Author's note: Today's FlemFile is an excerpt from my book Noah's Rainbow: A Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter. Although it opens with the harrowing tale of losing a child, the book is ultimately more about hope than death, more about what was learned than what was lost. This chapter, "Two Fathers," comes about three-quarters of the way through the book and is largely about the time I spent in the spring of 2001 profiling Jermaine Lewis, then a kick returner extraordinaire for the Baltimore Ravens. (I have altered it some for context and clarity.)
A month after his son, Geronimo, was stillborn, Lewis somehow found the strength to rise above his sorrow and pay tribute to his child with a spectacular 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV. Now, with yet another Super Bowl upon us, I am reminded, once again, how rare and poignant it is when sports transcend the playing field. Lewis' example of strength that day, along with the things I learned while profiling him for ESPN The Magazine, turned out to be both a major turning point in my own recovery and a motivating factor in my decision to write a book that might help other bereaved fathers.
Chapter 16, Two Fathers
As I would later write for ESPN, the Jermaine Lewis story was something I knew I had to do. Both he and I had lost our infant sons during the previous NFL season, and the minute Lewis became the star of Super Bowl XXXV, sitting in the press box in Tampa I just knew I was uniquely qualified to tell his story. Still, editors at The Magazine repeatedly cautioned me about ripping open my own emotional scabs in order to write the piece. I wasn't sure either how it would work out, but I did know that every single time my wife, Kim, and I had challenged ourselves to step out of our comfort zone during this process, the healing, understanding and growth we experienced as a result were truly magnificent.
A month earlier, in front of a worldwide audience of 700 million, the 5-foot-7, 180-pound Lewis sparked the Ravens victory in Super Bowl XXXV with a spectacular 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was one of the most moving moments I've witnessed in the 10 years I've been covering sports on a national level. Right next to Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch, playing pickup hoops inside Beijing's Forbidden City and watching a scrawny benchwarmer from Toms River, N.J., win the Little League World Series with a home run in his mandated final at-bat.
When Lewis reached the end zone in Tampa, he pointed to the sky in honor of his son Geronimo, who was stillborn on Dec. 13. Later, for a piece in The Mag titled "Daylight," I wrote, "Lewis had somehow found the strength to rise above the sudden death of his son to create a loving and lasting legacy for his child ... In an instant a father's prayer was answered: his son would not be forgotten ... and certainly, somewhere in that global audience there were grieving parents -- struggling with a similar ordeal, fighting just to face each day -- who now had a role model."
I, of course, was one of those parents. (My son, Noah, died during childbirth on Aug. 10, 2000.) And that was how I approached that story: more as a father than as a sportswriter.
Jermaine's story was my story -- and that of a thousand other fathers.
He picked me up at the airport in his white Lexus for a quick trip back to his hometown of Lanham, Md. Jermaine's tragedy had gotten so much attention during the media circus that is the Super Bowl I wasn't sure whether he even wanted to talk about it anymore. About 15 minutes into our ride, I told him about Noah, but only as a way of saying to him I understood what he was going through and if he didn't want to talk about it that was cool with me.
My disclosure had the opposite effect. Jermaine seemed as eager as I was to talk to another father. When we arrived in his old neighborhood, he pulled over to a shady part of the street and put the car in park. He leaned back in his seat, rubbing his hands over his face, and the memories just seemed to wash over him. He sat up every so often to hit the repeat button on a song by 8Ball & MJG, a somber thumping tribute to a fallen friend that, Jermaine swore, was written just for him.
I had been doing the exact same thing with U2's latest album. Just as it had been for Jermaine, music was the first mainstream passion to return to my life after my son died. It was a lucky coincidence for me that only a few months after Noah died, my favorite band, U2, came out with what critics said was a masterpiece of powerful songs about rebirth, hope and grace. It opens with "Beautiful Day", a somewhat ironic song about someone beaten down by life who finds hope in a new day. "Reach me," Bono pleads. "I know I'm not a hopeless case." Near the end of the song, there's even a reference to a rainbow, just like the one we saw in the sky above our house after Noah's funeral: "After the flood, all the colors came out ... it was a beautiful day."
After I heard that album for the first time, the color seemed to return to my landscape, as well. Now, did I wish it was some great work of art that created that spark? Some novel or painting or poem instead of a pop/rock album? Or did I wish I had been inspired the way Kim was by her group of close friends, her volunteer work or her tireless medical research into how our infant son could have died of a placental abruption even though we were in the hospital waiting to be induced? Sure. But in the end, all that mattered was discovering something to push me out of my mental and emotional hibernation. The "what" didn't matter. It could have been lawn care, body piercing or checkers. In my case, it was music.
