Ten months ago, I stood before the court a read a statement. Then, my goal was to use words to reach across the chasm and explain how the actions of Rahim Meekins have impacted me. I hoped to reach the core of human compassion in him and maybe give him a starting point to become a better person.
Today, I have the same goal. This time, I have the task of crafting words that will reach through the justifications of Ms. Haynes to show her how her actions impacted me and impacted my community. But this time, it is harder because I am angrier.
So, I am once again standing before a court and trying to summarize Jason’s life in a few minutes of words. I have the impossible task of telling the world who he was and what his death means.
Jason was easy to love, because he loved so easily. He loved people. He saw the best in the people around him, and because he saw the best in us, we saw the best in ourselves.
A month or two after his death, his best friend told me that she still had his voice in her head urging her to make good choices, telling her she could do the things that scared her, encouraging her to be herself.
That’s the kind of friend Jason was. He was the kind of friend to check on you after a bad day, to wish you well before a performance. Each morning, he would check his notifications for birthdays, then he would spend a few minutes finding the perfect gif, sticker, or emoji to send with his birthday wishes. If he got up late and didn’t get to it first thing in the morning, he’d do it on his lunch break.
Jason loved everything. He loved the people around him and the things he did. He was all in with both feet every time. When he decided to learn photography, he spent hours reading the camera manual so that he’d know exactly what each setting did and how best to use it. Then he spent hours reading the few books we had on composition and color. Within a year, he was taking pro-quality photos. Because, like with everything in his life, he was all in. His hobbies were all consuming.
Above all, Jason loved me. He adored me. The feeling was mutual, though it took me longer to grow into it. Jason and I had the kind of love story that you would think was unrealistic if you read it in a novel. We met when we were 14. Jason thought I was pretty great. I thought he needed to grow up. We stayed friends. When we were 20, he still thought I was pretty great. I thought he’d kind of grown up. We started dating three weeks before I went back to school in Massachusetts. I thought we’d have a fling. Something fun to do with my last few weeks of summer before I went back to college. Jason convinced me to give long-distance dating a try. He said till Christmas, I gave him until Thanksgiving. And then until Christmas. And then until summer break. And then somehow, it wasn’t a fling anymore. Somehow, it was the end of my junior year and Jason had gotten a passport to come visit me while I was doing research in Ireland. And then somehow I was graduating college and moving back to Minnesota to see if this relationship was really going someplace.
A year after I moved back, we signed some marriage paperwork and ran off to join the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was my dream. But it became his dream, because like everything in his life, once he was committed, he was all in. He loved the Peace Corps. He loved the connections he made with people, the sense of purpose, the feeling that he was helping people. We extended our contracts and stayed a third year.
After the Peace Corps, we took the long way home. We visited 15 countries in four months and came back with $2000 and no job between us. If you want to test your relationship, spend 4 months in a hotel room with someone. We loved it. We loved traveling together. So we got married again, or for real this time, and not just on paper. We threw a damn fine party.
We built a life together. From the summer when we were 20 until his thirty-second birthday, we were a team. We forged our souls on the anvil of the other. Like two trees planted too close together, we each developed branches that didn’t block the others’ light. And because we could focus on just those branches, they grew stronger.
We learned to be adults together. Jason handled the technological, I handled the mechanical. When my phone broke, he fixed it. When the door knob fell off, I fixed it. Jason made friends, I kept them. He’d meet new people and add them to his collection through daily messages and online interactions. I organized parties at our house that Jason then hosted. He ran our social calendar while I made sure we had clean clothes to wear to go out. Jason provided stability while I provided excitement. Jason wanted a stable job, a community, and eventually, to have a family. I wanted art and travel and adventure. Where he dove in deep in his activities, I skip over the tops and try dozens of things. We grew into our adulthood together as a unit, and because of that, we balanced each other. Together, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
Without him, I am less. Without him, I am left less than the half of that whole. After seventeen months, I’m only just learning all the pieces I don’t have. I have struggled to maintain our community. It took me three weeks to set up my new phone. I am re-learning how to make decisions about my future. I’m learning how to set boundaries on my time without him as an excuse to stay home.
So, after seventeen months, what is the impact this accident has had on me?
