Web hitchner

Grieving two deaths, grateful for two lives

By Earle Hitchner

[caption id="attachment_63775" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Jason Earle Hitchner (1987-2011) and Sandy Walker (1947-2011)."]


From Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book “On Death and Dying,” many of us first learned about the so-called five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But I prefer writer William Faulkner’s simpler dictum: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

I have been grieving and grappling with the death of my nephew and godson, Jason Earle Hitchner (Dec. 19, 1987-March 9, 2011), and the death of a dear friend, Chrysandra “Sandy” Lou Walter (Nov. 29, 1947-March 21, 2011). They were separated by 40 years in life and 12 days in death. Both passings came roughly four months after the passing of my 86-year-old mother, Virginia.

I have had my fill of death.

My younger brother Jim, who is Jason’s father, told me through tears: “It changes everything. Nothing will be the same again. Nothing.”

Jason died in his sleep at his father’s home. He was 23 years old. There was no evidence of drug abuse, which is often presumed by people reading about a young person’s sudden, unexplained death. All we know is Jason’s heart, so generous and full in life, stopped.

Lean and fit, he ran regularly, ate healthfully, doted on his family and friends, and loved life. Jason was also brilliant. He was graduated in 2010 from Brown University with a B.S. in civil engineering and a grade point average of 3.71. His SAT and GRE scores in math were perfect: 800.

Speaking at his son’s memorial service, Jim noted that Jason had not long ago done a series of complex differential equations to determine the best way to rid waste from a fish tank. This came as little surprise to those who knew him. During various times at Brown, Jason was a volunteer for Engineers Without Borders who participated in the construction of a natural gas stove fueled from a cow manure digester, a project leader of a wastewater treatment case study, an environmental specialist on a senior project involving the treatment of contaminated groundwater, and a research assistant at Plate Impact Testing Facility. After his death, when I learned that part of his research at the testing facility involved viscoelastic properties of human heart valves through a torsional wave experiment, I was left with equal portions of admiration and mystification. All this from a college undergraduate!

Yet Jason wore his learning and intelligence with a gossamer lightness and no trace of conceit. More importantly, his passion for life and for making the lives of others better never waned. I was proud of his active advocacy for social, political, and economic justice through volunteer work and street-level protest. I was also proud when I learned that he helped to relieve a high-school friend’s stress in a tough college pre-med regimen by doing large picture puzzles with her. She brought one such completed puzzle -- it was of the Beatles -- and some photos of her and him working on it to his memorial service.

Jason Earle Hitchner was on the cusp of launching a highly promising professional career as a civil engineer with a zeal for environmental problem-solving when his life ended, in a sense, before it began. But rather than regret the many future years his death denied his family, we are grateful for the 23 years of the bright life he gave us.

“Even healing hurts,” notes poet Kevin Young. It is a palliative pain, keeping a lost loved one alive in the life-breath of memory.

I don’t recall the first time I met Chrysandra Walter, a California native who earned a B.A. in Park Administration and Recreation Management at San Jose State University and was graduated from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government Senior Executive Fellows Program, but I remember vividly the first impression Sandy made on me. She was smart, focused, enthusiastic, gracious, indefatigable, and extremely organized and effective. Sandy, who quickly became a dear friend, had fallen in love with Irish traditional music and with one of its supreme fiddlers, Clare-born Seamus Connolly, whom she later married in 2002.

The two of them were an ideal team: Seamus’s unique musical vision matched to Sandy’s unique gift for implementation. Together they worked tirelessly to launch Boston College’s Gaelic Roots Festival, where I emceed the inaugural concert in 1993. The festival and its ensuing summer school became a destination event, the kind that musicians, dancers, lecturers (myself included), and fans arranged their vacations or otherwise altered their calendars for.

Sandy was omnipresent yet unobtrusive during that annual rite of summer, extinguishing any sparks of crisis before they could fan into flames. She did this with consummate courtesy and composure, and never once sought recognition for the vital contributions she made. Sandy did this out of love for Irish, Cape Breton, and other Celtic traditional music -- and for the love of her life, Seamus, who was appointed to an endowed chair as Sullivan Artist-in-Residence at Boston College in 2004, a year after the Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival officially ended. That legacy lives on at Boston College as the Gaelic Roots Music, Song, Dance, Workshop, and Lecture Series under the inspired direction of Seamus Connolly.

Sandy’s own 38 highly productive years in the National Park Service included leadership posts as deputy director of the 13-state Northeast Region, National Capital deputy regional director in Washington, D.C., and deputy superintendent of the Gateway National Recreation Area of N.Y. and N.J. I wish the knee-jerk detractors of all federal government employees would scrutinize her stellar record of accomplishments.

It was during Sandy’s tenure from 1984 to 1992 as superintendent of the Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts, however, that she made her deepest and most enduring musical imprint. She convinced Joe Wilson, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, to bring its National Folk Festival to Lowell in 1987. After the National Folk Festival was successfully held twice more there, Sandy helped to nurture in its stead what is today the largest, annual, free, multi-cultural music event in New England, the Lowell Folk Festival. She also restored Lowell’s Boott Cotton Mills complex and, in cooperation with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, launched the Tsongas Industrial History Center, an educational facility popular with schoolchildren.

Sandy was additionally involved in individual music projects by her husband, who thanks or credits her on such recordings as “Here and There” and “Gaelic Roots,” and in the book of tunes he co-authored, “Forget Me Not.”

After retiring from the NPS in 2007, Sandy designed jewelry based on her other love, America’s national parks, while she valiantly battled advancing cancer. Irish traditional music and her husband’s invaluable achievements in it remained a passion and priority to the end. Even in late February, Sandy gently reminded me over the phone of a concert Seamus was scheduled to give in Waterville, Maine, not far from their home in North Yarmouth. She died at age 63.

I miss Sandy.

I miss Jason.

I’ll end with these words from my brother Jim on the day he buried his son. Apply them to everyone you love: child, spouse, mother, father, grandparent, dear friend, nephew.

“Hug your kids tonight like you never hugged them before. Please think of Jason when you do. That will comfort me.”