The journey was to this day was not one of miles, but of time and obstacles. On October 8, 2014, Peyton, then an 8th grader at Forbes, came home from school and hanged himself in his bedroom. Despite the efforts of his mother, first responders, and the PICU staff at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Peyton passed away from his injuries on October 13th.
In the days leading up to his death, Peyton had filed a harassment complaint against another student. My initial reaction was to use the young man as a punching bag, but as cooler heads prevailed. I became worried about the burden that the young man would be carrying. I emailed the principal to see if they were able to identify the young man in question. I was told he was not, and that worried me, but two years later, after reading the police report, I discovered that the principal at the time had lied to me and Jacki. I have no idea why he felt the need to keep this information from us. Perhaps he was protecting the student's privacy, perhaps he was following orders from above, perhaps he was covering his own ass, but he allowed us to spend more than two years thinking that this kid went undiscovered, perhaps carrying guilt over Peyton's death.
Earlier this year, when Jacki discovered that there was a memorial garden at Forbes, she asked the current principal if we could place a small memorial stone for Peyton. She was told no because Peyton had taken his life. Needless to say, this was the wrong thing to tell two parents that were not willing to slink off with their tail between our legs. Through our respective non-profits, Kindness Matters and The Peyton Heart Project, and social media, we raised awareness of this situation. People were outraged by this. While Jacki contacted people within the district seeking to resolve the situation, I began my research to debunk the district's antiquated arguments against the memorial, as well as any policy that the district had addressing memorials (they had none). In November, we were finally given the go ahead to place the stone. It had to be placed before the first of the year, as the district adopted a policy that no more memorials would be allowed*.
As we drove up Interstate 35, the sun finally broke through and the clouds began to drift away. We arrived at Forbes, located the garden, and waited for others to arrive. Slowly, vehicles began to drift into the parking lot. A small group comprised of friends, family, and even a school board member, went about the task of cleaning up the garden. We pulled weeds, moved rocks, and picked up trash. Finally, we placed his stone, a small 12x18 remembrance of a life that ended far too soon. As I stood silently, I held back my tears as long as I could before I lost it. As Lisa held me, I let the tears pour out of me. After I composed myself long enough to thank those that showed up, I knelt down on the cold, damp ground one more time. I touched the stone to reassure myself that it was there, that the fight to honor my son was over, and we had achieved our goal not to force the district to enact new policy, but to pay homage to a life ended too soon.
I can't help but wonder if Peyton had died of cancer or been hit by a car while riding bike, would we have had two have jumped through so many hoops to be allowed this small memorial? As an avid reader of author Michael Connelly, I have become a fan of his character Harry Bosch. In Connelly's book The Last Coyote, Bosch says "everybody counts or nobody counts. That's it. It means I bust my ass to make a case whether it's a prostitute or the mayor's wife. That's my rule." In a way, that is how I feel about honoring students that have passed away. School Districts need to have guidelines in place should a student lose their life. If they choose to allow a memorial, a mention in the yearbook, a moment of silence, a picture in the hall or not, that is their right. However, they must enforce this policy equally. The president of the student council is no better or worse than the quiet kid in the back of the room failing every class. Whether the student dies from cancer is no more, or less, honorable than a student that dies from depression.
As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed home, I was finally able to take some solace in knowing that Peyton finally received the honor he deserved. No, Peyton won't be remembered for a long touchdown run, a breath taking performance on stage, hitting the winning shot, or for an award winning article in the school paper. But thanks to a small stone with a huge meaning, at least he will be remembered.