Chris Stokes walked out of his home and screamed toward the heavens. He wailed and yelled and cried out to God. He needed to escape, to forget the emptiness and confusion, but how could he? The memories follow him. So he trudged back inside.
It’d been a month since the July accident claimed his 17-year-old son Sean’s life, and that’s all he can think about. It doesn’t even take a look at the wall, where his son’s drawings still hang. Or a peek into his bedroom, where his beloved Air Jordans still decorate his headboard. Or a look at the living room, where his football and basketball trophies still crowd the family’s table. All it takes is waking up. Before he opens his eyes and tumbles out of bed, the memories remind him that Sean no longer lives there.
He wanders through the house he built like he’s lost, even though he’s lived there with his wife, Dolly, and their sons for six years. For them, each reminder brings the crack of a blistering whip.
On the living room wall, there are Sean’s paintings, from a Thanksgiving turkey hand to a Picasso-esque wolf.
In Sean’s old bedroom, which he shared with his 16-year-old brother Kenzie, there’s his collection of basketball shoes, his horde of video games and a football.
On the TV, there’s blackness to remind Chris of all the NBA final games they watched together, all the arguments they had and all the times he caught Sean up late playing video games. Oh, what he’d give to be able to catch him up past curfew again.
“When we get in the car to go wherever we go, there’s a seat missing,” Chris said. “There’s an empty seat.”
Chris, a pastor, grew up in Micanopy, joined the military to escape it and returned. He missed the community, the place where “Everybody knew you, and if you did something, you were going to get corrected in the streets.” When he came back, he wanted to give back, and he eventually founded the New Beginning Christian Worship Center with Dolly.
He tries to fill the void Sean left with faith. He planned to perform Sean’s eulogy but couldn’t. He needed to focus on healing himself instead of healing his congregation, not knowing when he’d be able to preach again.
At his church, Sean’s friends and family try to heal through faith as well. They want to believe there’s a greater purpose for Sean’s early death. But they also believe Sean would’ve been a great plastic surgeon, physical therapist or entrepreneur, and they, like his parents, have to confront that he never will be.
One morning, about a month after the accident, as Chris and Dolly reminisced about Sean’s life, they smiled. They talked about their boy’s social awareness and charisma. They were so thrilled to focus on who Sean was that Chris mentioned he recently recovered from cancer in passing. Then the conversation turned to how Sean died, and their smiles disappeared. Dolly stared into nothing and reached for a tissue.
“And I know what the scripture says. I know everyone loves to quote, ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning,’” Chris said. “But nobody tells you that night is hell.”
They both still managed to share what they remember. About the phone call. About the decision they never thought they’d make. About the three seconds it took for their son to go from all-terrain vehicle driver to body to memory.
The whips make Chris want to scream again. But on that morning, just more than a month since the accident, he instead made the five-minute drive down Old U.S. Highway 301 near his home in Citra and turned onto the gravel path where his son died. And, for the third time since the accident, he looked, remembered and tried to forget.
On the morning of July 1, Chris woke up around 7:00 a.m. to meet with church leadership and discuss purchasing land. Before he left, he woke up Sean. Sean’s uncle is in a motorcycle club called the Get Ghost Boyzz, and that Saturday was the group’s annual gathering. Sean had asked if he could go, so Chris woke him up and reminded him he could on one condition.
“I don’t care what you do today,” Chris told him, “but you have to cut the grass.”
Sean went into his parents’ bedroom and hugged his mom, who was still asleep. He laid with her for about five minutes and didn’t say a word. When he emerged, he asked his dad to take him to the store for a new “Call of Duty” video game later that day.
“OK,” Chris told him. “But I want my grass cut.”
He headed to the bathroom to get dressed while Sean prepared to mow the lawn. As Chris walked toward his Ford F-150, Sean turned toward the mower. Chris got into his truck and never looked back.
Around 11:00 a.m., Sean called Chris.
“Da,” said Sean, who called his dad by that nickname. “I’m finished.”
“OK,” Chris told him. “I’m on my way home anyway.”
“OK,” Sean said and hung up.
When Chris got home around 1 p.m., Sean was already gone. Dolly arrived from shopping around 1:30 p.m. She asked Chris how long Sean had been at the event, and Chris said long enough. It was time for him to come home. Dolly, admittedly overprotective, called her brother and asked if he’d seen Sean.
“Oh yeah,” he told her. “He’s around here running around somewhere. He’s having a good time.”
“Well, if you see him,” Dolly answered, “tell him it’s time to come home.”
Around the same time, Sean’s uncle was grilling chicken under a clear, searing Florida sky. About 100 people had gathered to view motorcycle exhibits, eat and have a fun afternoon. Some others were riding their ATVs on a dirt road next to the event, though that wasn’t part of the event. Sean, who’d been at the event earlier, was one of them.
