We all know that life is a journey fraught with unpredictability and surprise; a day-to-day adventure that brings fabulous highs and lows—sometimes swinging wildly between the two, in a fraction of a second.
As a career EMS and law-enforcement professional, I learned early on how fragile the thread of life is—and how precarious our next breath can be. My first paid EMS job (in a large, busy New Jersey city) taught me a life lesson that most twenty-two year olds—especially those raised in middle-class suburbs—don’t ever think of until much later in life: to be grateful for my good fortune and what I had, instead of being unhappy for what I didn’t. Although I desired the excitement of a bustling, crime-laden city, my unconventional career path led me to a job as a police officer in a beautiful, affluent New Jersey suburb—a town that eventually became home to my family: a location chosen specifically for its safety and high-quality schools.
In the twenty-five years since I was first introduced to Livingston (‘Mayberry,’ as I used to call it after the chaotic experience of working in Elizabeth), my life became intertwined with the community. I moved my family here eighteen years ago, just as my oldest child was about to start kindergarten. I was assigned a position working in our town’s schools full-time. My family immersed itself into the activities and lives of the students and families who became our neighbors. Life was good!
Eventually, the bitter reality of life returned. Livingston, like Elizabeth, wasn’t immune to the darker side. While it occurred far less often, tragedy struck people in our community, too. And, as I often saw in my former workplace, the community rallied to assist those in need—those suffering the unthinkable and profound loss of loved ones. Through the years, our docile community has suffered its share of unimaginable situations: the loss of parents, children, siblings and friends, from a wide variety of causes including accidents, suicides, illnesses and a despicable terrorist attack on a crystalline September morning.
The worst losses, of course, were those of our children—the very focus of life in our town. I felt that with each loss, a little piece of me - and of all of us—died, too.
The emotions of this past week have swung from euphoric thrill to dark despair. It has forced many of us—especially our most precious and emotionally vulnerable assets, our children and young adults—to question their safety and security in the world. It has left a gaping and un-fillable hole in the fabric of our community, and has left people of all ages confused, perplexed and grieving. For, in the shadow of a magnificent week of high school graduations and the happy celebrations that accompany them (my daughter's being the highlight for our family), one of our finest young people, 19-year-old Brendan Tevlin—the very kind of human being we as parents, and the Livingston community aspire to raise—was cruelly and senselessly murdered. For me, the news was unfathomable.
“No, not Brendan,” I thought. This was not a privileged suburban kid, or a typical teenager who might have been out carousing with the wrong crowd or looking for trouble. This was truly one of the standouts—one of those I call a “one-percenter.” He was a kid who I watched grow from a happy and beautiful child into an extraordinary young man who was confident and secure with who he was, and even more confident in where life was going to take him. This was a kind, thoughtful young man who was entrenched in his community, a generous and compassionate kid who lived the spirit of volunteerism and giving. He was a hardworking individual with a strong, wide circle of friends who shared the same values and character. How could this have possibly happened just a mere three miles from the safety of home?
In the wake of the unimaginable news, I learned something that defined what an amazing person Brendan was—it was the one thing in the horrible flood of news that made me smile. Sadly, though, it too was rooted in tragedy.
Last year, my friend Gail (who lives in another town) suffered a similar loss when her 18-year old son was senselessly murdered one summer night just a month after his high school graduation. Like Brendan Tevlin, Brian Topoleski was a bright, motivated young man who worked hard. Brian was thinking of becoming a police officer, as he had a desire to serve the public. Like Brendan, he was a well-respected, well-liked kid. By chance, one night Brian’s path crossed with that of a maniac hell-bent on turning a simple verbal spar between two carloads of kids into a murder that no one would forget.
Shortly before Brian's funeral, a young man who had a friend who knew Brian volunteered to play the bagpipes at his service. From all accounts, the talented boy's contribution offered a poignant and dignified touch to a funeral service that resulted from a malicious, selfish act of violence. Who was the bagpiper whose kindness lent a special touch that forlorn day? Brendan Tevlin. The irony was unsettling; the knowledge that Brendan and his humanity had touched my friend Gail and her family in such a special way (and, as I'm sure we'll learn in the coming weeks, others in as-yet untold ways) made me well up with tears.
Hearing the news of Brendan’s incomprehensible, violent death this week dredged up all of the emotions and incredulity of Brian’s murder from less than a year before. How could I possibly have known two superb young men—each under 20—who suffered similar fates barely a year apart? What is the world coming to when our kids aren’t protected in the solid, ‘safe’ communities that we purposefully raise them in? And, why does God allow animals with no conscience—those who have no compunction in destroying lives like Brendan's and Brian's—to roam among us?
