At 1:47 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 27, 2009, in a Berkeley crosswalk, Zachary Michael Cruz was taken from this world, from us.
I look at one of the many photos from his short life, with his fine, light brown hair and baby-toothed smile. “Aged 5 years 11 months” is what the flyer says. Part of a decade of family advocacy for pedestrian safety, the flyer was handed out last Feb. 27 by Berkeley police officers at the intersection where Zachary died, along with tickets, lots of tickets.
The urge to preach here is strong, but I resist. You all know who you are and what you do to deserve tickets — how you endanger the lives of innocent others by the driving choices you make. I don’t need to tell you that.
What you don’t know (unless you do) is what 10 years gone is like. You learn to live with the loss and the pain. But, you live with loss and pain every… single… day. Routine things like getting your surviving children ready for school or watching a movie on the couch comes with that moment when you look at the empty seat and are struck anew with the absence of the child who is no more.
When his cousin and companion celebrates a birthday or plays the French horn in a school concert you are struck at how big or talented he is — just nine months older than Zachary. Every milestone Jeremy celebrates comes with the awareness that Zachary never will have a milestone to reach.
Feb 27 marked the 10th year since Zachary’s death. That is 3,650 days. The surreal nature of those earlier days eventually gave way to gritty realities — an even more intense, ever-depressing awareness that Zachary is gone and never coming back. You must cling to five years and 11 months of memories — all the memories you’ll ever get — as they too fade from the tangible to attenuated iconic imagery. Moments captured in pictures and film. Thank God for the Digital Age.
As Plutarch wrote to his wife upon the death of their young daughter, Timoxena;
… just as she was herself the most delightful thing in the world to embrace, to see, to hear, so too must the thought of her live with us and be our companion, bringing with it joy in greater measure, nay in many times greater measure, than it brings sorrow…
Written in the first century, Plutarch’s “Consalatio ad Uxorem” gave comfort to my nephew when his own son died. Perhaps he can imagine Zachary laughing with little Timoxena in some celestial realm where innocent souls go to play. Perhaps it was just comforting to know that some long dead Greek philosopher also knew the immeasurable pain of loss that he was feeling. Perhaps Plutarch reminds us all that time marches on.
Ten years really doesn’t feel like much. Many people can imagine 10 years as the blink of an eye. “Oh, he’s growing up so fast.” or “It feels like that picture was taken yesterday.” But I challenge you to try and imagine every picture or moment or memory of any one of your loved ones over the past 10 years just gone. Imagine that person was killed 10 years ago. Sit with that concept for one minute, then multiply that by 5,259,492 and you may better understand what 10 years gone is like.
Following are excerpts from a memorial Facebook Page spanning the 10 years we have had to learn to live without Zachary. It is a heartbreaking glimpse into the lifelong nature of the grief and pain created and sustained when a distracted motorist makes an ill-timed left turn.
September 26, 2010
I saw Christmas items for sale at a store today and I felt like crying. I know we have to try this year for your brother but I’m not sure how easy that will be for me. I know it’s awfully early to make a wish for Christmas, but please help me be strong. I miss you. Always.
September 26, 2010 ·
I talked to Jeremy again just a few days ago. He told me you only got to hold his snake one time; he said he wants you to hold it as much as you want. Jeremy also is keeping his eye out for a shooting star, he said he has never seen one and will be thinking of you the first time he catches a star falling in the sky. We all search for comfort, it is a tiring search but we will never stop. I hope somewhere today you are having fun.
March 23, 2010
Drove by Bushrod the other day, where your t-ball team practiced every week two years ago. There were little leaguers there, playing baseball. Everything stopped for just a moment, like the whole world held its breath. Your mom stopped speaking, mid-sentence. Tears came immediately to my eyes and ran down my face. But we just drove on. I’m still learning how completely powerless we all really are.
July 15, 2010
Please drive carefully. Your choices can save a life. Or end one.