Whatever the inspiration, it felt good to finally feel strongly about something besides missing my son or worrying about the upcoming birth of my daughter. The album became the soundtrack to the final stages of my recovery.
Kim understood that before I did, and when dates came out for U2's 2001 Elevation tour, she pushed me to see as many concerts as I could get to. I wore a hat to most shows that had Noah's picture taped under the bill. In May, Kim and I saw U2 in Charlotte, and the next night my buddy Burnsie and I drove to Atlanta, where I watched from the front row. Afterward, Burnsie and I went to a nearby pub until 4 a.m. Then, while butchering "Elevation," stumbled back to our hotel through some not-so-safe parts of town. Somehow we didn't get mugged or lost or, worse, signed up for "American Idol." "This proves the kid is looking out for us," Burnsie said the next morning while we retraced our steps.
A few months later, while working on a Donovan McNabb feature in Philadelphia, I scored a ticket online, then raced down to Washington, D.C., to see the band one last time. Around that time, Bono had begun improvising a new ending to "Beautiful Day" where it sounded to me like he was celebrating his own newborn son, referring to him as the "golden soul."
That was Noah, all right, and Geronimo, too. The two of them: our Golden Souls.
Jermaine stayed silent for several minutes, but then -- in a gravelly, shaky voice -- he began. "After the doctors said, 'We can't find a heartbeat,' I remember not being able to keep it all in. I was in shock. I was in intense pain. I remember being mad. Mad at God. I remember thinking, 'Why?' I remember saying to myself, 'God took him for a reason,' I just have to find out why."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. That was almost word for word my exact reaction to Noah's death.
Jermaine continued, "I had a nickname for him: G-Mo."
"This is weird, man," I said, interrupting him.
"We called Noah ... Mo," I said.
"G-Mo and Mo," Jermaine repeated softly to himself.
"Hey, let me ask you something. What do you tell people when they ask if you have any kids?"
A few days earlier, I had been at my alma mater -- Miami University in Oxford, Ohio -- and, while speaking at an event called Eye on Alumni, I had trouble being consistent about how I answered that question. Sometimes I said "no," then I worried about what Noah would think. Sometimes I said "yes," then I worried what to say if they asked a follow-up question. Sometimes I said "We had one child, a son" and just left it at that. What do you say? Do I have any kids? Well, yes and no. Do I say nothing or tell the whole ugly story? What do you do? It was just another one of the thousand or so little unforeseen challenges a father faces after his kid dies. They are mostly little things like this. And they come out of nowhere. But they certainly add up.
|“||As a father of two daughters, I've always thought the worst thing in the world would be for one of them to die. I still feel that way, but after learning the story of Noah's Rainbow I feel a kinship with two parents whose life was scarred but not ruined by the death of their son. This book will make you cry. It will make you think. And it will make you pause to rejoice, because in the end it winds up being more about hope than death. It's like Tuesdays with Morrie, only for fathers. Somehow, through his tears and pain, David Fleming crafted a marvelous love story that will help heal others who think, erroneously, that they can't go on when a child dies. ”|
|— Peter King, senior writer, Sports Illustrated|
"Different things," he said, coolly. "I tell different people different things."
"Yeah. I gotcha."
Then Jermaine spoke about finding refuge in the hospital cafeteria. How he'd go there, order a bunch of food he had no intention of eating and sit in the corner and cry. He still didn't like to break down in front of his wife, Imara. He wanted to stay strong for her. But he didn't know where else to go.
"I cry when I cut the lawn," I told him. "Pull my hat down low over my eyes, put some headphones on and just let 'er rip. You're sweating already so no one notices."
Jermaine smiled and nodded his head. "Yeah, man, yeah," he said.
We talked like that -- back and forth, comparing notes, ideas and theories, two broken fathers sharing their sad secret code -- for almost an hour. And then, after speaking to his high school track coach, we drove to a live-seafood store to buy some Maryland blue crabs to cook up for dinner. Lewis was discussing his recipe with the guy behind the counter -- sometimes he used Jack Daniel's, sometimes he used beer -- when he saw me leaning over the bag.
"Be careful man, those crabs will ... "
"Yeeeeoowch," I screamed.
