Great sadnesses … they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke*
I arrived at the neighborhood where Jeremey Lake was shot, residential neighborhood just on the outer rim of downtown Tulsa—and the neighborhood was a little on the rough side, homes looked like they were in disrepair. Others were defensive, with visible ‘No Tresspassing,’ sign on barred windows. I found the location I needed to be from the photos on 19 year-old Jeremy Lake’s memorial page, but it had looked abandoned, the weed outgrowth was waist-high, the windows broken — taped up and covered with no way to peer inside. The porch had no chairs.
I was nervous, but still hopeful. I knocked and immediately a small dog barked wildly. I waited and heard light steps. After the dog had calmed, I knocked once more — perhaps the person responsible for the steps hadn’t heard me knocking. This time, a gravelly-slightly hoarse voice yelled through the door:
“WHO IS IT?!”
“HI. I DROVE FROM CALIFORNIA TO PAY MY RESPECTS TO JEREMEY’S FAMILY!”
The door cracked open. I saw a grey-blue eye, made out dusky skin, the woman was carrying the small dog.
“Who are you?” she asks.
I explain myself. The road trip. The project. The process. Reading about Jeremey.
She puts the dog down, steps outside, closing the door behind her. Apologizes, explains that you don’t open the front door in this kind of neighborhood. She introduces herself as Pam Wilkins, Jeremey’s aunt and spokesperson for the household.
Our conversation was mostly me listening. I learned about Jeremey’s rough upbringing, she wouldn’t call it rough, and maybe it wasn’t, but it wasn’t something I was familiar with—he had grown up without his father, and his mother was under constant care and assisted living. Jeremey had grown up in a local boys home for most of his life, and at 18, left the boys’ home and lived with his Aunt. His mother also left assisted living after 5-6 years. She has a brain condition—her memories were never permanent, and it was getting worse over time. At that moment, Jeremey’s mother shuffled out. I didn’t recognize her at first. I remember seeing her in the news around the time of Jeremey’s death last year. On the broadcast, she seemed like any mother—angry, wanting answers, wanting justice.
The woman in front of me was different.
She was thankful, but it also looked like she wasn’t sure what she why she was thanking me. Her eyes carried a stare that didn’t connect. Grief carries a certain heft, and those that wield it are somehow reconditioned to bear it. Whether deftly or clumsily, always with passion. It’s a presence that exudes and demands another level of respect—something that feels mystifying, drawing you in, but distancing all at once.
I can barely articulate it.
She sat outside on the porch with us, as Aunt Pam continued to elaborate. She described Jeremey as a 6-foot-4 “teddy bear,” a person with a certain intimidating swagger, but generous in spirit and action. She told me, how in past Tulsa had changed it’s welfare policies, almost creating an open door to the homeless, encouraging many to come and find refuge with Tulsa’s resources. Aunt Pam talked about how dozens came by the busload. While Tulsa encouraged this, eventually the infrastructure fell apart, and the homeless population had to find new dwellings around Tulsa. Aunt Pam talked about a homeless community in her backyard and how Jeremey would visit often, making sure people were okay. She shared anecdotes–one of him being a first responder to a homeless woman stabbed by another homeless man, and how he took the shirt off his own back to apply pressure to the wound, with his other hand on the phone, calling for the paramedics.
Jeremey had passed an exam that would allow him to enter wielding school. He also recently had a child with an ex-girlfriend — and while he wasn’t with her, he felt excited at the prospect of fatherhood.
At the end, he had died while he was in love.
He had died trying to make peace between a father and daughter.
He had died because the off duty officer was opening fire upon Jeremy and at his very own daughter.
Maybe it was the 100-degree heat, maybe it was the driving getting to me, maybe I was homesick. Maybe I could relate to being generous, relate to having good intentions and being misunderstood.
Maybe it all just sucked. Another young man, another senseless loss. This one particularly egregious. If you seek out photos of the officer, you’ll find him smiling. Smiling. The trial has only gone into prelims.
I felt bad for Jeremey. For Aunt Pam. For Jeremey’s son, who turns one in November.
Jeremey’s story nearly cracked me open. Aunt Pam saw this, and as we stood in front of the curb where his body lay, she held me.
Jeremey Lake, 19. 202 North Maybelle Ave., Tulsa, OK.
*For a good read on Rilke and sadness, check out Brainpicking article: Rilke on How Great Sadness Brings Us Closer to Ourselves.