July 24, 2010
It feels like I can’t go anywhere without seeing your ghost. I’m at a cafe grading papers and a boy walks in with his mom. They could be you and your mom five years from now, he looks that much like you. You’d be 12. He could be you, but I know he is not. Because I visited you this morning at your grave. But still, I keep looking up. Searching his face for a glimpse of a future that will never exist for any of us. And that makes me miss you… My little guy; my best pal; Zachary.
February 27, 2011
I remember you every single day. But today I am forced to remember the moment, 2 years ago, when I was told that you were gone. I wish I could think instead about that same beautiful February morning, when I stood silently in the doorway of your room and watched you sleep, when I woke you up and we listened to the Beatles, when I heard you laugh with your mother, kiss your brother, and we said goodbye back before I knew it was the last time. I miss you.
Jeremy and I went out to the intersection today. We saw the nice sign that someone put up and Jeremy drew a new time machine for you… We miss you so much. I wish that I could hear your laughter and watch you play with Jeremy and your little brother. I wish that I could give you a big hug and tell you that I love you.
July 21, 2011
I had a dream about you recently. You came to visit me and Jeremy and we were so happy to see you. The two of you were laughing and having so much fun and then you told me it was time for you to leave and I said wait give me a hug first … and just then I woke up and I could actually feel you in my arms for a split second. I miss you so much buddy!
The last 2 1/2 have been a learning experience. A test of time. Are the experts right and this gets easier as time goes by? Well my day started with memories and tears. But that time passed too and I remembered you fondly. I miss your smile and laughter sweet voice silenced much too soon. I Love YOU Zachy Pooh. August 27, 2011 Grandma
November 7, 2011 ·
We all miss you in an unspeakably big way. We try and talk about our grief and broken hearts, we try to understand, we try to remember you but it will never fill the void. We will however continue, until some point, to keep you in our hearts, minds, and souls. Every day we desire to feel as much of your presence as is possible. I miss and love you in an unspeakably big way.
March 11, 2012
Zachary’s 9th birthday is tomorrow. This past week, I’ve shared six of my favorite pictures of my son. This is the seventh picture and I think it’s my favorite. Not just among this collection of seven images, but probably of all time. It’s a strange image to hold this title. It’s not posed, we’re not anywhere special, and there’s nothing really happening here. You can’t even see his face. It’s just Zachary sitting in the middle of his messy room, drawing a picture. It’s a very small moment. It’s the kind of image I focus on when I close my eyes and want some peace. It’s the kind of moment I miss the most. Here’s #7: A Day in the Life
One of the hardest things at this point is watching your little brother sit on the floor and play with his Spider Man toys alone. That isn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Barbara Bock It’s tough when you think about things that could have been and should be different and Zach should be here. I have wished over and over that he could be here playing with Jeremy at all the family functions. I think about sleepovers that we should be having and it breaks my heart that we don’t get to have those moments or make new memories with Zach. We were robbed. Miles and Jeremy were robbed. So many of us were robbed when Zachary was taken from us. And it is so freaking sad! I am truly sorry that Miles doesn’t get to play with his big brother. 🙁
My mom called me just now to ask what we were planning for Zachary’s 10th birthday, which is coming up. Or would be coming up. March 12, 2013. I started crying almost immediately. It really doesn’t get easier. There’s no such thing as moving on. There’s only getting by. RIP son.
Barbara Bock I still think about Zach every day. I think about him at every stop sign when I’m driving. I think about him when I’m up feeding Emery in the middle of the night. It’s peaceful then and it gives me time to reflect and remember what an awesome kid Zach was. It breaks my heart to think about the milestones we miss out on because he is not here. I will never ever forget him. Zachary lives on in our memories and Thats why I think we should come together as a family and celebrate his life and talk about what he would have been like as a 10year old. I think he would have been wicked smart and really talkative. I can imagine the crazy conversations that he and Jeremy would have had. They would have awesome debates over random stuff. 🙂
Facebook is good at telling us when our friends and loved ones are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. But not so good at days like tomorrow. No one knows what to do or say about days like tomorrow. Tomorrow is technically an anniversary (I think). But it’s not a reason to celebrate. Tomorrow is the 4th anniversary of Zachary’s passing. He would be almost 10 years old if he were here with us, where my heart and mind still believe he belongs (home with us). It’s not a thing to celebrate, but it is a day to remember. It was a perfect Friday afternoon. A cold, clear, bright day after what seemed like endless weeks of rain in Berkeley. The last thing Zach told me before the school bus took him away is, “I love you, Dad!” For me, those words have to last a life time. I wish they didn’t have to. But I hope they will. Rest in peace, son.