The little guy on top practically pinched my damn pinky off. I jumped and skipped around the shop in tight circles, shaking my hand, my face bright red from the pain. That, of course, sent everyone into fits of laughter.
Finally, I came to a halt. Still waving my throbbing finger I said, "Ha ha ha. I'm throwing that little dude into the pot first."
Jermaine was still chuckling about my mangled digit when we pulled onto his country estate located on several acres in Boring, Md. Once inside, he needed to make some phone calls about a charity foundation he had started in Geronimo's memory. So Imara gave me the grand tour. Before heading into his office, Jermaine shared Noah's story with her. "They lost their baby, too," he said. Imara showed me the wraparound porch, the nursery and the trophy room. On a sun-splashed table in the corner of their den, we came across the tiny silk box that held their son's effects. I stood over it, dazed and frozen.
This is what I wrote: "I knew, at that very moment, back in North Carolina on the second floor of our home on top of a changing table inside an empty nursery, sat the very same box. Inside the box are the purple ink imprints of (Noah's) little feet, the blue-and-pink striped stocking cap he wore, hair clippings that perfectly match his mother's thick brown locks, the tiny hospital wristband he never got to wear and several pictures of my sweet, pudgy little fullback."
It was clear to me then just how much I had missed by not interacting with other bereaved parents. By going it alone, I had indeed made things much harder on myself. I had been so certain that I was the only one in the whole wide world grieving a dead son. I had been so proud and so stubborn about my unique grief. All that created in me was an even greater sense of isolation. After listening to Imara and Jermaine, I realized how wrong I had been. There were thousands upon thousands of parents just like us. (A fact that was reinforced by the response to the article.) I had discovered, a tad late, that it is possible to gain and give support to others without compromising the uniqueness of your own situation or intruding on the things you don't wish to share with others. I don't really consider that a mistake but a personal preference. I could have jumped in from the beginning and defined who I was from within that group. But that wasn't me. I needed to figure out who I was on my own before joining the larger, greater brotherhood of bereaved fathers.
"It all comes down to a constant, daily battle," Imara said, shaking me out of my thoughts. "Of whether you are going to triumph over this or succumb." I just shook my head back at her in amazement. My knowing smile caught her off guard.
"What?" she asked.
"That's nearly the exact same thing my wife and I say to each other," I said.
"In the end, we had to do this story, he and I," I later wrote. "We have the same haunting memories (of holding our sons for the first and last time); the same fears (that time does not, in fact, heal all wounds); the same refuge (in music); the same dreams (to see our kids again someday, perhaps playing together); the same hopes (we both wanted to try to have more kids); and finally, that we were both profoundly changed, and motivated, by our loss."
Outside of Kimmy, I probably related to Jermaine more than anyone else in this whole process. For all that people like my buddy Jak and my brother Greg had done for me, I kind of wished that wasn't true. But there's just no comparison to the deep connection you make with someone who has actually been through the same thing.
Heading up to the mountains to fly-fish early one morning on a stream a few hours north of where I live in North Carolina, Jak asked me how often I thought about Noah. Right away, I thought it was an odd question.
"How often do you think of your own kids?" I asked him.
"All the time, I guess," he said.
"Really?" He replied without hiding his incredulity.
"Yeah, really ... what, you think I'm lying?"
"Well, no, I just wouldn't think, I don't know," he said.
No, he didn't. I guess that's the point. As much as he cared, as hard as he tried to, he never could understand completely.
Jermaine was proof for me that I was on the right path. I was moved by his willingness to serve as a role model for other dads; the way, in light of Geronimo's death, how he still called himself blessed; the way he kept his son on his mind while refusing to be defined by that grief; the way, like most great athletes, he never seemed to be bothered by things he couldn't control; the way his loss had seemed to make him stronger, bolder, tougher as a man; the way Geronimo had changed his attitude about life. When I asked him how much he worried about getting hurt during a kick return, what with 250-pound guys hurling their bodies at him at breakneck speed, he replied, without hesitation, "I've already survived the worst thing a person can go through. To me, a kick return is nothing."
|After 10 years in the league and two trips to the Pro Bowl, Lewis retired from the NFL in 2004. He and his wife, Imara, had a son, Ali, on March 1, 2002. Lewis now spends part of his time working with the Jermaine Lewis Foundation, which benefits underprivileged children, and the Geronimo Lewis Foundation, a financial trust that supports underserved families and expectant mothers.|
The way things had worked out with our next child, our daughter Ally was going to be born almost a year to the day after Noah died. And as we got closer to Noah and Ally's birthdays, those were the creeds I tried to live by. I've already survived the worst thing a person can go through. To me, a second pregnancy should be nothing.
