The Tragic Death of a Young Boy

Tragedy has struck in my community. An 11-year old boy, Alan Zapata, and teammate of my son was playing a futsal game last week and, after scoring a handful of goals and playing his usual aggressive and skillful game, asked to be subbed out. His head hurt. Moments later he collapsed, went into cardiac arrest, and stopped breathing. Someone called 911 immediately and a few adults attempted CPR until the ambulance arrived. After a life-flight to Primary Children’s Hospital and several days in a coma at the hospital, his body couldn’t hold on and he died. It appears he had a previously unknown congenital heart problem that could have been repaired had he regained consciousness. You can read more about Alan here.

Until last night, I had never attended a funeral for a very young person. I had also never attended Catholic funeral services, let alone services in Spanish. Alan’s family is from Mexico where they intend to bury him, in his soccer uniform. There was an enormous outpouring of support and many, many tears shed for Alan by his classmates, teammates of his many soccer teams, and friends of the family. During a touching slide show of Alan’s short life, the sound of the many children crying as they sat gathered together in a tight space in front of the screen was unbearable. I knew my own son was among those seated there but I couldn’t reach him to comfort at that moment, nor any of the other boys on the team. They sat and mourned together, doing something that nothing in life had yet prepared them for and that will not soon be forgotten. Sam was so exhausted from the sorrow, he could barely keep his eyes open during dinner afterwards.

It was a bicultural and bilingual experience, Mormons and Catholics, Anglos and Hispanics gathered together as one, unified by the common anguish we all felt at a beautiful life extinguished too early. Something there is about the early departed that brings us up short and causes an intensification of appreciation for one another and a determination to live life more deliberately, more lovingly, and more gratefully.

I have written before about soccer culture in Utah, and about the privilege it is to watch my children and the children of others developing themselves. I know that sports are overrated and that other pursuits matter as much or more than the quest for athletic excellence, but I do find something deeply moving about the quest to discipline, strengthen, and harness the energies and capacities of the body, especially in the collective unit of a team. I often find myself on the verge of tears, just watching young people run with all of their hearts. I wrote in this previous post the following sentences, not realizing how they would sound on a day like today:

But what will the children have become in the process of the pursuit? If nothing else, they will know the joys of health, vigor, activity. These joys don’t last, since the body doesn’t. But they are real and, as long as fortune allows, our privilege.

I am especially grateful to my friend, Conner Bassett, who has coached my son and my daughter even while he has still been in college. We asked him to play a role in the lives of these children that was initially born of nothing more than a shared love for the sport since he didn’t know the players nor their parents. Conner caught Alan in his arms as he collapsed during the game, and I suspect that the event has changed his life forever. As the boys filed away from the slide show of Alan’s life in tears, they found and hugged Conner. Conner is a gifted poet and will undoubtedly find his own adequate expression of what this experience will mean to him in the future, so I don’t want to speak for him. But I am deeply moved by how this tragedy has transformed and perhaps even sanctified the significance of his interactions with his teams. I know it has for me as a parent and his sometime assistant coach. All of us find a change in our simple interactions with one another, whether it is the common project of building a soccer team, or any other worthy pursuit of life. When loss strikes so suddenly, it causes the paroxysms of sorrow but it also inspires, almost simultaneously, a recognition of the sanctity of life itself and the profound worth of each and every one of us. Alan was a beautiful boy, and the great gift of human sorrow is the understanding that we are all beautiful, all valuable, and all incalculably precious. Human beings to me never seem so lovely as when they are reaching out to each other in profound sympathy. It is as if we cannot finally see what life means until it is taken from us. I think this is why, perhaps, Rilke in his great poem The Duino Elegies, insists that we meditate on the figure of the young who have died prematurely. His poem is an exercise in imagining again and again these unanticipated deaths as if in hope that we might be able to learn to appreciate existence without needing to experience tragedy. It is not easy to keep death close to us without it crippling us. Every parent knows the anxiety of worry about unexpected loss. But maybe the beauty of art, music, poetry, and the hope of faith provide us with enough recompenses to trust that existence is not only holy in life but also in death.

What I wish to say is not meant to diminish in any way the tragedy that Alan’s family has experienced, but I think it is a paradox, if not one of our greatest and most common tragedies, that we sometimes require sudden and shocking loss to wake us up to the plain fact of life’s pervasive holiness and the true meaning of community.

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