Duncan plays bagpipes for Zachary on the hillside above the Smyth Fernwald student family housing complex in 2009. I didn’t know he played bagpipes before the day Zachary died. But the night of the accident, he went outside at played. It was haunting and beautiful. He told me later all he could hear were the news helicopters flying above the scene of the accident, which was a few blocks from our apartment. He said it was driving him crazy and that he thought he should drown them out with music. I asked him to play more and for weeks or months, around sunset, he did. Later, he helped me conceive and create the Zachary Michael Cruz Foundation. I’m still thankful for him and for so many other things.
Barbara Bock Duncan is an amazing person & I am grateful for his compassion during that time. It’s comforting to know that there are good people in this world like Duncan 🙂
Leah Wade When he played it felt like time stopped… This memory always brings tears to my eyes.
Your little brother Miles is almost 5 years old now. He wrote you a letter on Friday and we went to the cemetery and he read it to you. It said, “Dear Zachary, I miss you.” It was the most beautiful and heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen. Please be close to listen to his prayers if you can.
Today is a quiet benchmark for me. It is the month of March and I have a son in kindergarten. I haven’t been able to say that before today. Zachary’s last day of kindergarten, of course, was Friday, February 27th, 2009–the day he never came home. We went from field trips and report cards in February to funerals and police reports in March. But this morning, as I said goodbye to Miles, I took a moment to think about the significance of this day. Miles is moving forward. I have to believe that Miles is going to be okay–there’d be no future for me without that kind of dumb, blind faith. Here’s to knowing about the horror and pain and sorrow that the world is capable of and yet remaining open to the the future in all its wonderful, awful uncertainty. Here’s to March and to new frontiers. Here’s to the infinite and unknown. #AprilAintThatCruelAMonth
To the heartless women who yelled out of her car today as she went rolling thru the stop where you where tragically killed, and I quote “clean it up and let it go!!” as I was putting sour grass on the pole that bears a STOP sign that no one stops at, I say I will never get over it. If the flowers and mementos that people leave there reminds folks to drive more safely then so be it. Get over it yeah right. Miss you today and forever, love you even longer.
Jeremy, Emery and I were enjoying the cool of the evening. We took a walk around the block and then played in the front yard for a while. Emery hugged the tree and Jeremy climbed way up and tossed some leaves down to his sister… there was a tiny baby lizard in the grass that had died. Emery found it and showed her brother. He quickly gathered up some of the leaves to cover it, and I distracted Emery while he gave it a proper burial in the butterfly garden. He then fell to his knees in the grass and said, “Why, Gram? Why? He was just a baby!” Emery hugged him for the longest time and just kept patting his back and rubbing his shoulder. Jeremy wept.
Later I asked him about it and said it reminded me of Zachary too. I said it just hurts, and he said “it hurts like this” and grabbed my hand and pinched it hard; then he said, “it used to hurt like this” and pinched the same spot with all his might. That’s all that was said, but it was so much.
Your absence is felt and your presence is remembered in the butterfly garden with a moment of tender mercy. Rest peacefully Zachary.
Today I am thinking of a conversation I had with Zachary in the kitchen of our apartment in Berkeley in 2009. He asked, “How old will Miles be when I’m 6?” And I said, “He’ll be 1.” “And when I’m 7?” “Two.” And when I’m 8? Three. And it went on and on. I tried to explain to Zach that he would always be 5 years older than his little brother. I even said, “Miles will never be older than you. Because you’re his big brother.”
But I was wrong. Zachary never had a 6th birthday. He lost his life a few weeks before he would have turned 6. And the years went on. Time passes. And today, Miles, the little brother, out grew his big brother Zachary. Miles is 6 today.
