Happy Little Trees

For the record, this isn’t a vanity-based self-portrait.

It’s a unity-based one.

Yesterday was Devin Kunich’s 23rd birthday. Devin is the son of my good friend and former Air Force colleague, Gary. Unfortunately, Devin was killed last year while riding his bicycle when he was hit by a teenage driver talking on her cell phone with her eyes closed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: this blog’s gone dark. In one week’s time, I’ve managed to write about disrespect in the work place, depression/suicide, 9/11, and now I’m going to write more about Devin.

But I write about life, and this is life. There is darkness and there is light. There is pain. And there is joy.

I promise you, this post is about the joy.

So back to Devin.

 

I never met Devin, but I knew him as Gary’s oldest kid.

I first met Gary in 2002, when he was the instructor for the feature writing class at our annual career workshop in San Antonio. He was — and still is — a writer, well-known in our profession.

His class was a riot. All I remember is him dancing like Elvis and instructing us to breathe deeply and write about the exquisiteness of toilet paper. If I remember correctly, I wrote how something so delicate can be made to withstand a lot of shit, and he thought that was genius.

We stayed in touch over the years, meeting up at those workshops and connecting more frequently with the dawn of social media. So over time, I came to know about Devin in that passive, roundabout way work colleagues share family stories.

By all accounts, Devin was a goofy, funny kid who grew up to be a goofy, funny young man with dance moves like his father. (Trust me: I’ve seen videos.) He was 21, working at the local Renaissance fair, dating a great girl, saving up for school, getting ready to take on the world.

Finding out that Devin died in such a manner was heartbreaking. I was sick to my stomach about it for days, and did my best to post and send messages of support that didn’t seem too trite or shallow as we followed Gary’s postings online. You would think someone would rage under those circumstances. Gary had every right to do that. Nobody would have judged him for it.

But Gary didn’t.

Nope, he and his wife Ruth are the type of people who are made to withstand. And not just withstand, but lead by example. They decided to honor Devin’s life and memory by making it their life mission to educate people about cell-phone driving. They’ve already paired up with other parents who’ve lost their loved ones due to cell-phone driving, and are throwing their weight behind efforts to pass tougher laws and observances related to this topic.

But most of all, they want people to remember their son, and the day before Devin’s birthday, Gary asked his online friends and family if we would wear pink on Devin’s birthday and post online photos of our attire.

You see, one of the last little random quips Devin said to his mother before he was killed was the remark that he felt there should be more of the color pink in the world, so he was going to wear it more often. Since he is no longer here to wear it, others are wearing it for him.

Including me.

In an effort to show that Devin was being remembered here in Washington DC on his birthday, I wanted a landmark behind me for my photo. And what better landmark than the US Capitol building, just a few blocks from my office? After work, I walked over to the Mall to snap the photo. Easier said than done.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day, but the white dome reflected too much light. The building just wasn’t registering on my iPhone. I spent 20 minutes walking around, trying to find some shade or some alternative. It wasn’t happening.

Then I remembered the happy little trees.

A few hours before Devin was killed, friends captured him doing a silly little dance during an improvisation circle at the Renaissance festival. He ad-libbed some song about being a happy little tree, and Gary’s referred to it from time to time.

 

The National Mall is full of trees. So I went to the littlest one in my area and snapped a photo with the trees in the background and my pink scarf on display.

And as I lowered my iPhone to post the picture onto Gary’s Facebook page, I heard a soft whir coming up from behind me.

It was a skinny man on a Segway, wearing a ginormous helmet on his head, and a bright, neon pink shirt and tight black shorts. He looked confident. He looked in charge. He looked hilarious, especially with about four or five others who weren’t nearly as confident following him like ducks on their Segways.

I burst out laughing, and relayed the story onto Gary’s Facebook page, telling him it took me 20 minutes to find a good spot for a photo, but all it took was a spot near the trees for humor and pink to collide as a sign from Devin.

Gary agreed with me.

Some folks may say it was sheer coincidence. Some say it’s just our human nature to want to make connections and apply meaning to things like this.

But I say these are embraceable moments of joy.

Faith. Positive energy.

Whatever you want to call ’em, they are reminders to smile and appreciate life every moment.

To be silly and light.

And to celebrate the happy little trees among us.

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You can listen to two of Gary’s recent NPR News radio interviews (which were made local in Wisconsin) HERE and HERE.

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Also, BlogHer syndicated my blog post yesterday about that woman bashing the military during my meeting last week. They put it on their front page and used it as the headliner for their Career section. How cool is that? Go check it out and join the discussion!