The easier piece of this to answer is purely physical. I sustained major injuries. I hit my head. For months, I couldn’t remember names or faces of people around me. I dropped words in sentences or couldn’t remember the right word for a basic object. My attention span was shortened. Though it is less frequent now, I still have occasional blanks and if I get tired, I can’t focus on what people are telling me. I tore the cartilage in my shoulder. Because of that tear, I had to stop training for seven months. That was seven months of physical progress I lost, but it was also time with my community that I lost. Without being able to train, I didn’t show up to classes so I didn’t know about social events. I missed out on their lives and I missed out on the support of my community. I have started training again, but it is slow going. I have to both rebuild the muscle and learn to compensate for the permanent injury to my shoulder. And while I was out, everyone else progressed. They’ve gotten more skills and moved into more advanced classes. So as I’m re-building my body, I’m also trying to re-build these relationships.
The harder answer to the question of what impact has this had is Jason’s death. I don’t know how to describe the future we were building, the present we had. I don’t know how to tell you about love that ran deeper than the Marianna’s Trench and about his fingerprints on my soul. I don’t know how to put grief into words.
Here is the metaphor I have to offer. Our lives are like stained glass windows. In the center are the most important things. For me, that was Jason and my family. Around that are all the things that make up your life. Bright, colorful glass that glows when the light catches it. Glass that shows off hobbies, loves, accomplishments, and all the other pieces. There are blank places that haven’t yet been explored and there are places where the glass twists into ugly lumps, because we all have those places. But when you look at the window, it is beautiful. This life is beautiful.
On April 30th, my stained glass shattered. The center was pulverized into fine dust, and as it dissolved, the rest of the window broke and twisted. The glass has become fragments with razor edges and the destruction is so complete that even the frame of the window is splintered and warped past recognition.
I’ve spent the last seventeen months trying to make sense of this broken window. I have tried to build a new frame to hold the shards of glass that I can pick up. I have tried to re-build parts of the image, but nothing fits. There is still no center.
Or here is another way of thinking of grief. Grief is a like a weight. Learning to carry it is building a muscle. At first, the only thing I could do was lift this weight. For months, moving even a step under the burden of Jason’s death was too much. Without the community that he and I built, I wouldn’t have survived those months. But my community picked me up and carried me when all I could do was hold the weight of grief. And as I practiced picking up this weight every day, I developed new muscles. I learned to hold the grief in ways that allowed me to lift it. Then I grew the muscles to lift it. And now, I can pick up this weight and walk on my own. Someday soon, I hope to be able to do more than just walk, to do more than just survive. But I will never get to put this weight down. I will never be without it. Being able to walk now doesn’t mean that the weight has gotten lighter, just that I’ve gotten better at carrying it.
Jason was my partner. He was my cheerleader. He was my comfort and companion. He is the love of my life. Without his support, my world is scarier. Without his laugh, my world is quieter. Without him, my world is dimmer.
So, from this, what do I want for Chelsea Haynes?
Based on her flippant demeanor and eye rolling last week, I don’t think Ms. Haynes believed the words she said when she plead guilty. I don’t think she believes that she is at fault for Jason’s death.
I want for her to understand that her choices led to this. This courtroom was not a foregone conclusion. She is not a victim or a martyr. She made choices. She made a choice to get in a car. She made the choice to drive. She made a choice to race down a residential street. And before that, she made a choice to continue a confrontation. And she made a choice before that, and before that, and before that and those choices led here. Those choices led to Jason’s death and led to this courtroom. Those choices have led her to prison with two felonies and Jason’s life on her hands. Those were her choices and she made them and she can’t cast blame on anyone else for any of those choices.
I want for Ms. Haynes to understand what she did. I want for her to understand that her actions killed Jason and shattered my life. But her actions, and his death, are wider than just him and I and her. Each person filling this courtroom was affected by his life, and now by his death. This is a sliver of the community he touched, and the community which her actions took him away from. Jason was a positive force in the world, and now the world, and this community, is without him forever.
I want for Ms. Haynes to develop compassion and empathy. I want for her to develop the ability to love deeply. And then I want for her to know with every breath she takes, that her actions and her choices took that love away from me.
Chelsea Haynes needs to spend the rest of her life searching for redemption. And the first step in that is understanding that her choices killed Jason.
On a more practical level, I want Ms. Haynes to go through anger management courses. I want her to get chemical dependency counselling and some sort of trade training. I want her to be given the opportunity to make herself a better person. I want her to find a different path than this one.
And until she has, I want for her to not have the opportunity to make choices that kill another person.