And as relieved and happy as I am to be celebrating 6 years with Miles, to have been able to keep him this long, I can’t shake that conversation in the kitchen with Zachary. I know it wasn’t a lie. But it wasn’t to be our truth either. I couldn’t have known. But I was wrong. It’s hard for me to be completely present when the past is all I have left of Zach.
Maybe one day, Miles can read this story. Or I can tell him. One day. Today, I’ll try to be thankful for what I have. And if we talk about Zachary, I will tell another story. I’ll tell Miles how we celebrated every week after Miles was born. Zachary would have ice cream or a cookie. We would top it with a candle. And Zachary would sing happy birthday to his baby brother.
I love you, Miles: Happy birthday. And I will try to do better, Zachary. I’ll try.
Time passes. But not so much.
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February is a really difficult month and today is especially difficult to get through. I’ve been having a lot of dreams about you lately and it just makes me miss you more. I wish that you could be here to turn 13 along with Jeremy. I wonder what type of teenager you would be. Jeremy told me the other day that he feels alone without you, like he’s got no one to grow up with. I hope you know that you’re always going to be loved and missed and never ever forgotten.
Now, after six years without you, I don’t have anything more to say. That I love you? That I miss you? That I wonder who you would be if you were here today? All of that is obvious. Redundant to keep repeating day after day as they turn to weeks and months and years. We don’t have new memories. We never will. All I have left of you is the little I have held on to from our short time together. All I have is the past. I’ll take what I can get and I will try to be grateful for it. Like this picture–it’s the last picture we took together. You read me this book on a rainy day in Berkeley. It was the first book you read me all on your own. I cried that day, listening to you struggle through the simple text. I was proud. But you didn’t see me cry. You were focused and determined. I told you good job and your mom took this picture. I’m grateful she did. I hope you can’t see me cry today. Rest in peace. I’ll see you again one day, if I’m lucky… (Zachary Michael Cruz, March 12, 2003 – February 27, 2009)
It might be hard to believe, but even after 6 years of singing happy birthday to an empty chair, days like yesterday can still sneak up on me. I am still not good at it. Yesterday was especially sneaky. It started out easy. I went to Berkeley Arts Magnet Elementary School and spoke at 4 assemblies of school kids about Zachary’s life and death and about pedestrian safety. I brought a big picture of Zachary to show the kids. Each group sang happy birthday to him too. Some of the kids knew for sure that he would hear it and they told me so. When I got home from that, I was emotionally exhausted. I didn’t anticipate it would be that hard to talk about Zachary’s death. It’s such a normal part of my life now. But it was. It wasn’t hard in the moment, but afterwards it caught up with me. We had one of Zachary’s favorite meals at home, watched some home movies, and had a cake. Miles blew out the candle. It was only after my friends had gone home and my wife had gone to bed that I really started drinking whiskey. And then I came here, to social media, and started typing. Re-reading what I posted, it isn’t as bad as I remembered. But I feel like I should apologize to everyone anyway. I try to be careful here; I know it’s hard stuff and I know I am blessed to have this community still, after all these years. Yesterday just caught up with me, eventually. #dontdrinkandfacebook
Miles is still young enough to play with some of your old toys. At six and a half, he is just a little older than you were when you died. The last few days, he has been playing with your Bob The Builder tool belt and tool box. We have tried to help Miles build a connection with you through the physical objects you left behind and so we mention to him when he is enjoying a toy or an experience you enjoyed. I think of these things as the artifacts of your life. In important ways, they prove that you were here… This morning, while Miles was playing handy man around the house in his Spiderman pajamas, he shared some of your toys with the little brother you didn’t get to meet, little Frankie, who is just a baby. I took a picture and felt thankful that your brothers can share these artifacts. If you can know this, I hope you find it pleasing. “The sound that’s been keeps echoing, it never disappears.”
Rest in peace: Zachary Cruz (March 12, 2003 – February 27, 2009). Please like this photo to wish Zachary’s family peace and joyful memories on this difficult day of remembrance.