Later in the day, we moved out to the deck to sample the crabs. I asked Jermaine about the team's upcoming Super Bowl ring ceremony. His answer served as the ending to my story.
Lewis said he might wear the ring only once, then put it with the rest of G-Mo's things. "After everything, sometimes it just doesn't seem real," he said. "The touchdowns, the wins, the Super Bowl ... everything, all the success, I've just been blessed." Lewis' voice then trails off a bit and he turns to stare out into the 11 acres of woods that surround his house.
"Of course," he whispers, "I'd give it all back in a second."
We hung out for another day, and I spent some time interviewing his teammates and coaches. We never promised to stay in touch. It just seemed obvious that we would. Then I jumped in a cab for the Baltimore airport. Stuck in traffic, I tried to remember the last time I had strung together so many positive and fulfilling days since the death of my son had sent me spinning off into some other bizarre universe. I couldn't think of one. Miami. Jermaine Lewis. Work. Noah. Kim. Valentine's Day. I felt sustained strength, clarity, balance and purpose for, maybe, the first time since my boy had died. Everything up to that point had been such peaks and valleys, only then did I feel like I was on a steady, even path. There was, finally, some momentum to my healing. I wanted to share it all with Kim, but my flight was already boarding when I reached the gate. After we took off, the urge, to talk to her was too great. I ignored the $25-a-minute charge and pulled the Airfone out of the seat in front of me, swiped my credit card and dialed our home phone.
It was the best $287 I ever spent.
"Kimmy?" I whispered.
"Hey, how's it going?" she answered. "Are you OK? Where are you calling from?"
"I'm great, Nord," I said using the nickname I had given her years ago based on her borderline obsession with the department store Nordstrom. "How are you feeling, how're my girls?"
"We're good. The interview went good? It sounds like you're underwater."
"It was amazing, I learned so much," I said.
"Good. Hey, you're on an air phone, an airplane phone?" she laughed. "Your flight left OK?"
"Yeah," I said. "I just had to call you, Nord. The Miami thing was so cool."
"I know. I read your e-mail, thanks ... got your flowers today, too, thanks."
I knew she was smiling on the other end. So many of my odd phone calls on the road had begun with me telling Kimmy I was hurting.
Not that one. Not anymore.
"Jermaine, how was he?" Kim asked.
"He was awesome, really open about everything."
"I'm so glad."
"It was just so good to talk to another dad," I said. "We talked like two dads, like two fathers. I can't believe how much of the same things we're going through. I'm so glad I didn't back down from this story. They have the exact same kind of little green silk box as we do."
|“||Dave and I have spent time together on some high-profile stories in the past few years. Sometimes in my profession, opening up to a writer can be problematic, however, working with Dave has always turned out to be enjoyable and productive. Many times his stories painted a deeper and more colorful picture than what I was able to see with my own eyes. With Noah's Rainbow, Dave has used that same wit and passion to help others who may confront the same tragedy, so they too can move forward and find comfort. ”|
|— Donovan McNabb, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles|
" ... and the stuff that I thought was weird or bizarre or whatever? Like I was the only one feeling that? He's dealing with the exact same stuff."
"I'm so glad everything went good," Kim said.
"Kimmy?" I said.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"I want to tell you something."
"OK, sure. What is it?"
I paused for a few seconds, turning toward the window of the plane for some privacy.
"I feel ... I feel ... normal," I announced, exhaling a slightly incredulous laugh. "I feel normal again, Nord. How 'bout that?"
For me, normal was huge. It had been nine months since my son died in my arms, and normal meant I was beginning to think as much about Ally and our future as I was about Noah and our past. It meant for the first time since our son had died that Kim didn't have to worry about me. It meant balance, emotional balance, and strength -- the kind I could begin to seriously build on for whatever was in store with Ally. I could sense Kim's relief. I think she had wanted to push me harder to get there, but instead gave me the space and freedom to reach it on my own.
She must have been feeling just how monumental normal was because, even at 33,000 feet, I could hear her crying softly on the other end of the line.
Reprinted with permission from Baywood Publishing.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, can be ordered through Baywood Publishing or Amazon.com. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.