She has a strong voice and an open smile and an uncanny sense of people and their boundaries and weaknesses. Her perseverance is legendary. “Stubborn” is what her much older brother Gary, who also works for the City, might call her.

And here’s why the loss of her son is so ironically unfair, so impossibly agonizing: Grace uses that energy, that fanaticism, that intense maternal instinct and determination to uplift and nurture hundreds of children besides her own. Grace is the City of Evanston’s Youth Services Director. This is a woman who coordinates with City and County court to rehabilitate the teenagers who wind up there because of drugs and alcohol and negative peer influence, to give them the guidance and sympathy, attention and discipline their parents often can’t or don’t.

Grace vehemently believes in the worth and potential of kids others would immediately ship off to juvenile detention. She gets grants to send them to counseling or therapy. She’s built a staff of patient, caring people to police and defend the little monsters before it’s too late. And she got grants to build the children of Evanston the kind of place only the most cankerous neighborhoods in inner cities or the most obscenely wealthy, country club-strewn suburban hamlets usually have, a place most ordinary, rural communities like Evanston desperately need: a place to go after school, because the alternative is often a home with no evening supervision, or worse, out into a clamoring world of potential substance abuse and poor decisions that obliterate bright futures in an instant.

Evanston’s Youth Opportunities Unlimited facility was built onto the skeleton of the old elementary school, using the exterior walls of that older building as the interior walls of a new structure, a place with a café the kids run themselves, a game room with numerous consoles and a pool table, a quiet study room, a computer lab, a sound-proof music room, and more. She found them tutors, got volunteers to teach them guitar basics and how to hit the corner pocket, got them giant bean bags to lounge on and glittery red vinyl booths and a glowing Wurlitzer jukebox for the café. When it was first finished she conducted Jeff and I around the place as if it were a wonderland, and so it is. And I noticed on every subsequent visit to the place that the door to Grace’s office, which is crammed with mementos and teens’ art, photographs, broken hockey sticks, wilting bouquets and silly toys, is always open.

And I hope so much that the loss of Grace’s son doesn’t change that, doesn’t diminish her enthusiasm for other peoples’ children. I hope her passion for bringing out the best in and giving the best to young people is still burning at her core, even though she’s wounded in a way that will change her forever. I hope that when she’s ready, she’ll continue to be a champion for lost and found kids. Because after all she’s given, she deserves a great big get, and I believe that’s where it will come from: the kids she gives to giving back.


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