Just last night a friend from Meade, Jeff, posted on Facebook that he had read in the “Forty Years Ago” section of the Meade Globe Press the memory of the loss of my brother Chris Little due to injuries sustained in during a football game. He was fifteen years old and a junior in high school in Meade, Kansas. It had not really clicked with me that it had been forty years; I suppose part of the shock was that can’t be possible I am not that old! But it has been, though often it doesn’t see that long ago. I wrote the following memories some time back as a continuing story of my journey of life and faith that is still in process but thought it appropriate to share that part of my story on this fortieth anniversary of his death; this is a little long but a glimpse into those days of a thirteen year old of struggle and emergence…
As life went on in Meade things were good. I have so many continued close friends from those years in Meade. There were four of us who became the best of friends, it seems now in hindsight we did so much together. Typical teenager guy stuff, some better left unpublished, but we always had a good time. I had found a new groove, as it were, or maybe just found a groove, though there was still that lingering need to be liked, I found in my new surroundings confidence to be me. In fact, I think it had gone to my head a bit. I remember a day when Chris, my older brother, and I were the only ones home and I was probably being my normal obnoxious little brother self and evidently Chris had finally had enough. I do not remember exactly what it was, a plastic ball bat or some such, anyway we were in the kitchen and I was sitting at the table. I do not remember what I had said but he came over and whacked me on the leg with the plastic bat and proceeded to give me an older brother lecture; one of humility and knowing my place, a lecture that included comments from his friends who often spoke of me to Chris as “that smartass little brother of yours.” I am not sure I took the advice or lecture well but in retrospect I suspect he was spot on. Words, for many reasons now, still ring in my ears as actual conversations with him seem faded and almost gone now some forty years gone by.
The fall of 1972 began football season and that was the one sport that I tended to have any ability to play so I was always excited for that time of year. I really do not recall now how our junior high team was doing that fall. I do remember that our high school team was really talented. I remember Chris having trouble with concussions and they finally ordered him a new helmet to see if that would help. It was a bit of an odd looking thing for that day and time with air and water cushions along with the normal foam padding on the inside.
It was early that morning in October that I remember so vividly, a Friday morning, Game Day! Chris’s football equipment lay in the hallway upstairs in the yellow vinyl duffel bag and music from the rock group “Yes” playing on the stereo coming from his room. As he prepared to leave I asked if he would leave it playing for me, I promised to shut it off when I left. A bit begrudgingly he agreed and left it playing, a major milestone that he would give me that opportunity. It would be the last words we shared together.
Later that night in Greensburg, Kansas after the junior high game I sat with my friends on the very top row of the bleachers watching the high school play. As I think about it now it is almost like it replays in slow motion in my mind. From the opposite side of the field I saw Chris stumbling a bit and heading for the bench. He came to the sideline, said something to the coach and went over and sat on the wooden bench where the trainer came to him. Soon dad was with him, and he was lying down and shortly after that the ambulance came and loaded him up and took him away. Dad made arrangements for me to ride home with friends from the church. As I think about that it is a curious thing, to have been with my peers and friends on the bus would have a better idea I think, but I was not given the option. The arrangement to go home placed a very ominous feeling in my being, something was wrong, something was very wrong.
I arrived home where mom and my grandma waited for my arrival and more news from the hospital in Greensburg where Chris had been taken. It was at this point the memories really get rather stuttered and hazy. Little bits and pieces seem to be all I can recall over the next couple of weeks. I remember, albeit I am not sure how the news came, that they had transferred him to a hospital in Wichita. Mom was soon to go be with him and dad, I do not recall if dad came and got her or if our grandparents took her. I was to continue going to school and stayed with friends in town. I remember saying to them when Chris came home I was going to make a big banner with “Welcome Home” on it, all the while not fully believing that was going to happen. It was not that I did not have hope; there was just this nagging “something wrong” lingering in my soul.
I really do not recall how much time passed, I suppose I could ask my sister though I think the core of my writing here is to remember or not what lay within my own mind and soul. It was morning at the school, I was in art class when I was called from class and my sister and soon to be brother-in-law had come to pick me up. We headed to Wichita to be with Chris, mom, and dad and the news was grim. The long drive into Wichita from Meade is recalled in my mind with only two memories. The words from my sister informing me that not only was the news not good, but that Chris was not expected to survive his injuries, he would probably die. The only other vivid image I have of that drive was a long windbreak of evergreen trees that lined the highway I remember gazing off into as they blurred past my window.
At the hospital the day or days are a blur, aunts and uncles, grandmas and papas, mom and dad, there is really not much coherent about that time and once again I really only find two images with any clarity. One was the fact that I would not go in to see Chris, I do not remember to date any conscious reason for not going in, I just remember telling my mom and dad I did not want to. The other snapshot of that part of the journey was the long and silent ride home with my Auntie from the hospital to grandma and papa’s house. I remember nothing said, though I am sure we conversed or at least attempted to, I do remember the safety I felt in her presence and not wanting to be at the hospital.