He sped down the dirt road on a 2004 Yamaha Raptor flanked by houses on one side and trees on the other. At some point during his return, according to the Florida Highway Patrol accident report, he lost control of the ATV, skidding suddenly to the left for “an unknown reason.” In about three seconds, his wheels started to hug the canopy. One second later, he crashed into a telephone pole-sized tree driving 30 mph. He flew into it head first without a helmet as the ATV rotated counterclockwise around the trunk and stopped, his 17 years of life nearly erased in less time than it takes to tie a shoe.
Sean’s spine was shattered, his neck was broken, his rib cage was crushed, his heart was damaged and blood filled his brain, but he was alive. It’s unclear how much time passed as Sean laid motionless in the dirt, his brain swelling with blood and his limbs numb, before someone realized he’d been gone too long and went looking for him. When paramedics arrived, Sean was barely alive.
His parents, meanwhile, were at the Dollar General picking up the thank-you cards for church. Chris had been unable to preach for a month after having surgery to remove a tumor on his prostate, and Sunday was set to be his return to the pulpit. Then his phone rang.
“What are you doing?” asked the voice on the other end.
“I’m in the Dollar General,” he answered. “Why?”
“Sean’s been in an accident.”
He and Dolly sped to the scene. Great, they thought. Sean broke his arm, and now we have to deal with it. Then they turned down the dirt road and saw the crowd and the ambulance.
Chris hopped into the ambulance while Dolly followed in their car.
“Don’t look back,” the driver told him. “They’re working on him, and it’s a really bloody scene.”
When they arrived at Ocala Regional Medical Center, doctors told them Sean sustained serious injuries. His nervous system was damaged, and his brain was too swollen to move him. They tried to relieve the pressure by drilling a hole in his skull, but, with his parents watching, blood erupted like a geyser.
At best, Sean would live, but he’d be in a vegetative state on a ventilator forever.
“He would be alive,” Chris said, “but that’s not living.”
They had to decide whether to keep Sean alive, so they prayed. But not in the way they usually did. Chris’ first prayer was out of anger.
“We’re only gonna have him for 17 years,” the pastor kept repeating to himself and to God.
Then it shifted to a plea for strength, which lasted through the night. Somewhere between 20 and 40 relatives and friends also waited with them as they made their decision. They continued asking for strength.
“Because we knew we were going to walk out of that room with our lives changed forever,” he said. “And we were gonna need strength for that.”
They decided to remove medical support, reasoning that it would be selfish to keep him alive. Doctors unhooked him at 12:12 p.m. on Sunday.
As they did, the congregation that was assembled in the waiting room prayed for a miracle. But inside, Chris and Dolly held Sean’s hand and watched for the next three minutes as the only remaining monitor flashed. Flashed. Flashed.
Then the screen turned black.
Chris toiled into the waiting room and addressed everyone who’d assembled and begged for Sean to be saved.
“He’s gone,” he told them.
One of the waiting room hopefuls was Julian Wiley, a minister at Chris’ church. He and his wife Courtney were Sean’s godparents, and they didn’t feel the numbness that overcame Chris and Dolly in that moment and in the coming days.
“I know for a lot of people, it’s a surreal moment,” he said. “But for me, it was a very real moment.”
They tried to stay strong to help Chris and Dolly through their grief, but they were grieving themselves.
They remember when Sean approached his dad three years ago.
“I like minister Wiley and his wife,” he told him. “I want them to be my godparents.”
Both he and Courtney use the same word to describe that memory: “Wow.”
Julian, who knew Sean for about eight months before he became his godfather, said he didn’t understand it at the time, but Sean saw something in him that he didn’t see in himself.
Julian, a Gators fan, remembers that Sean wanted to go to college at the University of Oregon. He was set to start his application in the coming weeks. He liked Oregon because of their loud, neon colors and swagger. It’s a swagger Sean carried with him. He used to buy pairs of socks and mix them together because he knew which mismatched pairs would look good.
Now, whenever Courtney goes to church, Sean isn’t there to greet her with a “Hey Ma” at the trunk of her car before carrying her 9-month-old son Jayce’s bags inside for her. Sean isn’t there playing the drums like he used to, having dubbed himself the church’s lead drummer.
Some of his friends from church also remember him for his drumming skills, but they have their own whipping memories.
Keonna Perry, 17, remembers his constant poking, punching, mocking and laughing.
“We were friends, minus the aggravation,” she said. “I’m gonna be honest.”
“But he was funny, so that made the aggravation not as much.”
Bernard Vance, 17, calls himself Sean’s best friend, and he remembers one time when Sean dunked on him.
“He didn’t tell nobody,” Bernard said, “because I told him not to.”
Now, he wishes Sean was still around to dunk on him. He spends more time at Sean’s house now than when Sean was alive. Why? To play video games with Kenzie, Sean’s 16-year-old brother who has Down syndrome.
“Because I’ve gotta take care of Sean’s brother,” he said before dipping his head back, taking a deep breath and leaving the room.
Weeks later, Chris was back where it happened. He stared. The tree that took Sean’s life was marked by a handmade wooden cross, blue ribbons, some lights and burn marks. As he stood in silence, he thought about all the times he’d seen similar crosses on the side of the road. He tried to stay positive, telling himself that yes, Sean is gone, but he’s gained new life. He was getting comfortable with the idea of preaching again.