My thoughts turned to Brendan’s family, of course—his mom and dad, and his sister and two brothers—all younger kids who looked up to Brendan as the extraordinary role model he was. They are a wonderful, engaged and loving family that does all the ‘right’ things to raise ‘good kids.’ I know from experience the unreal shock and inexorable anguish that the Tevlins are suffering—the emotional aftermath of an unfathomable act of violence that my friend Gail Topoleski simply calls “chaos.” And then, I thought of Brendan’s close friends—all kids I have known for years, and for whom I have deep affection and concern.
As adults, we’ve all built armor-like shells that help shield us emotionally when tragedy strikes. Our coping mechanism has been developed through experience and the wisdom of age. Not that we don’t hurt and grieve—we all do. But how do you explain to 12-, 15- and 16-year-old siblings that their brother won’t ever be coming home? How do you reconcile the fact that each of Brendan’s 19-year-old friends are all thinking about how they spent Brendan’s last days and hours with him or, worse yet, the inevitable thought that they could easily have been with him that night? What about the people who often traverse the very same roadway thinking that this God-awful thing could have happened to them?
After all these years, and after witnessing scores of tragedies, I don’t have any answers. My heart and soul wants to reach out to Brendan’s family and friends to console them and help them cope with their shock, disbelief and anguish. But, I myself am bereft of words that can assuage their intense sadness, and the magnitude of this tragedy. As a friend to many of those young people closest to Brendan, I have tremendous care and concern for each of them. These are my friends and neighbors—kids who, like Brendan, I watched progress from kindergarteners to successful college students. Because of the unique nature of my work in the community during the last twenty-something years, I’ve developed and nurtured strong bonds with many of them. My greatest fear—as it is for my own two daughters—has always been that harm might come to one of the vulnerable young people I know. And, when it does, as it has to Brendan, it rocks me to the core.
In the end, the thought that has kept returning to my mind during the last few sleepless nights (and after talking to several of Brendan’s friends who I hold dear) is that each of us needs to be mindful that we are tethered to life on an extremely fragile thread. There is no forewarning of a tragedy such as this. Every minute of every day is important—especially when it comes to our relationships with those we love and care about.
The next several days will be the most awful that those close to Brendan will ever endure. His family will never be the same; a vital and cherished limb on their family tree has been amputated. The Tevlin’s family and friends are gathering close to support them, and knowing the goodness of many of them, that will not change as time passes and their need for emotional support becomes even greater. I know that Brendan’s closest buddies - the great kids who have been friends with him from the time he was a toddler—will be there for the Tevlins, and for each other.
I hope that as everyone commemorates Brendan’s amazing life, they think about keeping his memory alive by living their own life as he did: with spiritual mindfulness, kindness and a sense of helping others. Use your talents to make others happy, to brighten someone’s day, or—as Brendan did for my friend Gail when he played his bagpipes at Brian’s funeral—to help mitigate someone’s grief.
Be the role model that Brendan was! Don’t underestimate how important your influence is over someone who is younger than you—you can make a real difference to those who look up to you by simply acting in a way that offers a positive way for others to live their own lives. Most of all, keep in mind the fragile thread that every life hangs from. Hold each other close; don’t be shy about hugging others. Don’t be embarrassed to say, “I love you.” Be kind to each other—now, in the aftermath of this tragedy—and as you depart for various places after Brendan’s service. The only hug, or loving comment that will be regretted is the one left unexecuted or unsaid!
As I said earlier, I don’t have all the answers—not by a long shot. I wish I could wave a magic wand and bring Brendan back, or at least make all of the pain of his untimely death go away. But, I can’t. I don’t even know if what I’m saying to each of you who I’ve spoken with and who I care about makes sense, or if it’s helpful. What I’ve learned (and what I believe) is that if there is a purpose to life, it’s to help each other get through, during the good times and bad. It’s about celebrating other people’s successes without jealousy or envy, extending our hand to help whenever possible, and propping each other up when we’re down. Most of all, it’s trying to live life with gratitude, and trying to help each other stay happy, balanced and successful, while we all cling to the fragile thread of life.
God Bless you, Brendan—I shall never forget your wonderful smile, your politeness, your immense talent (and your eagerness to share it), or the tremendous potential that the world has lost.
“Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone…”
Chuck Granata is a retired Livingston police officer who implemented and taught the township’s DARE program from 1992 to 2004. He is a professional writer with four books to his credit. He is also a record and radio producer; his work can be heard weekly on Nancy for Frank hosted by Nancy Sinatra on Sirius-XM’s ‘Siriusly Sinatra’ channel.