I notice the student section is full of teenagers. There are so many familiar faces. Some I’ve taught in my math classes. Some are friends with my kids. Others I recognize from the hallway. But there’s one boy missing from the crowd.
It was Christmas Eve. Our family was ready to leave for lunch at my in-laws. They lived just up the road, within walking distance.
Our oldest son, Drake, had already left the house. This didn’t surprise me. It was a beautiful day, and Drake took advantage of every opportunity to be outdoors. He especially loved our back woods. He spent hours exploring, climbing and building forts. He was my carefree, adventurous boy. I assumed he had gone for a walk and would meet us at Grandma’s.
However, when we walked through the door, my mother-in-law looked confused. She glanced at each grandchild, as if conducting a head-count.
“Lexi. Douglas. Alayna. Did you forget somebody?”
I looked around. “Drake’s not here?”
That kid, I thought. He’s still messing around in the woods. I turned to my husband. “Call his cell phone. He probably lost track of time.”
Dana swiped his finger across his phone, searching for the location of Drake’s cell phone. “Looks like he’s still in the woods.” Dana shoved his phone back in his pocket. “I’ll go get him.”
The rest of the day was a heartbreaking blur. Drake had experienced a terrible accident – and my world stopped.
Drake’s visitation was also a blur. We spent six hours greeting a continuous line of friends, family, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and teammates. The basketball team came as a group. I knew it was especially tough for them. They had been scheduled to play in a holiday tournament that night. They paid their respects and with heavy hearts, headed to the tournament.
I was glad to hear that Rockridge won that tournament, and I was deeply touched when I heard what transpired after the game. The entire team had gathered together, held up the trophy and shouted, “We did it for Drake.”
At that point, the varsity basketball team dedicated the rest of the season to Drake’s memory. “Do it for Drake” became their motto.
Instead of a funeral home, we held Drake’s funeral in the high school gym. We wanted his friends and classmates to feel more comfortable. The entire gym was packed.
Both Dana and I spoke at the funeral. People thought we were strong, but we knew better. They didn’t see the private moments. Yes it was difficult, but we had no choice. We needed to do it for Drake. We wanted to talk to the kids.
“This pain hurts,” I said, looking into the eyes of Drake’s best friends. “And we know you’re hurting too. God feels our pain.”
The first home game after Drake’s death was an emotional one. The entire basketball team presented our family with the first-place trophy from the holiday tournament. Engraved on the trophy, “We did it for Drake.” The cheerleaders carried a huge banner which said, “Do it for Drake – A Great Friend and Teammate.” This would hang on the gym wall for the rest of the season.
We were overwhelmed by the love and support of our small community. Dana took the microphone and spoke to the crowd.
“Three weeks ago our world turned upside down. Day by day, minute by minute, we’ve been trying to put it all back together.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve put a big piece of our hearts back together, because of everything you’ve done for us.”
The first day back to school after break was especially tough. Drake normally rode to school with me. I walked in without him and passed by his locker. I had hung a poster with his picture on his locker over break. It was still there, exactly as I'd hung it. I felt so touched. I knew how teenagers could be. But no one had messed with it. Not one scribble. Not one mark. I appreciated the students being respectful.
That first day back, everyone – from teachers and students to bus drivers and lunch ladies – wore Under Armour (Drake's favorite kind of shirt) to show their support.
Meanwhile, the basketball team was having a phenomenal season. We loved watching them. They gave us something to look forward to every week. Their support comforted us, and their determination strengthened us. While the Rockets fought hard on the court, our family fought our own battle with grief.
One night was particularly tough for our son, Douglas. He missed his big brother. He plopped down next to me with a heavy sigh. “I wish we could make one phone call or send just one text message to heaven.”
“I know,” I said, hugging him close. “I miss Drake too.”
Suddenly, Douglas brightened a bit. “Drake could send us a selfie with Jesus!”
I laughed, but inside my heart ached. Truth was, I’d take anything if it came from Drake. A phone call. A text message. A selfie. Anything. Didn’t matter what it was. I missed my boy.
By March, our basketball team had a seventeen-game winning streak. For the first time in school history, the Rockridge Rockets were headed to state! I knew Drake was watching and smiling down. He always liked to see people happy. He loved to make them smile. And during that final game of the season, I found a great reason to smile.
“Lexi, grab your camera! Look at the score!”
Lexi knew the significance of that number. Twenty-four was special to our family. For years, Dana and I have been Nascar – and more specifically – Jeff Gordon (#24) fans. When our kids started playing sports, they all chose jersey number twenty-four. Drake had been number twenty-four since tee-ball. These days, I always notice the 24th of every month. The day Drake passed away.
Lexi snapped the picture. Just then, Rockridge came down the court, shot a perfect three-pointer and broke the tie. The crowd roared as the ball swished through the net.
Dana and I were stunned. Of all players; Rockridge number 24 had broken the tie.
Later, when we looked at the picture, Dana noticed one more thing.
“Angie,” he said, “Look at the sign at the top of the scoreboard.” It was an advertisement for PAR-A-DICE Casino.
“Paradise,” I said with a smile. Drake was waiting patiently for us in paradise.