Although I'd hoped to attend the mayor's meeting on Tuesday, called in response to the shooting death of 14-year-old Evanston Township High School freshman Dajae Coleman, my family had a prior commitment. We were invited to eat dinner with our neighbors under the sukkot they build every year in their backyard following Yom Kippur. My family is not Jewish, so we were particularly honored to receive our neighbors’ invitation.
Since their children are grown and no longer live in Evanston, I walked over to their house wondering whether our hosts had been following news of Dajae Coleman’s murder.
They greeted us warmly, telling us a bit about their kids’ activities at college and abroad. We were introduced to netilat yadayim, a ritual washing of the hands with a cup, then walked quietly to the table under the sukkot.
Prior to eating, our hosts shared another tradition, one they’d begun with their own children. One by one, each person shares the name of a guest he or she would like to invite (in spirit) to the meal. The guest might be a historical figure, a celebrity, a fictional character…anyone of interest. One of our hosts, a professor of philosophy, went first. He said he’d like to invite James Madison, our country’s fourth president, explaining that Madison was the first president to appoint a Jew to a diplomatic post (Madison sent Mordecai M. Noah to Tunis from 1813 to 1816), something I hadn’t known. My husband went next, inviting Abraham Lincoln. My 9-year-old son followed by inviting John F. Kennedy. So far, all of our "invited" guests were presidents. Then, my 14-year-old son spoke.
“I’d invite Kaelan Madison,” he said.
Kaelan had been my son’s friend since they were infants. As they grew up in Evanston, they formed a friendship more genuine than anything I’ve ever known. Together, these tiny little boys became best friends who loved dressing up like superheroes and blasting music during living room dance parties. They attended preschool together and laughed at each other’s jokes over and over and over again. While Kaelan loved the Cubs and Henry was a die-hard Sox fan, I never once heard them argue. Kaelan introduced Henry to the miracle that is matzo-ball soup from The Bagel Restaurant in Skokie and to Cincinnati’s famous Skyline chili . Kaelan shared everything. His favorite color was orange. And he smiled all the time.
Kaelan was diagnosed with leukemia at three years old but, throughout his three remaining years, he touched everyone he met with joy, love and especially hope. On October 13, 2003, at the age of six, Kaelan David Madison died. The Chicago Tribune ran this obituary, which described Kaelen perfectly, and the 2003 Annual Report of the Evanston Police Department included a special section in Kaelan’s honor, including this passage:
A year ago five-year-old Kaelan toured the Evanston Police Department and then was sworn in as an honorary police officer. It was an occasion of privilege and joy for us. Not only did we see in Kaelan a strength in adversity that would have commanded our admiration had it been displayed by an adult, but also he demonstrated for us a standard of cheerful heroism that we – sworn to the heroic – well might strive to emulate.
Tragically, Kaelan’s tenure with the department was brief. Never again will he stride proudly and purposefully among us. Yet he remains with us in spirit, because encountering him changed our character for the better. Our perspective is enhanced because Kaelan lived.
Now, eight years later, my son sits beside me on a beautiful fall evening under a sukkot, inviting the friend he lost to cancer to share a meal.
I forgot to mention the remaining “invitees” to our dinner table. My daughter invited Mary Todd Lincoln. We all joked that, in case Abraham Lincoln forgot a guest’s name, Mary Todd Lincoln might lean over and whisper it quietly to him. Our other host, an architect, invited Michelle Obama, adding that the table was short on women.
When it came to my turn, I invited Dajae Coleman. Our hosts mentioned how they'd been following the story and were saddened to hear that our son had only just gotten to know Dajae at ETHS. They mentioned hearing what a wonderful young man Dajae had been, and what a tragic loss his death was for the entire community.
A few days after our dinner, while driving on Church Street, I noticed the absence of Dajae’s memorial at the corner of Florence Avenue. All the candles, the teddy bears, the basketballs and jerseys were gone. The posters and flowers had been cleared away, and the view of the empty grass was shocking.
Then, something made me think about our dinner with the neighbors. I was reminded that the pain of loss can and will subside — but that feelings, memories, love, and the messages left behind will remain with us forever.