Then, as he prepared to leave, a man drove by in a rickety blue pickup truck. He passed Chris without slowing down, but suddenly the truck stopped and reversed. He was a tow company owner, and he knew Chris from around town.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he told Chris. “How’re you doing?”
“Horrible,” Chris answered.
He’s learned to say that. At first, he tried to deny it. He wanted to look strong. But now, whenever anyone asks him how he’s doing, he’s honest. The whipping memories won’t stop.
A day earlier, he’d ventured into Sean’s old room, where Kenzie was playing a video game. He laid across Sean’s bed holding a basketball. He thought about the empty concrete slab and unused basketball hoop in the yard where they used to play together.
“It never goes away, man,” he said. “It never goes away.”
He’s tried to address those moments with prayer. That’s how he and Dolly try to approach their cross to bear: moment by moment.
“People say to take it a day at a time,” he said. “Well, that’s too long. And so really what we’ve done is it’s a moment … by moment … by moment thing. And after all those series of moments, we make it through the day. But then the day goes by, and then the night creates more moments. Because now it’s just us.”
And every day brings not only memories of moments that have passed, but reminders of moments that could’ve been.
The upcoming weekend was back-to-school weekend. The family was used to shopping for two. Now they’d shop for one. On Aug. 14, they were both supposed to go back to school. Only Kenzie did. In March, Kenzie turns 17. Sean would’ve turned 18.
“It’s always something,” Chris said.
He tries to look at the positives. So does Dolly. They try to see that Sean’s death has made them more compassionate toward others. Better spouses. Better parents. But those thoughts are drowned out by the whip striking again.
That was most apparent at Sean’s funeral, which took place July 8. On the memorial program, Sean is pictured in a dashiki that was given to Chris but that Sean commandeered. “You’ve gotta admit,” he told his dad, “it looks better on me.”
He’s smiling in that photo, but in the coffin, his face was stern. As Dolly approached, she kept asking herself, “Is this real?” Then she begged.
“Please, let me out of this dream.”
When she got to his body, she reached in, hugged him one last time and wept at his side.
“Sean, why are you leaving?” she asked. “You’re too young.”
That’s all she remembers. She knows the church was full but only because friends told her later. That fits with a saying Sean loved to tell his dad.
“People like you,” he’d tell him. “But they love me.’”
That confidence is one of the first things Chris thinks of when asked about Sean. He always thought he was the best, whether at driving or at basketball or at playing the drums. If he could, he’d say he had the best funeral.
Kenzie was there that day, but Sean’s absence didn’t hit him until later. One night about a month after the accident, the family was driving home from dinner when he started to cry out in the backseat. Chris pulled over so that Dolly could go calm him down.
“Sean gone,” he cried. “Sean gone.”
After suffering through prostate cancer and the death of his son, Chris returned to his role as pastor Aug. 6. He greeted the congregation at the tiny hall of worship in Micanopy by bumping fists with friends and hugging children.
“What’s up little man?” he said to a young boy. “Everything good?”
The service started with a four-person group of singers leading the church in songs of worship.
“C’mon c’mon c’mon!” Chris implored them. “Put those hands together for Jesus!”
Fewer than two minutes in, the congregation was in a clapping frenzy as Chris sat motionless atop the highest chair in the room.
“Alright, let’s go get this praise,” he told them, suddenly animated.
With around 60 people, the small wooden church was at capacity.
Then Chris started speaking, and some cracks formed in his facade. But he always came back to the same message.
“Even in the loss of my son,” he yelled with drums pounding in the background, “I trusted him!”
“Even though I’m struggling, even when we’re struggling, we seem to fall back on our worship,” he said later on. “We fall back on our praise.”
When Chris spoke briefly at Sean’s funeral, his message was one of hope. Even though Sean was awarded his diploma from SIATech Gainesville High School, located at 7022 NW 10th Place, he’ll never be able to go to prom or go to college or have a career. But his death, Chris told the crowd, should serve as a seed that grows in them — one they can carry with them to all those events he’ll never experience.
But then he went home, where the memories are a smack in the face. There, he prays every night. So does Dolly. Reminders of their faith are everywhere, right down to the shirts with the church’s logo that Chris loves to wear.
Then they glance at Sean’s picture or his diploma or the Spongebob Squarepants poster that hangs over his bed. Then the memories flood back and drown out everything else, setting back any progress in seconds. Their minds wander to thoughts of their son, and the questions about where he’d be today keep crack, crack, cracking away at the void.
Chris and Dolly hope to keep Sean’s memory alive by handing out scholarships to graduating high-school seniors in his name. Chris liked to tell Sean that “education is the new currency,” and while Sean never got to pursue his own, Chris hopes that in Sean’s death, others will be able to. They also hope to raise awareness for ATV safety and remain confident that though his loss has caused them great pain, he gained new life in heaven.