Early that next morning dad and mom came into the room, I was in at the grandparents’ house, and woke me to tell me Chris had died. The continued days of that tragic journey remained a blur in my mind and memory. I know, obviously, we traveled back to Meade; funeral plans were made though I was oblivious to them and really have no recall of those preceding days. We went to visitation at the funeral home and the picture in my mind is of mom grasping the handle of the casket, weeping and going down to her knees.
It is interesting now as I think back on that journey the bits and pieces I remember and the enormous blank spots that exist in my memory. I suppose it is the mind’s defense mechanism to shield one from pain that seems unbearable. The funeral was in the high school auditorium with our longtime family friend presiding. Then there was the trip from Meade to Douglass to bury Chris at the cemetery and I have no recollection of that journey and really very little of the graveside service that day. After that point, in my recollection, the next thing I know I am back at school.
The first day back at school held a lot of apprehension for me, I was worried how to respond and react to comments, support, or words directed to me from my peers and teachers. I do not know now as I remember back to that day and the days following whether it was a conscious effort on the part of my friends and others at school or whether it just happened that way. I do not recall to this day anyone saying anything about Chris or asking how I was doing it was simply like any other day at school, and mostly I remember how very relieved I felt that I did not have to address it or think about it, I could just be at school.
Our Meade Buffalos went on the win the 2A State Football Championship in 1972. I remember dad taking me to all of the away games including the playoffs and finally the championship. A part of me felt a connection with the team and being able to go with dad into the locker room after those games and hear the support and care they gave us only deepened my appreciation for Chris’s classmates and that special season.
I remember the next sports season after football I was wrestling on the Junior High team. I saw people talking at looking toward me and discovered later that Dad was in the hospital as the result of a heart attack. I really do not remember much of the actual time, I think I returned to that state I had found so comfortable when Chris as in the hospital. The only relatively clear memory I have is of sitting on the floor in the basement of the parsonage with Adele Ronen playing a game I think, I do not recall whether we were playing cards or some board game, but I remember her asking how I felt about Dad in the hospital and what was going through my mind. I am not sure if this memory is entirely accurate, but for whatever reason it is planted firmly in my mind.
Junior High went on as Junior High does, I finished out the school year went through Eighth Grade “Graduation” and then on into High School. I remember at some point in the summer before my freshman year mom and dad sat down with me in the living room at the house to talk with me about playing football as we approached the coming school year and season. I really do not remember if both of them spoke or not or even which one said the words though I suspect it was dad. They told me, “We want you to know, whether you play football or not is your decision and we will support you whatever you decide.” That was really the first time it had occurred to me that this was a decision that needed to be made. I had just assumed I would play and had not really considered the idea that Chris’ death would change that. But it did make me think and if for no other reason that was the most important part of mom and dad’s decision for me because I believe, as I look back now, it prepared me for the looks and comments I would receive the that year as the football season began.
There were not a lot of encounters with the issue but there were a few. Some surprised looks when I first showed up for practice in the summer the weeks prior to school starting but no comments. There were a couple of students in the high school that verbally expressed their surprise at my playing, “You are going to play football!?” But for the most part there was no questions and only support for my decision, and I did love the sport.
My freshman and sophomore years in high school at Meade High are filled with happy memories. I continued to play football; I tried basketball mostly because I think deep down I had told myself was supposed to fill Chris’ shoes. I did not ever feel that pressure directly from schoolmates or the community, but I knew Chris was good at most everything he tried and he was involved in so many activities it was a self-imposed expectation. I remember Chris’s classmates, he would have been a senior the year I was a freshman. In some respect, at least in hindsight it did feel a bit like they kind of took me under their wing and treated me different than other “freshman.” That same hindsight reminds me from particular memories that I probably took advantage of that at times and reminded them of my brother’s chastisement as the “smartass little brother.” But all in all they were good to me and I have never forgotten.
Now some forty years later I ponder the experience and know I am shaped and molded to the very core of who I am via those days and years following Chris’ death. The experience of such a loss has informed and shaped my theology and how I think about God, faith, life, connection, and love. One would never chose to go through such a traumatic event and yet those moments have taught me the value of family, friends, community, and the Spirit of love that binds us all.
There is still a deep and profound connection I have with the community of Meade and those I remember being there for us as a family and being there for me as a thirteen year old. I have had the privilege and honor of reconnecting with many of them via the internet and other opportunities and such connection continues to feed my soul. It doesn’t seem like forty years has passed, sometimes the emotion feels as if it were just yesterday, and other times it seems as a lifetime ago. Chris is still here with us, in our hearts and souls, present in that love that will not let us go from which we can never be separated and for that I will always be thankful and filled; just some forty year old memories and thoughts from one who still misses his big brother and yet knows the joy of his influence on my life and faith.